Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Keystone Habits: How To Floss Every Day For A Year

I have a confession to make: until a year ago, I didn't floss. I'd go to the dentist and they would tell me I needed to floss. So, I would floss a week or two before my dentist visit in an attempt to make it look like I flossed regularly. That didn't really work either.

Then a couple things happened that moved me closer to actually following my dentist's advice. First, I read a great article in The Wall Street Journal on How to Be a Better Flosser. The advice was great and we featured it in our July 2012 newsletter. All too often we get caught up in the details: should we brush or floss first? Should we do it in the morning or evening? What type of floss should we use? They answered all those questions, but the main take-away was: There are optimal ways to floss, but it really doesn't matter as long as you do it regularly.

At the same time, I also started using a new iPhone app called Lift. I wrote about it before and even mentioned flossing. The app helps you track daily goals you want to accomplish. As you do, you check them off. It also tracks how you're doing over time (see the picture above) and gives encouragement along the way. The app is pretty cool and the team behind it really thinks deeply about habits and sculpting our lives.

For example, one of their blog posts talked about keystone habits: "Keystone habits create positive momentum that increases your ability to achieve other goals." The example in the post was making your bed each day. For me, flossing became a keystone habit... eventually...

You see, all of this happened in the summer of 2012.

So I started flossing, but it wasn't every day. Some days I would be too busy, other days I would completely forget. At least it's progress!  Then, through the 2012 holidays I didn't even open the app.

In January 2013 something happened right after the first of the year. I honestly don't know what made me decide to start flossing every day, but I did... And I actually stuck with it. This isn't the first time I finally made a decision and stayed with it. I did it once with ear plugs in 2008 too and I know people do it with quitting smoking and alcohol too. So, there's something psychological going on there, I just don't know what.

One year later, here I am with a full year of flossing every single day. I realized this while flossing at our hotel before going to the airport to Florida... at 3:40am... gross! I took a quick screenshot and finished getting ready. Now flossing truly is a keystone habit for me. (I realize the screenshot is technically 367 days.)

I'm using that momentum to help me with my push-ups. Right before I floss, I do my push-ups. This links them together in a chain of habits: since one is successful, it increases the chances that the other is successful. We'll see if it worked by the end of this year!

Your Keystone Habits
Think about your life. Do you know what your keystone habits are? Are they promoting good or bad habits? Think about what you do when you first wake up in the morning. When you first get into the office. When you first get home. What do you do? What do you do second and third? Why do you think you do those activities? The "why" is important because each activity you do fulfills some sort of need you have. Is there another activity you can do to fulfill the same need?

My encouragement to you is that you can create positive keystone habits that will help you achieve your 2014 goals. If you set a new year's resolution you wanted to keep, you'll need to look critically at your keystone habits because it's momentum might be working against you.

For example, let's say your resolution is to exercise more. Your normal routine is to grab your phone before getting out of bed and checking your email and Facebook. Then you realize the time and rush to get ready with no time left to exercise. Checking your phone is your keystone habit that is working against your exercise resolution.

Why are you doing this? Why are you checking your phone? If it's to help you wake up, maybe you can put a glass of water in place of your phone. Or you can set your phone down across the room forcing you to get out of bed. Maybe the room is too cold you can don't want to get out from under the covers. So, set your thermostat to heat up the room right before you need to get up. If you're not sure, try experimenting to see which leaves you satisfied and which leaves you wishing for more.

Let's say drinking a cup of water first thing meets your need to help you wake up. Use a system to track your progress. Lift works well and so does Jerry Seinfeld's "Don't Break The Chain" Calendar. Eventually this will become your new keystone habit and you'll actually crave water in the morning.

Now, here's the magic of habits: drinking a glass of water doesn't take as much time as checking Facebook or email. So use that time/momentum to exercise before getting ready. I would start small: push-ups, sit-ups, a short walk, etc. Then that too will become a habit and you might actually find yourself getting up a little earlier to fit in a more rigorous workout.

The crazy part is that you'll actually start to think of yourself as that person who gets out of bed in the morning and exercises. Someone who does that also... Eats healthy... Drinks less soda... Runs... Skips TV at night... Yes, a keystone habit can be powerful enough to change your entire perception of who you are. It might happen slowly, but it'll happen. That's why it's critically important to examine your keystone habits.

Again, my encouragement is that you can create positive change in your life and reach your goals by first focusing on something as small as flossing every day.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Income and Expense Analysis

I was once again reviewing our finances for the year and wanted to share my findings. I know for me, I struggle to find information on what's "normal" to be spending... or maybe "not normal" in our case. So hopefully this helps shed some light on what one other family is doing.

For starters, we track everything using and then I copy everything over to a spreadsheet once a month. I like detailed spreadsheets, but if you're not into that, Mint will show you what you need to know to make smart decisions. That's what Jessi looks at along with these charts once a month with me.

Monthly Income & Expenses
This first chart is the same as I showed last year, with one difference I'll explain in a bit. The lighter lines are from 2012 for comparison. The blue lines are the cumulative net income. So, in a month where our income was high and our expenses were low, the blue line would go up, and that's the starting place of the following month.

The one change I made this year was to treat our real estate finances as a separate entity. We even have a separate bank account now that all of that activity is done from. Then whatever the net income was for that property, I added it to our income as a single line. So in May and July we did a bunch of repairs and the "income" from that property was actually negative because we spent more than we collected in rent that month.

Also included is the down payment and closing cost of our new home and student loan payments.

The goal is to get the blue line just above zero which means we put all our extra money towards paying off loans. As you can see, we had to dip into our savings to pay for the repairs we did. We had savings from previous years, so it was OK. Then in October Jessi got sick and I paid all the doctor bills in November from our Emergency fund. You can kind of see why my goal this year is to not have any large expenses.

Spending Distribution
Here's a new view I created. I wanted to see how we were spending our money and I wanted something in between the detailed line items and the top line.

  • 100% = our take home pay this year (the investment properties net income were included as income).
  • Loans = Student loans and car loan
  • Mortgage = The property we live in. The investment property mortgage payments are separate (embedded in income). When we lived in the duplex I split the mortgage in half.
  • Utilities = electricity + garbage + water + gas + mobile phones (yeah, iPhone = utility)
  • Food = groceries + eating out
  • Cars = gas + maintenance + insurance
  • Home = home repairs (and down payment/closing costs) + personal care items + health & fitness + Vinnie expenses
  • Fun = shopping + entertainment + travel

Hopefully you can tell what our priority is. Once our loans are paid off, that'll convert to savings/investing. Also, as a general rule you want your housing mortgage/rent to be no higher than 33% and hopefully below 25%; we're killing it in that category. Our food category seems a little high though. Well... I know it's a little high because we spent $1,500 more this year than last year... mostly eating out. Knowing this will help me stick with my health goals this year.

I'll be honest, "Home" is kind of a catch-all category. I would call them "semi-optional" expenses. Buying a place was a large part of that category. Finally, not included here are taxes and my 401K contributions. First, they happen before it gets imported into Mint, so I can't track it easily. Second, I don't have much control over my taxes and I can't really do anything with my 401K balance for a while.

Spending Over Time
The last thing I wanted to look at were some specific spending categories. There are ones that we have some control over and try to keep low. Yes, I realize I cut off the top of the chart, I did that so I could see the other lines.

Like I talked about earlier, our spending on food is too high. It looks like the middle of the year is where it got out of hand. It also appears to coincide with our home purchase / fixing the duplexVegas trip. So, the underlying issue is that when we get too busy, we opt to eat out more often. We'll need to be more conscious of this going forward. Home spending spiked when we bought our place and again at the end of the year when I fixed a bunch of things. Utilities... look at the steady growth rate... I suppose it's normal to grow in the colder months, but December was $230 higher than January! We'll definitely need to keep an eye on this one.

Finally, the Fun spending really seems to spike when we buy plane tickets (May & October), or Disney World tickets (November). Though, the general trend for Fun seems to also be growing. This is another one I'll be watching closely.

Bottom line
If I was grading myself, I would probably give us a B. We did good on our loans and mortgage. We blew it on eating out and can probably make some cuts we don't care about in the fun category. The utilities one can probably be curbed by paying more attention to our heating habits (ie, not letting it get too roasty). I feel pretty good about the Home, Giving & Cars categories. Getting an A next year will require us to not have any large expenses in 2014 and keeping our Food, Fun categories lower.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Always Listen and Always Jump All Over Anything Your Instructor Tells You

My boss recently shared this quote with me. We have many discussions about what it takes to be a top performer at HP and this quote from Lone Survivor sums it up pretty well:
And right here I needed to remember a lesson drummed into me from an early age by Billy Shelton: when a special forces commander makes even a slight reference to an issue that may be helpful, listen and then do it. Even if it was an aside, not a proper command, maybe even starting with I think it might be a good idea . . . Always pay attention and then carry out the task, no matter how minor it may seem. Billy’s point was that these SF instructors were looking for the best, and it might be only small things that separate guys who are very good from guys who are absolutely excellent, outstanding. “Listen, Marcus,” Billy told me, “always listen, and always jump all over anything your instructor tells you. Get out in front. Fast. Then make sure you stay there.”
Luttrell, Marcus (2007-06-12). Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 (Kindle Locations 1198-1204). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

How true is that. It's one thing to take an explicit request and do it really well. For example, I might get asked to create a report about a printing trend, and I can make an excellent report. It's another to listen to the conversation, and the questions they're struggling with and make a report that wasn't asked for, but is still valuable.

I've done that in the past and it's fun to delight my boss in that way. The trick to being a truly top performer is to do that regularly. To constantly be listening for questions that suggestions that seem like off-hand comments, and act upon them. That definitely isn't easy to do, and that's why only top performers do it. This is one of the areas I'll be looking to improve this year. Hopefully this quote will also inspire you to listen closer to those suggestions and act upon them. Doing that is what will separate you from the pack. It's yet another form of the Slight Edge.

Monday, January 06, 2014

2014 Goals: Consistency

I am really excited, and nervous, about my goals this year! Last year, I let a couple things slide in my life and this year is about taking control of them again.

Faith Focus:
1) Finish Bible
I'm going to finish the Bible this year. I've been working on my reading plan for 2 years and I have a little under a year left. The trick is to consistently read a little bit every day.

Health Focus:
2) Weigh 155 pounds
You may not have noticed, but I noticed the 20-25 pounds I put on last year. That's a 16% increase! This happened because of a few reasons: 1) I worked out less. 2) We started going to a couple group meetings that always provided sweets, and I didn't restrain myself. 3) I turned 30, and my metabolism slowed down just a little bit. Those combined together equaled weight gain.

I'm going to accomplish this goal by running at least 1 time per week. I'm also going to count my calories, and weight myself daily. As the saying goes, "What gets measured, gets managed." This is something that will require consistency on a daily basis.

3) Do 70 push-ups in a row
For me, push-ups represent my strength, and that's another thing I let slide. Weighing less will be nice, and feeling strong/fit will feel even better. It'll also have practical benefits when doing construction projects.

Today, I can do 20 push-ups in a row. So my plan is to do push-ups each day and add 1 each week. This follows the Slight Edge principle of slowly, and consistently, adding on to generate something significant over time.

Financial Focus:
4) No expenses above $2,000
Looking back at our finances, every year we have at least 1 large expense.
2002 - 2007: School Tuition
2008: Got Married
2009: Bought a property
2010: Switched over to Mac
2011: Bought a Jeep... and then another one...
2012: Bought a Prius and another property
2013: Bought a home

So, if every single year of your adult life has involved at least 1 large expense, how do you stop that trend? My hypothesis is that if you don't have the money, you can't spend it. So we're putting everything we can towards student loans. What started out as a 5-year plan, is looking like a 3.5-year plan (1.5 years left). And there's an outside (really outside!) chance we pay them off this year. I'm starting to smell the barn and that excitement will help us consistently avoid any large expense. Side note: I have a separate fund for maintenance on our properties, so I'm not including money spent from there.

Business Focus:
5) HP salary increase
I've got the promotion, now it's time to earn the pay increase. I've got a plan for this too. Last year my focus was split between two jobs. This year I'm back to one. So I'm going to work consistently on creating new tools and enhancing existing ones. You know, kick butt and take names. The other thing I'm going to do is have regular conversations with my boss about it. I want him to know this is important to me and keep it near the front of his mind. All of this is kind of up to the HR gods, but I believe that if I'm consistent, it'll be rewarded.

6) Increase side business income
I am NOT going to go out and buy another investment property this year. See Goal #4. But I would like to continue to diversify our income. Now, as the goal implies, this is a side thing, so it might have to take a back seat if something else requires my attention.

For now, I'm going to do one, maybe two things. First, my goal is to find another paying client. If you know anyone looking to create monthly/quarterly reports for their business, let me know. The other thing I would like to do is finish the finance class and offer it for sale. Again, depending on what other things take my time, I may not get as far on this as I want, and that's OK. Still, I'm putting it out there as something I want to accomplish.

Social Focus:
7) Host a meal 6+ times at our house
We bought a house and so far only had only one couple over for a meal. Now, I get that since we don't have kids it's easier for us to go to someone else's home, but we would like people to visit us too. So this year we're going to be more proactive about inviting people over. I was telling a friend about this goal and he invited himself, and his family, over. So this should be a fun one to accomplish.

Friday, January 03, 2014

2013 Goal Review: Focus!

My theme in 2013 was to focus. The idea was to say no to things so that I could be freed up to focus on the really important things. I managed to move a lot off my plat the first half of the year, which was great. Then the second half I was able to say yes to a few larger projects. At the end of the year, I was as busy as I've ever been, but it was on focused mostly on 3 things, all of which supported my 2 goals. Speaking of my goals...

1) Read all Bible reading plan assignments
Is there anyone who can complete one of those "read the whole Bible in a year" reading plans? I just finished another year of reading, and I'm convinced it's impossible to do any faster in a meaningful way. If you've done it, I'd love to hear from you.

My goal was simply to read another 1/3 of my reading plan, which will eventually cover the entire Bible. That averages out to 1-2 chapters a day. I'm happy to say that I did it! Plus, I actually got a little ahead and am very confident I'll finish it in 2014. I'm pumped to be able to say I've read the entire Bible by the end of this year.

2) Increase my income this year
Technically, yes. I did increase my income (18%!). Though, I didn't do it exactly in the way I planned. I had 3 areas of focus: HP, Furlo Bros Tech Podcast, and a finance class. I worked really hard for HP this year, doing essentially two jobs for most of the year. I got promoted, which is fantastic, it just didn't come with a change in pay. I'm honestly not 100% sure how to feel about that. Right now, I'm choosing to be optimistic that it'll open up future opportunities.

With Furlo Bros, we opened up a store this year. We've sold some swag, but it's nothing life changing at this point. Our subscribers continue to grow, which is pretty exciting, and amazing new tech keeps being invented, which is also pretty exciting.

I didn't finish the finance class I was working on. Part of the reason is that it's a huge project. It's the equivalent of researching and writing a book, which takes years for some people. Don't get me wrong, I've made a ton of progress, but I still have a ways to go. The other reason I didn't make it as far as I wanted was that I started doing some freelance consulting on the side. Specifically, I took on a large project at the end of the year. I'll be sharing more about that shortly, but it's basically helping to put on a forum where people can learn about Corvallis real estate trends.

One of the big influences was actually buying a house, or more specifically, moving out of our duplex and renting it out. Since we downsized, we were able to make more renting it out than we had to pay on our new mortgage. We probably won't stay in this house forever, but for now it's helping us make a significant dent on our student loans.

So that's how I did on my goals. Up next, the goals for 2014!