It's hard enough to make time to simply read a few articles
about what you should be doing with your money. But actually
putting that information into action? Please. Like anyone actually
relishes reconciling their accounts or inventorying their
belongings for insurance purposes or spending quality
-playing time on anything at all related to taxes.
The daunting nature of these tasks is what makes it so easy to
blow them off -- for anything. Seriously, anything: The average
American spends more time sifting through the fliers for credit
insurance, clocks, and "delightful" figurines depicting English
royalty (yes, a real offer) than reviewing the actual credit card
So what's preventing you from taking care of your important
personal finance business? I have a hunch it may have something to
do with your "to-do" list. That's because most of us don't know the
proper way to write one in the first place.
Mental notes are a hazard to your financial health
A few years ago, productivity guru David Allen visited Motley Fool
headquarters (an event preceded by a frenzied officewide desk
cleanup).We talked about how to apply his organizational principles
to financial tasks that so many people have a hard time getting
First, it's all about capturing those ideas, thoughts, small
details floating around in your brain and committing them to paper
or PDA. Everyone needs a road map -- a running list of stuff that
needs our attention. Trying to operate without it is tantamount to
reckless financial driving, Allen says.
"Not being aware of all you have to do is much like having a
credit card for which you don't know the balance or the limit --
it's a lot easier to be irresponsible," he writes in his celebrated
Getting Things Done
Taking mental notes won't hack it. You need a reliable system --
some Post-Its in your purse (a personal favorite), a page to jot
notes on your iPhone.
This is not your to-do list -- yet
That collection of thoughts and tasks, all the stuff that keeps you
up at night, looks suspiciously like a to-do list. It's not.
With long-term goals like "save for retirement" or "figure out
how we're doing with Junior's college fund," it's hard to figure
out where to start. So we don't. The day of reckoning is so far
away that we put it off, because we can.
The key to overcoming inertia (or overwhelming paralysis) is the
"next action step" -- one of my favorite parts of Allen's
philosophy. A long-term project is simply something that requires
more steps to achieve the goal.
Those steps -- the "next action steps," in Allen's parlance --
are stepping stones to compiling your to-do list.
Turn "save more for retirement" into a task you can
As you break down a big task into bite-sized chunks, don't confuse
those smaller steps (or goals) with actual "action steps." There's
a specific method to making a doable to-do list.
Say, for example, you want to save more for retirement. You
decide you want to contribute 3% more to your employer-sponsored
retirement plan and write "Increase 401(k) contribution" on your
"next action step" list.
Wrong! "Increase 401(k) contribution" is a
, not an
. It's too fraught with unmentioned details and logistical pit
stops that make it easy to put off until later.
There are a lot of things required in order to achieve the
- First, you might need to pull your last 401(k) statement from
your files to see what level you are contributing currently.
- Then you'd need to up your contribution -- that means getting
the correct form from human resources or your plan
- To do that, you'll need to send an email requesting it.
Ta-dah! It's that last item that is your specific, tangible
"next action step." That's the item that goes on today's to-do
list. Once you've done that, then you can start in on the next
action step, and so on.
As Mark Twain said, "The secret to getting ahead is getting
started." "Email HR to get 401(k) contribution change form" is
something that you can actually cross off your list in a matter of
moments. (As Allen advises, don't put off anything that can be done
in two minutes or less. All it does is create a psychic
Remember, each small step toward completion represents a giant
leap for your near- and long-term finances.
What are you waiting for?
What's a niggling detail on your money to-do list? What's the next
thing you need to do to get it done? Share your next action step
below -- and publicly commit to getting it done today.
More on getting stuff done:
Dayana Yochim is the author of
The Motley Fool's Guide to Couples & Cash: How to Handle Money
with Your Honey
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