Bits & Pieces and 30-Day Challenge Update

No big topics for today, but just a few bits & pieces that I’d like to share:

  • I tried out Strategy #3, Trick #1 from my Illusion of Work post yesterday.  Worked like a charm.  I put my coat into my bag, carried my bag by the handles (rather than draping the strap over my shoulder), and walked out at 4:00 with few (or perhaps no one) noticing.  I completed my tasks for the day and definitely wouldn’t have done much between 4:00 and 5:00 – why should anyone care?
  • Freelance Folder lists 12 reasons you shouldn’t freelance/”work from home.”  While I agree you shouldn’t go into your own business specifically for all these reasons, you can achieve many of these (making more money, having more free time, etc.) as a result, and they are motivating factors.  I’m thinking Tim Ferriss would mostly disagree with this article.
  • Tomorrow I’m going to take my first crack at a real “muse”/business brainstorming session.  I probably won’t come back and post specific ideas that I think of, but I’ll give a general overview of how it went and what I think my next steps are.  At some point, I will follow along with The 4-Hour Workweek, starting with Chapter 1.

Here’s a look at the current status of the challenge as of yesterday:

30-Day Challenge Update – Day 3 (1/28):

Groceries:                           $ 3.40
Dinner:                                 10.20
Day 3 Total                        $13.60

30-Day Challenge Expense Total: $37.35

“Allowed” Expenses Remaining $462.65

Overall, I feel like I’m doing okay.  My $500 limit leaves me an average spending allowance of $16.67 per day, and I’ve only averaged $12.45/day so far.  With the weekend coming up, I think I’m up against the most difficult part of the challenge.  To paraphrase my girlfriend, “I’m going to blow your challenge to pieces.” Yikes.

The Illusion of Work

Today, we’re faced with a problem that most people fail to see as a problem.  The average American employee’s work day is often structured around a given time frame rather than a given task or set of tasks.  At some point in history, society decided that 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (give or take 30 minutes on either end) would be the standard template for a work day, whether it made sense or not.  This is an issue Tim Ferriss has ranted about in his book [pg. 75-76].

It’s an issue that compounds over time.  If you start a business serving clients that consist of other businesses, and you want to create a non-standard work day for your employees, it’s difficult.  After all, every business you serve is working 9 to 5.  If your employees work 6 am – 2 pm, or *gasp*, a time period that contains less than 8 hours, you wind up working a good chunk of your day during a time when your clients are absent.  So what else can you do but make “9 to 5” the standard practice?

I’m not saying “9 to 5” never makes sense.  There are definitely many cases where it makes perfect sense, which is probably one reason it’s a popular work day time frame.  However, I want to examine potential problems with this structure:

1) Horrible inefficiency.  A 4 hour task may be spread across 8 hours because the employee knows he or she is unable to leave before 5:00pm, and just wants to stay busy. 

2) The employee misses outside opportunities due to the rigidity of this time frame.  Anything between 9 and 5 is off the table unless the employee forgoes pay or depletes his paid time off.  This often offsets the perceived value of the outside opportunity.

3) Opportunity cost is high.  This is closely tied with #1-2 above.  Think of how much more innovation and production would exist if every company threw away the traditional work day and made the work day project or task-based.  You would only be working if you’re producing.  Everyone needs time to not work – you shouldn’t be forced to use your “free” time in the confines of work.

At the risk of this blog post becoming an economics discussion, let’s look at some quick strategies for mitigating the “9 to 5” trap.

1) Negotiate a remote work arrangement.  This is the obvious, logical option if it exists.  Tim Ferris has some great ideas that he explains in depth about how to negotiate a remote work arrangement when it doesn’t seem like an option [Chapter 12].  I’ll boil it down to one sentence: Start out small by asking for a temporary remote work arrangement, prove you can deliver the same or better results compared to if you worked in the office, and turn it into a more permanent arrangement.

2) Trim a little off the top.  Have you ever gotten a haircut where you had your barber or stylist just trim a little off the top, and no one even noticed that you got a haircut?  Okay, maybe you’ve never done that, but assume you’re familiar with it for the sake of this analogy.  Not all of us have the desire to work from home – we simply want a little bit more free time in our day.

Trick #1: Make the effort to leave work 10 minutes early each day or arrive 10 minutes later.  If your normal time is 5:30, leave at 5:20 (obviously, all of this applies more to salaried workers than hourly workers).  If you trim 10 minutes each day, you will have saved 42 hours of work over the course of a year, assuming you work 50 weeks in a year.  It’s like you just bought yourself an extra week off (except that you can’t go on vacation with it!).  Obviously, if we can increase this to 20 or 30 minutes, the value of that free time increases for us.

Trick #2: If your work uses Outlook or another shared calendar application, add periodic “meetings” to the beginning or end of your day so that you leave yourself the option to arrive late or leave early without worrying that someone will schedule a meeting with you.

3) Maintain the illusion of work. What if you were to leave work 10 minutes early, but no one actually noticed you leaving?  Would it ever have a negative impact on you (assuming you have nothing scheduled during that time)?  Probably not.  Most of the time, someone who produces poor results but is seen leaving work at 6:00 looks like a significantly better/harder worker than someone with excellent results who leaves at 4:30.  How did the illusion of work become more important than actual work itself?

Trick #1: Somehow, we need to mask our departure from work.  This won’t work 100% of the time, but if you leave work at 4:50 and no one attempts to talk to you until 5:30, they won’t know what time you left, nor will it matter.  Here’s what I propose: Conceal or eliminate your “leaving work” signals.  In my case, if it’s winter, I’m seen putting on my jacket and draping my laptop bag strap over my shoulder.  Obviously, I’m next seen walking out with this outfit in place.

What if I walked out without any of this?  Most wouldn’t think I’m leaving.  I might be going to the bathroom or to another floor of the building to pick something up.  The challenging part is, how do I get my bag and jacket?  In my building, there are empty cubicles on other floors that have closets with electronic locks (where the code can be set and lock reused by anyone).  If I simply put my jacket and bag here, retrieve it at the end of the day, and leave from this area (where I’m not around anyone who I work with), I’ve accomplished my goal.

Trick #2: Create the illusion of work after you’re gone.  During the day, don’t reply to a few non-urgent email that you might receive.  At 8 pm, from home, log into your work email and reply to the email.  This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes if you pick the right email.  Viola – the recipients will assume you’re still working, or will view you as a hard worker for taking the time out of your evening to reply to work email.  This may seem cheap and insignificant, but if others are going to value the illusion of work, you have no choice but to exploit it.

Remember, with all of the above strategies, we are assuming you are still producing at least adequate results.  The moment your work product begins to suffer, you’re doing something wrong.  Also, the execution of these strategies will certainly vary depending on where you work and how you’re compensated.

Does anyone else have good strategies to exploit the illusion of work?  Feel free to share them in the comments.
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30-Day Challenge Update – Day 2 (1/27):

Haircut + tip                                $20.00
Gevalia Coffee Promotion               3.00
Parking                                           0.75 
Day 2 Total                                 $23.75

30-Day Challenge Expense Total:  $23.75

“Allowed” Expenses Remaining   $476.25

Wasting Time with Communication

I came across a nice article from Inc.com that I think shares some valuable information about time management.

To sum up the entire article in one sentence: We waste a ton of time by overcommunicatating things.

Those who have read The 4-Hour Workweek may remember that Tim Ferriss sets up autoresponders and manages much of his communication by conditioning people to only contact him with matters that are important and relevant to him [pg. 96-98 in the expanded edition].  Ferriss describes e-mail consumption and production as “the greatest single interruption in the modern world.”

Those of us who aren’t self-employed have a little bit less flexibility in how we handle our communication.  After all, if it’s part of your corporate culture to have email response times of under an hour, what are you going to do?  It’s hard to control how other people communicate with you (though over time, you can condition them by how you handle your response to them), but you can fight half the battle by controlling your own communication.

Before sending an email or setting up a meeting, it behooves you to consider the following questions:

  1. Who actually needs to know the content of this email or needs to participate in this meeting?  These are the people you contact.
  2. Who are the people not really a part of the project or task, but maybe they’d like to know what’s going on anyway?  Unless these people really have a role, eliminate their names from your list.
  3. Are there questions that I anticipate receiving by sending this email?  If so, answer the questions before they are asked.  Eliminate the back and forth communication.
  4. Use the “if…then” structure.  For example: “Do you have time to update the projections for me by the end of the tomorrow?  If so, please go ahead and email me to confirm when you have completed this task.  If not, please delegate this to someone who has time and have them contact me when the task is complete.”  The key is to eliminate follow-up email when it can be prevented beforehand [see pg.102 in the expanded edition].

Not only does unnecessary communication waste the time of the recipient or participant, but you waste time if you need to get people up to speed on what you’re saying.  Phrases like “for those of you who aren’t involved…” and “in case you were curious…” shouldn’t be necessary.

Stop wasting your time.
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30-Day Challenge Update – Day 1 (1/26): I’m off to a good start.  No money spent on day 1!

The 30-Day Expense Elimination Challenge

To kick off my first “project” with respect to lifestyle design is something that I think many people overlook as they try to improve personal cash flow – expense control.

This is fairly obvious from a business perspective – it’s one of the first places most businesses look as they attempt to improve their bottom line.  It amazes me how people can be so meticulous with expense control for business operations, and simultaneously act with such neglect for their own personal finances.

I’m going to start by taking my monthly budget, which lists the general things I spend money on each month, and remove all “fixed” expenses.  This primarily includes:

  • Rent
  • Utilities (assume fixed for purposes of this challenge)
  • Gym membership
  • Cell phone usage
  • Student loan repayment

What does this leave me with?  The big remaining expenses include:

  • Restaurant/”eating out” expenses
  • Groceries
  • “Going out” expenses (i.e. alcohol)
  • Gas (for my car)
  • Parking expenses
  • Other misc. purchases

Looking at the my actual vs. budget results for the past three months (I will explain how I do my budget in a later post), the average monthly cost of the above non-fixed items has been approximately $1,400.

This feeling is a familiar one.  You feel like your daily expenses are normal and reasonable.  You’re not dropping $500 at bars on a nightly basis (sure, some of you are – but you probably aren’t reading this blog).  You’re not buying a new computer or 50″ plasma tv each week.  Yet every month, you read your credit card statement and wonder, “Where did all of this money go?”  It’s an easy question to answer, because the credit card companies provide the details, but you feel better filing the statement away without reading it.

This brings us to: The 30-Day Expense Elimination Challenge.  Ideally, we shouldn’t have to care about this.  True lifestyle design doesn’t mean cutting out things you enjoy.  You want to be adding to your enjoyment.  However, if you haven’t yet begun finding a way to automate your cash flow (as I haven’t) and you want to increase the cash available for whatever you do enjoy, you probably need to trim expenses somewhere.

In some ways, this is very much a “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” exercise.  The goal isn’t to end the 30 days living in a cardboard box on the street living off garbage scraps.  This scenario would leave you saving most of your income, but also would likely make you suicidal in the process.  My goal is to cut back on everything possible in order to find a couple things that I can realistically cut back on beyond the 30-day period.

Example: I love to eat grilled sandwiches from Panera for lunch.  A sandwich and a drink from here might set me back $7 or $8.  During these 30 days, I will attempt to make my own sandwiches the night before on my George Foreman grill and will reheat them at work.  The bread, cheese, and meat might set me back $10, but will probably amount to five or more sandwiches.  That’s easily $25 you’re saving in one work week (and $100/month for those who don’t like math).  Of course, that assumes you eat out everyday.

I know none of this is revolutionary to you.  Everyone knows that packing a lunch is cheaper than going out for lunch.  The challenging part is having the discipline to stick to it.  We tend to do things out of habit, whether we enjoy them or not.  Going out to eat for lunch is more enjoyable than packing a lunch, but if packing a lunch became a habit for you, would you really feel like you’re “missing” enjoyment?

Perhaps after 30 days, I won’t cut eating out for lunch completely, but I may trim it down from 4 days a week to 1 or 2 days a week.  Food is only one example, and maybe the largest, but I think this exercise will shed light on other things you typically spend money on without really thinking.

The Challenge: As of tomorrow, 1/26/2010 through 2/25/2010, my goal is to spend no more than $500 on all variable expenses (so, everything excluding the fixed expenses I’ve listed above).

Rules

  1. Things like gift cards don’t count against the $500 limit.  I have a few restaurant gift cards from the holidays that I may or may not use during these 30 days.
  2. I’m not starting with a clean slate – my refridgerator has some food in it, my car has some gas in it.  I didn’t load up on anything before today, but this is just what I have right now, and it can be used without taking into account how much it was originally purchased for.
  3. Freebies are freebies.  If lunch or dinner is provided for me at work and I don’t have to spend money to eat, it’s allowed.

It’s a cash flow challenge, so we are only concerned with cash that is actually spent during these 30 days.  Obviously there are flaws with this, but I’m trying to keep this challenge as simple as possible.  I haven’t decided if I will do daily updates or simply update whenever I feel the need to, but feel free to play along.  The more valuable piece will probably be at the end, to see if I’ve learned anything from all of this.




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