Automating my life through habits is my big secret to staying sane. During the summer, I work 10 hour days, have two hour commute and with my lunch hour, I’m gone from my house for at least 13 hours a day. I also write for this blog and And Then We Saved, have some semblance of a social and family life and maintain a relatively healthy lifestyle. But to fit everything in, that doesn’t leave much time to do anything other than sleep. Automating my life has made things so much easier and it’s given me a bit of time back each day. It’s the only reason my brain hasn’t completely gone haywire.
I’ve learned that we humans can only make so many decisions per day and if we waste those precious decision-making skills on something like the lunch menu, we have fewer skills available for something actually important. I’m no psychologist or even an expert, but The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg explains the science (and power!) of habits way better than I ever can. I’d really recommend it.
Even our president knows about the power of habits. Ina 2012 interview for Vanity Fair President Obama was quoted saying, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” I’m not making the important decisions that our president is, but even piddly decisions are exhausting. So to deal with those decisions, I make habits. It’s helped me to save money, be happier and make my life easier. Here’s my best habits:
1. Meal Prep
There’s all kinds of articles out there about how to meal prep. Most of them I find overwhelming and boring. Here’s how I meal prep: On Sunday night I make all my breakfast and lunches for the work week, and then I have a loose idea of the dinner choices. I chose to not make my dinner in advance, because I like variety—it’s the spice of life! But I may do some dinner prep– like cutting up vegetables.
For breakfast I’ll have my crustless quiche. This helps to use up the leftover veggies in the fridge—ensuring that I don’t waste food or money and I start the day with protein and veggies.
For lunch, during the summer, I’ll usually have a large spinach salad with pre-cooked chicken. It doesn’t take long to throw together and it doesn’t get old because I can mix it up with different dressings and toppings. During the winter, I’ll usually have soup or stew made from my trusty crock-pot.
For snacks, I rely on packs of nuts and apples with nutbutters that I keep in my desk at work. I also keep tea and coffee at work for those times when I need a little extra jolt. It keeps me from dropping $5 at my school’s coffee shop.
For dinner I rely on easy staples. I don’t plan in the traditional sense of the word (i.e. there’s no Taco Tuesday) because George and I might be in the mood for tacos on Monday or every other day, we love tacos. Instead, I’ll have a loose idea of what we’ll eat that week. One night will usually be stir fry, the next night will be tacos, another will be fish or chicken and a veggie. We’ll usually have hamburgers and we’ll almost always finish the week with a homemade pizza. Pizza is a treat and it’s our favorite.
One of my favorite tips for these easy dinners is to buy a grocery store roasted chicken. They are tasty, cheap and you can make so many quick, easy meals with them.
2. Lay out your clothes for the week (even gym clothes!)
In the morning, I’m a grump. I admit it. You’ll never see me spring out of bed to greet cartoon bluebirds at my window. I just won’t ever be a morning person and that’s ok. But to make my mornings a little easier, I’ll look at the weather forecast on Sunday; then I lay out my work clothes for the entire work week—including my socks and underwear. When I don’t do this, I end up dressing a lot sloppier than I should. It’s really helped me to up my wardrobe game and I don’t have that panicky “I have nothing to wear” moment in the morning.
I also put all of my gym clothes for the week in my gym bag along with my shoes. When I get home, I take the dirty clothes out of the car and leave the clean clothes and the bag in the car. This means I go to the gym right after work (or during lunch at work) and I don’t have the chance to go home to change. If I have the chance to go home and change clothes it’s a million times harder to go to the gym because my bed just looks too comfortable.
Sidenote: To make this process even easier, I’ve been on the lookout for clothes that can double as work and gym wear. I haven’t come up with much, yoga pants aren’t acceptable at my job, but I’m hopeful! If you have links to (preferably inexpensive) gym clothes that can double as work clothes, link me in comments!
3. Put things in their place
To make things a habit, I’ve found that placing things in a visible or convenient place makes the habit stick faster. To help me to drink more water and kick my vending machine bottled water addiction, I bought a refillable water bottle and I keep it on my work desk at all times. That simple step has helped me to drink more water and has saved me a couple hundred dollars.
Here’s a weird example: I could never remember to pluck my eyebrows and I’d always find weird stray ones when I was sitting in the car before I went in to work in the morning. So I started keeping tweezers in the car and now my eyebrows don’t look like Helga Pataki’s.
I also constantly found myself out-and-about without medicines or Band-Aids, so I made myself an Ouch! Bag to keep in my purse and it’s saved me so much money. By putting things in a convenient place (even if that place is a little unconventional) it’s so much easier to trick your brain into making a habit.
4. Make a list of tomorrow’s to-dos before you leave work
I love a to-do list. But on the days that I forget to make one, I totally notice. I won’t have direction and I’ll spend most of the day putting out fires. (Usually not literally. Although the HVAC system in the library did catch on fire one night. But I left that up to the professionals.)
By making a to-do list before you leave, you also leave that responsibility at work and you’re less likely to worry about forgetting to do something. I’d recommend keeping the to-do list short. I’ve found that three “to-dos” is the perfect number for me. More than that and I’m overwhelmed. Less than that and I’m bored.
5. Do the hard stuff first
I have way more willpower and concentration at 8:00 am than I do at 4:00 pm, that’s why I start my day with the hard stuff. It’s usually the stuff that I really don’t want to do, but as soon as I finish it, I feel better and the rest of the day is a breeze. Some people call this habit, “Eating the Frog.”
I also have a rule that I don’t buy anything after lunch. After lunch I have a lot less willpower. It’s too easy to buy things!
6. Reward yourself
You will never create those hard habits without a reward system. Our bodies crave a reward and when we don’t get that reward we become depressed. Seriously! Give yourself a small reward after you complete a new habit, like a small piece of chocolate after working out. Once you establish the habit (it may take a couple of months) you’ll no longer need the reward because the habit has become, well, a habit!
Even after my habit is established, I also like to give myself healthy rewards. If I finish a project at work, I’ll take a short walk around campus. That way, I get my daily supply of Vitamin D, a little exercise and a reward!
7. Automate your bills and savings
Automating your bills and savings is like a habit that is done for you! There’s no reason to waste time on paying bills if your income is stable. (If your income is unstable, you may want to try the envelope system.) Automate your bill pay through the billing provider or through your bank. It makes life so much easier. It saves paper and stress.
Automating my savings has been one of my best life hacks. The bank automatically pulls a bit of cash from my checking account out each month into another bank account. I have the cash in a separate bank account to take away some of the temptation of spending the money. I don’t even have an ATM card for that bank. I love my Capital One 360 Savings account for this because you can designate pots of money within a savings account. (They didn’t pay me to say this!) For example, I have a little bit of money pulled into a travel fund each month and a house fund. I even had a savings designation for my laser eye surgery!
8. Learn from people who already have it figured out
We’ve all got that friend or relative that has it all figured out. They have their habits down pat. Ask them how they established their habits. The same habit-reward system won’t work for everyone, but I think it’s fascinating to find out how my dad does so much laundry or my mother-in-law manages to hand wash all the dishes after she just made dinner. (Dishes are my kryptonite!)
There’s also some really great literature out there about habits. I can’t recommend Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit more. I’d also recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen. His system to-do system is a little complex, but he offers some great insight into the power of list-making.
9. Keep a journal
One of the best habits I’ve established is keeping a gratitude journal. Each night I write down three things that I’m grateful for. It’s helped me to be happier and more grateful for my life. Even on the bad days, I’ll find something to be happy about and many times on the good days, I’ll write down more than three things. It’s also a habit that has helped me to establish other habits because I can see the positive effects that my habits have on my life. For example, going to yoga made me feel clarity or sweeping the floor made me feel accomplished.
10. Start habits one at a time
I get so excited about starting habits that I want to do all the good habits all at once. But I have so much more success when I start habits one at a time, establish the habit for about a month, then try to incorporate the next habit. We aren’t robots and trying to start five habits is overwhelming. We may do good for a week or so, but then we’ll resort back to our old bad ways because it is too hard. I know. I’ve been there. Take your time establishing a habit before moving on to the next one. You’ll have much more success. Promise.
Some tasks aren’t worth your time. They really aren’t. Creating habits and automation will only take you so far when you have a busy life. (And we all have a busy life.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it or even hire someone to do it for you. I know it cost money and we’re all trying to save money, but consider if your time would be better spent on other tasks. Figure out what your time is worth with this handy calculator from Learn Vest.
There’s some great services out there to help out busy professionals. Fiverr will help you to do everything from writing a professional bio to creating a logo for, you guessed it, five dollars. To the point where you need an assistant? Virtual Gal Friday can help! For more errand-like tasks, TaskRabbit will help you to outsource household tasks.
12. Forgive yourself and start again
Creating new, positive habits is hard. I still struggle with habits every.single.day. We all have days that just don’t go as planned and we don’t have time to meal prep. Or we fall asleep before we have time to lay out our clothes. (Ahem, me.) But don’t beat yourself up about it. Simply forgive yourself and start again. That’s the great thing about habits. You have the control to pick that habit back up and start again.
How have you established a habit? How have habits bettered your life? Let me know in the comments!