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!

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.

Mid-2014 Check-In

Now that half the year has passed, it’s a good opportunity to check in on your progress towards your personal and financial goals. I try to check my progress quarterly, but I usually find the end of June is really when I have an idea where I’m going to end up. This year? Not so hot.

Click here to read my original 2014 Goals & Plans

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I ended up with a small income tax refund when I was expecting a much, much larger amount — as in, $4,000 more. Since my original intention was to go on vacation with the cash and then bank any leftovers for next year’s tuition, I had to make some serious adjustments to my original plans.

Without a fat income tax refund, I axed the vacation.

I assumed I wouldn’t get to go anywhere this year, but 2 weeks ago a side project took me to Toronto. I’ll take a free trip to a city I’ve been to before over paying to go somewhere I’ve never been any day!

Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to finishing up my MBA and getting back to annual vacations all over the globe.

The second incident that threw a wrench in my plans was ending up unemployed for the month of May.

As one of only six students in my MBA program that found an internship this summer, I’m grateful to have a job at all, but my bout of unemployment cost me $3,000 to $4,000 in lost income that I had been expecting. I won’t be so arrogant about finding a job easily after graduation, I’ve learned my lesson! Not only is this is making it a huge challenge to get my emergency fund to $5,000 this year, when I couldn’t find a job, I enrolled in 2 summer courses. Naturally 2 weeks into my summer classes, I found a full-time job and had taken on more than I could manage (including being halfway into the Insanity program which was demanding workouts 6x per week). Basically I ended up broke and overworked for a painful 6 weeks and it was the worst >:(

Since starting work, my savings is back on track and I’m confident I’ll get my emergency fund to the $3,000 to $4,000 range which is only a little bit short of my $5,000 goal this year. I’m currently revisiting my other financial goals in order to make sure all my automatic transfers line up to hit my new focus of getting $100,000 in my RRSPs by age 33. It’s still really important to me to eventually get to a $10,000 emergency fund, but I also know that $5,000 is plenty to deal with a crisis (or so I hope, I now have the foreboding feeling that those are famous last words).

As for my goal to read 100 books, I’ve completed 24 with books 25 and 26 currently on the go

…putting me 25 books behind schedule! In retrospect 100 books was probably too many, which just goes to show I’m part of the problem when it comes to setting stupid goals. I’m going to leave this goal as is right now and take another look at it at the end of the summer. As for now, I have more free time for the next 2 months so I’ll be crossing as much as I can off my to-read list.

Admit Stupidity, But Not Defeat

As a 24-year-old, I change my mind about things all the time. And why not? I’m getting older, getting more life experience, and (hopefully) getting wiser. Since the beginning of my personal finance journey, I’ve changed a lot of my viewpoints and I recently made fun of my old self on my own blog.

So many people are so afraid to change their minds on something and appear fickle, they try to convince themselves (and others) they still hold old viewpoints. And that’s just a waste of time. As we gain knowledge, we should change our minds. It’s irrational to believe otherwise. I don’t care if you were an idiot for 4 or 40 years — why would you want to continue your idiocy?

You can change your mind. For real. I’m giving you permission today to change your mind on any of the following:

  • Financial Philosophy: I have changed my mind on SO many things financially. You can change your mind on investment strategy, debt payoff methods, retirement age, emergency fund requirements, spending priorities, and saving percentages whenever you want. You don’t even have to tell anyone why (unless you have a blog, and your readers think you’re schizo).

  • Marriage: I never wanted to be married. EVER. According to my 18-year-old self at least. That’s why everyone was beyond shocked when I got married two short years later at the age of 20. You can change your mind on marriage in either direction at any time.

  • Kids: Once again, my 18-year-old self was dead set against kids. So much so, she got a Chinese symbol tattoo ON HER STOMACH partially as a reminder to never have children (and stretch it out). You can decide to or not to have kids and then change your mind. It’s really only up to you and your partner. Although, I would not recommend tattooing your stomach. Like ever.

  • Politics: I grew up a staunch Republican, just like the majority of my family. I have since changed my mind on almost every. single. issue. That’s okay. I’m allowed to be liberal now…and so are you, even if your family doesn’t approve.

  • Religion: You can go from believing in God to Allah to Buddha to Krishna to nothing and back again. As long as you aren’t nuts and don’t harm others, you do you. And do you unapologetically.

Change your mind. Announce that you’ve changed your mind. Then change it again if you want to. You do not have to stick with the same viewpoints your entire life. In fact, it’s pretty weird if you do. Forty-year-old you should have learned something since 16-year-old you committed to a Grateful Dead face tattoo.

What’s important is you don’t give up on things. Don’t become so entrenched in minutiae you refuse to grow. Especially when it comes to stuff like finances. If you have gotten on a cycle of using and maxing out credit cards, you are allowed to step off and clean up your mess. Past stupidity should not keep you down and it definitely shouldn’t keep you stagnant in a harmful pattern of familiarity. Admit stupidity — own it, embrace it, learn from it — just don’t admit defeat. You can come back from just about everything if you can put ego aside and say “I was wrong”.