Posts Tagged ‘routines’

Breaking Free

There's nothing about the act of bill-paying that's any more inherently onerous than, say, filing or making follow-up phone calls or taking care of any other to-do — why then do we dread it more than other tasks? It's funny the effect an outlay of cash has on people. We love to spend money in the abstract — but when the time comes to ante up, we panic. A good deal of financial procrastination is simply buyer's remorse — we don't want to face our spending habits, those impulse buys and unnecessary purchases that now seem so foolish.

But even without regretting the purchase, there's still stress involved with bill-paying. You might worry about rising interest rates or dropping home values, the security of your paycheck or how much is being withheld to cover taxes — or any of a number of other issues that are entirely beyond your control. So much of what happens in the world of finance these days seems out of our hands, and uncertainty is always unnerving. The good news is that you don't have to worry about getting your bills paid on time, not with the right system (and as Forrest Gump says, “That's good! One less thing!”) Here are a few tips for making that monthly round of check-cutting a lot less stressful.

  • cut down on your expenses (it goes without saying that the fewer bills you have, the easier it is to pay them each month — of course you need electricity and groceries and a home to live in — but I'm sure that if you examine your statements and receipts, you'll find at least a few recurring items that could be trimmed from the budget — memberships you don't use, subscriptions you don't read, services that duplicate one another, excessive numbers of multiple credit cards, each with just a few charges on it — these bills do nothing but complicate your finances each month — it's time to clean house in the bill-paying sense — if you don't need it, lose it, and make your monetary life a lot easier right from the start)
  • align your bill-paying dates (part of what makes bill-paying such a pain in the neck is having to do it multiple times each month — one round of bills come due on the 1st and another on the 10th, then more on the 15th and a final batch near the end of the month — it's no wonder staying on top of it all takes so much of your time! — what most people don't realize is that most companies can adjust your billing cycle to end on whatever date you like — of course, your utilities and mortgage will always be due at the start of the month, so why not have your phone, internet, credit cards, insurance, and other monthly bills arrive at the same time? — that way, you only have to engage in one round of “pull-out-the-checkbook” each month)
  • pre-pay for the year (with set fees like insurance premiums, memberships, and flat-rate services, you can often save money by paying for the entire year up front — and even if there is no discount attached, you'll still save a lot of time by skipping monthly billing — if you have the money in-hand and know you'll be with that company for at least 12 months, ask if you can pre-pay your account for the year — just make sure that you'll be refunded the pro-rated amount if you cancel your service before the end of that period)
  • consolidate (a number of years back, Matt and I decided that we were tired of having to keep track of so many different bills — we examined our options and decided to pay as many bills as possible with our credit card, so we would only have one check to cut each month — it turns out that almost anything can be charged to your Visa or Mastercard — of course, gas and groceries and haircuts, but I'm also talking about your mortgage, your insurance, and even your utilities — I'm allergic to “convenience fees,” so we only do this if there is no additional cost for a credit card payment — and it only works when you pay the card in full — but it's amazing how much this one change simplified our finances — it also makes budgeting easier, because we can review every purchase for an entire month with one glance)
  • set up auto-pay (another step toward lifting the yoke of bill-paying from our necks was shifting everything to auto-pay — I came to realize that there was no good reason for me to ever have to write a company a check again, when I could have the bill either auto-charged to my credit card or auto-drafted from my bank account — my preference is for the first option, so if a company makes a mistake and takes too much money, I can dispute the charge before the cash comes out of my account — I really only use bank auto-drafts for paying the over-arching credit card bill — a lot of people are scared of auto-pay, because they're worried they'll get ripped off — but if you are reviewing your statements every month and reconciling your accounts like you should be, the chance of this happening is almost non-existent — and if you're not, you're just as likely to have an error go unnoticed, even when you pay all of your bills by check)
  • create a monthly routine (now that you've simplified bill-paying as much as possible, you just need a good routine for staying on top of it all — set one day a month aside for bookkeeping — start by reviewing all of the bills you've received, both paper and electronic, for errors — then reconcile your credit card and bank statements, double-checking to make sure that every bill on auto-draft was paid — finally, write and mail checks for the remaining bills that must be paid manually, if there are any — and don't forget to record those in your register — three simple steps and you're done until next month!)

Learning To Work Together

When Matt and I first got married,  I was highly anal-retentive about my living environment (big surprise!) I wanted no visible clutter anywhere. My hubby on the other hand, while far from a slob, had a much more relaxed attitude about putting certain things away — like the clothes he would change out of at the end of the day. He left a trail of wardrobe items around our house that used to drive me up the wall. I tried everything to get him to hang up his clothes as soon as he took them off (pleading, cajoling, threatening, bribery), but nothing worked — because that simply wasn't important to him.

Now if I had kept pushing and he had kept resisting, this could have very well ended our marriage (I've seen breakups happen over less!) But we decided that it was silly for us to get so worked up over something so relatively insignificant. However, we also realized that it would be unbalanced for one of us to simply “give in” (God knows that when a spouse surrenders a single battle, it feels as if you've lost the war!) We talked about what we each valued. I wanted a tidy-looking home without piles of clothes everywhere — but at the same time, I didn't want to be constantly picking up after him in order to achieve that. He on the other hand, wanted to come home from work and immediately relax, without having to worry about spending his precious down-time putting things away (this was back in the day before self-employment!) — but he promised he would get it all where it belonged once or twice a week.

Fortunately, we each had a divided closet — so we agreed that when Matt shed his skin at the end of the day, he would pile his clothes in the floor of his side (rather than the floor of the bedroom or living room or bathroom) and shut the door. That way, I didn't have to see it or deal with it. And when the pile got to big for him to stand, he'd hang everything up (or do laundry) and start over again fresh. It was the perfect solution, because both our needs were met at the same time. And that arrangement has followed us into the Airstream and around the country — of course, it's a smaller closet, but we still each have our own section, and Matt's got a series of “cubbies” where he can easily stow his clothes as he takes them off. A good system (one built on give-and-take) is adaptable enough to last you forever!

I always say that compromise is the soul of family harmony — and it's doubly true when you're talking about getting organized. The best way to fail at your organizing efforts is for one family member to lay down hard-and-fast rules, expecting everyone else to just fall in line — ain't gonna happen! Instead of each person insisting that it be done “their” way, recognize that there is no one “right” way to organize. Talk it over, discuss each person's needs and expectations, and find someplace in the middle where you can all be happy. It works with kids, it works with life partners, it even works with mothers-in-law!

Getting On The Same Page

I spoke recently about the idea of setting up a “family calendar,” and I'd like to explain that concept in a little more detail — because it's really the only way to avoid scheduling conflicts and last minute scrambles. Start by setting up a wall calendarin a centralized place, so you can review the entire household's activities with one glance. You'll want to write each person's appointments, deadlines, and other responsibilities with a different colored marker — blue for mom, green for dad, red for Sally, and purple for Johnny. Keep this in a high-traffic area of the house (kitchen seems to work well, because everyone goes there daily) where everyone can see it.

However, hanging a calendar is less than half the battle — the most important step is to take the time to coordinate your schedules. Family members these days are often like ships passing in the night — you see each other for a few minutes at a time on the way from one activity to the next, and it's no wonder so many time-management conflicts occur! It helps if you have a “family planning session” at the start of each week. Ask each person what they have coming up in the near future — extracurricular activities, days that your kids need a ride somewhere (as well as days you have to work late and can't pick them up), school project due dates, parties, vacations, dentist appointments, meetings, social engagements, sporting events, you name it. Everything should go on the calendar. If you carry a personal planner or PDA, this is also the time to update your portable calendar with the current info (it doesn't do you much good to plan out the week if you can't see the schedule while you're out of the house!)

Then from that point forward, every time someone brings home a birthday invitation or permission slip for a field trip, write it down. Every time the school sends out a calendar of upcoming days off, transfer it to the family calendar. When your boss asks if you can work late or your child's piano teacher wants to switch from Tuesday to Wednesday, change the calendar. Add the week's chores to the calendar. Get in the habit of putting EVERYTHING related to your family's schedule in one place. You're trying to accomplish two main goals here — to address any conflicts and to avoid last-minute rushing around. So when you know that mom's got to work late and Jimmy needs a ride home from the game, you can instruct him to make plans to go with a friend, rather than having him sit around waiting 3 hours for mom, when she has no idea she's supposed to pick him up. When Susy agrees to bring cupcakes for the school party, dad knows that they've got to go grocery shopping at least a day or two before so there's time to do the baking. When Bobby (don't ask my why I've chosen such Brady Bunch sounding children's names) has to put a diorama together for history class, he's not popping up at the eleventh hour, asking for shoe boxes and paint after all the stores are closed. Your stress level will drop by a factor of ten, just having each person's to-do's and responsibilities written down in one visible place.

Centralizing Your Communications

Your command center should be a high-traffic area of your home, where people are constantly passing by. Just make sure you have enough room for a desk-type flat surface, storage for files and some basic office supplies, and hanging space on the wall. Usually, a nook in the kitchen or just off of your main living room is the ideal spot. Now let's make it functional! In this hurried day and age, parents and children often pass like ships in the night – and sometimes the only way to stay in touch is by leaving notes for each other. Set up a bulletin board or magnetic dry erase board, designated JUST for communications (no posting of class pictures or drawings the kids did — you can find another spot for those). This is where you leave messages for other family members — a reminder for Johnny to take his soccer uniform with him to school, a grocery list (and the appropriate coupons) for hubby's shopping excursion, Sally's permission slip for today's field trip, whatever. Just be sure to regularly clean off old messages to keep your board from getting overloaded.

While you've got your hammer and nails out, get a good-sized wall calendar and put it up right next to your bulletin board. The goal is to record every family member's schedule in one centralized place — so you can review the entire household's activities with one glance. Write each person's appointments, deadlines, and other responsibilities with a different colored marker — blue for mom, green for dad, red for Sally, and purple for Johnny. It helps if you have a “family planning session” at the start of each week. Ask each person what they have coming up in the near future — extracurricular activities, days that your kids need a ride somewhere (as well as days you have to work late and can't pick them up), school project due dates, birthday invitations, vacations, dentist appointments, etc. Everything should go on the calendar.

The Paper Side Of Things

Another part of your command center is your incoming paperwork processing system. Set up a hanging file box or rack and create a folder for each type of “to-do” that you regularly encounter — “to file”, “to read”, “to pay”, “to call”, “to sign and send back to school”, etc. Every day — as the mail comes in, as you bring papers home from work, as your children give you a new pile from school, take a minute to sort each item according to the next step you need to take. Put each document in the appropriate folder (and throw all the other junk away). Now you're ready to tackle your many responsibilities in an organized fashion — just sit down once a week and go through each folder, taking care of all your to-do's in order.

If you don't already have a file drawer at your command center, it's also a good idea to setup an expanding organizer for your important papers. You can create one system for “fingertip files” — those things you refer to often, like phone directories, class and team rosters, babysitter instructions, pre-printed grocery lists, etc. But you may also want to keep a separate system for those “monthly” files that you access when you pay bills and go through your to-do's — utilities, mortgage, health records, school paperwork, files for your hobbies, etc. If everything is accessible from one location and you don't have to run around the house looking for supplies, files, and your schedule — managing your household responsibilities will go much faster and be a lot less stressful!

Finding Balance

Let's start by determining exactly what “multi-tasking” is. Merriam Webster defines this as “the carrying out of two or more tasks at the same time by one person.” This kind of multi-tasking occurs, for example, when you're talking to someone on the phone while writing an article — or when you're adding up a column of numbers and also watching TV. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's the sort of fractured mental activity that sets you up for guaranteed failure. Aside from “low load” behaviors that require very little attention and occur almost automatically, at a sub-conscious level without you thinking about them (like walking, talking, breathing, or chewing) — the human brain just wasn't built to do more than one thing at once (or at least do them well!)

The brain only has so much mental RAM to go around — so throughout the day, your capacity to focus is constantly being divvied up and re-apportioned among all the activities in which you are currently engaged at that moment. When you ask your mind to perform two or more activities that require a high level of conscious concentration (like reading, writing, listening, hands-on mechanical tasks, mathematics, or logistical analysis) at the same time, it's likely that you're trying to use more computing power than you actually have available — and your brain is going to end up overloading. Whenever you attempt to simultaneously engage in multiple “high load” behaviors like this, one of two things will happen. Either the brain will shut one activity out in favor of completing the other (this happens when you're trying to carry on a conversation while doing something else, and you find that you can't remember a word the other person has said!) Or if it does actually manage to struggle through both tasks, your brain is going to accomplish each more slowly than it would if allowed to focus fully on just one activity at a time. It's the same thing that happens with your computer — if you  tell it to run a search AND back up your documents AND perform a complex calculation at the same time, every task slows down to a crawl. And, as with your computer, concurrent multi-tasking is more likely to bring up an error message (or more likely, the “blue screen of death”) — you will find yourself making stupid mistakes, forgetting important information, and failing to fully complete a task when your mind is occupied with more than one thing at a time.

Stop Banging Your Head

But the dictionary also includes a definition of multi-tasking that is more in line with my way of thinking — “the interleaved execution of two or more jobs.” Interleaved — ooh, I like that word! This means “to perform two or more actions or functions in an ALTERNATING fashion” — working first on one, than switching to another, then switching back to the first again. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's a great way to make progress on multiple goals while avoiding becoming bored, stuck, or blocked a project.

However, I'm not talking about the kind of mindless and unplanned bopping back and forth between activities that causes you to waste 3 hours surfing the web when you should be doing your bookkeeping. Wink Allowing your brain to become interrupted in the middle of a project, letting it lead you away from the task at hand toward another (usually less important) activity is “distraction,” not “multi-tasking.” It then takes time and mental energy for your brain to make the shift back into gear, to remember where you left off, and what you need to do next — that's when “multi-tasking” becomes unproductive.

But a planned shift from one activity to another (which occurs at a natural “stopping point” in your work and is accompanied by a few notes as a “memory jogger” to help you dive back in quickly when you return to that task) can often be the best possible thing for boosting your productivity and increasing your energy levels. Have you ever tried to force yourself to plow ahead with a project when you really just didn't have it in you to continue? Your brain is fried, you can't concentrate, and you're essentially banging your head against a wall — but dammit, you're going to “make” yourself get it done! Then you look up several hours later, only to find that you're still right where you started, and haven't made even one step forward during all that time.The better choice would be to walk away and do something completely different, giving your brain a chance to rest and re-charge. For example, let's say you're stuck trying to put together a proposal for a new client, and your thoughts just keep going in circles. So you quit what you're doing and devote a half hour to that pile of papers you've been needing to file. You're crossing an important to-do off your list, but using an entirely different part of your brain (giving the lobe that was starting to hurt a rest.) Of course, your mind will subconsciously continue to work on your proposal, while on a conscious level, you're busy accomplishing something else. Then when you finish that task and return to writing, you're seeing things with fresh eyes, and the words just slide out of your pen (or clack out of your keyboard, as the case may be.)

I use this technique myself all the time in order to stay productive throughout the day. If I try to spend 8 straight hours on any one type of task, I burn out much more quickly than if I mix things up — so I actively plan my day to include these sorts of shifts. I'll spend an hour writing a blog, then move on to some phone calls, then switch to color-correcting photos or even washing dishes, and back to writing again — but I'm still only ever doing ONE of these activities at a time. Consecutive, not concurrent — that's the key to success with multi-tasking!