focus

I wonder if other writers/bloggers find themselves having any of these problems frequently:

  1. Coming up with lots of writing ideas and getting one or two paragraphs into each and then finding that the exploration of those topics wasn’t as interesting as it first might seem to be;
  2. Writing something, then thinking it is either too personal or too depressing or too silly or too whatever, even though it might be a good piece of writing;
  3. Becoming discouraged from writing because you’re distracted too often – i.e. simply being unable to concentrate.  Incidentally, the book Focus that I mention below made me realize this might be more of a problem for me than I thought it was.

I have all three of those problems, but unfortunately #1 is the one that kills 90% of my writing.  I have dozens and dozens of 1, 2, or 3 paragraph blog posts started, 3 eBooks with about 10-12 pages apiece, and 2 novels with one chapter apiece.  I started two other blogs besides this one that did fairly well for a while, but I lost interest in the subject matter (one was family/child oriented and the other was focused on the accounting/audit industry).

I’ll have to reread the aforementioned Focus by Leo Babuta again – I read it quickly in two lunch breaks this week – because if you want to do anything well you have to focus on it.  Leo’s written a nice little book with some practical tips, which were nice and helpful.  The overall theme of focus, though,  and why it’s not just an important thing but the MAIN thing in any endeavor really fired off a few of my own neurons.  I realize I can focus, simply because I’ve spent a few weeks building an incredibly complex financial model for a client, and they’ve been very pleased with the result.  So I know I’m capable of it.  But I don’t do it nearly as often as I should, and in certain areas I’ve let my focus atrophy to the point it’s non-existent, which is a very, very bad thing.

Originally this was going to be part of my roundup post yesterday, but I decided it could stand on its own.  But even that decision indicates I have a certain start-stop-start-stop mentality of not having a clear idea where I’m headed with something when I start it. I can be very good about focusing on my own habits, but that has to be coupled with a strong focus on goals, which unfortunately change too frequently for me.  I’ll have to take my one-habit-per-month plan and start adding goals, not just habit changes.  Because sometimes a nice long walk in the park can be pleasant, but if you don’t plan to end up in a certain location – i.e. back at your car, or your house or whatever – it’s not called a walk, it’s called “getting lost in the park.”

Jefferson on attitude, and roundup

Thought for the week:

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.
– Thomas Jefferson

I had more exposition written here, originally, but I decided it was long enough to break out into a post of its own, so it will appear tomorrow as a standalone post.  Until then, read the links:

6 Tips to Eat Less and Lose Weight:  Volumetrics is the idea that you should simply eat larger volumes of less caloric food.  That, combined with drinking a lot of water, would seem to be a pretty solid basis of a diet that ‘tricks’ you into feeling fuller.  I just wonder if you can construct a varied diet using that trick.  I think drinking seltzer also helps, personally – the gas in it is, of course, non-caloric, and having a lot of fizzy water in your stomach does make you feel quite full.

Finances of the Average American: I always find these kinds of stats staggering:  25% of Americans have NO savings.  It’s either an indictment of our debt-ridden, consumerist society, or it’s a sad commentary on capitalism.

A Grocery-Shopping Hiatus: How Long Can You Eat from the Pantry?: I’ve often threatened to do this – not buy any new food until what we have is completely gone – but I’ve only ever done it once, when I was single.  It’s too hard to get a whole family on board with this idea.

Do You Have to Pay Taxes on Unemployment?:  It seems ridiculous to me that you pay into the unemployment system then get taxed on it when you are unemployed and start drawing “your” money back out, basically, but there it is.  Good thing we tax that.

Tax Deadlines Spring 2011 and Tax Software Discounts:  Hard to believe that tax time is creeping up on us.  I wish my broker would hustle to get my forms to me so I could get started.

Are Credit Card Rewards Taxable?: This thought had honestly never occurred to me, but I suppose those rewards do represent income.  It just never crossed my mind that I might need to pay taxes on them – read the article to find the answer to that question.

Simple Thank You Gifts For A Host: That’s not a bad idea.

Market Value Measures: P/E, PEG, Dividend Yield, Price to Book Ratio: Always useful to understand the basics.

A Collection of Free Kindle Resources: If you have a KindleKindle, this article can sum up the free resources – there are few alternatives, and rightly so.  As Trent points out, writing a book is hard work and authors do want to be compensated.  Crazy, right?

A Layoff Story: The Ant, the Grasshopper, the Honeybee & COBRA: I have a “magic number” for an emergency fund that lets me sleep well at night: $40,000.  It’s fairly close to Len’s number.

Create Time to Change Your Life: You know, Leo’s blog was one of my inspirations for starting to blog myself.  Then I got a little bit tired of the direction he headed with a lot of (what I perceived to be) breezy, non-helpful articles about “just look at the clouds and smile” types of subjects.  But recently his blog has taken off again (for me, at least).  I think removing comments helped.  But I really liked this post, and his book Focus, while repetitive at times, had some very inspirational ideas in it.

Zen and the Art of Investment Banking: When Working Right is More Important than Finding the Right Work: A very good (and long) read.  It is true that many of the people who ‘do what they love’ may be exceptions, rather than the rule.  It may not be what you do for a living, it may just be your personality which makes it difficult for you to enjoy any type of work.

The Marshmallow Test for Retirement: I’ve heard of this study before, but if it’s true both I – and my family – are in trouble.  I can’t even vaguely imagine either of my kids sitting and waiting to eat a marshmallow.  Probably something I should work on correcting, except that Bubelah and I are probably the same, at the core.

take your time seriously

If you waste the time you have now with e-mail and reading sports illustrated then that means you don’t take your time seriously and don’t see it as what it is ; your most valuable resource!

– a comment on free time does not translate to massive productivity

I was re-reading this old post of mine thanks to Jacob’s mention of it in Productivity and the Goose that laid the Golden Eggs. I don’t remember being particularly concerned with the comment at the time, since it just seemed to be taking a shot at me and my habits.  Now that I’ve come across it a couple of years later it gave me a moment’s hesitation, and then some reconsideration followed by resignation.

It’s related to another exchange/quote I’ve used again and again in my personal life. Unfortunately I don’t remember where I heard it and I’ve never put much effort into looking it up…

Trainer:  You need to exercise 30 minutes at least 3 days a week.

Guy:  I don’t have that much time – I’m very busy.

Trainer:  Did you watch TV this week?

Guy: Yes.

Trainer:  You had time.  You just didn’t want to exercise.

So true.  I’m not using this post to bash the TV – I’ve done plenty of that before – but you could substitute almost any activity in there and they could also be labeled as  “bad habits.” I endlessly re-read random chapters of books I like – I’ll yank it off the shelf and read a chapter, then put it back.  And yes, I spend more time than I should reading pointless emails and Sports Illustrated and whatnot.

It is easy to reward yourself with mindless, unproductive activities, but you do have to spend some time judging whether they really are a reward or just a habit. TV’s just a habit with me now.  I think I “need a break” but probably what I really need is a clearly-defined activity to do to keep my day moving forward – even if that activity is just to lie down on the couch for 15 minutes and rest my eyes!  TV is a default habit.  Popping open Sports Illustrated is a “neutral” for me – I can idly browse football news, even in the offseason, even about teams I don’t care about.  I can shuffle papers.  I can pick a lot of activities which aren’t productive but far more importantly aren’t even enjoyable simply because they are easy to remember, do and jump into and out of.

The lesson is simply to try to reflect on whether you really, truly want to do something or need to do it or are simply doing it out of habit. Half an hour before I wrote this I sat down and flipped on the TV and watched 15 minutes of Starship Troopers.  Why?  I had told myself I needed to write something – ANYthing – this evening and I was simply delaying out of habit.  Nothing more.  I know I used a number of activities to avoid doing even things that I enjoy doing simply because the time-waster is easy.  That’s not a good personality trait:  I’d rather do something easy than fun.

As suggested in some of the other comments on that piece, probably the best solution is routine and activity. If I had exactly 30 minutes set aside every day (or every weekday or every other day, etc.) to write, I’d probably focus in much better on writing on those days.  But as it is, I write when the mood strikes, and even when the mood strikes writing is hard work: it takes focus, manual effort (typing) and creativity.  TV or old books or rearranging the pantry take no focus, minimal effort and no creativity.

Each person has different levels of discipline and focus, but I’ve come to realize that for me discipline is easy only once I mentally commit to absolute positions – taking things cold turkey. Focus is nearly impossible – my mind jumps around, a lot.  So the solution is scheduling and self-accountability – making sure I do things in a scheduled time-frame, and keep track of how I did with that process.  Single tasking! For you it might be something else.  But just remember the next time you sit down to read the paper or play a video game you’ve already beaten that if you’re honest with yourself, you’d probably be better off doing something else – and happier while you do it.

the worthlessness of net worth

Having been involved in several conversations about the calculation of net worth, I’ve come to the conclusion that net worth isn’t that important to know. The reason? Net worth is a very difficult number to analyze, and the difficulty in analyzing it makes it a somewhat worthless tool for measuring progress in your financial life.

1. You don’t know how it’s calculated. A lot of people include home equity in that calculation (value of the home less mortgages/loans against it). I don’t include it, because I believe that it’s not a value you can “cash in.” If you cash it in, you still have to buy a new place to live. The only way to “cash it out” is to sell and then move into a rental or downsize, which is not a typical move most people make these days. The counterpoint is that it is an asset that you can borrow against; a bank will give you a loan against that value. Regardless, you just can’t know if people include it or not.

2. A net worth of $200,000 means different things in a small town in Texas and in La Jolla, California. In one place it’s a substantial amount that could generate a sustainable income. In the other place it’s lunch and a tip. Many of us may know that we’re staying put our whole lives, but many of us might be living practically anywhere in 20 years.  And if you’re honest, none of us know – for sure. Knowing whether you’ll be living in Smallville or Gotham would make a big difference.

3. Net worth doesn’t accurately measure cash flow generation. If you have an asset (a rental property, etc.) that generates cash flow, is that worth the same as one that doesn’t (like bricks of gold or a non-dividend paying stock)? In the long run, of course, that cash flow adds to net worth, but the potential future accumulation of cash isn’t really represented in a snapshot view of net worth. That’s not the purpose of a net worth calculation, but it is a problem with analyzing it.

4. Net worth also doesn’t show risk. If I have $500,000 invested in equities, is that the same as $500,000 invested in a money market? Again, for a snapshot in time, yes, but one of them is substantially riskier than the other. If you could apply some sort of risk calculation to your holdings it might make a difference in how you look at the overall picture, as well.

I don’t think it’s all that important to know your net worth. If you use it for motivation or simply feel better knowing what it is, by all means do so. But just like knowing that Harold weighs 200 pounds isn’t that helpful in getting a picture of him unless you also know whether he’s 5 foot 3 inches or 6 foot 8 inches, or whether he’s solid muscle or flabby, knowing your net worth doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about your financial position. It’s part of the picture, but definitely a small part.

the twilight of the tweets, and links

 

I do use Twitter but I’m increasingly bored with it.  I suspect all of us are going to float through various social media sites and settle on a few favorites for various reasons:  our friends/family/colleagues use it, we like the way it works, etc.  All of these forms probably will experience a peak at some point (surely Twitter’s close to its peak) and valleys as they fade away – think Friendster, think MySpace.  The only one that might have staying power – in my opinion – is Facebook, simply because it is rapidly becoming an entire internet within itself; I know plenty of people to whom "online" means "on Facebook" and little else, except maybe YouTube (embeddable within Facebook) or other media sites.

It doesn’t really matter what you use, as long as you enjoy it.  I feel an obligation to keep up with Twitter since so many other bloggers do, but I’ll confess that I usually only read other people’s tweets for 5 minutes or less per day – it’s just not a medium that appeals to me.

On to the links:

  • Prioritizing Your To-Do List: Getting the Right Things Done:  In my eternal quest for a perfect to-do system I think I may finally have hit upon my gold standard.  I keep an index card and a small pen in my pocket all day and write my to-dos down.  In the evening I put them in Google Calendar if they are time-sensitive and a text file if not, without dates, just a list.  So far, seems to be working well.
  • Save with Smart Meters and Appliance Timers:  This is on my short list – I need to get more timers to shut off things at night.  You might say I could do that manually, but really, who wants to have to go around the house turning off every single power strip… and I just made myself sound really lazy.  Nice.
  • How I Tweet:  I admire Guy, although I’m not a close follower of his work.  I will say he’s awesome at responding – we’ve traded a few emails and he responds instantly, all the time.  I think he shows where twitter is going:  he doesn’t read anyone else’s tweets, just replies and direct messages.  Almost defeats the purpose, I guess, but he’s probably more productive than he would be if he attempted to keep up with thousands of people.
  • 10 Ways to Get the Most From Your Auto Insurance Claim:  Hope you never have a reason to need this article…
  • Groupon Review – Is it Here to Stay?:  I subscribe but I have yet to take advantage of an offer – so I’m not convinced of its value.
  • American Express Daily Wish Deals:  Sounds like a good deal to me, albeit somewhat similar to the above-disparaged Groupon.
  • The 2010 Tax Deductions You Can’t Claim:  Good to know that unemployment benefits – basically a repayment of the (taxed) money you already paid into the system with your unemployment insurance taxes – are going to be fully taxed this year, while the top tax bracket didn’t. 
  • Best Cheap Date Ideas for Valentine’s Day Romantics:  Might be better to say "inexpensive."  Just a thought!
  • Best Apps to File Your Taxes with Your Phone:   I can’t believe I could get to feeling comfortable about filing my taxes with my phone, but then again in 1995 I probably thought the same about my computer.
  • When was the last time you bought a tie?:  When I bought a tie?  A decade ago, I bet.  Bubelah’s bought me a couple as gifts over the years, but even as a gift I don’t think I’ve received one in at least three years or so.

green acres 2011

Steve’s note:  This is an older post I decided to drag out, simply because it’s quite amazing for me to read my mindset, about a year before we pulled up stakes and left New York City for a small town in the South… and perhaps it’s a good case lesson in why you shouldn’t be so sure about what you think you’re sure about…

Remember, this is all written late 2007 – the real estate bubble has popped but the financial crisis is yet to come.

This past weekend I took the Brip Blap crew (myself, Bubelah, Little Buddy and almost-out-and-about baby #2) on a drive over to Queens to a birthday party for the daughter of Bubelah’s friend. This couple recently purchased a nice house in a nice neighborhood with nice schools and near to the epicenter of their ethnic community. The house was a fixer-upper when they bought it, so they had to put in some substantial money to fixing it up. They have not yet finished doing so, and the total cost, to date, is over $1 million. Although that is in the almost-worthless-US-dollar, it is still a substantial amount of moolah.

Switch to a couple of days before that. Out of curiosity, I looked on Ye Olde Internet for real estate in a small town in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia that Bubelah and I have visited and really like. A house, finished in grand style similar to our friends’ house but far bigger with a substantially larger yard was listed for about $500,000. Bigger house, bigger yard, all finished (no fixing up really necessary) for half as much – and probably half the property taxes, too.

Switch to years earlier and swoop down South to the ancestral estates of the Brip Blap family, sprawling across 3 acres of land in the Deep South.
My parents have vacated their home in the South to move closer to my brother’s family (and closer to mine, as well). Their Deep South house – which I am sure they will not mind me referring to as “stylistically dated” (but a very nice home) – is a little smaller than the Pennsylvania and Queens houses, but on a huge lot with practically no property taxes. It might sell for about 15% of the cost of the Queens house. 

So where do you draw the line? I know I could move to Kansas (no offense, Kansanians, I pick on Kansas because of the free land being offered there) and build Neverland II for what a decent-sized single family house would cost in Queens OR a 650-sq foot studio in Manhattan. Bubelah and I have often toyed with the idea of moving to Florida, a place we both like a lot, as well, and I am sure real estate on the beach is a lot more affordable today than it was two years ago. I used to joke about moving to Portugal, but I suspect with the dollar’s value where it is that wouldn’t be much of a bargain.

I think it says something about your core values if you choose to spend big on a place to live.
I know there is a point at which we all draw the line, because I don’t see huge numbers of bloggers from the Soft Coasts moving to the heartland, nor vice-versa. Our friends in Queens spent big because they feel THAT IS IT. The home is in the midst of their community, near family, good neighborhood, schools, etc. etc. They have planted their flag, and staked their financial future to it; they will not have financial freedom in the next 10 years (or 30). But they are happy with that decision.

My point? I know financial freedom is not my #1 goal when I analyze it in this context. Bubelah and I could move to my parents’ home in the South and neither of us would need to work at a day job, starting tomorrow. With our various side-income producing ventures, given a little growth, we could probably support most of our needs. The schools are fine (I’m a product of them, and I think I can do sums and read a comic strip as well as the next person). But we won’t do it: family, climate, etc. enter into it but the kicker is really that neither of us can imagine living in a small town anymore. But this does mean, then, that our number one value is not financial freedom, as I often like to say it is. Our number one value may be family, or a more liberal big-city atmosphere, or the ability to eat Turkish cuisine frequently (best.food.ever) – but whatever our #1 value is, it is not financial freedom. So for now, no green acres!

But then… farewell new jersey

how to take time off from work

I remember about two years ago when a fellow consultant expressed amazement that I was planning to take a Thursday off –  after having taken Monday off. He couldn’t understand how I was able to afford to take two days off in an average week – let alone two weeks before I planned on going on vacation.

The simple truth is that I have certain rules that, if anyone follows them, makes taking time off a snap.  I have five, off the top of my head:

1.  Pay yourself first. I save money every month before it hits our bank account.  It’s gone and saved before I even realize it exists.  That makes digging into savings tricky.  It also means that I’m not worried about grubbing for a dollar at the end of the year.

2.  Consider whether you need it. Bubelah and I make dopey purchases – we are not ultra frugal.  At the same time, we do not buy useless things on a regular basis.  It doesn’t take much – try not buying overpromoted fashion and consumer electronics for a while and voila, savings.  A little time off is worth passing on the XBox, isn’t it?

3.  Pay in cash. I use a credit card, for the sake of cash back bonuses, but for all intents and purposes I pay cash; we wait until we have cash in hand to buy anything.  I mean anything.  I paid cash for a new Honda minivan two years ago.  I paid cash for new rechargeable batteries last week.  We don’t buy anything without the means to pay for it.  We never have to worry about the upcoming credit card bill.

4.  Diversify your income. I blog, and I work on a couple of other income streams.  My “other” streams make up maybe 5% of my income, but at the same time that means I’m making 105% of what I would be making on consulting income alone.  Better than nothing, I think.  But that 5% away from work means I can take 5% off my normal work and still come out even, right?

5.  Pick your battles. I have never understood people who won’t take off a beautiful day in summer.  Listen, 20 years from now that extra $100 for a day’s work won’t make a difference.  A day in the sun making a stab at accomplishing that wee bitty thing called life will be worth it.  Maybe it’s better to stay late in the office in February and ditch in summer.

I feel sorry for so many of the employees and consultants I see around me who will complain about “needing” to work one minute and then about their new plasma TV the next minute. Not because I think they made a bad choice – because it’s not my place to judge – but because they seem unhappy with their choices.  Nobody is ever happy trading their time for crap.  Put yourself in a position where you can forgo money for time and you’ll be a happier person.

Caught in a Rut? 4 Tips for Climbing Out (guest post)

There’s a bleak, helpless space between being generally satisfied with your life and being clinically depressed. About one year ago, I entered this space and thought I’d never get out. It’s a terrible position to be in because you can’t really complain about all that much – you have a job that pays the bills and leaves you with enough to enjoy yourself, a partner who meets your emotional needs, and a decent group of friends to fulfill your need for human interaction beyond a romantic relationship. So what was really wrong with the picture? Nothing. Except that my engagement with life had dissipated, and all those things that had previously inspired in me passion and motivation lost their luster. It lasted for months, and I’m convinced this period of ennui would have lasted infinitely longer had I not done something about it. If you’re suffering from a chronic case of the not-quite-depression-but-close-enough, here’s how I climbed out of my rut.

1.  If you’re in the hole, but can’t pinpoint anything really wrong in your life, you’re simply in denial about something big that’s bothering you but that you’re afraid of addressing.

Sometimes I’m amazed by how far we’ll go to repress, ignore, and otherwise obscure problems with which we don’t want to deal. But then again, it makes sense. If we admit there’s a problem, we’re also admitting to ourselves that we can take action but out of self-doubt, we simply haven’t. Whether it’s a partner, a job, or something else, spend some time thinking if you’re really satisfied with it. Don’t be afraid to admit that you need to make a big change. Mine was leaving a long-term but unrewarding relationship.

2. Don’t force yourself out of the rut; it doesn’t work.

When I began noticing that my outlook on life had slowly slipped, I was scared. I then did everything I could to get myself out – I tried overhauling my diet, exercising more, attending therapy, meditation, the whole nine yards. While these little things were beneficial in different ways, after trying everything, I was still feeling sunk. Then I stopped obsessing about finding a zillion different “mood-lifting” techniques. Instead, I cut myself a break and told myself that I won’t feel this way forever; it may just take some time.

3. Change your living arrangements.

As mentioned before on Brip Blap, making changes to a structured routine is a terrific way to bring some excitement back. I’m going to take things a step further and suggest changing your environment as drastically as you are reasonably able. When my one bedroom apartment lease came to an end, I seized the chance and moved in with a friend who was looking for a roommate. I think the reason this one move was so effective was not simply that it was a big change. It was merely a matter of association – I had begun to associate my lack of desire with my environment. Once I left that environment, I had a completely new backdrop with which to engage a new mental orientation. If you can’t completely move to another place, consider the advantages of rearranging furniture or switching up rooms.

4. Chip away at a meaningful project without putting too much pressure on yourself.

I’m not talking about the grand New Year’s resolutions type of goals. I’m talking about something that requires little effort but lots of time. For me it was finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the French author’s 4000 page magnum opus. It was a goal that wasn’t life-or-death. If I failed to meet the goal, I wouldn’t have been extremely disappointed in myself. It was just something to fill those spaces of time when we tend to nurse negative thoughts. As luck would have it, In Search of Lost Time also happens to be filled with inspirational wisdom that sticks with you. But taking up any kind of low-impact time-filler with something meaningful, whether it’s putting together one of those 1000 piece puzzles or beating a video game of which you are particularly fond, is a wonderful way to bide your time while the storm passes.

Of course, there isn’t much I’ve covered here that hasn’t, in some way or another, been addressed in self-help books or productivity blogs. But the main take away that I’d like to share with others is this: restoring your once active, positive, and curious mindset isn’t impossible. It’s all about confronting big problems that you’re sitting on, making smaller changes to shake things up a bit, and being as patient as possible. The rut always comes, but if you do something about it, it does eventually pass.

This guest post is contributed by Raine Parker, who writes on the topics of accounting degree. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: raine.parker6@gmail.com.