Monday, November 26, 2012

Two Compatible Efficiency Strategies

These two strategies sound contradictory, but actually work together very well:

1. When you want to develop new habits, piggyback tasks.

2. Don't multitask.

Please consider this picture of dogs performing synchronized napping to be symbolic of grouping like tasks.  

So, say that I want to start a new habit - doing the dishes on a regular basis, reading the news every morning, applying sunscreen daily - whatever. I arrange my actual physical belongings (and my to-do list) in a way that connects the new desired habit to something I already do. I call this piggybacking. My to-do list says "wash hair and dishes!" because I want to do both those chores at basically the same frequency. If they are grouped in my mind, I'll remember to do them both more easily. I only need to remember one thing, rather than two.

When I'm just starting the new habit, this can be tougher. I recently started using the app Summly for the news, and to remind myself to use it, (this part is a little bit embarrassing) I placed the icon in FRONT of my Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest icons on my phone. That way I see it first, and read it first. Let's face it: I'm not going to forget to check Twitter. Putting Summly between me and Twitter makes it that much more likely I'll remember it too. When the Adulting Lady posted about how she needed to apply sunscreen daily, I suggested that she balance the sunscreen on top of her toothbrush, or coffee maker, or anything else that was already an innate part of her morning routine, for the same reasons.

I realize this sounds a lot like multitasking, but ladies and gentlemen, it is not. In fact, it is the avoidance of multitasking that makes piggybacking tasks so effective. I cannot do two things at once, so I need to do something with that bottle of sunscreen before I can get to my toothbrush. I might as well apply it. Over time, I won't need to precariously balance anything, because the two tasks will be linked in my mind, like washing dishes and hair. I just think of that as one task that has multiple steps, I don't try to do both at once. That would be terrible.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Testing testing one two three

This post should automatically create alerts on facebook and twitter, and should also crosspost to my brand new tumblr mirror - all through the magic of if this then that. Let's see if I set it up correctly!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Beginner's Budgeting

I had always had a vague sense that I should "live within my means," but when I was a full-time grad student with four part-time jobs, that just wasn't practical. I was borrowing from my future self, taking out loans to pay for school, anticipating another freelance gig, etc. My "means" were different from month to month.

Budgeting is stressful. Here is a picture of a pomeranian falling asleep on my shoulder. 

Now my life is really different. I have one full-time job that has good job security. I now have predictable means to live within, but not much practice thinking about finances on any level.* I started reading some personal finance blogs - I especially like Get Rich Slowly - but didn't see much advice on how to set a budget, only on how to keep to one. There is an understanding, apparently, that certain percentages of income should go to various life choices, as mentioned in this Unclutterer post on budgeting, but I live in a Manhattan apartment rather than a house, don't own a car, don't eat meat and don't have cable. So perhaps my percentages are different.

I finally decided on a strategy to set my budget, but I resented every second of it. I felt I was reinventing the wheel - surely actual techniques are outlined for doing this? Could I just not find them? Was my Googling power somehow impaired? I'd be thrilled to hear how other people have handled this, or to see links to where other people have already dealt with this.

Here's what I did: I started with my annual income, after taxes. I took all my known, predictable expenses and converted them to annual costs (list follows). I subtracted the known annual costs from my known annual income. Then I divided by 12. I decided how much of that monthly income I wanted to have available, and how much I wanted to save. I declared the spendable part FREE MONEY, and I started keeping track of how/when I spent it in order to stay within my monthly budget.

Here are the categories of spending I could predict:

  1. Housing. 
  2. Recurring medical costs (prescriptions, co-pays, contact lens purchases...).
  3. Groceries and household costs. For this, I looked at last year's credit card statements and took the average. 
  4. Memberships and subscriptions, including annual charitable donations
  5. Student loan payments. 
  6. Subway, bus and commuter rail. Again, I used last year as a guide. 
  7. Dog maintenance. Cody has predictable vet visits, food and dogwalker costs, etc. 
  8. Utilities - for me, this means "phone bill." 
  9. Holiday gift-giving. Again, I looked at last year's credit card statements to predict this year. 
EVERYTHING ELSE is just a monthly expense to be noted - plane tickets, birthday presents, expensive shoes, charitable donations beyond my annual ones, restaurant costs, tips I give to delivery guys, etc. All of it. 

Note: I had to decide when to track expenditures. I use credit cards and cash; I write checks rarely; I split some costs with my boyfriend. I decided to write down the expense when I spend. That is, I record the cost when I make the purchase, or agree to split the cost, rather than when the cost actually becomes "due" to me. Boy howdy is it totally very required to be consistent about this.

Also Note: I had to decide how I wanted to treat leftovers. If I'm way under budget in grocery spending one week, does that money get added to my "free" money? Or next week's grocery budget? Or neither?  If I end the month over-budget, what happens? If I get a $20 check from an unlikely source, where does that money go? I decided:

  • If I am under budget in any predicted category, that money gets saved and does not affect my "free" money or my budget in that category. 
  • If I end the month over-budget, I begin the next month with a correspondingly lower amount of "free" money. My friends, that happened this month. 
  • If money arrives in addition to my budgeted income (credit card rewards payouts, cash gifts, honorariums, etc.), that money is "free." I can save it, spend it on fancy chocolates, whatevs. It's free. 

Also Also Note: I am going against conventional wisdom in a couple different ways here.

  • One, it is generally acknowledged that a weekly budget is much better than a monthly one. I'm not sure why, and I think the monthly budget works better for me. 
  • Two, I did not divide my "free" spending. That is, I don't have a shoe budget, a theater budget and a restaurant budget. It's all fair game within a given month. 
What I might modify: Your suggestions are very welcome! 

* I am pretty certain that most of my readers are ahead of me on this topic. I am reporting here what I'm trying out, but I am very open to suggestions. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Nothing to see here

No blog post this week. Next week, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Notes on notes

I'm an English professor and sometimes I tell people I read books for a living; sometimes I tell people I talk about books for a living. While both are true to a certain extent, there is a middle step there that is essential  - essential for me, at least - to talking professionally about the books I read. Big reveal: that middle step is taking notes.

When I ask my students how they take notes, some of them have a method encouraged by their high school teachers, but most have merely an idea that they should be writing down the "big ideas." This is not what I do. The big ideas I'll remember; it's the little phrases I'll want to cite later and the fleeting ideas I have in response to the text that I need to preserve for later use. I don't really know if other people take notes the same way, or if there is some "right" way to take notes, but over the years of reading for research, I have developed a streamlined system for taking pages of reading* notes.

Apparently I have my finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist** with this topic, too, since today's New York Times has an article about a recent conference on historical methods of note taking. Excitingly, the article links to "aonline exhibition of 73 note-related artifacts from Harvard’s collections." Swoon!  

So here's my technique:

  • At the top of a page, I create an MLA-style works cited entry for the text on which I will be taking notes. 
  • As I read, I write down quotations or paraphrases of material I'd like to preserve using MLA-style in-text citation methods. I skip a line between them so each one is its own chunk. 
  • Any of my own thoughts - reactions to the text, ideas sparked by the text, other texts that this one mentions that I'd like to track down - go into brackets. I skip a line between them so each one is its own chunk. 
  • I leave the left margin entirely clear for future use and I use only one side of the paper. 
Later, when I go back and read all my notes and quotes for multiple sources associated with a project, it is easy to organize the chunks into an outline for a paper I'm writing or course I'm designing, and the citations are already all there. Generally, after I outline the project, I'll use the left margin of the notes and quotes pages to write down where each chunk should go. I might write INTRO next to a quotation and CONC next to the bracketed idea immediately following. 

This method works when handwriting or typing. And if the pages are photocopied first, they can be literally chopped up for categorizing and organizing later if I am feeling particularly hands-on. 

That's it. Citation info, quotations and paraphrases, separating my own ideas from those in the text, leaving room to organize later: that's all I need from a note-taking system. Do other people note other things? 


*I actually use the same basic system for conference notes, too, with the speaker's name and the talk title (and panel title if applicable) and the venue and date at top.

** Yes, the zeitgeist has a pulse. It's very robust.