When you just can’t get the important stuff done

This post is not for those of you who have focused minds and empty “to do” lists. Nay, not for those rarefied people who go to bed knowing that they got just about everything done that they needed to, and know they will sleep the peaceful sleep of the efficient and accomplished tonight, tomorrow night, and for most nights thereafter.

This is for those of us who bring our “to do” list with us to bed every night, like a scratchy blanket. It doesn't go away; in fact it seems to get bigger, causing us to lie there and say, “What, exactly, did I do today?”

Sleeping kitty

Cats don't let “to do” lists keep them up at night … or during the day.

Getting stuff done is important in many aspects of your life, and financial stuff is no exception. In fact, after my many years of being a financial advisor, Certified Financial Planner, financial writer, and guy who has to do financial things, I am of the opinion that self-management is one of the most important determinants of financial success. It's all about doing the right things as soon as possible, and limiting the wrong things as much as possible.

You know, things like opening up those retirement accounts, getting insurance before it's needed, remembering to pay the bills, sticking to some kind of spending plan (and monitoring it), submitting reimbursement requests and other tedious paperwork, doing investment research, searching for coupons, even being known in the office or to your customers (and, in my opinion, your colleagues are your customers to some degree) as someone who can be relied upon.

Such behavior requires all kinds of things, including the ability to focus, prioritize, and be organized. Unfortunately, none of that comes naturally to me. In my brain, it's as if someone turned on a few TVs, invited over a couple of local bands, and set free a monkey that can play the accordion. (That monkey is so dang funny — he reminds me of Weird Al.) It's a constant fight to zero in on the most important items that are splattered all over my to-do list, and stay focused on that one task until it's done.

As part of that struggle, I occasionally read books about organization and productivity. Recently, I read “Take Back Your Life” by Sally McGhee. I've re-arranged my work- and home-related regimens, and have a plan for how I'll get stuff done (more on that later).

But I'm also adding something that I learned from my two-year effort to lose more than six percentage points of body fat and shed almost 40 pounds. I had to have a measurable goal, and had to put something on the line that was more important to me than a smaller waistline — namely, money. I made a deal with The Motley Fool's resident fitness guru, Ben Sterling. I agreed to work out four times a week, or pay $10 for every session I skipped. Also, if I didn't lose those six percentage points of blubber by this past September, I'd owe $200. Finally, I let Ben take a picture of me shirtless, in all my big-gut glory. If he didn't feel I was trying hard enough, he had the right to put it up on the screen during a company meeting.

It worked.

Principles of productivity

There's lots of good stuff in “Take Back Your Life,” but here, for me, are the key takeaways:

  • You can never get everything done. Just accept it, and focus on getting the most important things done.
  • Develop meaningful objectives, and filter your workflow through those. If a task doesn't support a meaningful objective, then it may not be worth doing. An example of how I've implemented this: I've given up feeling guilty about not doing enough yard work, since I don't really care about having the most manicured property in the neighborhood.
  • Put what McGhee calls “strategic next actions” on your calendar, and stick to it. Why? As McGhee writes: “Your head and your To-Do list have no boundaries; they're limitless. Reality lies only in the calendar because it has time limits. Use it as a prioritization tool, and it will assist you to be more strategic about what you can and cannot do.” Her research suggests that something is 75 percent more likely to get done if it's scheduled on a calendar.
  • Don't let your email in-box control your day; get out of it. When you're in it, be decisive. “If every time you open an email message, you make a decision about what to do with it and where to put it, you can immediately remove it from the in box and dramatically reduce your in box size.”

Now, for my new regimen. I've identified the behaviors that I know increase the chances that I'll get things done. This is still a work in progress, but the current idea is that every day, I need to:

  • Get up at 6 a.m. (tough for me, since I'm a night owl).
  • Devote the first hour to uninterrupted professional reading.
  • Decide on the most important strategic next actions for the day. I also like to think of these as the “big rocks.”
  • Put them on the calendar.
  • Do the smart things: I get more work done when I close out my email (and check it once an hour), work in 30-minute spurts (using the Cool Timer software to keep me on track), and occasionally work away from my desk (in a quiet corner of Fool HQ or at one of our stand-up desks).
  • Exercise at least four times a week.
  • Every night, spend at least an hour fully engaged in an activity with my kids, beyond the usual “how was your day” discussions.
  • Review my “Night” checklist that I keep in Evernote, which includes things such as packing workout clothes and whatever else I need for the next day, as well as spend at least 15 minutes on an important house-related project and 15 minutes on a finances-related project (which, in most cases, will be related to monitoring spending).

I have a few other things, but you get the idea. And finally, the working idea for how I'll stick to it:

  • I have a spreadsheet that has each of those items in the rows, and each day of the week in columns.
  • Every time I get one done, I mark it off.
  • I regularly meet with Nate McMahon, a wise fellow who is in charge of professional development at The Motley Fool, and will keep me accountable (well, as he said, help me keep myself accountable). For every day I don't get two-thirds of my daily must-dos done, I owe $10. For every month in which I owed $10 on 25 percent or more of the days, I owe an additional $100.

We're still working on the details of that last one. Nate wants to add something that makes sure I have some balance between what I do for my job, my family, and myself. We will decide on the final details by this Friday. Feel free to offer your own ideas below.

Will it work?

Looking at my plan, I do wonder if it's sustainable. We'll see. Maybe, after several weeks, these behaviors will become habits, and I won't need to track them each day. But for now, the system shares a lot in common with how I was able to accomplish my fitness goal:

  1. It's measurable and track-able.
  2. It provides short-term and long-term incentives — including rewards (being more productive) and punishments (having less money).
  3. It's potentially embarrassing. Here's how: In two months, I'm going to report to you, dear GRS reader, whether I've succeeded. It won't involve a picture of me with my shirt off… although that would involve an extra incentive. In fact, feel free to suggest something potentially humiliating that I'd have to include in my mid-January post if I don't follow through. Nate will be the judge.

I've tried various systems before. I've always learned a thing or two, but they still weren't enough to get me to fundamentally change my behavior. As I try once again to cage the monkey, I am reminded of my favorite Milton Berle quote: “Too many people simply give up too easily. You have to keep the desire to forge ahead, and you have to be able to take the bruises of unsuccess. Success is just one long street fight.”

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James @ Free in Ten Years
James @ Free in Ten Years
7 years ago

I find that a really regimented schedule makes me fall off the wagon fairly quickly. I have had great success with a to-do list through google calendar, synced to my phone.

I have a new list for each of the major areas in my life, and it’s helped keep me on track immeasurably, because I love ticking them off and seeing them disappear!

I agree completely that having a good task management system is key for financial success.

Sheryl
Sheryl
7 years ago

I also don’t do well long term with anything too regimented. I end up feeling too confined and I rebel against my self induced boundaries.

Having a more long term to do list works well for me though. I create a plan to get XYZ done over the week or month(and schedule it in a calendar) and work it out and 99% of the time the stuff gets done.

justin@thefrugalpath
7 years ago

James I am right there with you. If I have a tight regime, I’ll be focused on it for a few weeks or months, and then slowly I’ll start to drop off.

TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman
7 years ago

Me too. I try to add regimented things only every once in awhile. So that they slowly build up. More likely to stick with them that way. If I just blast myself with a brand new regimen that’s strict with all this to-do stuff, well, I’ll fall off the wagon FAST!

AMW
AMW
7 years ago

I have learned to compartmentalize my to do list and calendar. My business has several aspects to it, so I divide it up by “jobs” and schedule those “jobs” for certain times. It’s not 100% fool proof but it is the best thing that has worked so far. I have been in the mess of not having any system and everything falls apart…dragging your finances along for the ride!

CincyCat
CincyCat
7 years ago
Reply to  AMW

I do something similar. There are certain days of the week when I have “must do” items (like, turn in my homework by 11:59pm on Tues, Thurs & Sat). So, I have taken that model and duplicated it for other areas. Now, I have a set time each week that I sit down & balance my checkbook (using Excel), and plan ahead for 30 days of expenses. If I do it every week, I can get everything done in about 30 minutes. If I put it off, even for only 1 week, it can more than double the time to… Read more »

Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
7 years ago

I agree 100% that you have to learn self management in order to be successful, not just financially, but in every aspect of life. I like your plan and that you found a way to hold yourself accountable. Money may not be everyone’s motivation, so for those, you need to find out what does or will motivate you in order to meet your goals. Then keep the motivation handy somehow (a picture for example) so that during a moment of “weakness” you can pull out the motivation to remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing and to… Read more »

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago

I use different ring tone alarms to trigger different actions. A specific trill is an alarm to wake up and run, and another ding is a reminder of a specific COB action I need to take care of every day at work. It’s a bit Pavlovian, but I’ve found it really works for me – when I hear the trigger sounds on my phone, I get in that mode and if I don’t do what I’m “supposed” to, it feels weird and wrong.

CincyCat
CincyCat
7 years ago

You’re not alone! My husband loves the cell phone alarm method, but it absolutely drives me batty! I like working from a schedule, calendar or list, but seeing *everything* that needs to get done makes him anxious. He’d just as soon not have to think about it until it is time to do the task.

Eve
Eve
7 years ago

I agree with Nate: while a 2/3 rule is generally sensible, and acknowledges that we can’t be perfect in accomplishing everything every day… there needs to be some built-in accountability to make sure that you’re not skipping the SAME THINGS every day. (Or, if you are, maybe it’s time to review whether they’re actually important goals for you.) For instance, if spending time with your kids is the thing that falls off the list day after day, that’s obviously not an acceptable outcome, even if you’re doing a good job in every other area. Maybe also a 2/3 rule for… Read more »

Matt
Matt
7 years ago

I won’t claim I’m perfect at getting things done, but I’ve gotten a lot better over the last year or so – and I think what success I’ve had has been a combination of daily things (make sure the dishes get washed each night, don’t let the laundry get too far out of control, etc.) and longer-term lists. The longer-term lists contain bigger projects – and when I have free time I can select any project on the list. I find it pretty satisfying and effective (importantly, so does my wife when we have lists like this together!). I think… Read more »

Holly@ClubThrifty
7 years ago

I am starting to feel like I am on auto-pilot these days. I work a 40-50 hour a week job, have two young children (3 and 1), have a household to take care of, and write as well. Some weeks, I get up early to write and on other weeks I stay up late instead. I just try to do what I can and know that there are only 24 hours in a day! Sometimes I have to let the house go and sometimes I don’t have time to write. As long as I am putting in 100% somewhere, I… Read more »

Megan
Megan
7 years ago

Agreed! Every day I make decisions on what to do on my to-do list. Sometimes the house gets dusted, and sometimes it doesn’t because I got a new project. It’s hard to make those decisions, but I look at it this way: What’s the cost of not completing a certain task, and is there a way I can put it off to tomorrow? If I have to complete something for a client by noon today, then that takes priority over doing a load of laundry, which can be put off for another day.

Chase
Chase
7 years ago

I have the problem that I have so much unstructured time (I’m a grad student) with so much that I need to learn/do that it can be very overwhelming and I end up not doing much of anything.

It’s a constant struggle. And then there’s time where I go to my RSS feeder and see if there’s anything interesting to read :-/

Meaghan
Meaghan
7 years ago

I think it comes down to knowing whether you’re the type of person who thrives on a strict routine, or whether you need more flexibility. One thing that strikes me as bizarre, though, is why you’re planning on forcing yourself out of bed at 6am if you know you’re naturally a night owl? It seems silly to fight against your nature, unless there’s a pressing demand (ie, your work schedule demands it). I’m a morning person, and I’ve always tried to arrange my life so that all I have left to do after dinner is walk the dog, do some… Read more »

CincyCat
CincyCat
7 years ago

You already have one of the critical success factors nailed: identifying a good accountability partner (or two). I’ve found that it is very easy to fall off the “habit change” wagon when no one will know the difference &/or hold me to my stated goals.

John S @ Frugal Rules
John S @ Frugal Rules
7 years ago

Good post. I am learning more and more that I do need to have a pretty tight schedule in order to stay on track and get things accomplished. It gives me something to shoot for and there’s a great sense of accomplishment in being able to accomplish more and work smarter, not harder.

ImJuniperNow
ImJuniperNow
7 years ago

I like the “going to bed with a scratchy blanket” reference. Sometimes I dream that someone has come into my house and washed the floor. Then I wake up and it’s the same.

I have a pretty tight rein on my “To Do” list. But sometimes you just gotta let things go by the wayside and do only the important ones. Like breathing, going to work and feeding the cat.

KevinM
KevinM
7 years ago

I recommend David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ methodology. If your current approach doesn’t work out, give it a try. It saved my life.

KarenE
KarenE
7 years ago

Try the book “Change Anything” by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillian, and Switzler. My job offered a two day class and it has changed my life. I have dropped 40 pounds in 5 months with no backslides. I have also made firm committments to decreasing my debts and stuck to the plan. I listen to the audio version in my car and it revitalizes my desire to create change in my life.

LorraineA
LorraineA
7 years ago

Ok, so I started using Google Calendar almost 2 years ago and I LOVE how it keeps me more organized and focused and reinforces my accomplishments when I get to cross something off. I have weekly and monthly tasks, all birthdays, color coded events, work schedule, etc., and get to add to it day by day, moving tasks to the next day or weekend that I ran out of time for. Thank you for writing this, because I think it will help me ratchet it up just a bit in terms of the bigger picture, not just tasks for tasks’… Read more »

Babs
Babs
7 years ago

I like that Milton Berle quote very much.

“Success is just one long street fight”

Going to keep that in mind in the next few months while I try to kick some old habits and develop some new ones.

thanks.

EMH
EMH
7 years ago

I don’t have a monkey set free but the oompah band that plays in my head keeps me from…oh look a shiny thing!

Yeah, I get easily side-tracked as well. I started keeping a To-Do list in my calendar and it has helped. I also find telling somebody about a particular goal keeps me focused. I have a friend that we share goals and we become each other’s cheerleader. I love getting a congratulatory email from her and vice versa.

Okay, the oompah band is back from their break.

Carol in Mpls
Carol in Mpls
7 years ago
Reply to  EMH

As someone who can be distracted easily by shiny objects (ADD), I know that scheduling is critical for me. I have to have my planner with me always! I get where I’m going on time, as I’ve thought it out the night before. In a few weeks I’ll be going back to school, so I’m a bit anxious about the studying, assignments, etc. but will have an accountability partner, so that helps. Also slotting in gym time so I can be focused on that goal. As each quarter of school changes, so will my fitness goals. Gotta keep it fresh.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

For me, iCal and its system of recurrent warnings and alarms is what keeps me on schedule. I run the CalDav server on a Synology NAS and every device (workstation, laptops, phones) syncs to/from it. I haven’t missed/forgotten an appointment since I set this up, because the calendar screams at me without me having to look up the calendar. GTD is what keeps me doing what I’m supposed to be doing– it’s really, really, really great. I have a touch of ADHD which keeps my mind going all over the place (much like Robert’s I suppose) and GTD is the… Read more »

tracylee
tracylee
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Just wanted to say thanks for the link! Resonates with me today.

Kris
Kris
7 years ago

Focus is so important. I call myself a focused person but honestly I get distracted easily and more importantly, don’t always get the important stuff done first. So my productivity suffers somewhat. Oh well, at least I am aware of my own weakness 🙂

Martin
Martin
7 years ago

The biggest problem with email is that it can throw off your whole day if you allow it to. For example, one email can change what you do that day if you don’t have a plan!

Cassi
Cassi
7 years ago

For me, the feeling of getting everything done is enough to keep me working. I usually make a list and write down all the thing I want to do in that particular day.

Also, at my school the grade who brings in the most canned food gets to make one of their guy teachers dress up in a dress and ride a motorcycle around campus. I’m just saying…

tracylee
tracylee
7 years ago

Good timing on this article. I’ve got a deadline to finish the biggest personal project ever, and I want to finish (for personal and professional reasons), but I often get off track and distracted.

I plan on working with another grad student for motivation/accountability starting next month. Any suggestions from GRS readers to help us track/coordinate? I think there should be an app for this work… there is an app for everything else. We have totally different projects, but both need to stay on task and focused.

Meghan
Meghan
7 years ago

My priorities are work, major financial moves (right now it is selling my house and getting it pretty so I can move out of the suburbs), daily to do list, planning, exercise in that order. I am the best at work, there’s no doubt, but I have it above everything else. I do pretty well in the “big finance” picture. My daily stuff is covered thanks to a calendar. Where I really fall short is in the planning department. This impacts the finance department, specifically the food department. So does work as when I work until 8:15, I don’t want… Read more »

Daisy @ Everything Finance
Daisy @ Everything Finance
7 years ago

Wow. I love this! I never thought about how effective writing it down and scheduling a task in can be. I find it really hard to focus on more than one goal at once, but what I like about this is that you are sort of on auto-pilot when you schedule it in.

Melody
Melody
7 years ago

Great article! Even professional organizers have “time management” issues. Organization is the secret weapon to help a person naturally get better at these things. However, it’s not a magic bullet. Self-management is the next big thing to get better at. But, what I really want to share with you is a nifty little clock that can help you see time disappear. Getting things done is tough. Getting lots of things done on a consistent basis, over & over again is tougher…until it magically becomes easier. Anyhoo… check out timetimer.com (I have the iphone app version of this wonderful visual tool.… Read more »

Wm
Wm
7 years ago

For me, the problem with having huge “to-do” lists was a feeling of discontent at the end of the day that I was able to complete just a trickle of the avalanche. Then I would make smaller “to-do” lists with fewer items and still end up brooding that most people pack much more in their 24 hours. This is a constant battle for me. I would also like to try some online task management like “Remember the Milk” but going hi-tech for something that could be as easily fulfilled on a simple notepad seems a little overwhelming for me. On… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Wm

Actually weight management is about hormones not self-control which is why so many people try & fail & fail & fail & fail & keep failing.

Kyle Richey
Kyle Richey
7 years ago

Very interesting idea you have going with Nate. We all know money is a powerful motivator. Please keep us posted on how that goes!

I have found myself getting much better sleep since I stay super organized with an called 2Do. Pretty much any app that has the features you need will work, as long as you stick with it.

Thanks for the post!
Kyle

Jay
Jay
7 years ago

I like the idea of putting strategic next actions in the calender. I believe that is where I’ve been going wrong. I have a composition notebook that I call a “planning notebook.” I keep strategic plans in that and only write appointments in my day planner.

Do you happen to have a template of daily tasks that you referred to? I think if I went digital I wouldn’t have so many papers to keep up with.

Great post. I am now eating from the RSS feed!

Lewis Saka
Lewis Saka
7 years ago

I’ve started using David Allens GTD method to keep my mind clear of taks and instead focu on my to-do list for action steps

Lewis

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