Living in an eternally-connected world is great in a lot of ways. Getting in touch with someone instantly, or being just a click or tap away from knowing what’s happening in distant parts of the world, is an incredible power we all now wield without thought. Studies have claimed that your average citizen with a smartphone has more access to information than the President had in 1980, and I’m inclined to believe them.
The problem is that when we have access to so much information, it becomes too easy to lose focus. Daniel Goleman, in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, argues that we are crippling our productivity because we have such limited focus. Can you read this article from beginning to end without glancing at Facebook, text messages, or email? Have you already lost focus?
I can tell you that I’m no exception to this rule. Even while writing this article, text messages have interrupted my train of thought, transporting me elsewhere. Hyper-connected technology is like a CandyLand for our minds; lots of shiny objects and distractions with little preventing us from devouring more and more.
It’s a struggle for me these days to stay focused and disciplined. Sometimes I think back on when I was a kid (wow, I must be getting old), when we were all less connected. When fewer people had smartphones, you often called people and wound up getting their voicemail unless they happened to be home. Need to pick your kid up from soccer practice? There’s no texting them to see if they’re done; they don’t have a phone. You’ll just have to remember the time and go at the appropriate point. And don’t count on turn-by-turn directions to tell you how to get there if they had to use a different field today. You need to figure that out from memory, a map (as in, a paper one), or maybe MapQuest if you have an internet connection… at home, on your desktop computer.
Like other problems people in first-world societies have, we all want a one-size-fits-all solution. Just look at how “personalities” (as they’re called) like Dave Ramsey approach fixing your personal finance woes: follow my advice and you’ll be debt free soon and wealthy soon after! Or how Tony Robbins approaches becoming rich: read my books and attend my expensive seminars and you’ll be just as “successful” as me! (Successful is in quotes here because the underlying implication is that we all measure success by our bank accounts and social status).
Dave has some good tips for how to manage money, don’t get me wrong, and I don’t have anything against Tony Robbins personally. But with how different people’s personalities are, with the many factors that could impact their decision-making and personal situation, you can’t come to the conclusion that there’s a trusted, proven set of steps that result in becoming successful, however we are to measure that.
Take me for example. Dave tells me to chop up my credit cards, build a $1000 emergency fund, pay off all my debts from smallest balance to largest balance (he says the psychological wins matter more than the interest rates), make a bigger emergency fund when I’m done with the debt “snowball,” invest in mutual funds and real estate with all the money I’m saving, and spend the rest of my life making lots of money.
This is probably an easier thing to accomplish if your income is high to begin with, or if you don’t have $100,000 of debt to try and manage (like me), the vast majority of which is student loans. As it is, I get by well enough, but not in a pay-$100,000-of-debt-off-in-a-year kind of “quite well.”
Dave has some good points in his baby steps to wealth, don’t get me wrong. If you’re going to use a credit card (for discounts at some stores and cash back at others), you should certainly be doing it to actually utilize the benefits of the card, you should certainly pay it off every week, and you certainly should not do it to buy something you couldn’t buy with the money in your checking account right now. Splitting things up into payments, especially with interest on top, is a ludicrous way businesses have us all convinced that we can afford things we can’t, because unless that thing you put on payments is real estate, it is 100% guaranteed to lose value. Sure you can “afford” the monthly payments (and by that I mean “barely pay them on time”), but a much more responsible way of managing money is to think like this: if you can’t afford to buy it outright, you can’t afford it period.
Long story short, the problem isn’t really the credit cards; it’s the lack of self control people have when using the credit card. Some people bring in a good amount of money and have nothing to show for it; others bring in little to no money and have even less to show for it. Why? We’ve been taught to put things on payments, because “Greed is good,” as Gordon Gekko would say, because marketing tells us we need to buy first and think second.
Anyway, doing some easy math, I’ve figured that Dave’s debt snowball method will take me about five years to accomplish. My fiancee and I are well on our way, but should we really wait five years before we do any saving or investing outside of that first $1000? Dave says “focused intensity” will get us out faster. I can eat ramen every day and double my debt snowball’s size, and it’ll still take me two-and-a-half years to pay off that debt load, which I have no interest in doing. Yes, I want to be debt-free, but I also don’t want to be miserable for years on end. I don’t think any financial advisor would tell me I should wait five years before saving or investing, so I’ve started doing both now. That way, those numbers start to compound while I hack away at the debt pile.
Really, the solution for me is to do the debt snowball, but with some caveats involving saving, investing, and building a more lucrative career to accelerate the other elements in my financial life. Dave had good advice, but it’s not the exact, perfect solution for me. It might be for you, and it might not. I’d give it a look anyway on his website, but tailor it to your needs, don’t follow blindly.
Teaching good time management is a similar beast. I wish I could tell you I knew a secret way to manage your time better, but I don’t. For some of you, setting up a calendar that you strictly follow that alots for personal time, family time, and blocked-off productive time with no social media distractions is a good solution. For others, maybe limiting your distractions will make a difference, but setting up the schedule would be such a chore and you’ll have such a hard time following it that it’ll do little more than stress you out. There’s certainly scientific research proving that regardless of age and gender, we are all very bad at multitasking, so I would certainly recommend doing one thing at a time, but beyond that, all bets are off. Your personality is likely not the same as mine (I’m an INTJ, if you’ve done a Myers-Briggs test), so the method that will make you most efficient with your time is almost guaranteed to differ from my optimal approach.
For me, I think building a consistent routine is important, because if I don’t, I’m anxiously thinking about how I haven’t been productive enough all day long. If I spend one part of the day focusing on writing or coding without interruption, another part knocking out errands or looking for writing and software jobs, and still another relaxing and enjoying my life, I’ll likely come out ahead. But that might not apply to you.
Better advice than “do this, it’s the perfect solution” is to consider how others approach a problem you face, try it, and if it works, keep doing it. If not, try something else. Stephen King’s advice regarding how to write novels, in his fantastic On Writing book, is this sort of advice. Nowhere in it does King say “this is exactly how to write and be as successful as me.” He tells you the reader that this is his method: come up with an interesting setting, interesting characters, and mash them together and make them interact. Write 2000 words a day, every day, even on holidays, letting the characters drive the story instead of building a planned-out plot in advance. Maybe it will work for you, maybe it won’t. Hell, he even points out that other writers don’t do this and make great books; J.R.R. Tolkien planned out every word of The Lord of the Rings before writing a single chapter, and King loves the Rings trilogy. Every writer writes at a different pace, and has a different way to drive the story all the way to its conclusion.
The problem with managing your time, your money, your relationships, your career, anything in life, is of course that you and you alone can find the solution, and while it’s all well and good to listen to advice, there’s no magic answer to any of these problems. We as humans love to blame the economy, the government, our family, our boss, or whoever the best scapegoat is for our problems, but ultimately the problem is our own to solve. A minor change in the effective tax rate is not going to make or break you; going out to eat every night will have far more effect on your bank account than any President will. Since Facebook is designed to be easy to scroll through and get lost in, it’s easy to blame Facebook for killing our focus. But ultimately it’s you who clicked on the app icon and started scrolling, which means you need to find a way to stop letting it distract you when focus is what you need in the moment.
It is personal responsibility, then, that we must learn in order to manage our problems, not how to blame others or how to follow a multi-step, perfectly-designed program someone made up. That’s the cold, hard truth that self-help books and seminars aren’t going to tell you.
But in reality, what does that mean? That means that Dave Ramsey or Tony Robbins does not hold the keys to your financial and career success. You do. The bozos in Congress and the White House don’t control your life. You do. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, you-name-it doesn’t manage your time. You do.
You are in control, and you can make the right choices and the right changes to make your life amazing. And that’s way better than any other scenario could be.