Everyone’s So Busy. Where Does All The Time Go?

stopwatch2In the provocatively-titled article How Everything We Tell Ourselves About How Busy We Are Is A Lie, the writer interviews the director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project and takes data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey (ATUS). Here is my condensed version:

  • The average American works an average of 7.55 hours per day.
  • When comparing detailed time diaries with just asking people for a number, people tended to overestimate their work hours by 5% to 10%.
  • The average American sleeps an average of 8.75 hours per day.
  • On an average day, women spend 2 hours and 10 minutes doing housework, while men spend 1 hour and 17 minutes. That’s roughly a 60/40 ratio.
  • Most people have over 40 hours of free time per week.
  • Watching television takes up 50% of that free time.

Basically, we may feel more busy, but actually have more free time than folks from 40 years ago. Half that free time is used to watch TV.

I suppose the takeaway here is that our perceptions may differ from reality. If we tracked our activities in a time diary, we’d might discover some new things about our own schedules and habits. Perhaps we should all try to carve out an hour each day to work for ourselves.

Alternatively, I’d like to figure out how to really enjoy my free time without half my mind worrying about other stuff. So far, playing sports and swimming with my babies has been the most effective.

Manilla.com Review: The End of Paper Bills?

Most people still elect to receive paper bills, even though almost every vendor is pushing paperless. Why? Personally, my e-mail inbox is so much more cluttered with crap compared to my post office mailbox. It’s very easy for me to forget about a short e-mail saying “you have a bill waiting” with 86 other unread e-mails shouting at me. But then again, I do end up paying the bills online, so perhaps there is a better way? This is where Manilla.com comes in.

Making Paperless Billing Better

All your bills are organized in one central place. You give Manilla your login information*, and they handle the rest. If you need to look up an old bill, you don’t need to open the filing cabinet or reset your password (again) to that archaic water department website designed in 1995. You can just view or print out the .PDF from Manilla. They promise to store your bills for free, forever. I do wish there was a way to download all your stored bills at once, perhaps in a .zip file.

You may find that Manilla may not list some of your local vendors, although you can suggest future account providers for them to add. I couldn’t find my local water utility. You can also add magazine subscriptions, frequent flier mileage programs, and hotel rewards programs.

Easy-to-manage bill reminders. You can request e-mail or text message reminders to 7 days, 3 days, and/or 1 day before the due date. I need these repeated reminders, and it’s nice that they turn off automatically after they see that the bill has been paid.
[Read more...]

Benjamin Franklin’s Daily Schedule

Speaking of people posting their schedules

Benjamin Franklin’s Daily Schedule

If you are into personal finance, you have to respect Ben Franklin. Amongst many other things, he started a successful business and “retired” at 42, after which he devoted his time to science and later statesmanship. He wrote and published the Poor Richard’s Alamanac for over 25 years, probably the first version of a widely read “frugal blog”. Don’t miss reading this illustrated post by Maira Kalman.

Above is a peek into his daily schedule, originally from the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which by the way is available for free in the public domain. Don’t miss the questions on the left part. Seven hours of sleep, not too bad. :) Found via The Big Picture.

Two Completely Different Ways to Boost Productivity

While procrastinating today, I of course ran across a couple of tips on productivity and success that both powerful and very different.

First is an essay called Good and Bad Procrastination by Paul Graham. It includes a lot of insights into procrastination, and my favorite was the idea that it was okay to put off less important, scheduled, to-do list-type things whenever you get a chance to focus and do some really great things:

The reason it pays to put off even those errands is that real work needs two things errands don’t: big chunks of time, and the right mood. If you get inspired by some project, it can be a net win to blow off everything you were supposed to do for the next few days to work on it. Yes, those errands may cost you more time when you finally get around to them. But if you get a lot done during those few days, you will be net more productive.

In fact, it may not be a difference in degree, but a difference in kind. There may be types of work that can only be done in long, uninterrupted stretches, when inspiration hits, rather than dutifully in scheduled little slices. Empirically it seems to be so. When I think of the people I know who’ve done great things, I don’t imagine them dutifully crossing items off to-do lists. I imagine them sneaking off to work on some new idea.

The second is the Jerry Seinfeld Productivity Secret by Brad Isaac:

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

This idea of incremental change is not new – see this post on Kaizen for example.

Some things are best achieved when you attack it a little every day – things like debt reduction, learning a language, or weight loss. Other things you may have to wait for the inspiration, but when it comes, it pays to put it above all else. Perhaps a great business idea or investment opportunity.

Getting Organized In The Google Era (Book Summary)

I ran across Getting Organized in the Google Era in an airport bookstore last month, and while I wasn’t enamored enough to pay the $23 retail hardcover price, I did add it to my library want list. The author Douglas Merrill was formerly the Chief Information Officer at Google, so I figured he might know something on the topic of organizing data in the digital age. Here are my notes.

First of all, this is not a detailed organizational framework like that of the best-seller Getting Things Done by David Allen. It’s actually more like a series of blog posts that ended up being stretched into a book. Merrill uses a very casual, storytelling style of writing with lots of (sometimes awkward) personal stories and song lyrics mixed in. It skips around a lot, from high-level organizational philosophies to tips on using Gmail to how his girlfriend died of cancer.

Organizational Principles

In the end, the book’s overall theme did stick to the subtitle of “How to Get Stuff out of Your Head, Find It When You Need It, and Get It Done”, and I did write down a lot of good basic principles from the book. Here they are, paraphrasing:

  • Don’t keep stuff in your head, get it out as soon as possible. Write it, type it, say it, whatever. Either paper and digital might be better for any specific task.
  • Always trying to multitask can actually make you less efficient overall.
  • Stories make it easier to remember information.
  • Don’t spend forever organizing your information, just search for what you need. Desktop searching, Google web searches, Gmail e-mail search, online calendars – use them to simplify things.
  • When overwhelmed or hitting a roadblock, break big tasks into smaller ones.
  • Try to integrate work with life instead of trying to balance them together. When people say the want a “work-life balance”, that’s usually just code for wanting to work less.

Useful Tools and Services

Another good part of the book was his list of software and websites that he found useful in organizing his life. Most are free, but some do cost money. A few are only on Mac OS X. Like I said, this seems like it would make a nice blog post… and now it is one ;) I’m only listing the favorites.

  • Google. His favorite search engine, what a surprise. There are lots of little shortcuts in Google that help save you time. Want flight info? Just type the flight number in. UPS Tracking number? Just type it in. Here’s a cheatsheet straight from the source.
  • Quicksilver. Desktop search/application management/launcher tool. Mac only. [download, free]
  • Gmail. The best feature of Gmail is that you can quickly search through every single one of your e-mails, reducing the need to carefully organize everything. However, using some simple labels and filters can still help you group conversations and topics. Also has good spam filters.
  • Adium / Pidgin. Connects to multiple instant messages services all at once. Free. Adium is for Mac, Pidgin is for Windows.
  • Dropbox. Easy to use, online shared hard drive in the “cloud”. Good for storing, sharing, and syncing across computers. 2GB free, 50GB for $10/month. [website]
  • Things. To-Do List / Task manager software. [download, $49.95]
  • Xmarks. Put your web browser bookmarks online so you can sync across computer and access anywhere. Works with Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari. [website, free]
  • Google Health. Allows you to store and manage all of your health information in one central place. Even though I use a lot of Google stuff, I am still wary of sharing this type of data with Google. [website]

A related book that I also plan on reading soon is Upgrade Your Life by Gina Trapani of Lifehacker.

NY Times Financial Tune-Up: Interactive Checklist

The NY Times has a new series called the Financial Tuneup: Take a Few Hours and Unlock Some Cash. Essentially these are all the things that you probably know you should do, but never get around to. By compiling them all into a interactive checklist, they suggest setting aside a specific time each year to focus on these activities.

Here’s a quick excerpt of the To-Do’s that are included on their 31 item list. If you’ve read virtually any personal finance blog or magazine for longer than 10 minutes, you’re probably familiar with most of them and why they should be done.

  • Rebalance your investment asset allocation
  • Open an online savings account
  • Consolidate to a better rewards credit card
  • Lower your interest rate on existing debt
  • Check your credit reports
  • Check in on your Flexible Spending Account
  • Haggle or shrink your landline, cell phone, and cable bills
  • Update your life insurance to meet needs
  • Shop around for home and/or auto insurance

Reading through the list, it reminded me a lot of the 15-Minute New Year’s Resolutions that I introduced this January (but then lost a little steam). It also fits in well with the new Gladwell-esque book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, which explores the power of checklists and how they can reduce mistakes in even simple areas like hand-washing and make complex tasks much more manageable. It easy to see how a checklist in this scenario can help you focus your energy and reduce oversights.

As long as it can reduce the barrier to action enough for people to check off a few more items, I’d say it was a great idea. Are you motivated yet?

Paradox Of Financial Choices: Maximizing vs. Satisficing

In the book Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, he talks about how there are two types of people, maximizers and satisficers (think satisfy + suffice). I will simply quote the excellent summary from the book’s Wikipedia page:

A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. Ultimately, Schwartz agrees with Simon’s conclusion, that satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.

If you can’t tell already after 10 seconds of reading this site, I am a hardcore maximizer. I love collecting data, poring over alternatives, finding out secret exceptions, all so I can choose the “best” choice. I prefer the term “good enough-er” to satisficer. For some people, the second it reaches the “good enough” stage, they are done and move on.

A Pathetic Maximizer Story
This happened just last week. A friend of mine comes over, and brings some McDonald’s with him. After he leaves, I go to throw out the garbage but notice an unpeeled Monopoly game piece. I peel it out of curiosity, but I get no instant-win and two random streets (St. James Place and Atlantic Avenue). But wait… I vaguely know that one of the rules of the game is that if you collect all the streets of a neighborhood (same color), you win a cash prize. However, some streets are given out all the time, while others are very rare. What if I had one of the rare pieces?

Of course, I then had to fire up the computer and search for the rare pieces. Lo and behold, Wikipedia also has a list of all the rare pieces. For example, Ventnor Avenue is also yellow like Atlantic, but is always the “missing” piece and thus essentially worth $25,000 by itself. My pieces were of course worthless. But I still had to know.

Maximizing and Investing
I began to think about how this relates to personal finance. In investing, you’d obviously like to maximize your returns. However, it is very difficult to know in advance which stock or mutual fund will outperform the rest. You could read books, financial statements, interview executives, or watch CNBC all day. You could listen to Warren Buffett’s every bowel movement and dissect all his annual shareholder letters for hints and tips.

Or if you’re like me, you may decide that even though the market isn’t perfectly efficient, it is still very efficient especially when costs like mutual fund fees, trade commissions, and tax considerations are taken into account. I now invest passively, and agree to be “satisficed” with the returns of the world markets minus costs. But even here, I am trying to maximize my returns by minimizing costs by buying Vanguard index funds or similar ETFs so that my portfolio costs less than 0.20% of assets annually.

Better to Satisfice?
The things I could maximize financially go on and on. From bank interest rates to cell phone plans, credit card reward structures to auto insurance premiums. Would I be happier if I just picked something “good enough” and moved on? Perhaps it is you readers that are the smartest, letting us slightly kooky bloggers do all the research for you, and then just picking what is good enough for you! ;)

Where maximizing hurts most is when it stops you from taking action. It doesn’t matter if your interest rate is 1.8% vs. 1.85% when your money is still stuck in a 0% checking account at some megabank. It doesn’t matter if you get the optimal 401k asset allocation if you’re not even contributing the most you can to the plan. For me, I have been putting off fixing up my house and adding solar hot water for several months because I want to find the “best” contractor. Meanwhile, I’m still using too much electricity and the tax breaks may expire.

Are there some things where you maximize, and others where you satisfice?

Suffering From Procrastination? Eat That Frog

To start off the week, here is a short video with one simple time-management tip:

I think the actual quote by William James should be “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task”. Either way, I find it very true. Found the video via this post at the Early Retirement Forums.