My Hard Things + What I’m Willing to Give Up

myhardthingsAs a follow-up to my post on choosing your hard things, I decided to share what I came up with. Keep in my these are MY hard things. You could have the two lists completely swapped, and that would get no judgment from me. The entire point is to do things aligned with your values and stop caring what anyone else thinks!

My hard things:

  • Save enough money and set things up to live off my investment income with minimal worry.
  • Spend lots of quality time with family, especially my three daughters. (I have 3 kids?!? How the $*%# did that happen?)
  • Spend some time alone reading and thinking about things I find interesting (ex. finance, cooking, off-grid living).
  • Exercise regularly, mostly by running around outdoors with my daughters. If I’m lucky, this will also include hiking or playing tennis with friends. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be skiing.

The things I am willing to give up:

  • A steady, prestigious job and high W-2 income.
  • “Better things” like a larger house, faster car, or nicer toys/clothes.
  • Watching television.
  • Regular ski trips, partying at bars and clubs, and Las Vegas runs with friends.
  • Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

I’m not there yet, but it’s nice to have them written down. If I’m not spending my time working towards one of my hard things, then I’m not being productive even with the newest To-Do List app, ergonomic standing desk, and pristine e-mail inbox. I should also be careful to stop doing the things on my “Give Up” list.

Choose Your Hard Things: You’ll Never Be Productive Enough for Everything


I was catching up on some longreads and enjoyed Why time management is ruining our lives by Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian. Here are some quick notes.

Inbox Zero. I’d heard of “Inbox Zero” where you keep your e-mail inbox completely empty, but didn’t know that the inventor Merlin Mann later gave up pushing the concept because he found himself “typing bullshit that I hoped would please my book editor” instead of spending time with his daughter. Meanwhile, we now have the (finished) book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford that proposes that being messy can create better results.

My personal theory is that the organization level of your e-mail inbox simply doesn’t matter. If something is truly urgent they’ll get in touch somehow, likely by sending you another e-mail!

The productivity treadmill. Most of us have never had to walk a great distance to gather water. We no longer have to chop wood; we just turn on the heater. We have separate appliances to both wash and dry our clothes. There are countless ways to avoid cooking. Yet, we are all so busy. I found this paragraph quite observant (and sad):

The time-pressure problem was always supposed to get better as society advanced, not worse. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that within a century, economic growth would mean that we would be working no more than 15 hours per week – whereupon humanity would face its greatest challenge: that of figuring out how to use all those empty hours. Economists still argue about exactly why things turned out so differently, but the simplest answer is “capitalism”. Keynes seems to have assumed that we would naturally throttle down on work once our essential needs, plus a few extra desires, were satisfied. Instead, we just keep finding new things to need. Depending on your rung of the economic ladder, it’s either impossible, or at least usually feels impossible, to cut down on work in exchange for more time.

I would add that the average person spends hours of time watching TV to recuperate from the stress of each day.

Less is more. Don’t work harder to fit more stuff in. Sit quietly and figure out the really important stuff. Do that. Drop the rest.

But in the meantime, we might try to get more comfortable with not being as efficient as possible – with declining certain opportunities, disappointing certain people, and letting certain tasks go undone. Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not – we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realise our potential on every dimension, or fit more in. In a quiet moment in Seattle, Robert Levine, a social psychologist from California, quoted the environmentalist Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Being productive doesn’t help if you just add on more things. Don’t use being busy as a form of psychological avoidance:

The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices – because there will be enough time for everything – the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one.

With so much noise, is it any wonder that “mindfulness” is in? When your mind is quiet, it is easier to realize the life that is true to yourself, as opposed to the life others expect of you. To loosely paraphrase Merlin Mann: Choose a select few hard things and stick with them. Because they’re your things.

William James Told People to Automate Their Lives in 1892

william james headshot

Inside the book that taught me the parallels of grit and financial freedom was a brief mention of another book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. While reading about the daily routines of notable individuals, I came across this quote from philosopher and psychologist William James (emphasis mine):

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

The quote is great, but I was surprised by the date – James wrote this in 1892!

Creating good habits means that it takes little effort to doing the right thing. If you’re forcing it, like going on a crash diet, every time you do so you’ll expend energy. Willpower is like a muscle. If your house is full of junk food, you’ll constantly spend energy trying to not eat it. If you spend hours online shopping, you’ll spend energy trying not to buy things you don’t need. Your willpower muscle will weaken, and eventually you’ll won’t have the energy to say no. If you have to consciously make the decision to save money every month, you’re likely to forget.

Make life easier for yourself. Automate everything you can. Remove all the junk food in the house. Unsubscribe from that daily “sale” newsletter from Groupon or Macy’s. Sign up for automatic paycheck withdrawals into your retirement account. Make the default choice – the one that happens with the least energy – the one that is best for you.

Of course, the book also pointed out that James in real life kept no regular schedule, was chronically indecisive, and a constant procrastinator. Reminds me of this XKCD comic:


FileThis App Review: Automatically Backup Your Online Statements


A few months ago on my post about Paperless vs. Paper Statements, I received this helpful comment from reader Daveraham:

I like the services It’s setup similar to MInt, where it stores account information, but instead of fetching dollar amounts and transactions, it grabs every statement available and stores them where you direct. Personally I store it an evernote account and then periodically pull it off to store on a removable HD that get’s stored in a fireproof box. Overkill?? Sure…. But its the point. You want to keep that snapshot of data for a long period of time.

I made a mental note to check the site out and… promptly forgot. I was again reminded in this Liz Weston article about apps to organize your financial life. In November 2015, FileThis announced their 2.0 version with new features. You can use the website, iOS app, or Android app (1.0 version only for now).

FileThis is now one of many “bill organizers” that ask for your account passwords in order to sift through your accounts and remind you of due dates. Personally, I don’t need or use due date reminders. I sit down at the end of every month, read through all my paper statements, track expenses, and pay my bills. I’m an old fart like that (although I do use free online billpay).

I previously shared that I maintain physical statements for critical financial accounts and have it mailed to a secure PO Box. But I also have several other financial accounts which are either dormant, temporarily opened for reviews or experiments, or have low balances which are set to paperless. Ideally, I would still log in and download those PDF statements every month and back them up. But I never do.

FileThis will log in and automatically download all your paperless statements and then save them to your cloud service of choice: Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, Amazon Cloud, and more. You can even use their in-house storage (500 mb free). The cost options:

  • Free for up to six (6) connections. Checks weekly.
  • $2 a month ($20 a year upfront) for up to 12 connections. Checks weekly.
  • $5 a month ($50 a year upfront) for up to 30 connections. Checks daily.

Besides things like bank accounts, credit cards, and brokerage statements, FileThis will grab stuff from your mortgage provider, car loan servicer, cell phone bill, utility bills, insurance bills, and even online shopping accounts like Amazon. An added bonus is that they will even grab tax documents like 1099 forms.

I linked up a few accounts, the list is relatively extensive but it couldn’t find a local credit union. Here are some screenshots from my website and smartphone app.



Remember that the actual files are on your cloud service. Here’s a screenshot from my Dropbox app. The files are stored in the folder Dropbox > Apps > FileThis.


This is pretty cool. The initial download basically grabbed all the older documents that were available as well (up to last 3 years, supposedly). They’ll even grab PDF statements if you also get mailed paper statements (assuming they are available), giving you an additional backup copy.

By allowing backups directly to a third-party cloud service (Dropbox in my case), I will still have all of my online statements even if FileThis shuts down some day (remember Manilla?).

The trade-off here is that another FinTech startup has your account logins and passwords. Their security measures seem fair enough (encrypted SSL transmission, passwords are encrypted on server, the documents can be stored at your cloud service). I already track my paperless accounts in real-time with Mint, but I am willing to make this trade-off as I think it’s worth it to have my old statements backed up for me. (Why can’t Mint do this for me too?) The only other service I know that offers something similar is Finovera, but I think they store the statements on their own servers as opposed to your personal Dropbox.

As an existing user, if you sign up using my referral link, both you and I will receive an additional free connection (so you’d have a total of 7 free to start) and an additional 250 mb of free in-house cloud storage.

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. 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 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


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.