Pay Yourself First with the Important but Not Urgent

(or) Why I Brush My Back Teeth First

“Do what you love to do, what you are waiting to do, what you’ve been born to do, now. Spend at least one hour a day doing whatever you simply love to do—what you deeply feel you need to do, in your heart—in spite of the daily duties that seem to constrain you.”

 —David Deida, The Way of the Superior Man

What sounds like a bigger drag: writing down every penny you spend or every calorie you consume? I shiver when I hear about keeping these types of journals. They’re too confining, and I imagine they are unsustainable for everyone not named Richard Nixon. Plus, you can accomplish your goals by simply “paying yourself” first.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey suggests creating a chart to prioritize your activities:

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important Performing the Heimlich Spending time with loved ones
Not Important Answering a ringing phone Randomly surfing the web

We invariably spend too much time in the bottom left corner, doing things that are pressing but not important. For lack of a better cliché, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If, however, we want to optimize our life, we need to find ways to spend more time on the important, non-urgent activities. Working on your art, taking a photography course, exercising, taking your car (and your teeth) in for routine maintenance, writing letters, meditating, cleaning out your closet, and volunteering are examples of things that people tell me are important but that they just can’t fit into their life.

That’s why I brush my back teeth first. If I start with the front teeth–which are more urgent since that’s what people see, I’ll run out of time or lose interest before getting to the back teeth–which are more important since that’s where plaque builds up.

For your personal finances, at the start of the month, set up an automatic transfer to your savings or brokerage account. Most of us tend to spend what’s ever available to us and leave nothing to save. When you pay yourself first, you meet your savings goal and adapt to spending less (without having to keep a journal)—and most likely you’ll never miss the money.

On the work front, if you have to work over the weekend (and this goes for kids and adults), start Saturday morning rather than Sunday night. Beyond the psychological side of things, it’s critical that you spend time working on the business and not just in the business. It’s so easy to get caught up in putting out fires that you don’t find time for strategic and creative planning. Then you end up falling behind your competitors, which leads to not having a business to work in or over-paying consultants to rescue you. The best business leaders find time to turn off the phone, step away from the details and work on the non-urgent but important parts of their business.

For your health, whether it’s having a morning smoothie (see my column for recipes) or making a healthy meal to pack for lunch, find a way to get your basic nutrients early in the day. This gives you more freedom and choices for happy hour or an afternoon snack. Plus, you’ll feel more satiated and digest your food better. If possible, try to work out in the morning as well. Even if you only have time for 90 seconds of jump rope or pushups, you’ll carry a sense of accomplishment with you for the rest of the day.

I understand that life gets busy. I know that the things that you love to do get crowded out by the things that you have to do. To guard against that, here are 5 ideas:

  1. Create a chart like the one above and post it where you can see it several times a day—on your mirror, fridge or bulletin board—so you’re constantly reminded of what’s important.
  2. Schedule a recurring date with your loved ones and honor it.
  3. Create a ritual around important activities that feel like chores. For example, the last Saturday of every month, go to a park to work on your budget and then go to your favorite restaurant.
  4. Whatever your biggest priority is, do it first thing in the morning.
  5. Appreciate the freedom and sense of satisfaction you create when you pay yourself first.

Before noon on Sunday, I had finished writing this column, worked out, and made a smoothie. Since I “paid” myself first, I got to enjoy a lazy Sunday. There’s a big difference between loafing on the couch watching the NBA with the satisfaction of having already taken care of the important things versus loafing on the couch with the dread and guilt of what you still have to do.

So next time someone nags you to take out the trash, tell them you’ll take care of it–after you finish brushing your back teeth.

4 Responses to Pay Yourself First with the Important but Not Urgent

  1. dk says:

    Great article, it vividly described me right down to Sunday sports guilt syndrome. Keep em coming. I used covey but hated carrying it and went back to pocket notepad. is his digital version good?f If I can get on ipad, I’ll buy both tomorrow. Thx, dk.

  2. carra says:

    i love this article. as a busy person, i try to maintain a schedule of “important but not urgent” things in my life: yoga, produce shopping, beautifying and family dinners. is it shallow to admit beautifying as a priority? ;). thanks dinks, keep em coming!

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