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Build unstoppable momentum with a "life rhythm"

New Year's has come, and New Year's has gone; how are your resolutions coming along?


Confession: I am not, in fact, blessed with a long attention span. This is not conducive to success...but it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Why? Because it's forced me to wire and re-wire my life in order to work around the fact that my mind is not naturally organized, implementing systems and frameworks in order to help me accomplish what I set out to do. And with those systems and frameworks, I can go much further than I could without them, even if I were naturally gifted!


Case in point: New Year's resolutions. I simply do not have the attention span to do something over the course of a year! A week, a month, a quarter, sure, but a year? No way!


Thankfully, humans are adept at dividing up time into bits, and dividing those bits into even smaller bits. And by applying a "life rhythm" to those bits, you can make build momentum towards your goals one bit at a time -- even if you're not naturally inclined toward long-term focus!


I've cobbled together my own life rhythm from various and sundry sources, plus my own experience, and it's been extremely useful in just about every area of my life (including finances, naturally). So: I'd like to share that with you, starting small and working our way up!


The atom


If you're like me, your day has a habit of "getting away from you", between interrupts, rabbit trails, and a simple inability to correctly estimate how much time a task will take. Enter the Pomodoro Technique, whereby you break your time up into atomic (indivisible) chunks of 30 minutes (including a 5-minute break), wherein you work on Only One Thing. This aids in focus, because you can tell yourself "I will follow this rabbit trail/take a coffee break/answer this text, but only after the current pomodoro is done", and it aids in estimation, because if you're tracking your pomodoros, you quickly learn to estimate just how long a given type of task will take.


Expanding on this idea, I recommend that you create your own "atom" of your life rhythm, varying the rules of the Pomodoro Technique as you see fit. For example, when I was an engineering manager, I needed to be responsive to interrupts during most of the day, so I carved out very specific times where I would "disable interrupts" (besides "nonmaskable boss interrupts", of course) in order to get project work done. It was only during those times that I used something like the Pomodoro Technique; the rest of my day was much more free-form, as was appropriate for my work at the time.


You can vary other aspects of your atom, as well; perhaps you prefer 15-minute increments, because there are a lot of "mosquitos" (as a friend of mine calls them) that can be swatted in relatively short order. Also, the Pomodoro Technique calls for 5 minute breaks for every pomodoro, and 30 minute breaks for every 4; you can vary this as well, depending on your own habits and needs. More varied work may necessitate fewer or shorter breaks, while longer work on more focused topics may require more. The object of the game is to get as much work done as possible without burning out and losing focus; dial in the breaks that work for you, turning the knob one way or the other as necessary!


The daily calendar


People often freak out when they see my calendar; it's a riotous mass of color filling the work hours of every weekday (and a decent chunk of evening and weekend time, as well!). "Gosh", they say (though generally it's something more colorful), "you're so busy!" Not really, actually, or at least no more so than anyone else; I just use my daily calendar to inform what I'm going to do. It includes actual meetings, of course, but it also includes stretches of time I've set aside for specific tasks. Putting (some of) your todos on your calendar has many, many advantages! For example:

  • It forces you to set aside time for the important things (e.g. lunch break), so they don't get overrun

  • It gives you a realistic idea of just how much you can accomplish in a day/week

  • It provides accountability for doing tasks that are hard (e.g. writing)

  • It creates a discrete knob to turn for prioritizing/deprioritizing aspects of your life

  • It provides boundaries for things that can easily spill into the rest of your day (e.g. email)

  • It reduces the time and energy spent figuring out what you're supposed to be doing at any given moment

And of course the calendar doesn't have to be a tyrant; it's your project manager, sure, but you're The Boss. So if the calendar says "It's time to write", but you've got something else that you know is more important, then you can just...do that thing, and delay writing for another time! (Of course, if you end up delaying something more often than not, that's perhaps a sign that you should change your calendar to be more realistic!)


Note that, in a somewhat ironic turn of events, planning your day becomes more important as your days become more hectic. On days like that, it's virtually guaranteed that something important isn't going to get done; at the very least, it's better to intentionally choose what that is, rather than having it just fall through the cracks because it's not what's in your face!


The WRP


As you do this, you'll naturally find that you need to set aside time for weekly review and planning, where you in turn set aside time for all the other things that need doing. Meta, no? During the WRP (h/t to Lacie Taylor of Math For Keeps, who pronounces it "werp"), you can plot out next week: adding, subtracting, and moving things around in your calendar as necessary to get what you want done...done.


Of course, it'd be a pain to plan your week from scratch every time; rather, I recommend you set up a "template" in the form of recurring times on your calendar. For example, you could set up a recurring Sunday night calendar entry for WRP, a Saturday morning one for "weekly money time", Wednesday afternoon for laundry, etc. (Some entries might be daily, some weekly, some biweekly, etc.) And then once a week during WRP you just move stuff around as necessary; "oh hey, I'm going to be busy this Saturday morning; I'll just move weekly money time to that afternoon, instead."


WRP is also a good time to remind yourself of awesome stuff you've done in the past week, as well as to remind yourself of any goals you have for the month/quarter/year. If you have a Life Plan, Rule of Life, or some other navigational aid for the course you've plotted, this is an excellent time for reviewing the highlights. Speaking of which...


Quarterly "rocks"


We all have a lot of things we'd like to accomplish: in our finances, our jobs, our relationships, our health, our minds, our spirits, and on, and on. It's easy to get distracted from one by another, so that we're not actually making forward progress on anything! Enter the concept of quarterly "rocks".


You've probably heard of the "jar of rocks" analogy: a person is tasked with filling a jar of rocks, pebbles and sand, and does so by putting in the rocks first, then the pebbles, then the sand. The idea is to make time for high priority items first, and let everything else sort of fill in the space around it. It's simple, but powerful.


This particular application of the analogy involves sitting down once a quarter (during a time you've set aside on your calendar, per above!), making/reviewing a list of various things you want to accomplish, and picking a handful -- say 4-6 -- that you commit to completing in the next three months. Making them measurable and realistic, and only focusing on a few at a time, will greatly decrease your chances of getting distracted and increase your chances of actual progress!


Note that whether these are action-oriented ("establish a habit of doing Weekly Money Time each week, more often than not") or goal-oriented ("establish an emergency fund of 4.5 months of living expenses") is entirely up to you. Speaking personally, I tend to make my rocks action oriented, and use my goals to determine what my rocks are.


You may be wondering: why quarterly? From what I've read and my own empirical study, a 12-week period seems to be a good length of time for these sorts of goals; for example, when building a habit, three months is often just enough time to firmly establish the habit before moving on to the next one.


The MRP/QRP/ARP


Given that there's Weekly Review and Planning, one can infer that there's Monthly, Quarterly, and/or Annual Review and Planning. A QRP is clearly a good time for establishing quarterly rocks, but what about MRP and ARP?


For MRP, I honestly don't do anything special; there are some things that happen naturally on a monthly cadence (e.g. establishing the budget), and other things that I like to do once a quarter or once a year, but not all at once, so I spread them out over the MRP's. It's also a good time to look at your calendar for big events like vacations and make sure you've planned around them accordingly!


I find that the ARP is a great time for dreaming big (generally over the winter break, between Christmas and the New Year, when I can get some serious time to myself). What do you want in life? What are your Big Hairy Audacious Goals for ten years out -- and thus what do you need to accomplish in the next three years, and thus in the next year? These can then feed into your quarterly rocks, allowing you to make steady, sustainable progress in that direction!


Putting it all together


By setting up a rhythm at the annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily, and 15-minute level, I'm frankly astonished at what I've been able to accomplish; as much as anything, this is what kickstarted my rise up the corporate ladder, and eventually allowed me to "semi-retire" into financial planning at 40! Honestly, I don't consider myself to be that driven, or organized, or even that smart; I've just got really good systems, and over time, these have created a snowball with well-nigh unstoppable momentum!


And all this is great, but if you're starting from scratch, what do you do?


I recommend you start with the "daily calendar" -- specifically, adding a weekly 30-60 minute block to your calendar to work on your life rhythm itself. Once you've got that weekly block in place, you can use that time to "bootstrap" the rest, slowly it building out over the following weeks. You might set up your weekly cadence one week, then schedule out MRP's/QRP's/ARP's the next week, then play around with an "atom" that works for you the week following, etc.


One last note: somewhere in here, you will fail...and that's OK. You'll miss a quarterly rock. You'll "fall off the wagon" re: a habit. Whatever happens, the great thing about a life rhythm is that it gives you a place to get back on track: you can juggle your weekly cadence during your WRP, you can add a rock to get back on the wagon during your QRP, etc. Your failure will have taught you something, so that next time you can come back even better!


Moreover, as you build momentum, repeat the habits, and start seeing the steady progress that occurs even despite said failures, it'll become that much easier to keep the rhythm going!



Britton is an engineer-turned-financial-planner in Austin, Texas. As such, he shies away from suits and commissions, and instead tends towards blue jeans, data-driven analysis, and a fee-only approach to financial planning.