About a year ago I sprained my ankle pretty badly. It happened as I ran out of a burning orphanage, carrying half a dozen toddlers.
Okay, that's a lie. But it sure sounds cooler than the truth, which is “I was woolgathering and fell down some steps.”
This happened on the last evening of a house- and dog-sitting gig in Los Angeles. As we headed down the stairs that led from the yard to the street, I started thinking about packing for the next leg of my trip, a flight to see my daughter in Phoenix.
Moments later I lay stunned on the sidewalk. My right foot was twisted under me and the ankle hurt like a tax audit. The skittish Golden Retriever was yelping and trying to pull away. I remember thinking, “Just how bad is the trouble I'm in?”
I also remember thinking about what a workplace safety advocate once told me. When you're walking down the steps you should be doing only one thing: Walking down the steps. You shouldn't be chatting, sipping coffee, or thinking about anything else.
Excellent advice, but multitasking is a tough habit to break. I'd spent the past seven years on a dead run: going back to college (commuting up to an hour each way by bus), dealing with a long-distance divorce, helping a chronically ill daughter, doing a very physical work-study job before winning a full-ride scholarship, writing three times a week for MSN Money and managing an apartment building. After I got my degree and quit the management job, I traveled almost constantly. Although my MSN gig morphed into writing only six or seven times a month, I started my own blog and began writing for Get Rich Slowly and other sites.
It worked pretty well, i.e., I never missed a deadline. I sure was tired, though. Remember, I'm 20 to 30 years older than most of these other PF pups.
This time, it didn't work. Thinking about the suitcase instead of the staircase cost me both financially and emotionally. (More on that later.)
The moral of the story: Sometimes the best way to save money is to slow down. Instead of trying to be frugal by jamming as many tasks as possible into your conscious hours, save money by doing fewer things.
How busy is too busy?
What I'm seeing and hearing these days is that one job isn't enough. People seek side hustles or dabble in part-time entrepreneurship until they can quit their day jobs. Heck, some poor bastards even blog for money.
The first group makes more money. The second group spends less money.
Sure, they're earning/saving. But they may also be sneakily sabotaging their budgets. Insane work hours can translate to the need for extra child care, maybe a cleaning lady, more restaurant meals, additional vehicle wear and tear.
Or human wear and tear: Constant busyness wears you down physically, causing minor or even major illnesses — being sick ain't cheap.
Overwork and multitasking can have other repercussions, too. Some are minor: missed appointments, late fees for library books.
Others aren't. Ever had a fender-bender because you were in a hurry? Cut yourself while rushing through meal preparation? Landed on your kids like hot lead at the O.K. Corral because you were just too exhausted to cope with normal childhood yammering?
Do it right or do it twice
Let me be clear: I know that some people don't have a choice. They have to work one-and-a-half jobs just to keep the wolf (or the eviction notice) from the door.
For the rest of us? It's better, and probably cheaper, to complete a few tasks well than do a bushel of things half-assed. Do things right or do them twice, especially if:
- There's no chance for a do-over, or
- The half-assed method costs you in other ways
Case in point: People who text while walking. Sure, it's possible to do this safely — until it isn't. Seriously: Cut it out.
Recently I wound up paying what Dave Ramsey calls the “stupid tax.” I needed to deliver some business paperwork by Dec. 2. Since it contained sensitive personal information, I'd planned to send it certified mail. That probably would have cost three bucks, tops.
I had the paperwork in hand for a couple of weeks but I was too busy to mail it. Okay, that's a lie, too: I was busy but I failed to prioritize.
The paperwork remained unmailed until late in the afternoon of Nov. 30, when I rushed into the post office and asked, “Can I still get this to California by Dec. 2?”
Turns out I could — for $18.30. (Frugal fail!)
Exacting a price
Though trivial in the long run — that $18.30 is a business expense, after all — the goof was utterly avoidable. Bonehead stunts like that are a sign that I'm approaching critical mass.
For weeks or months (or years) on end I can successfully cram too many responsibilities into too few hours. Eventually, though, I start to fray around the edges. Mistakes get made. Fails happen. So do falls.
A woman I know ran for the bus one evening after work. She didn't want to miss it because she would have had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. In her hurry she tripped and broke her arm so severely that it's never really been the same. Given the chance for that do-over, she probably would have taken the next bus.
My health insurance covered the emergency-room visit as well as the walking cast and crutches. Even so, my instant of idiocy cost me:
- $17 for pain medication (which I barely used)
- $30 in tips to the wheelchair angels in three airports
- About $7 for a gel ice pack
- $50 to check my carry-on twice
- $35 plus tip for an airport shuttle home (normally I would have spent $3 on the light rail and bus)
The injury also exacted a price in terms of personal enjoyment. I hadn't seen my daughter for almost a year and I was looking forward to walks and visits to cultural attractions. Instead, I spent way too much time with my foot propped up on a chair.
And all because I was thinking about packing, instead of thinking about walking down a few steps.
Galloping through the days becomes a habit. The trouble with juggling so many tasks is that you don't know how to set any one of them down without actually dropping it.
Try. Throttle back. Take a breather. Take a nap. Maybe even take a couple of days away from the forced march that has become the unfortunate norm.
Otherwise you might end up in the ER, hurting and feeling about as stupid as I did. At least I held onto the damn dog.
Author: Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman is an award-winning journalist who writes the Frugal Cool daily blog for MSN Money and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com .
Donna has lived the frugal life. She has been a college dropout, a single mom, a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Alaska, and a late-in-life university student. She has also picked tomatoes, worked on a chicken farm, managed an apartment building, inspected and packed bottles in a glass factory, babysat, cleaned houses, mystery-shopped, set type, and sold doughnuts, movie tickets, fresh Jersey produce and, when things got bad, her own blood.
While getting divorced she went back to school and helped to support a disabled adult daughter by working a handful of part-time jobs.
Donna has freelanced for numerous magazines and newspapers. Her work has won awards from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Women's Sports Foundation, the Association for Women in Communications and the Society of American Travel Writers. A resident of Seattle, she is the mother of
one daughter, Abigail Perry â€“ whoâ€™s also a writer. Go figure.