6 Productivity Hacks That Will Change The Way You Do Everything

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been somewhat MIA on twitter the past few days. I had thought my schedule would calm down once I finished my summer MBA classes, but really all I’ve done is fill the newfound free time with more projects. While I may be off the grid for some of this time (and sometimes it’s just because I’m getting my zen on in a 1.5hr yoga class or lifting weights at the gym) when I’m connected I’ve been IN THE ZONE for getting things done.

Much of the tricks I’ve learned come from a book one of my coworkers lent me called How To Be A Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott. It’s a great read and I highly, highly recommend it!

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However, some of the other tricks below have come from Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy and yes, even from The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss which is basically unrealistic for most people but has some gems nonetheless.

Now, a post about productivity hacks isn’t necessarily about personal finance, but my point of view is that the more productive you are, the more money you’re likely to make and the more organized you are, the more organized your finances will be so I think these hacks still have a place here! Without further ado, let me present:

6 Productivity Hacks That Will Change The Way You Do Everything

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 8.43.23 PM1. @Action Required + @Awaiting Response email folders

I don’t know why no one told me this trick before, but it’s changed the way I manage all my email, personal and work. Now instead of working my way through emails in whatever order they are in my inbox, I sort them first. So many emails we receive are just BS and can be deleted, but the rest can be separated in to two piles: ones you have to take action on and ones you’re waiting for other people to take action on. I label these folders “@Action Required” and “@Awaiting Response”, with the @ symbol before each name so they stay at the top of my inbox above my other alphabetized folders. I now spend the first few minutes of every work morning deleting and dividing my emails received overnight into these to piles. The result is 200% improved to-do list (so much better than the stupid outlook “tasks”) and the next step…

2. Inbox Zero

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Inbox zero is exactly what it sounds like: an empty inbox. I’ve always liked to operate with inbox zero, but up until very recently I didn’t know how to make it work with my blog email, and at my new job the emails were piling up faster than I could create them. The first step to getting your inbox to zero is to create those @Action Required and @Awaiting Response folders mentioned above, but the second is to delete all of the following:

  • any emails before the last in a long conversation email chain. Because the previous email is usually quoted when someone replies, you can delete every email except the last in the convo and see all the responses.
  • receipts or tickets for events that have passed. If you need to claim an expense or verify a bill, it can go in your @Action Required folder, but everything else can be gone — you don’t need to keep it “just in case”!
  • promotional or marketing emails. Unsubscribe and delete, these just encourage you to spend money.
  • emails for which the action has been completed. After you finish a task, you either move the email to @Awaiting Response or another folder if it needs to be saved long-term, or you just get rid of it. Minimalize your inbox!

3. Worst First

This is a hack I learned early, and thankfully so. Doing the “worst first” is self-explanatory: do the worst task first. I made this a habit a few years ago when I read the book Eat That Frog, which insisted you should “eat your ugliest/biggest frog first” which just means to tackle the largest and most unpleasant item on your to-do list right from the get go. This is my least favorite productivity hack but it’s also one of the most effective.

4. The 2 Minute Rule

This is so freakin’ obvious and easy I am actually ashamed I have not had it implemented from day one: If a task will take you less than 2 minutes to do, just do it now rather than later. It is actually embarrassing how many things I’ve procrastinated for no reason except that I could, only to leave myself with a crazy workload at the end of day (and since point 6 will tell you want my brain does at 3pm you’ll see why this is so bad). Something needs a minor edit? Do it now. Email needs to be answered? Do it now. Do it now do it now do it now. There is no reason to wait, unless…

5. Batching

Most jobs will have some or many tasks that are mundane, and if you can do them in batches, you will save yourself oodles of time. This is akin to simply doing a load of laundry instead of watching each item of clothing individually as you wear it throughout the week. Need to upload a lot of documents to a cloud? Wait until you have a batch and do them all together. Need to coordinate some items for an event? Wait until you can block of a bit of time in your schedule and do everything in one go. Batching boosts your productivity by having you focus on one activity rather than continuously interrupting your flow by switching gears. Not only is it more efficient, it’s much less exhausting and stressful than doing different things one at a time.

6. Know you energy cycle

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Last but not least, it is so important to know your energy cycle. I talked about this briefly when I discussed creating a Time Budget Spreadsheet. I am a morning person. I like to get up around 6am and read while having coffee before heading to work for 8am. From 8am until 11am, I generally function at my maximum, so I always try to schedule my most daunting (like the worst tasks described in the point above) during these hours. After 11am my attention starts to wane as I get hungry, so I switch to less creative tasks that still require some energy and work on them until lunch. After lunch from 1pm to 2pm or 3pm, I’m usually still in a decent work groove even if my energy has waned since it’s peak in the morning, so I continue to check items off my to-do list. By the time 3pm hits my brain always opts to shut off. I grab an afternoon coffee to try to get a little more work out of it, but it’s pretty uncooperative. As a result, I always schedule my most mundane tasks that require the least amount of brainpower (ie. filling out spreadsheets, deleting emails) for the end of the workday.What’s the point of knowing your energy levels and work moods and scheduling tasks accordingly? I’m never left staring at a blank document wondering what to write or slugging my way through a painful todo list that should only take me 20mins but is actually taking me 2hrs because I’m totally burnt out. All my work gets done and gets done well because it gets done at the right time. If you can figure out your own schedule, it will essentially eliminate burn out.

I hope you found this list helpful, but if you have more to add to it, please tell me in the comments below!

Plastiq: welcome convenience or just an easier way to rack up more debt?

I’m probably a little behind the times here, because I just learned about Plastiq a month ago. As you probably guessed, I’m always looking for ways to get more bang for my buck with cash-back, rewards, and discounts. Hoping to get some rewards points, I was looking to charge my tuition to my rewards credit card then pay off the balance with my savings. However, as is pretty typical here, my university doesn’t accept credit cards for tuition payments. For them this is just a cost-savings measure, but I think it does students a favor too since they can’t rack up credit card debt by charging their tuition. Until now.

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Plastiq is a web-based service that let’s you pay for things you can’t normally charge — like tuition, taxes, utilities — with your credit card. 

At first I thought that sounded great. I was going to get my rewards points after all! Until I read the fine print and noticed this:

Plastiq charges a fee of 1.99% - Plastiq FAQ

So if you’re like me and using a 1% cash-back card or my American Express points card, any point-seeking is quickly negated by paying more than you have to for something. To be fair, I don’t think 2% is a big deal — but my summer school tuition was $3,500 and it just didn’t seem reasonable to pay $70 just to charge it to my credit card.

I’ve been in the habit of paying off my credit card bill in full for years now, but I know I’m not the norm. I wonder if facilitating the use of credit cards for big purchases you otherwise had to save or find alternate funding for will just make it to easy to go into credit card debt — and credit card debt is so expensive!

With most credit card interest rates 20%+ in Canada, the last thing you ever want to do is carry a balance — particularly if you’re also paying Plastiq an additional 2% just to use their service.

When’s the last time you paid 122% of the price for something?

I appreciate the convenience Plastiq offers but I couldn’t make myself sign up, because there was no win for me: it just makes things cost more. Maybe if there was some rewards bonus offer or something else, you could make it justified, but as for now I really don’t see any payoff for the user. If anything it just creates more debt.

Have you ever used Plastiq? What are your thoughts on letter people use credit cards for everything?

Amazon Student: Get Amazon Prime for less

It makes me sad to write about anything school-related since I just wrapped up my MBA summer school courses a few weeks ago, but alas, Fall term is just around the corner and even I have to start thinking about getting back into the school grind. For those of you suffering through more post-secondary education like myself, Amazon just launched an offer that you might be interested in:

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I’ve sung the praises of Amazon Prime before, as I’ve been using the service for a year now. For $79/year, it gives you free 2-day shipping on all orders, plus special offers and access to free/discounted eBooks and video. I almost exclusively use the 2-day free shipping and find that’s enough of a perk to justify my subscription, and have yet to use the other benefits. I’ve been a member of Amazon Prime since July 30, 2013 — which means I’m up for renewal. However, this time I’m signing up for the student offer:

6 months FREE Amazon Prime membership (that’s 2-day free shipping on all orders!) + exclusive offers only for students (on everything from textbooks to dorm decor)

Better yet, after the six months end your membership is only $39/year so long as you’re a student.

Click here to sign up.

It’s a great deal if you’re a regular Amazon shopper. Chances are the cost of the membership will be recouped with what you’ll save on one textbook, so anything else you order for a year ships for free. Happy shopping!

Financial Literacy Won’t Solve All Our Problems

The personal finance community is over-enthusiastic about financial literacy, and I get it. The more people know about money and financial services, the better equipped they are to manage their income and financial obligations.  But sometimes there’s a key part of the discussion we’re ignoring:

Financial literacy doesn’t do any good if there’s no money to manage.

Prior to reading Pound Foolish, I thought financial literacy was the silver bullet to solve everyone’s money problems. Broke? You’re fault, you need to budget/save/work harder! For most of my debt repayment journey, I patted myself on the back for my discipline, completely ignoring the reality that the main reasons I was able to make so much progress was I had a good salary, excellent benefits, and had pursued an affordable education. Even though I’m aware of this privilege, I still sometimes only see through my Alberta-rose tinted glasses.

I deserve credit for maximizing my opportunities and resources,

but there’s no credit due to me for my lucky circumstances.

Compared to American readers, I’ve enjoyed low education costs, virtually no healthcare expenses, and a tax structure that favoured my student and recent grad status. Compared to other Canadians, living in Alberta meant I had access to both the strongest economy and the lowest taxes in the country. Furthermore, I have no dependents — children or even siblings and other relatives that need help — and I’ve never been disabled, laid off from work, or endured any other unfortunate circumstance outside my control.

What does all of the above have in common? They’re all HUGE factors completely outside the realm of financial literacy.

No matter how much you know about money, you can’t change these things!

So while it’s great to understand compounding interest, bank fees, the terms & conditions of your student loans, and how to budget, this knowledge will do little for you if you’re being crushed by an unfortunate financial situation outside your control.

Does this mean financial literacy is worthless?

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Nope, of course not! What do you take me for? I’d never lead you astray like that! Financial Literacy is awesome, and for many people it’s the difference between living paycheque to paycheque or becoming wealthy. But I do wish we would stop touting it as the be-all, end-all of personal finance.

We can’t just assume that if someone is struggling it’s because they don’t know enough.

All that said, having more challenging circumstances isn’t an excuse to do nothing. I’m often frustrated by comments on posts like 30 Financial Milestones You Need To Meet By Age 30 that assert an individual can’t make any financial progress because of their circumstances. There are absolutely NO EXCUSES not to track your spending, use credit cards responsibly, check your credit report annually, give up impulse purchases, set goals, and give up paying unnecessary fees. Things like the cost of housing or education has absolutely no effect on developing good financial habits. Managing your money effectively is not only about how much there is, it’s about how you use what you have. If you can’t save $25,000 for retirement by age 30, that’s fine — save $20,000 or even $15,000 instead. Whatever the amount, it’s better than nothing.

What’s the solution?

Firstly, we all have to stop pretending that financial literacy will save us all and condemning people for being in debt or making poor spending choices — sometimes there was no other choice. A great example of this is the un-winnable game “Spent” which you can play online here. In Pound Foolish, Helaine Olen talks about Spent and how it’s a reality for many — and it’s only getting worse.

The solution is obviously a more egalitarian society, but are we too far gone? 

I’m interested in national and global wealth disparity, but the more books I read like The Value of Nothing and posts I write like The American Dream Is Dead, the more I feel like we’re doomed. Financial literacy won’t save us from rock bottom, and we’re very nearly there.

Jonesing On A Budget Part II

I recently shared my first post on this topic, Jonesing On A Budget Part I: Don’t Downgrade Your Lifestyle, Live It For Free, a few days ago and now I’m happy to present Part II! Here are some more tips to enjoy the champagne life on a beer budget ;)

imgreseBates – Want cash-back for your online purchases? Simply register with eBates and click through to your regular shopping on sites like Amazon, Sephora, and even Enterprise rent-a-car. There’s some overlap between Swagbucks and eBates as far as retailers go, so I usually check both sites before I buy to get the best deal. However, I do find eBates has a lot more options so generally if I’m buying something from any online store other than Amazon, I go through eBates. Depending on the retailer, you can get anywhere from 1% to 7% cash back. eBates will pay out your balance monthly if it’s over $5. They pay via PayPal or cheque (I choose cheque because it’s usually small and it costs $0.50 to transfer a small balance to your bank account on PayPal and I’m just too cheap for that)

Jonesing on a budget: Make all your online purchases with a no-fee, cash-back credit card like the MBNA cash-back card and you’re essentially getting 2% to 10% cash-back on your spending. Furthermore, often eBates will offer coupons on its retailers so you’ll get a discount and the cash back. You’re almost getting paid to shop. Almost.

imgres-1Airmiles – Airmiles is the dying points system but it’s not quite useless yet. I once used my airmiles to get a KitchenAid mixer, but since they introduced an expiry date on their points, it’s unlikely I’ll ever accumulate enough to make a purchase like that again. Instead, I’m all about the little and quick wins when it comes to rewards system: iTunes gift cards. 95 Airmiles will get you $10 in iTunes, and since songs and apps only cost $1, it goes pretty far!

Jonesing on a budget: Airmiles are pain to earn, but if Safeway is your local grocery store you will get 1 Airmile for every $20 spent, plus tons and tons (and tons) of bonus offers. If you want to speed up the process further, go through Airmiles shops. Best I’ve found: discount magazine subscriptions via Rogers magazine service. I ordered my subscription to Women’s Health, and not only do I get the magazine for less than $3/mo, I received 20 bonus Airmiles for signing up. If fitness isn’t your jam, MoneySense magazine is on the list! Note: this only works if you’re already spending $5/mo to get your magazine from the store, otherwise I really doesn’t make sense to spend $36 for 20 airmiles ok?

imagesGroupon – Yes, Groupon still lives. I’d forgotten about this great option until a spa gift card I wanted popped up and I grabbed it. I used to be an avid Groupon user but twice I let purchased Groupons expire and then I had to cut myself off, but now that I’ve found making a plan for something first THEN checking Groupon has resulted in some great savings.

Jonesing on a budget: buy your Groupon for a restaurant (50% off) through Swagbucks (3x the Swagbucks per dollar spent), and make your reservation through Open Table (100 dining points). BAM! Discount, Swagbucks, Dining Points! You are officially a rewards system master!

trendtrunkTrendTrunk – this awesome site is one I found when searching for a way to get my hands on some cheap lululemon. Lulus generally hold up well even secondhand, so I don’t hesitate to buy when I find something cool in my size. TrendTrunk has tons of designer brands available secondhand, and they handle the transaction between you and the seller. This is infinitely preferable to searching for cool clothes on Kijiji or eBay!

Jonesing on a budget: Use trend trunk to sell your secondhand clothes, then go ahead and buy someone else’s pre-loved clothing with the money you make, effectively costing your $0. Designer duds for free – who can say no?

imagesTitan Bingo – there’s probably no way more fun to earn money online than to do so by playing games. There are number of sites out there depending on what you enjoy, but Titan Bingo is one of the best all around sites. Head over to Titan Bingo for more information and to start playing!

Jonesing on a budget: you get a  40 welcome bonus just for signing up! Where most games and hobbies cost you money to get started, it’s nice to begin with a little in the bank =)

Happy frugal living the high life!