My 4HWW Tools: Remember the Milk (Review)

I stumbled across this amazingly simple, yet highly useful tool the other day and I was eager to share it here.  You would almost think Google created it given its simple yet powerful abilities, but it’s actually BETTER than something Google already offers.  It’s called Remember The Milk – essentially, it’s a free online to-do list.  If you’re thinking “online task lists are a dime-a-dozen,” definitely keep reading, because you’re wrong about this one.

Remember The Milk (“RTM”) allows you to add items to a to-do list, assign due dates, and categorize the items on your list.  Currently, I have separate to-do lists for work and my personal life.  Most of the time, I jot these things down on sticky notes (actual sticky notes, not a computer program), but that’s a good way to become disorganized and lose track of what you need to be doing.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten to do something because a sticky note lost its adhesive and fell onto the floor or slipped underneath my laptop.

There are also a lot of times when I’m blogging or looking around online to come up with business ideas and I think of things that never make it down onto “paper.”  I know there are loads of software and web applications that allow you to make to-do lists, but they’re never handy for me. I forget to keep software open, and sometimes I don’t think to go to a certain website to check whatever is on my list.

That’s why I think one of coolest RTM features is that it allows you to integrate its application with Gmail.  Let’s take a look at the varying interfaces.  First, here’s what its main website platform looks like:

Aside from inputting the task itself, you can also include notes, due dates, recurrences, time estimate, location, URL, and even see how many times you’ve postponed a task.

The simple interface is what makes it simple and easy to use, but the extra services they allow you integrate RTM with is what makes it powerful.  The biggest problem with task list websites is that you are usually never on the website to see your tasks. Without an email or text message reminder, you likely forget to do the task.  This is why Gmail integration of RTM is what sold me – I can always see my tasks in Gmail, which I generally have open 24/7.  Here’s a look at what the task interface looks like in Gmail:

As you can see, the task list sits on the right side of your screen, and you can hover over any task to see the details.  You can view any task list (or all of your task lists) and organize them by name or due date.  You might be thinking, “Doesn’t Gmail already have a Tasks feature?”  Yes, but it’s very limited and doesn’t have much flexibility.

If you’re looking for even more, RTM offers other types of integration.  Here’s a list of other things you can do with it:

  • Integration with iPhone (app can only be used on “Pro” version, which is about $2/month)
  • Also integration with Android, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile PDAs (Pro version)
  • Integration with Twitter
  • Integration with Google Calendar
  • Integration with Google Maps (Use the map to see where your tasks are located in the real world – see what’s nearby or on your way, and plan the best way to get things done.)
  • Lots more (see the list here)

Ultimately, I think using a tool like this can save you a ton of time with getting organized at work, in your own business, or in your personal life.  I plan to start using it regularly, and hopefully get rid of these awful sticky notes.

Bits and Pieces: Update on Work Life, Addressing Hypocrisy

I’m about two weeks away from surviving a very busy tax season, excited to finally get closer to my goals that I laid out when I started this blog.  If you recall, I started this blog in January, right around the time when work started getting extremely busy for me. 
 
It’s come to my attention that this blog, so far, is indeed the perfect example of hypocrisy, and I’m not afraid to admit that fact.  With a title like “My 4 Hour Workweek,” you might expect me to still be working the 40 hour per week grind, but certainly not 80 hours per week.  After all, I might as well rename this blog, “My 4 Hour Workweek x 20.”  I don’t think that name is as catchy.
 
It’s a frustrating position to be in, because I feel like I have a lot of great ideas in the pipeline, including a host of things I’d like to write about.  I’m still trying to squeeze in time to complete my current “30-day challenge” but it’s shaping up to be more like a 60-day challenge in terms of actual time elapsed. 

To put a positive spin on all of this, I think these busy and somewhat stressful times are actually fuel for the fire.  Without an adverse perspective on my current work life, I wouldn’t be as motivated to improve it.  Best of all, I still think that this blog will be the roadmap for anyone in my position, (hopefully) showing that the transition is possible – to go from a job you dislike or are not interested in, to something more enjoyable and rewarding.

Most of the time, you only read or hear about successful people long after they’ve achieved their success, but you rarely see an actual, firsthand account of how they got there.  Now, I don’t know for sure if I’ll ever be really successful, but if I am, you can be sure it’ll be captured here.  Hopefully this will inspire those of you who are currently in my position.

Batching & Automation Challenge, Day 5: Household Chores

[Introduction to the Challenge] [Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3] [Day 4]

There’s a fine line between batching your household chores and being viewed as a dirty, lazy slob.  You don’t want to repeat tasks too often, but at the same time, things get a little too dirty if you don’t do them often enough.  The household chores I have in mind specifically include:

  • Laundry
  • General cleaning (vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the bathroom, etc.)
  • Washing dishes

I’m struggling to figure out exactly what the optimal increments of time are between each repetition of the above tasks.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Laundry

I’m not terribly concerned with laundry piling up as long as it’s confined to a basket of some sort, or hidden away in a closet.  The limiting factor here is the quantity of clothes you have available, as I’m assuming you wouldn’t want to rewear dirty clothes.  Historically, I’ve done my laundry once per week, usually on a Saturday or Sunday.  I’m starting to find, however, that I can go two weeks, but probably not three, between each batch of laundry.

Because my apartment complex has a laundry room that contains several washers and dryers, I can do two loads of laundry at the same time, thereby cutting my time spent on laundry in half.  If I had more clothes, I would absolutely try to stretch this to three weeks.  If one load of laundry per week takes about 40 minutes of my time (20 minutes of moving things to and from the washer and dryer, 20 minutes of folding clothes and putting them away), I would guess that doing two loads at once probably takes me 50 minutes.  The washer and dryer time is close to the same, and I think folding laundry and putting it away is something that takes me awhile to start, but picks up speed as I go (so a 2nd load only is only an additional 10 minutes).

By the way – when I used to do one load of laundry, I would never separate colors from whites.  Now, I probably can.

General Cleaning

When I clean my apartment is more a function of how much free time I have – it’s not based on any sort of schedule.  During this time of year where I have little to no free time, the cleanliness of my apartment suffers.  Therefore, I don’t think there is any sort of measurable time savings by batching here (for me).  Granted, you can always wait longer to clean, and you will always save time.  If you clean once per week, try cleaning every once every 10-14 days.  You’ll probably find that you’re spending less time cleaning over the course of a year, and the cleanliness of your apartment or house probably won’t suffer as much as you think.  If cleaning your house takes you an hour and you do it once per week, you can easily save 52 hours per year by stretching it to once every two weeks.

Washing Dishes

This is something I already batch, but it deserves mention.  If you have a dish washing machine, don’t run it until the machine is full.  If you do your dishes by hand, wait until the sink is relatively full.  A full sink looks dirty, but as long as you don’t let it pile too high, I don’t think it’s all that bad.  I’m sure my girlfriend is strongly disagreeing with me if she’s reading this.  Washing dishes is an easy activity to batch.  Again, this is something I’ve done for a long time, so I won’t accumulate any time savings here.

Time Savings

It looks like laundry is where I’ll find my only measurable time savings.

  • Estimated time spent doing laundry once per week: 40 minutes/week (160 minutes per month)
  • Estimated time spent doing laundry once per two weeks: 50 minutes per two weeks (100 minutes per month)
  • Monthly time savings: About 1 hour

I think batching household chores in general will save you much more than one hour per month, but that time savings is very difficult to measure given the many variables involved.  

If you have any more suggestions for batching or automating your household chores, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Batching & Automation Challenge, Day 4: Automating Your Finances

[Introduction to the Challenge] [Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3]

I’ve already discussed automating and batching the monitoring of my finances with Mint.com (Day 1), but that’s more for just keeping track of your account balances.  One thing I (surprisingly) have not done yet is automate my bills completely.  Here’s a list of my bills that require periodic (usually monthly) payments, and I’ve noted which items I’ve already set up to automatically charge my checking account:

  1. Credit card (#1)
  2. Credit card (#2)
  3. Credit card (#3)
  4. Student Loan (already automated)
  5. Cable/internet bill
  6. Electric bill
  7. Gas bill
  8. Gym membership (already automated)
  9. 401(k) (not a bill, but it’s an account that requires a periodic payment, which I’ve already automated) 
  10. Rent
  11. Cell phone bill (already automated)

Let’s break down the steps to achieve this “day” of the challenge:

1) Make a list of every periodic payment that you make, as I have done, and note which items are not currently automated.

2) Batch the process of setting up automatic payments (i.e. just sit down one afternoon and do them all at once, since I know this something for which people will procrastinate).

3) Use Mint.com to monitor your account balances to insure that no payments will cause your checking account to be overdrafted.  If possible, see if your checking account has overdraft protection available.  Wherever possible, set your automatic payments to be paid for via credit card, to avoid the issue of overdrafts.   

4) Eliminate paper statements.  Nothing is a bigger waste of time than having more mail to sift through, only to find envelopes that you generally open to file away or throw away.  Maybe you glance through your credit card statement briefly, but you probably never look at it again unless you run into problems.  Wherever possible, elect to receive your statements online.  Storing them electronically allows you to keep them indefinitely without taking up physical space.  Also, you never need to worry about losing statements.  Overall, it’s less clutter, which is better for your life.

Most bills that allow you to pay electronically should give you the option to set up automatic payments.  For certain recurring expenses, like rent, you may not have that option.  For expenses where you can’t easily set up automatic payments, you can use something called “bill pay” offered by most banks and credit card companies.  I would first check to see if your bank allows for free bill pay, and if not, find a bank that does.  In reality, you shouldn’t need to switch banks – most banks have accounts available that offer free bill pay.  They don’t want to lose you as a customer, so be sure to let your bank representative know that this is an important feature for you.

Time Savings:

  • Estimated time spent paying bills manually: 1.5 hours/month
  • Estimated time spent paying bills automatically, after initial setup: 0 hours/month
  • Monthly time savings: 1-2 hours

Think of the initial setup as an investment in your future free time.  Spend an hour or two today to save you a lot more time each month in the future.  Time savings aside, automatic payments will allow you to NEVER have a late payment and incur late payment fees ever again.

Have any other tips to automate your finances?  Please share them in the comments!

Batching & Automation Challenge, Day 3: The DVR

[Introduction to the Challenge] [Day 1] [Day 2]

Day 3 is going to be fairly simple, because if you own a DVR (digital video recorder), you are probably already using it.  I’d like to go through a vey specific way that I use it, which encompasses some batching and automation.

Watching TV is enjoyable, but it’s never a top priority.  The introduction of the DVR (although we had VHS tapes years ago) has allowed us to move “watching TV” further down on our list of priorities while still allowing us to never miss a show.  In my opinion, if you own a DVR, you should NEVER watch live TV except for sports and news (or any other live event that only makes sense to watch live).

The fact of the matter is, commercials take up roughly 30% of your viewing time, and unless it’s during the Super Bowl, you probably aren’t really focused on the commercials.  If we’re going to batch things in order to save us time, TV should be added to the list.

Every show you enjoy watching should be set to record on your DVR, and you should be watching your shows in batches.  For example – I enjoy watching the show 24 and The Office.  Even if I have free time, I prefer to watch these shows without commercial interruption.  In one hour, I’m able to watch 90 minutes of TV.

The more you watch TV, the greater effect this has on your life and free time (although I’m betting that if you watch a lot of TV, you have a fair amount of free time).  According to a recent Nielson report covering the last three months of 2008, TV viewing is at an all time high.  The average American viewer watches 151 hours of TV per month!  If we assume that all of it is live TV (and excludes sports, which is probably not a realistic assumption),  that’s 45 hours of wasted time EVERY month! 540 hours per year.  That number floors me, especially because I don’t see how people have enough free time to get through 151 hours of TV per month and I don’t think I even like enough TV shows to cover that amount time. 

Time Savings

  • Estimate of current time spent watching TV (including commercials): 10 hours/week (40 hours/month)
  • Estimated time spent using DVR: 7 hours/week (28 hours/month)
  • Monthly time savings: 10-15 hours

The big flaw here is that once baseball season begins, I’ll be watching a lot of live TV.  

Batching & Automation Challenge, Day 2: Grocery Shopping

[Click here to read the challenge introduction post.]

I’ve used this example before, but allow me to go into greater detail.  Grocery shopping is something we all do, mostly out of necessity.  Personally, I enjoy grocery shopping, but it’s often a huge inconvenience.

If you work a typical, busy work week, you probably do your grocery shopping on Saturdays or Sundays.  Guess what?  So does everyone else.  If you’ve ever been grocery shopping on a weekend afternoon, you understand what I’m talking about.  The parking lot is filled.  The store is filled with shuffling carts, blocking aisles and slowing you down.  Between finding a parking spot, navigating the store, and waiting in line to check out, grocery shopping on a weekend afternoon can easily double the time it takes you to do your shopping.

In order batch this activity and have work effectively, I propose the following adjustments to my (and your) grocery shopping plans:

1) The obvious adjustment – batch your grocery shopping.  Instead of grocery shopping once per week, grocery shop once per month (or once every two weeks if you can’t quite get once per month to work).

2) Do your grocery shopping on a weeknight.  This may feel like the least convenient time, but one hour on a Wednesday night could save you 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon.  Wouldn’t you rather have that extra free time on a Saturday?

3) Plan your list before you go.  This is a classic grocery shopping tip, but I find myself failing to do this almost every time I go shopping.  By making a list, you can make adjustment #1 work for you more effectively.  Without a plan, you have a harder time calculating the food necessary for an entire month.  If you spend 10-15 minutes creating your list, you can more accurately plan your grocery shopping trip and can more easily get what you need to last you (and your family) an entire month.  “But Eric, couldn’t I save 10-15 minutes if I don’t bother making a list?”  Nonsense.  By making a list, you can move in and out of each aisle quicker and probably save yourself more than the time it took to make the list.  One last benefit of making a list – you save yourself from spending money on impulse purchases (or at least make it less likely).

4) Consider a membership at Costco or Sam’s Club.   If you’re going to be batching your grocery shopping, it may make sense to take advantage of quantity discounts by buying your groceries in bulk.

 Time Savings

  • Estimate of current time spent grocery shopping (including travel time to and from the store): 1 hour/week (4 hours/month)
  • Estimated time spent with above grocery shopping plan: 1.5 hours/month
  • Monthly time savings: 2-4 hours

There is some cost savings inherent in this grocery shopping plan as well, but it would be too diffcult to calculate with any accuracy.




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