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Organization and Productivity


As a child with an inquisitive mind, I was fascinated by calendars and how we organize and measure time. I tried to learn why, throughout history, culture accepted new calendars to replace the old. Much remained — and still remains — a mystery to me in this topic; my interest in calendars waned as I began to use them for business purposes rather than satisfying my curiosity and appetite for learning about interesting things.

Even I, a calendar geek, couldn’t get the hang of using a calendar to increase my own productivity. Part of the problem is with a decade of experience in the corporate or non-profit world — that is, working for some sort of employer — the concept of personal development through productivity has always been transparent to me.

The concept of “employee productivity” is simply a way for a corporation to get more from its employees with less. There’s no real personal development involved with productivity.

My perspective shifted slightly when I began working for myself. Suddenly, my level of productivity had a direct effect on my personal success, however that could be measured. I wanted to be more productive, but because I didn’t take to heart the tools and skills of typical corporate productivity, I was at a disadvantage. I know how to be super productive, and I can be at times, but I don’t often choose to motivate myself to achieve high levels of productivity.

The concept of productivity is only one benefit of using a calendar as more than just a date-keeping tool. A calendar, especially modern calendars like the Google Calendar application unlike your typical wall calendar with a photograph of a moose for each month (I love this calendar; thanks Donna Freedman!), can save money and build your wealth when used efficiently.

I can’t continue without a reminder about the concept of building wealth. This isn’t about a number on a bottom line, and it’s not about competition. Money is not a goal. The only reason to seek to build wealth is to achieve financial freedom — or at least financial flexibility.

I want to live my life the way I want to live it without being encumbered by financial roadblocks. My goal is simply the highest level in the pyramid visualization of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualization. You can only reach that point when other needs, like food, shelter, safety, and recognition are met.

I have big things I’d like to do with my life, and some of those might require money. Even those that don’t might require me to be free of financial constraints like debt. And to achieve that condition on the path to my goals, financial systems can push progress forward.

I’ve written about the system of automatic savings and the system of food planning; this system of using a calendar is just as important.

I’m calling the best use of a tool like Google Calendar “extreme calendaring.” Using a schedule to this extent goes far beyond the typical use of online calendars: to remember birthdays and anniversaries, to track when you’ll be on vacation, and scheduling meetings. These are all important, but to get to the point where a calendar becomes useful for long-term wealth, there has to be more.

Throughout this article I’ll use Google Calendar as the example. There may be other services that offer the same features, but I’m not as familiar with them as I am with this feature from Google I’ve been using since it was launched.

Schedule your bill payments on your calendar.

Even if you’ve already automated your bill payments, you should add your bill payment dates to your calendar. The more you progress through life, the more services you will likely take advantage of that require monthly payments. The calendar can help you keep track of all of it, reducing the likelihood of facing late fees or other penalties, like interest charges.

One trick is to not use the bill’s due date but the date you need to send the check in the mail or initiate the online transfer. In Google Calendar, you can configure an alert for each item you add to your schedule. For example, you can add a reminder a day in advance, to be delivered to you via email, so you have time to write the check and get to a mailbox.

If it helps, you can add your paydays to your calendar. This in combination with your bills can give you a visualization of your financial inflows and outflows and alert you to any future problems, such as a month where your paycheck doesn’t arrive until after your bills are due.

Because your list of bills tends to get longer rather than shorter, you can increase your organization factor, and thus maintain a lower risk of missing something important, by creating a calendar category for your bills and income (and categories for your other types of entries).

Google Calendar calls these categories separate calendars, but you can use them as categories and use the color coding to its best effect.

A note about calendar fatigue.

Whenever you take any type of activity to the extreme, there is a danger of growing immune to the activity’s effects. If you are bombarded with ten reminders in the form of alerts on your mobile phone each day, you will soon learn to ignore these alerts or give in to frustration by turning them off entirely.

I recommend using reminders sparingly and creatively.

If you have a smartphone, your calendar will always be with you. This can be good or bad; the calendar should not be a distraction but should be available at any instant you might need to remember something in the future.

Use your calendar in conjunction with your coupons or discounts.

I have a habit of forgetting that I have coupons for a certain product I’d be buying anyway until they’ve expired. You have a Bills calendar already; add a Savings calendar to track savings opportunities you don’t want to miss.

Keep in mind that it’s only saving money if you’re buying something you would be buying anyway. For example, if you’ve been planning a trip across the country that involves a flight, put a reminder on your calendar to search for the best prices Tuesday and Wednesday; studies show these are the best days of the week for finding deals on airline tickets.

If you have a coupon for Macy’s and you know you need to buy items that Macy’s has available, put an entry for the expiration date on your calendar. When you view the coming month, you’ll see this date and will be able to find time to go shopping before the coupon’s expiration.

If you’re very price-conscious in terms of shopping, you may be aware that certain months of the year offer, on average, better prices for specific products. If there’s something you know you’ll need but it is not a pressing need, put a reminder on your calendar in the month that is best for shopping for that type of product.

For me, this strategy may not pay off much, but if you do a lot of shopping for a large family, the small seasonal price adjustments can end up having a large effect on your household wealth.

Remind yourself to follow up with others.

The activity of networking is often overwhelming for me. I may be quite capable in front of large crowds, but when I’m in the midst of a large group, my introversion tendencies kick in. I’m more comfortable in small groups.

Last night I attended a dinner (well, drinks and tapas) in New York City sponsored by Ramit Sethi (of I Will Teach You to Be Rich and Michael Fishman (a consultant). There were about 40 entrepreneurs in attendance, and I only knew a few from previous meetings.

I managed to talk one-on-one to about a dozen of these participants while partaking in the beverages and food. Several of the discussions offered some kind of a personal connection, with a possibility for developing further in some sort of business relationship.

I took a number of business cards, but now comes the process of remaining in touch. I can use my calendar to note who I plan to reach out to when, in order to keep myself from being overwhelmed by the extraverted nature of outward communication.

The reason why I, as someone who is taking charge of my financial life through my own business endeavors, would find this important is that some of these individuals might be able to provide great insight on the future of my businesses; thus, keeping myself focused in these personal/business relationships can lead to long-term growth of wealth.

Besides the above, there are several more specific types of events that are enhanced by the use of your calendar.

  • Use your calendar to track family events.
  • Use Google Calendar’s sharing feature to create schedules for items that affect other members of your household.
  • Create reminders to obtain your free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com three times a year, once from each reporting bureau.
  • Set a quarterly reminder to rebalance your investment portfolio.

How do you use your calendar to save money and grow your wealth?

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For almost two months, I’ve been paying a maid service. After the initial cleaning, I waited a few weeks, and then set up a recurring appointment for a cleaning once every two weeks. For years leading up to this arrangement, I’ve balked at hiring a cleaning service. Cleaning is not a particularly difficult task, and this is not by any means a necessary expense. Furthermore, I live only with my cat. I do not have a family to look after. When first thinking about bringing in professionals, it seemed excessive.

Several months ago, I decided it was time to bring in the professionals. I had two full-time jobs that left little time for tasks like vacuuming and scrubbing the bathroom. I asked friends and co-workers living in the area for cleaning service recommendations, but this yielded no results. I turned to the internet for suggestions, and I decided to give Maids.com a try. There is a relatively local office. I called, the company provided an estimate based on my description of my apartment, and we arranged an initial visit.

The initial visit consisted of a deeper cleaning and allows the maids to determine the scope of the job. The cleaning is deeper than usual based on the assumption that this might be the first time the location was professionally cleaned, and regular upkeep would help reduce future cleaning needs. A team of four spent an hour and a half during that initial visit handling the dirty work. They did a good job, particularly in the bathroom and kitchen. However, living with a cat, the apartment never feels fully clean without cleaning the carpets. I quickly steamed some of the more troubling spots after the maids left and was pleasantly satisfied with the apartment’s appearance.

I waited several weeks before inviting the maids back, but when I did, I agreed to a reduced price by arranging a visit every two weeks. The knowledge that the maids will be arriving within days motivates me to keep the apartment tidier throughout the week. If there is no need to clean, I could still cancel a cleaning without increasing the price. At the same time, if I found myself in the position of needing to reduce my expenses, this would be one of the first luxuries to be eliminated.

There’s often a psychological barrier that stops someone from paying for a service one could do on one’s own. Some people refuse to pay for financial advice, some don’t think it makes sense to pay someone to clean a house, and some don’t want to call the plumber when there’s a problem with the pipes. It’s not always psychological, either. Hiring a professional costs money that might not be immediately available. Some people prefer taking a do-it-yourself approach to their lives, and that’s an admirable attitude. The psychological barrier comes in the thought that it isn’t worthwhile to pay someone to do something you could do yourself.

In my case, my time is valuable, and I’m sure most people have the same opinion of their time, as well. My effort is better spent working on a project or enjoying my life than scrubbing toilets. I’m not completely averse to this type of labor; I’ll do it, but I have found that it’s worthwhile for me to hire professionals who do it better and more efficiently, while my time is free to concentrate on other aspects of my life and business.

On Twitter, @27andfrugal asked how I was able to fit this expense into my budget. This cleaning service adds up to about $250 on a monthly basis. I understand that this is a price many people would not be able to pay for a service they could theoretically manage without hiring professionals. I consider myself fortunate that I can handle this expense without much detrimental effect on my finances. The $250 comes out of my net savings. This is $250 less each month I won’t have in savings, which, depending on interest rates, could add up to tens or even a hundred thousand dollars over the next thirty years. Of course, looking at that view, it’s harder to make the argument that the expense is worthwhile, but these are the caveats:

  • I can make up some of that theoretical loss with increased productivity.
  • My quality of life increases, and that has a value that’s hard to pin down with financial terms.

Cleaning is one task of several I hope to outsource. My next step is to find a virtual assistant to help keep me organized from a business perspective.

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There are so many different ways to organize, prioritize and classify-ize your tasks and responsibilities these days that you’d probably need a couple years just to sort through all of them on your own. You can have an organizer on your computer, your phone, in your pocket or a notebook, or even, if you’re short of paper, on your hand.

Even with all of the new ways to get organized, the most effective tool for me is still the simple, classic “To Do” list. My To Do list is nothing fancy, just a list of things that I need to accomplish. For some reason, this list motivates me to be smart with my time and get things done.

One of the reasons these lists are so effective is because they help you define what needs to be done. One of my favorite things to put at the top of a To Do list is “start a to do list” — that way I can cross something out right away! Nothing like building momentum right off the bat. This principle can be applied in any aspect of life. You can use a To Do list at work, at home, or even in relation to different goals you have. My wife and I have a sort of ‘To Do’ List in relation to our financial goals, and it has helped us get started and avoid wasting time.

Our financial ‘To Do’ list helps us in three ways:

Stay Organized

The list helps us know what bills need to be paid and when they’re due, what major tasks or purchases we might have coming up, and perhaps most importantly, when we’re going to be paid. A well-defined To Do list answers all of the questions about what needs to be done and when, helping you use your time more effectively.

Get More Done

Because we’re using our time more effectively, we can use time we might have spent pouring over our budget or trying to find the electric bill in more productive ways. We can get back out making money, fine-tune our savings strategies, look for new ways to cut back, or quit thinking about money all together and go enjoy ourselves.

Meet Your Goals

We have all kinds of tasks on our list, both big and small. An easy way to design a list like this (if you’re using a word processing program or a notebook) is to use a list:

  • Big Goal 1
  • Little Goal A
  • Little Goal B
  • Big Goal 2

For example, if your big goal is to save $1,000 for your emergency fund, your “To Do” list could look like this:

  • Save $1,000 Emergency Fund
  • Save $75 from each bi-weekly paycheck for 4 months ($600)
  • Take lunch to work 2/wk for 4 months and add savings ($25) to emergency fund

See how easy that is? Now you’ve got a goal, and you know exactly what you need to do for it! Of course you can substitute in anything you like.

The beauty of these lists is that they are completely scalable — that is, they grow with you. If you finish your emergency savings goal, you can just start your next goal: “Pay off car debt” or whatever it is on the nice line. Figure out how you’re going to do it, and brake the big “to do” down into smaller tasks and you’re well on your way to leveraging your simple list as an effective financial tool.

You don’t need anything special to start a to do list, either. You can put it on a piece of paper in your wallet, or a whiteboard in your kitchen, or keep it on your phone or computer. The “To Do” list is a completely customizable, easy-to-use financial (and life) tool for anyone.

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Lost and found has been one of the big themes in my life lately. After finding bonds I’d forgotten about for years, I realized that I’d misplaced some very sentimental and irreplaceable valuables and spent an entire day searching.

It was a very bad day until about 6 p.m. when I finally located the items. Relieved, I photographed them for insurance purposes, then readied them for their own safe deposit box.

safeAs part of organizing yourself for the New Year, don’t forget to inventory (then update your homeowners or renters insurance policy!) and secure your valuables. If you’d prefer to avoid the ongoing cost of a safe deposit box, a personal safe may be a good investment. The safes sold at your local hardware store can be easily compromised, so beware, but if you visit your local locksmith, you may find that you can purchase a used safe rather reasonably.

On a recent visit, I spied giant, 300-pound used safes starting as low as $150. The most expensive was around $400. The locksmith has generally opened these safes (due to lost keys or combinations) but can rekey or recode them for you. I also saw some nice wall safes and even locking “bank desks” — safes which incorporate one or more file drawers for storage of important papers.

I prefer to scan and save my important documents on CDs and flash drives, which fit nicely into a safe or even a tiny safety deposit box. It’s a great idea to update these as part of an annual routine.

If you’ve misplaced some of your important documents, even bonds, all may not truly be lost. CNN Money recently posted some information about retrieving important documents. Here are the highlights:

* Federal Bonds – Savings bonds from 1935 onward can be retrieved at no cost simply by completing Form 1048 at treasurydirect.gov. Registered federal Treasury bonds require a search request letter.

* Stocks and Corporate Bond Certificates – Most of these records are kept at one of three major transfer agents: ComputerShare (781-575-2000), Wells Fargo Investments (866-243-0931) or American Stock Transfer & Trust (800-937-5449). You may pay 2-3% of the stock or bond’s value to retrieve it.

* Car Titles – These can replaced in just a few weeks for about $20-$30. Fill out an Application for Duplicate Title at your local DMV.

* Tax Returns – For $39, you can get copies of full tax returns at irs.gov.

Found Money in Lost Papers [CNN Money]

Image Credit: Rpongsaj

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