My inbox at zero

I have (basically) no e-mails in my inbox. I’m not talking about work. I’m talking about the hundreds of personal ones that are about all my stuff and my kid’s stuff and sometimes my husband’s stuff. A fair percentage of these e-mails usually need some sort of attention, though not particularly urgently.

It’s taken me the better part of a year but I’ve finally gotten my e-mail to a happy place. It’s not exactly rocket science, but I did a few things for a long time and slowly but surely it got better, and I got better. Before I go on – can I just tell you how awesome it us to not be using my e-mail in box as a weird sort of to-do list? All that blankness is inspiring.

Step 1: First things first, unsubscribe and delete, preferably in that order. Do this ruthlessly. Coupon codes to all your favorite shops are readily available with a quick internet search whenever you actually need them. Unsubscribing from store/sales e-mails is amazingly good for both your wallet and your e-mail count. Do it. Unsubscribe from as many things as you can that are not necessary or amazingly valuable for your well being. My experience says you might need to do this for the rest of your life, but it gets to be a much more occasional occurrence. Hint – If you can’t bring yourself to completely unsubscribe from a particularly beloved site, most reputable sites have options where you can ask them to send less – start with that.

Step 2: Sort it out. Yes, I have sub-folders. Some things need to be kept for a period of time, just not in my in box. There is one rule, I only move things to a sub-folder if it doesn’t need anything from me but I might need something from it. Sub-folders are for reference, not to-do. Examples would be an order confirmation that would drop into the “Pending” folder until the order comes in and I knew it was all good. An air or hotel reservation is plopped into the “Travel” folder until the trip is done. I have about 15 folders. For me that is enough that I can find (and sort) things quickly. It’s specific enough (one for general pending, one for the house, one for the kid, one for each place we volunteer, etc.) for my needs without being so specific that I waste time deciding where to put something. The folders took a little trial and error but I’m in a sweet spot right now. Like Goldilocks I have just the right amount. Hint – don’t forget to periodically go back and delete the old stuff from the folders that you really don’t need anymore. The receipt for last week’s concert tickets can be trashed now.

Step 3: Just do it. This part gets trickier. I was getting a lot less e-mails every day, and sorting out the ones that were just for reference but I still had at least a hundred sitting in my inbox at any given point. Those all required some sort of action on my part. So I had to commit to action – to actually doing stuff with e-mail when I read it. Let’s be honest, anything urgent is going to come via text or a phone call. E-mail is for the lower key stuff so you can screen it a few times a day, but I started to set aside dedicated time each night to actually read it and do the stuff. Remember how I said this whole process took me almost a year? Not kidding.

It went like this… if someone sent a new address, I’d actually put it in my contacts (and delete the e-mail). The kid’s activity schedule got put in my daily calendar (and the e-mail was deleted or moved to folder). Digital receipts (for me) get put in Quicken and logged in my budget then stored if needed (most don’t need to be). Quick questions get quick responses. Doing these sorts of little, easy things got me down to about 30 e-mails. Not the same 30 mind you, but still it hovered around 30. And so I made it my mission to hold it at 30. Some days were harder than others.

Step 4: Thirty to zero in about 2 months. I admit keeping anywhere near zero is a work in progress. Sometimes there is one that is about an event that is really soon and I could move it, but the event is so soon I don’t want to move it to a folder just to go back and delete it the day after tomorrow. Sometimes it’s an e-mail that requires a longer researched response than I have time for today. It could be a more urgent one that I am waiting on a reply, and I don’t want it to drop off my radar. So once I got to zero I made it my goal to hold it under 10, because 10 is doable and yet still soooo much better than hundreds.

What it looks like in real life. In the last 24 hours I received 49 new emails. Of those I was able to skim and delete 39 (80%) right away. This does not mean they were junk – just that I got what I needed out of them and moved on. This took about 5 minutes. One more e-mail got a skim and an unsubscribe (under 30 seconds total). That left 8 that needed actual attention.

-3 required a quick reply but no research or anything else (and then delete).
-3 were informational, I will need it later, so I looked it over to make sure it was actually what I needed and then it went into a folder.
-1 was a meeting request so I had to look at my calendar and suggest a couple times that would work
-1 was a product recall notification, that took a few minutes to track down the serial number of the item, but it didn’t apply to me after all.

And there you have it, I’m back to where I started. I’m pretty good at this after all those months of holding my inbox at 30, and the two additional months (so far) of holding it at 10. It takes practice and blocks of actual dedicated time but I spend a lot less total time now than when I checked my e-mail relentlessly but seldom did much about any of it.

P.S. If you worry you won’t have something when you need it, remember that you can decide how often to empty your trash. Just in case is already covered, just not in your inbox.

Ten Minutes

It’s (way) under ten minutes to read this. Why? Because ten minutes is my new magic number. Not exactly a resolution (but in that family of making better choices) I’ve decided to dedicate 10 minutes each day to two things I want to make progress on. One is this, the other is my photography. Both tend to slip off the to do list because I make them bigger and bigger in my head until It feels like I might need months or years (not minutes) to make the progress I want.

I’ve been reading all sorts of excellent books on habits and goals and effectiveness, and it became really clear that I have goals, that they are clear, and I am my own worst enemy. In waiting for that perfect block of time where i could make amazing progress and “flow”, I successfully mastered ignoring all sorts of small opportunities. For me 10 minutes is nothing. I have ten minutes available all the dang time and I usually fritter it away because in my head it’s not enough time to do anything useful with. So all I have to do is shift how I use two little bits of time a day.

It’s also worth noting that my two ten minute tasks are vague enough that how I use those ten minutes can be really varied – which I hope will keep the excuses at bay. For photography I’m working through an online photo editing class, but today I organized and renamed some pics from Christmas while my daughter brushed her teeth and washed her face before bed. The draft of this post was written in an email to myself in 10 minutes, another day the ten minutes was searching for an out of print book I wanted to read for another post (I found it).

If you start with the assumption that you have just 10 minutes a day to commit to something important to you, then it turns out you just found more than 60 bonus hours this year for that something. Who knew I had so much free time?

4 days: 30 minutes at a time

Making a plan for every 30 minutes of your waking life (as discussed here on Monday) is easy.  It turns out making reality look anything like that plan is tricky.  Go figure.   Now, I’m not looking to turn our lives into some perfect utopian thing where every moment we are perfectly engaged and we are doing exactly what we planned. The goal was/is just to do more of the things we want to do and get some stuff off the master project list we made up for the month.

Some bits of time have gone perfectly – like I planned to eat dinner each night and we totally have!  Also my morning schedule has been spot on.  I know exactly what I’m doing with my life between 6:30 and somewhere between 10 and 11am each day. After that it gets a little dicey.  A few things were completely missed – like I forgot to include the time I spend getting my kiddo into bed each night.  She’s too old to call it bedtime, but it’s still a known chunk of time I spend with her at the end of her day and I totally didn’t put it on my schedule.

Oh, and there was that bit of time on Tuesday where I think I might have just zoned out and stared at the wall for 30 minutes because I have no idea what I did between 7:30 and 8pm but it must have been something close to nothing.

But, as the fourth day of this four week plan comes to a close I would say it has been good thus far.  It felt a little magical to cross off two of the things on our project list, and I’m in the middle of three more.  Hubby and I have both worked out every day, the house is clean, and here am I am (as scheduled) writing this for ya’ll with no mental drama because this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

I printed out my ‘schedule’ for the week and stuck it to the blackboard in my kitchen and I actually reference it all the dang time.  Spending the time in advance to plan the week to this level has meant that I don’t have to constantly be evaluating what I should be doing next.  That has freed up a surprising amount of mental load* in a way no to-do list ever did for me.

And perhaps the very best part is when the time I’m supposed to be working on something ends (or my schedule gets turned upside down) I’m not freaking out because I know more time to work more on whatever has already been scheduled.  That turns out to be a really powerful feeling.

As we head towards the weekend I feel good, and reasonably certain that this weekend won’t be one of the ones where Sunday night we all look at each other wondering where the last two days went and why we didn’t get anything done.  Fingers crossed!

Alison

*Bonus:  Mental load is a concept I’ve been pondering since a friend shared this cartoon with me.  I’m not so into the He vs. She part of it at the moment, but I definitely buy into the “planning and organizing things is already a full time job” and the definition that stuck in my head: “Mental load means always having to remember”

Time and Potential

My life is full of potential.  My house is proof of it.  There is potential absolutely everywhere.  Clothes I could potentially wear, cookbooks filled with recipes I could potentially cook, chairs on which I could potentially sit – but never do.  A look just around my office/craft/laundry room shows off so much potential it almost makes me feel ill.  There is fabric I could potentially sew into amazing things, textbooks for that foreign language I could potentially learn, stacks of keepsakes I could potentially turn into something meaningful.

My digital life is no better.  I have e-books I could potentially read, useful websites with so much potential I had to bookmark them for later, software I could potentially master, photos I could potentially sort and share, but never quite get to actually doing it.  My phone is filled with contacts I could potentially call, and notes I’ve taken so I don’t forget random things that clearly have great potential.  And let’s not even talk about my Pinterest page.  No facet of my life is free from tremendous potential.  And I’m a little sick of looking at it and a lot tired of dusting it.  All that potential and no energy.

I’ve got a soap making kit, I could potentially make a batch for a clean start.  I could ditch it all. I could rearrange it all so at least I felt like I accomplished something.  I could keep having a daily stare down with it or accept potential as part of my existence.  I could even write a captivating conclusion to this post.  Potentially.

Hubby was feeling the same potential  when he wanted to be feeling progress (specifically about our house).  But then he had the big idea for us to schedule out the next four weeks in 30 minute increments to make time for all the house projects we need to get to.  Yeah you read that right. He wanted every 30 minutes for the next four weeks to have a plan.  It’s potentially a little crazy and potentially a little brilliant.

How we did it:

  • We set an overall goal. If you don’t have a specific time related thing you want to accomplish, this isn’t going to be super useful. For us it was dedicating time to finish all the lingering projects around the house.
  • We set a time period. I’m a big believer that you can do anything for a month, so we picked 4 weeks and decided to start on a Monday.
  • I popped into excel and made a handy dandy one week template for each of us that has a little block for every 30 minutes of the times we’re typically awake. We put in ideal getting up and going to bed times so we’d know what we had to work with.
  • First we put in all the mandatory stuff – expected work hours, carpools, theater tickets that are already bought, doctors’ appointments, etc.
  • Then we put in spots for meals and blocked times for washing up and chores like cleaning the house, paying the bills, buying groceries and other regular things that keep us and the house going.  Next we put in the things we do (or want to do) each week for health such as workouts at home, and classes and fitness activities outside the house.  We also each got a few hours blocked each week for our respective hobbies.
  • We wanted to make it realistic, so we also made sure there was some social fun time each day of the weekend. Basically everything that was still blank we scheduled working on the house projects.

A Few Other Notes: 

This crazy/brilliant schedule could easily go off the rails if it were made too specific, so we stayed intentionally vague and mostly kept it to types of activities and not super specific tasks.  My weekday mornings start with a 60 minute block that I’ve just labeled “Morning Routine”.  That’s everything I do from the time the alarm goes off until I am out the door.  I didn’t need to break that down into getting dressed, making breakfast, and all the other random things that need to happen on any given day. There is a similarly generic hour at bedtime for washing up and winding down.

We put in ideal work hours (cleverly labeled as “work” on the sheet), but kept them realistic. We do not expect to miraculously work 9-5 and be done, but we’re trying to use this schedule as the motivation to stay focused and productive during normal work hours because other stuff we’ve planned to do is coming next.

And lastly all our house projects are all labeled as “task list”, and then we created a separate list of all the projects in and around the house.  This gives both hubby and I some flexibility to pick a task that fits our time frame and our skill set.  Today I had one hour for “Task list” but hubby did not, so I picked one I could do on my own without too much setup or cleanup time.

And if you were wondering, my work on Live.Learn.Budget. is schedule for Monday and Thursdays, so you’ll get to live this journey with me over the next four weeks.  Today was day one, and it went really well.  This post is potentially proof that I’m lying when I say I don’t have time to write.

Until Thursday!

Alison

The Bookshelf – Worth it: Your Life, Your Money, Your Terms

Who: written by Amanda Steinberg (founder of DailyWorth.com)

What: a financial guide directed at women focusing on achieving positive net worth and positive feelings about money.

When: Published February 2017

How: The goal of the first part of the book is to understand and accept your personal feelings towards money (your “money story”).  It’s got solid referenced research, statistics, and discussion about the cultural norms on women and money that impact most of our individual money stories.  The second part is on the big picture of finance and how to build net worth.  It’s organized around the two ideas of “Grow your roots and spread your wings” where Continue reading “The Bookshelf – Worth it: Your Life, Your Money, Your Terms”

What on earth is “extra” money?

The current Woman’s Day magazine has an article talking about “extra” money and how it often gets “frittered away”.  I had to stop right there.  What on earth is extra money and how do I get some?

Well, it turns out that by “extra” they really meant unexpected, unplanned for or forgotten money.  Let’s break these down for a minute.

  • Unexpected money. This is the good stuff, the real deal.  The bonus you didn’t know was coming.  Maybe an inheritance or winning the lottery.  This is money you had no way to expect, and thus weren’t planning for in any kind of real way (though we all have the day dreams).

Continue reading “What on earth is “extra” money?”

Don’t forget about me (said your budget)

It’s nearing the end of the month and the number one thing people struggle with when we start to work on a financial plan is the timing.

I say timing – not time – because no matter what, you’re eventually going to spend the time.  This is more about spending that time in smaller (more useful) chunks and *ahem* not procrastinating.

I am an expert level procrastinator (if I wasn’t this post would have been up last week to remind you to do this mid-month), so I am not throwing any stones here.  Instead let me throw you a soft cushy place to land before that procrastination completely takes you to that crazy overwhelmed place. Continue reading “Don’t forget about me (said your budget)”

The Budget

Budgeting is no April fool’s joke. And it’s not a gimmick.  And this one doesn’t even come with a click bait title.

A budget is a plan. Having a plan on how you want to spend your money is not something that should cause anxiety or panic attacks.

I spend a crazy amount of time reading about money and finance and psychology and a never ending list of things related to money.  Because almost everything is related to money if you look closely.

Earlier this week I was reading the comments on a new money book.  I haven’t read the book, but the things people were saying about their fear and panic and anxiety regarding money made me want to pull people through the internet, sit them on my couch and say “Hey! We’re going to get you past this feeling and back into reality. And you’re going to be OK about money.”

Reality is that money itself is neutral, not scary.  Money is just a tool to trade skills and products because the barter system is really a pain in the ass when you need a gallon of milk at 2 a.m. Continue reading “The Budget”

The First of the Month

Happy first of the month!

The first of the month feels a bit like New Year’s Day to me, but 12 times a year.  I’m not talking about the possible hangover or exhaustion from staying up who knows how late, but the feeling of starting a new year all fresh with a blank slate. Sometimes I’m lamenting the last year but looking with optimism to the future, and other years I’m giddy because it was an amazing year and I’m celebrating all that good and planning on keeping the goodness going.

Living with a budget makes the first of every month exactly like that – sometimes I’m lamenting the last month but looking with optimism to the next month, and other months I’m giddy because it was an amazing month and I’m celebrating all that good and planning on keeping the goodness going.

Continue reading “The First of the Month”

The Finish Line

Fifteen minutes after my last post I found myself reading a “success story” post.  I love these, and this one was all about how this couple paid of 40k in debt in two years.  What’s not to love about a success story like that? And while they listed five tactics they used, the first one started with the great words of wisdom “set your finish line before you start”.  Let’s dig into that nugget of wisdom and get a little closer to a budget. Continue reading “The Finish Line”