Correcting Priorities: Debt-Reduction = Means Not End

My “flower garden” never happened this summer. Sadly neglected.

It was brought home to me pretty powerfully this past week that I’ve allowed things to get out of alignment. My summer of teaching summer school, of accommodating DH’s off-the-chart business, of starting home-office renovations, and of aggressive de-cluttering – all very good things – has taken its toll. My focus got distorted, and important  areas of my life have suffered – my poor un-launched “flower garden” above symbolizing that sad neglect. A change is clearly needed.

My 20-year-old diary

Here’s a random fact: I kept diaries from the age of 10 to 25. There’s a stash of them that have remained essentially untouched in my closet for years – decades now – and this week, I pulled one out fairly randomly. It opened to the summer of 1983 when I was twenty years old. I had just finished my first year of university, and I was living for four months in England with my parents (who had been there all year for a one-year work stint that my dad had taken on). The summer was filled with fabulous experience, travel, sight-seeing – interspersed with periods of boredom for me, alone at my parents’ home, far away from my friends and the rest of my family.

July 17, I wrote, “I’m so glad that tomorrow, a schedule begins . . . I’m reading a biography of Thatcher, and one of the things she says is: ‘The secret of life is to make 90% of it habit.’ It holds some truth for me. I like it when when what I do with my time is out of my hands . . . [when] my actions are dictated by what the ‘divine schedule’ tells me to do . . . But in [a] sense, it’s a weakness to follow a ‘divine schedule’. It’s a self-subjugation to authority; taking your actions out of your own hands and forfeiting your free will . . . [but] I’m usually lazy when I’m left with unscheduled time.”

(That’s slightly embarrassing, but please bear in mind that I was a student just out of my teens.)

Stephen Covey on schedules

Stephen Covey, author of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is big on scheduling, and it comes into play in Habit #3. If you aren’t familiar with the 7 Habits, here are the first few:

  1. Be Proactive. If you consider yourself to be a mere product of your upbringing, social class, education, relationships, and career experience, Covey encourages you to a paradigm shift: “. . . because of our unique human endowments, we can write new programs for ourselves totally apart from our instincts and training” (p. 70).  Don’t just react to circumstances as if you have no power over them, says Covey. “It is inspiring to realize that in choosing our response to circumstance, we powerfully affect our circumstance” (86).
  2. Begin with The End in Mind. “How different our lives are when we really know what is deeply important to us, and, keeping that picture in mind, we manage ourselves each day to be and to do what really matters most” (Covey, 98). It is in Habit #2 that Covey encourages individuals as well as organizations to write a mission statement. “It focuses on what you want to be (character) and to do (contributions and achievements) and on the values or principles upon which being and doing are based” (Covey, 106).
  3. Put First Things First. ” . . . if Habit 1 says ‘You’re the programmer’ and Habit 2 says ‘Write the program,’ then Habit 3 says, ‘Run the program,’ ‘Live the program’ (Covery, 169). It is in Habit 3 that Covey shares his vision for schedules – as being subordinate to and in service of  deeper goals and values expressed in the mission statement.

J. Money on Ben Franklin’s schedule

Given my thoughts about priorities, time, and scheduling this week, I was surprised to find in J. Money’s post at Budgets Are Sexy a bit about his own struggles with scheduling. I found out that he’s been on a schedule experiment since the beginning of August. “I have my moments where I get a bunch of stuff done and feel like a complete rock star,” he wrote at the end of July, “but a few days later I’m typically back to ‘trying to figure it all out again.’ And I think a lot of it has to do with finding that optimum schedule that works best for you . . . [S]omething needs to change. And I’m hoping Ben Franklin has the answer.”

You can see Ben Franklin’s schedule – or Scheme as he called it – in Jay’s post. Franklin’s morning started with “Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness!” and the question, “What good shall I do this day?” His evening ended with, “Examination of the day,” and the question, “What good have I done today?” Like Covey’s schedule, Franklin’s “scheme” is in service of the greater good – not an end in itself. Not just a tool of logistical efficiency.

What now?

I too know that “Something needs to change,” and I’m going to start with a more proactive plan for my days. Stephen Covey’s schedule is way too elaborate for me. Mine is simple. I have posted a big, laminated calendar in the spare bedroom that I use as my writing space. I’m starting to carve each day into morning, afternoon, and evening, and as I fill it in, I’m mindful of my priorities – of my own personal “mission”. Starting with a devotion to “Powerful Goodness!” (I love that), I’m trying to make sure that I allocate time first to what is most important, my family, and then to other areas of decreasing importance. Some things I’m restricting. To others, I’m giving more space.

As for the complaint of my 20-year-old self when she (I) said that following a schedule was “self-subjugation to authority; taking your actions out of your own hands and forfeiting your free will” – Stephen Covey offers an answer: “You’re the programmer . . . Write the program . . . Run the program. Live the program.”

As I face my challenges in scheduling and priorities, I hope to put things back in alignment. All things debt-reduction are important – but not the most important. They’re subordinate to and in service of deeper goals and values – just as my schedule will have to be. And as balance is re-established, as I “figure it all out again”, I’m hoping that there will be greater contentment, a slower pace. And flowers in my flower garden.


Financial fitness and debt-freedom are great goals, but have you ever found that you’ve struggled, in your pursuit of them, to keep a balance with other, more important goals? Your comments are welcome.

 

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  • This is an important message. Remembering and prioritizing what is most important to us. Pure gold. I love that you have diaries. I never kept any because I was so paranoid someone (family) would read them. That’s a great gift you gave your future self. Take care of you and yours and let us (selfishly, I mean me) know if we (I) can do anything to help support your mission. Praying for you and your family’s abundant health, wealth, and happiness Ruth. 🙂

    • Aren’t you a lovely friend : ) And right back to you, Kay! I was VERY careful not to let anyone read my diaries when I was young. Now, I know that they would put just about anyone to sleep : ) But you’re right in saying that I gave my future self a gift. It was cool to read about that summer, and to see the ways in which I’ve changed – and the ways I haven’t. Again, thanks for your kind words, Kay.

  • Excellent read, my friend 🙂 And such a great writer/thinker at your young age too – wow! Mine probably would have read “That girl over there looks hot – I wonder if I can figure out a way to get her to date me? lol… the internet has just begun – there should be a dating site on there.” 🙂

    I think you’ve inspired me to go find my own journals actually – I know there here somewhere!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jay! And don’t kid yourself. I didn’t only write about biographies on Thatcher. There were plenty about my various crushes – just nothing about the internet since it was still a long way off. I wish you well in finding your old journals. I hope you share parts of them if and when you do : ) And thanks for helping to inspire me in my quest towards my “optimum schedule.”

      • I thought that was an awesome entry, too! I stopped keeping journals after my parents found one of them… That was thoroughly embarrassing. I like schedules, too, because I get all lazy and adrift without them. Not to say I’ve perfected the art by any means, but it’s something I’m constantly working on!

        • I also get lazy – or at least ineffective – when I try to operate without a schedule. What an awful experience with your parents finding your diary! As a parent of a teen daughter, though, I have to say that I would feel really tempted to read her diary if I stumbled upon it. Hmmm . . .

  • Put first things first. I always wake up around 4AM to be at the office by 6AM so that I can finish work earlier and be home by 4PM to do side hustling and other stuff. By the end of the day, I feel I have accomplished much work. I wasn’t like this before. But when I started this setup, I wouldn’t want to go back to my old me because I have been more productive, proactive, and determined and this setup simply helps me achieve financial freedom.

    • It sounds like your new way of scheduling your life has given you greater power to achieve what you want to achieve. I have so often confused a lack of schedule for freedom of choice – but it’s not true. You have made your choice and scheduled accordingly. I plan to do the same, Jayson! Thanks.

  • I’ve had to catch myself over the last few months where I’ve almost said “I’m too busy” How could that be? Gone for now are the 50-60 hour work weeks, I should have plenty of time on my hands. All about coming up with a plan/schedule and sticking to it.

    • I can relate to that, Brian. As a teacher, I’ve noticed that students who are busy with sports, band, the school play, or a part-time job are actually better at getting their work done than students who don’t have other commitments. Having more time does not necessarily mean being more productive or proactive. Having limited time often forces a proactive productivity – for adults as well as students. Since you’re aware of it, I’m sure you’ll be proactive in making this time in your life productive. All the best!

  • Food for thoughts. Schedules keep me disciplined for the most part, but, and in something I’m going through in the moment, there comes a time where you want to rebel from the schedule. To be more free-flowing and in the moment. I do find that it only lasts a short time though (and usually involves eating too much crappy food and not enough healthy food) before I’m drawn back to a normal schedule and routine. I wonder if Ben and Steven ever address that? That backlash that is often felt when you follow a set schedule day in and day out?

    • I don’t know what Franklin and Covey would say, but my thought is that if you feel like rebelling against the schedule you’ve put in place, it’s either because that schedule is not being effective in working towards the “deep goals and values” of your “mission” – or you’re losing patience with the time it’s taking to do so, and you’re having doubts. Does that ring true in your case? Also, I think it’s fine to work in a day or two per week without a schedule (think of a Sabbath day of rest), and to modify a schedule that isn’t doing it’s job. The “crappy food” bit suggests to me that the rebellion isn’t productive. But I think that being aware of a desire for rebellion can be productive. It signals a need for change. The tough, tough work is to determine what that change is. Tonya, I’m going to lift you up as I “address Powerful Goodness!” and ask that your path would become clear.

  • I would say that my whole life for years has been a process of getting out of whack, and circling back around to prioritize what I want to be prioritizing! I think it’s pretty normal to have events pull you along for a while, and then realize that you’d really rather be pulling the events. It also doesn’t surprise me that you’re feeling the need to back off after such an intense working summer. I hope your schedule will include taking some weekend days completely off — no work, no side hustling, no enriching activities, just a completely chill Saturday with your family and maybe ordering a pizza.

    • You read my mind, C! The whole Sabbath day idea is great on many levels. Tomorrow, we’re taking two of our daughters to the lake where we have camped over the years (but not this summer). It will be “completely off” time. I like your description of events pulling you vs. you deciding that it’s time to pull events. That’s where I’m at. And I want to make sure to pull them in the right direction. Thanks, and all the best to you as you “prioritize what you want to be prioritizing!”

  • I’m considering committing to more early mornings. The last two weeks I had a few busy weeks of guest posting/travel/going into the office/all day sickness, but waking up early helped me maintain my sanity. The only problem with this is that I really like to sleep an awful lot.

    I’m still uncommitted to this early morning schedule and until I can get the commitment, it won’t happen.

    Maybe I’m a bit too young to comment, but I’m impressed by your age 20 thoughts. My thoughts were mostly drivel mixed with a bit of unsubstantial but pretentious ideas about the way the world ought to be.

    • Hannah, I’m mortified by some of the things I wrote in my diary. I just found this bit about schedules rather remarkable given the fact I randomly read it right when I realized I needed to make some changes. The early morning thing is something I’m going to give a serious effort to. I’m talking 4:30. Like you, I need my sleep, so it will either mean an afternoon nap after work or a really early bed time – or both.

  • For me, the best way to maintain the proper balance between everything in life (spending/saving, working/playing) is to “write” it down in some form or fashion. With spending/saving I have a comprehensive plan (maintained in an Excel workbook) that addresses every aspect of my finances. With working/playing, I use the calendar app on my phone to account for the when and with whom aspects of my daily planning.

  • I have a problem diverting funds from whatever the main goal is. So I hate that $100 of otherwise useful money isn’t in savings but instead in the vacation fund. It’s somewhat true for the rest of our sub-accounts too.

    Granted, when it’s time for FinCon/Tim to go up to Washington, I’m thankful the funds are set aside.

    As for schedules, I try to avoid them. I stress myself out if I try to have the day planned out too much. If I’m behind by an hour, I get frustrated.

    So instead I just set 1-2 goals for the day. Anything above that is gratifying. Of course, sometimes there are more goals than that, so I just set my expectations to get 1-2 done. As long as that happens, I’ve got to be content with the results.

    This approach has made me a lot less rigid and actually more productive. As a depressive, it’s not smart to overload myself with tasks. I start feeling the pressure and emotionally turtle. At that point, it’s a miracle if I get anything done that day.

    • Thank you, Abigail. I think that the “1 or 2 goals” approach is a good one for me too. A highly detailed schedule is, to me at this point anyway, something that doesn’t seem realistic – and something that makes me feel overwhelmed.

      I hope that you enjoy FinCon. For the first time, I really considered going this year, but I won’t be as it turns out. Perhaps it’s time for me to start up a “vacation fund” for FinCon ’16. All the best!

  • I like the introspection! There are some things where it doesnt make sense to compromise.

    For me, financial fitness only ocurrs when you have everything in balance. It’s not about knowing how stuff works; it’s about DOING stuff that works. Going to extremes is easy – but finding that balance (saving, spending and giving properly) is what is hard. But without it, we’re not financially fit.

    Now with that being said, there are times when extremes are needed. But its only temporary. Debt elimination is one of those times. Thanks for posting and reminding me of that balance between “good” and “good-for-me”!

    • Thanks Luke. “Going to extremes is easy” – so true. It takes less self control to be extreme than it does to be balanced. The thing about debt elimination is that it can take a looooong time. Although “temporary”, it still requires a balance that leans towards extreme – and I personally find it hard to strike.

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