Your To-Do List Can Hurt You

“My to-do list is so long today!”

How many times a day do you hear that? If you work in any business/corporate setting, probably a lot. People with long, neat to-do lists are important. They are on top of it. They are who you want to be.

Too bad this is such a facade.

The to-do list has become more of a symbol for being organized and productive than an actual tool to aid in productivity. People write long lists and take care of a bunch of the little, lower-level tasks that are quick to handle, because it looks “cool” to have a lot of the boxes checked or tasks marked through.

But at the end of the day, the important tasks are often left unattended to. Sure, you may have updated your email signature, nominated a co-worker for an appreciation award and updated your profile on LinkedIn. However, the PowerPoint for your presentation needs to be ready tomorrow. The baby tasks are done, yet the most important presentation of your week has been relegated to being finished in panic mode.

The issue here is not laziness (for most). It is a lack of prioritizing. You may think that simply by making a to-do list, that you are prioritizing. But you are not. Just having stuff to do does not make you a master of your time. If you are a living, breathing human with a job and any resemblance of a family and/or social life, you have stuff to do. Join the club. The people who are productive at doing that “stuff” are the ones who prioritize. A great place to start practicing prioritization is with your to-do lists.

1) Bucket your list 

If you are not assigning some sort of importance values to items on your list to indicate their importance, the to-do list has become a laundry list of maybes. I like to write out a do list and highlight the most important, highest value-add items for the day. Other people but an “A” “B” OR “C” next to tasks to indicate which ones are most important. Find the method that works for you. Just make sure you have clearly identified what is truly most important. Time is finite, especially time for work, and your goal should be to always be completing the tasks that add the most value at that point in time.

2) Be open to change and shifting priorities

Just because something was the most important task yesterday does not mean it is the most important task today. Even though one purpose of a to-do list is to help your focus in, you still must retain the ability to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. What is the long term goal for this project? What is the strategic direction for the company? To some people, especially entry-level employees like many of us, this may seem silly. I mean, regardless of the strategic direction of the company for the next year, my boss, who writes my review, still needs this report today. That may be true, but being so zoomed in on the day-to-day tasks means that you will never be aware enough of the big picture to contribute when the discussion is surrounding the larger strategy. Anyone can be an excel king or queen. You can add the most value by handling those “smaller” tasks well AND being able to gleam clear take-aways for yourself from larger-picture discussions. Be ready to change the priorities on your list as major shifts occur in the larger scope of work.

3) Do it

This seems stupid, but has to be said. You can have the perfect to-do list: prioritized and full of  tasks that relate directly to major projects or initiatives. But if you don’t buckle down and do it, and do it in a timely manner, you have wasted your effort in even creating a list. Figure out what you need to do to block distractions. Do you need music? Do you need to hide your iPod? Do you need to install software that blocks Facebook, Twitter or Instagram ? Do you need to close your e-mail for an hour, to get a block of uninterrupted work in? Test and learn, figure it out, and watch your productivity go through the roof.

How do you prioritize your to-do lists?

Happier and More Productive Business Trips

The picture to the right is a supposedly a photo of the pool at the Wynn hotel in Vegas. Not that I could confirm– I was recently in Vegas for a week on a business trip and saw only my room and a conference hall.

The trip was very successful but incredibly busy. Being new to corporate life and business trips, I learned a lot about packing, being present during the trip, and not letting important tasks slip when people back at the office need my support. Hopefully these tips will save you some stress!

1) Ladies, bring more shoes than you think you need.

Overpacking is not usually recommended advice, but if you are a woman going on a business trip, I recommend coming prepared for anything. Suits and pumps are obvious. If you are going to be standing or walking a lot, I recommend packing multiple pairs of heels and flats. Nothing is worse not being able to focus on your job because your feet hurt. If one pair does not work, you can switch them out the next day.

2) Ask someone to take point for you back at the office. 

Trying to sort through hundreds of emails in between conference sessions  and dinners is hard and not the most productive use of your time. Before you leave for your trip, set calendar reminders for anything that absolutely must still get done, even while you are gone. You can handle these when you get back to your hotel room in the evenings.

If you know you regularly get emails from someone who asks for something ASAP, set an email rule to forward these to someone back at the office who is familiar with your work/projects. Tell them that if they think it actually is very important, to text you with the details so you can go back to that email in the evening. Anything else can wait.

3) Meet people.

I am not a huge fan of the word network- but if you are in to the buzz word thing, that would be header for this section. On business trips, I found that you are so busy, that at night it is so tempting to go to your hotel room and shower and go to sleep. Try your hardest to stick around after all of the formal events end. Many times, people will make informal plans to catch up or grab a late dinner if they have not eaten already. This is a great time to meet new people, learn more about their jobs, and make a good impression.

Here’s to successful business trips!

 

Passion in Work is Personal

I always find good articles on LinkedIn, and this one, titled, 6 Secrets That Make Successful People Insanely Productive, was no exception.

Although these articles are usually informative and well-written, a lot of them repeat the same advice that other business bloggers cover. This article was no exception. It discusses having goals, delegating, etc. It also says that successful people find work that they are passionate about.

The passion and work connection has been beaten to death. Some people agree that the most successful businessmen and businesswomen are able to work so hard to become skilled at what they do because they love what they do. The passion drives them to go above and beyond everyone else. Natalie MacNeil, an entrepreneur and author, is also a huge proponent for finding work you are passionate about.

Then, you have people who say that it iso silly to assume that someone should pay you to do something you love. Penelope Trunk falls on this side of the  debate. Trunk writes:

“You do not need to have a life full of passion. What is that life, anyway? You probably don’t even know what passion is. But if you really thought about what you were aiming for when you talk about passion and careers, eventually you’d get to the idea of engagement.”

Her primary argument is that we are really looking for work that we can engage in, whether we are passionate about what we do is largely irrelevant.

And then, there is Cal Newport’s article, where he argues that passion is developed through working your way up and learning new skills:

“When I studied people who love what they do for a living, I found that in most cases their passion developed slowly, often over unexpected and complicated paths. It’s rare, for example, to find someone who loves their career before they’ve become very good at it — expertise generates many different engaging traits, such as respect, impact, autonomy — and the process of becoming good can be frustrating and take years.”

It is a debate that has always fascinated me- who is right? Should we start off in careers, jobs or industries, hoping that the most we can hope for is to feel engaged, or hoping that we will grind it out and maybe eventually develop passion?

My main issue with Newport’s view is that he does not consider that some people do work harder when they love what they do. If you start off in a career where you feel completely disconnected from the company’s goals, you may do your job, but it will be hard to motivate yourself to do the kind of going above and beyond it takes to move up in Corporate America. When you love what you do, your passion for your company’s mission (or even your individual job duties) excites you. That excitement drives you.

I obviously am not speaking for all twenty something professionals. I am still figuring this out. But one thing I know for sure is that the worst feeling for me is apathy. I have hated jobs, so I moved on. I have loved jobs, so I worked hard. Apathy is what really gets me because it is such a paralyzing state. The thought processes I go through in a state of apathy rarely produces action: “Should I do something else, I mean I guess I am OK where I am now….”.  I am such a passion-driven person, that I hate to be in this state. This is why I always try to seek out experiences and opportunities that excite me.

Everyone is different. I don’t think anyone can make a blanket statement about whether someone should pursue passion right off the bast after graduating, or take a different approach.

Do you think we should follow our passion in work, no matter what? Let me know in the comments! I love hearing the different views on this.

When You Want the World in Your 20s

diamond richardson, personal finance, time management

photo credit: storiesof.us

You can tell a lot about a person by the blogs that they subscribe to.

I subscribe to a lot of blogs/daily newsletters: I Will Teach You to be Rich, Penelope Trunk, LearnVest Daily, Under 30 CEO and Frugal Feminista among many others.

I find that I am always drawn to good writers with blogs that cover these  subjects:

  • Money (how to handle the money I have better and make more money on the side)
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Personal development (not corporate speak personal development like seminars about your “brand”, but really knowing yourself and how you come off to others, how to find the work that is right for your personality and skills)
  • What makes successful people successful (not the work hard and get an MBA stuff, the behind the scenes information, like why most successful people work out in the morning and how they learned outside of formal education)

I am fascinated by all of these topics, and how they work together. Many of blogs I follow combine these topics. But I think the larger force behind my obsession with these topics is that I want it all: a high-powered corporate career, my own business that allows me flexibility and control over my life, the ability to be frugal, yet make enough to where I don’t have to be frugal.

But most of us at 23 don’t have enough experience and knowledge to attain any of these achievements, let alone one of them. I think about the direction my life is moving in a lot, and feel worried, hopeful, sad, motivated- sometimes all of these at the same time. I wonder if I want to go down one route over the other route. I wonder if I made the right choice by moving across the country for a job. I wonder if I should go back to school for an MBA, and if so now or later?

So many questions, and they all go back to the fact that I want it all. Our lives as twenty somethings rarely look like we thought they would.

I am finding that it is best to pick one thing. Just one. It can be a big thing- like starting your own side business, or changing careers, or finally paying off all of your debt. But pick one. It is amazing how much faster you will reach your time management, career and financial goals if you put all of your energy and effort into focusing on one at a time.

For me, that has been this blog. I have always wanted to blog regularly. I have tried and failed two times before this. For a little over a month now, I have blogged at least once/week. According to Penelope Trunk, that is a good sign! I am enjoying it. I am looking into ways to turn it into more.

One thing, see how far you can get.

Let me know what you want to really focus on in the next few months. 

 

Filing Taxes: What You Really Need to Know

Filing taxes. Two words can rarely elicit such a range of emotion in people. For some, it is a time of joyful anticipation for a return. For others, especially those who are filing for the first time, it is a time of confusion, as you wonder where you even begin.

There are tons of articles out there that can walk you through the process. But the truth is that for young adults with no kids and no home, the process is relatively simple! I would know, I recently filed my taxes for the first time. Being the personal finance junkie that I am, I read a lot about which documents I needed, which service to use and other random helpful tips. As it turns out, I over prepared! You should still seek the advice of an expert if your situation warrants it, but here are three tips I hope will help you if you haven’t even started thinking about process.

1) Papers, papers, papers- line ‘em up! 

The first step to filing taxes occurs before you even start filling anything out. You have to gather all of the documents you will need. Every situation is different, and you may need certain documents other people do not need. But here is a list to get you started:

- W2 (if you have a job)

- 1099 (if you have earned interest from money in a savings account)

- 1098 (if you have a mortgage and plan on claiming a deduction because of your mortgage interest)

- 1098-E (if you have student loans)

- Tax receipts for any charitable given you have done throughout the year.

2) Chose how you will file

I do not want this post to be a step-by-step guide to filing your taxes, because there are so many resources out there for that. Like this. And this. And this here. What I do want to make clear to you in this post is that you have options in how you choose to file your taxes. You can hire an accountant, file online using the IRS website,  or use a tax preparation service. Most 20-somethings I have dealt with have a simple enough situation to where they can use an online preparation service. If you choose this route, start filing with a few different services and see who can provide you the greatest refund. Here are a few companies you can get started with (they walk you through the process step-by-step!).

- Turbo Tax

- H&R Block

- Tax Slayer 

3) Have a plan for what to do with your return if you get one

Young professionals, especially those of us in our first few years of salaried employment, get so excited about tax returns. A hefty check? Yes, please! Most people also view a tax return as “free money,” but it is not! If you get a refund, it is because you paid the government too much in taxes throughout the year. That money would have been much better off sitting in some account where it could collect interest for you! But alas, it was not. So treat the money like money you earned, not some random, free downfall of cash. I recommend saving 80% and spending 20% on yourself. This allows you to beef up your emergency savings, pay down some debt or make a dent in some other important financial goal. Yet, with the 20%, you can still treat yourself so that you do not feel deprived. Spend your 20 on something good. Don’t waste it some place you just ended up at with your friends because you were all bored. Spend it on something that truly matters to you and makes you happy! Then you will be OK with the face that you saved most of it – you were still able to do something you enjoyed with a portion!

I plan on using my 20 to by some new work clothes and take a trip home to visit family! What do you plan on doing with your 20? 

How Do I Actually Find the Time to Read?

Don’t you hate those profiles of business leaders and entrepreneurs where the journalist asks some version of the question “What tips would you give to aspiring business leaders/entrepreneurs?” And don’t you hate that 90 percent of them mention the importance of reading. Even if they don’t mention it in direct response to that question, most high achievers credit reading somewhere in their interviews as an action that has helped them develop quickly and succeed.

You probably don’t hate it because they are being annoying or lying. If you have anything in common with numerous other young professionals I have talked to, you hate it because it reminds you that you do not read nearly as much as you should. We all know reading is good- it exposes us to new ways of thinking, educates us, expands our vocabulary and helps ups pick up new skills. Yet all of these benefits are often outweighed by the amount of time it takes to read an “entire book.” With work, travel, intramural sports, significant others, meeting up with friends, cleaning, errands and the myriad of other things we have to do, we simply don’t have time to sit down on a regular basis and read.

I see this even at the Fortune 100 company where I work! I was on a book club committee and a large part of our decision making process in deciding which book to select was picking one that was not too long, because people just “don’t have the time to read an entire book.” We are talking bout educated, intelligent people, the kind of people you would assume are avid readers. Despite this, it is still such a huge task to get a large group of professionals to even finish one book. I would estimate that only about half of the people actually completed the book for that particular book club.

As an avid reader, this should really confuse me, but I do understand where you are coming from. I love to read, but I know not everyone wants to spend their free time doing something that takes more thinking and processing. After a long day at work, you are exhausted. To many people, a book at this time sounds as about appealing as looking at Miley in those awful nude shorts.

I get it. But I know you get too that people who read are at an advantage. They are are constantly abreast of the new thought leaders in whatever genre it is they are reading about. They are able to see things from many different sides, because they have been exposed to an author’s view through the detail of a book.

There are so many personal benefits to reading too. For one, having something to talk about with your much older co-worker who you would otherwise have little in common with. There is also the ability to pick up a new skill through reading. You can also learn about opportunities you may have only read about at a surface level elsewhere (like Twitter).

So, you know you should be reading. Now how do you make the time?

1) Set a goal and keep it realistic

If you are not a regular reader, saying “I am going to read more” won’t work, and neither will committing to reading 5 books a month. Set a goal, and keep it specific, realistic and timely. One book per month is a good starting spot. It allows you to break a book up over a period of time, yet still commits you to continually reading it to make your one month deadline.

2) Download Audible

I cannot stress enough the importance of taking advantage of necessary time wasters as optimal times to read. These are things, like your commute, that you have to do, but are time wasters in the fact that you can’t accomplish anything major in the time. If you download Audible you can turn this into value-added time. Audible allows you to download books to your mobile device and listen to them! I love Audible because I am doing something useful during my commute, and avoiding the repeated loop of the same 5 songs on the radio in the morning. It’s a win-win!

3) Make it matter

If you are just reading without engaging and connecting with the material, you will not have any motivation to continue past book one. Find a way to bring what you are reading into your life. Start a blog and write your opinions on what you are reading. Join a book club. Jump in when you hear people at work discussing a book you are reading (you won’t sound stupid if you are actually reading it!).

What books are you reading, or do you plan on starting soon?

 

Three Ways Evernote Can Get You Organized (Finally!)

I am a dedicated user of many productivity apps, but Evernote has to be one of my favorites. At first glance, Evernote looks like a place to store a bunch of to do lists. Any true personal productivity enthusiast sees so much more. The thing about Evernote (and most other productivity tools) is that you can make them work for your system. You use the features of the tool that work with your life, and ignore the ones that do not. Most productivity apps are designed to make this an easy feat! Here are three ways I use Evernote to make me a more productive person:

Meal planning 

I like to eat healthy (80% of the time!), but it takes a lot of preparation and planning. If I do not work regular grocery trips and cooking time into my schedule, I can quickly slip into a habit of grabbing food out. This is expensive, and bad for that pesky little number on the scale, so I make it a point to stay on top of keeping groceries around.

This is where Evernote comes in. I get recipes from a variety of sources- browsing online, emails from friends, Facebook, etc. How do I remember where all of these recipes are when when it comes time to shop for ingredients? Evernote. Anytime I see a blog post with a recipe I want to try, I use Evernote’s web clipper function to automatically store a link to the site in my notes. Evernote has an app for your computer and phone, so anytime you update information, it is synched across all of your devices. Now, I never have to worry about tearing apart my email inbox to find a recipe from two weeks back while I am standing in the freezer aisle. It is all in the Evernote app on my phone.

Idea gathering

I am in the midst of researching for a side business launch. I am constantly reading cool things online that make me think, this would be so useful for (insert business need here). Here is a secret: the ability or inability to assimilate information at this point is critical. Most people read cool stuff and say “I need to remember that for XXX” but do not take any action to assimilate the information into some system for review later. That system, for me, is Evernote. I paste links, names, book titles, blogs, and anything else I read/hear about into a notebook about my new business. I have an alarm set and time blocked on my calendar to review this notebook in Evernote every week. This is when I turn the information into actions or to-dos. Some examples of turning this information into an action include:

  • Subscribing to any blogs on the list
  • Going on Amazon and ordering the books I noted
  • Re-reading articles I linked to and deciding whether or not the idea can be used in my business

Credit score maintenance  

I use Evernote to hold some key bill payment information. Since late payments and having accounts turned over to collections can really ravage your credit score, staying on top of when and how you pay your bills is critical.

I have notebook in Evernote titled “Bills.” This is where I keep the login information for all of my online bill accounts and the auto pay dates for all of my bills. This is helpful in two ways:

  • I rarely log into my online accounts because I have set up auto pay for most of my bills. In the rare instances that I need to log in to dispute a charge, all of my information is in one place! Because who can really remember ten bill website logins on top of work, banking and Twitter logins?
  • Seeing all of my auto pay dates in one place allows me know when money should be coming out of my account with a quick glance

Sold on Evernote yet? Let me know why or why not.

 

What Does “Living Paycheck to Paycheck” Really Mean?

budgeting, saving, paycheck, personal finance

I am always struck by articles like this TIME one that discuss the number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. The numbers are always huge. The TIME article said nearly 50% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, but I have read some articles that claim 75% or more of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

If you consider that for a minute, it seems like the journalists who wrote these stories must be exaggerating or under the influence when writing. Half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck?! Three in four Americans live paycheck to paycheck?! It seems so absurd.

No definition 

With all of the articles and buzz around this topic, what is even more absurd is that there is really no official definition for living paycheck to paycheck. Some people hear the phrase and think it means a near-poverty existence. Other people many think it means having no money in savings. For others, it may mean always running out of money before the end of the month and having to depend on credit to pull through.

Learnvest defines living paycheck to paycheck as having no emergency savings or retirement account. The TIME article refers to it as a family of four that has less than $5,887 in savings. I would argue that neither of these are correct. I think the definition of living paycheck to paycheck is dependent on your financial situation and relationship with money.

It’s about what you think it means 

Someone who lives in her hometown, and has two parents who are both well-off may not feel the pressure to build an emergency savings fund up. If times ever got that bad, she could move back home and live off of the financial support of her parents until she got back on her feet.

A freelance writer, however, may have a completely different idea of living paycheck to paycheck. Because any freelancer’s salary can swing up and down drastically, this freelance writer may not feel comfortable with less than $15,000 in an emergency savings fund. For her, this savings is a guarantee the she won’t end up homeless or without food if she does not get any assignments for a few months. Anything less than 15k in savings probably feels incredibly stressful, her definition of a paycheck to paycheck existence.

With all of the articles out there about living paycheck to paycheck, it is easy to get caught up in reading and less interested in doing. You have to take action. Define what paycheck to paycheck means for your life, income level, job, situation and personality. Then do everything in your power not to be there.

How do you define living paycheck to paycheck? 

The Solution to Broken New Year’s Resolutions

 

It’s February 1st, where have your New Year’s Resolutions gone? If you are like most people, they died recently, their death an unavoidable consequence of a lack of follow through and lack of planning.

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer because I love goals. Here are a few common ones I hear from my 20-something friends:

  • This year, I am going to save more money
  • This year, I am going to start exercising regularly
  • This year, I am finally going to get my business off of the ground

All amazing, important goals. And so inspiring! Unfortunately, they rarely pan out. There are a list of reasons for this, but many of them tie directly back to time. People think they don’t have the time to follow through on them. Let’s take the exercising goal as an example. You start the year out hitting the gym three times a week. A few weeks later, work pressures intensify and boom, your resolution dies because you are too exhausted to go to the gym after work.

Even the common resolution to save more money links back to time. Let’s think about all the ways people resolve to save more. They may decide to cut out Starbucks, dinners out and fancy haircuts/manicures. Sadly, many people find themselves shelling out for these conveniences again soon because of their perceived lack of time. It takes too much time to grocery shop, so I will keep grabbing my coffee and dinners out every day. It takes too much time to research a new hairdresser, so I’ll keep making appointments at my overpriced salon.

The perceived “lack of time” 

Your lack of time to achieve your goals is a false perception because you are looking at your day wrong. You get up in the morning and just start reacting without a plan. A “reaction” day looks something like this:

  • 7AM: Wake up, check email, see that project due date has been moved up a week. Freak out.
  • 7:30 AM: Decide you will have no time to make breakfast at home because you spent the past 30 minutes reading email, plan to grab breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to work
  • 8AM: Arrive at work and boot up computer to work, just as your sister sends you a funny YouTube video featuring the latest Kanye West interview. You watch it, go to his Twitter, realize he’s engaged to Kim Kardashian (what planet have you been on?), then decide to go creep on her Instagram. Wait, they had a baby?!
  • 8:30AM: Finally start working on project
  • 8:35 AM: Interrupted by email from co-worker asking what folder you put a file in last week
  • 8:35 AM-9:35 AM: Track down file and send to co-worker
  • 9:40AM: Old colleague emails you and asks how you are doing, you email him back, updating him on new your job
  • 10AM: Finally start working on project

I’ll stop there because I think you get it. This person woke up and immediately started reacting to her day. No operating systems were set in place. No plans were made. She was literally a victim to whatever life threw at her.

Someone with a plan and systems for how her day runs would have had a much different morning:

  • She would have known she is awful about checking emails in the morning, so she would not put work email on her phone.
  • She would have woken up earlier to get a workout in.
  • She would block time out on the weekends to grocery shop so she could buy quick breakfast items, like bars or bananas, that she could grab on the go.
  • She would have put her phone on Do Not Disturb at work so that she could have dove head first into the big project without being distracted by that text from her sister.
  • She would have blocked email alerts for an hour to get an uninterrupted chunk of work done.

These little actions and plans are called personal operating systems and they are what separate successful people from everyone else. People with personal operating systems plan ahead, and set their lives up to accommodate what needs to get done. They realize that life will throw curve balls (like the earlier project due date), but they simply intensify their use of productivity hacks and tools to get it done.

How can this work in your life?

If you can even change your mindset to think about the stuff you do day in and day out as a part of a system, you have made an important step. The next step would be figuring out the most effective way to operate that system. I can help you lay that out. An easy first action is to start keeping a record of what your day actually looks like. Then start marking the time that is wasted or adds no value. Figure out what you can do to change that. I can help there too.

Look, I am not saying that you should operate like a robot. In fact, I am advocating for the exact opposite. By planning your day and supporting it with a system, you are spending time on the things that are important to you. You can get more done during your workday so that you actually can leave at 5. Then you have time to get a workout in, have dinner with your boyfriend/girlfriend, and read a chapter of that book that has been sitting around. Fun and relaxation are a major part of your planned time and an operating system for your day will help make sure you actually get to have both!