I confess.  I'm a geek when it comes to personal finance.  I've consumed countless books, blogs, and podcasts on the subject.  There's a recurring idea in personal finance that forced me to reexamine how people make decisions and achieve their goals.  The concept is paying yourself first.  Only recently did I realize that paying myself first doesn't only apply to money!  I urge you to pay yourself first energy-wise as well.  Here's why.

Pay Yourself First

Let's start with "pay yourself first" as it applies to personal finance.  Let's say you have a savings goal and decide to put any money left over at the end of the month toward the goal.  That sounds like forward progress, right?  

The flaw is that rarely is any money left over.  All the other expenses for the month (rent, utilities, food, entertainment, etc.) are going to come out first.  Despite the good intentions, you've paid yourself last.  And the leftovers will be paltry.  You are unlikely to gain traction toward your goal.  

In paying yourself last, it's hard to argue that your actions align with your goal.  So if you're serious about the goal, you need to pay yourself first (or put the desired amount of money toward the goal first) before spending the rest of your monthly income.  High priority expenses shouldn't be given the leftovers. 

Energy Bank Income vs. Expenses

The same logic applies to your energy bank.  Unless you're superhuman, your energy levels fluctuate daily.  Your energy bank starts at a certain level and gets replenished by sleep, energizing activities, and/or reaching your prime time of day.  These are the "income" equivalents to the energy bank.  Throughout the day, different actions and events withdraw energy as "expenses."

For years I've monitored the fluctuation in my energy reserves, but here's the mistake I made.  My energy levels are highest in the morning, yet I used to save important activities for the end of the day when I'm running on empty.  This meant I was setting myself up to fail on my so-called important goals.

Just as my money usage needs to align with my money goals, my energy usage needs to align with my personal goals.  I can only gain traction on my personal goals if I have the energy to put toward them.  

How I Pay Myself First Energy-wise

If I’ve decided to learn a new skill, it is unlikely to go well when I’m lowest on energy.  The same is true for exercise, hobbies, and time with family.  I can't declare that these are important and then schedule them for times that I have only energy dregs left.  It's incongruous.

This realization caused me to adjust my morning routine.  More accurately, it caused me to form a morning routine.  Too often after work I was too tired for activities I wanted to do.  Each day I proclaimed I'd do it the next day, but then the next day would come and I'd be just as tired as the previous day.

My highest priority actions and activities should be done when my energy levels are highest.  So now I schedule important activities before my workday.  I wake up at 6am, do a brief session of yoga, enjoy my morning coffee, and tackle something I care about.  For example, today I'm using that time block to write.

With this change, I feel accomplished before my workday even starts.  If nothing else, by the end of the day I will have done something that is important to me because I paid myself first energy-wise.

Use Your Energy Wisely

Here's my charge to you:

  1. Identify your top personal goals.
  2. Determine your peak times of day.  When do you have the most energy, drive, and focus?
  3. Examine the activities you have scheduled for those peak times.  Are they in line with your goals?  Have you scheduled your most important activities for times that make you likely to succeed?  Or are you giving your goals the leftovers?

Make sure your actions reflect your goals energy-wise just as money-wise.

If I ever got a tattoo, it would be the word "change" in a small, cool font on my wrist.  I know the capacity to change is within me but sometimes I think an external reminder would help too.  I think it'd be cool to have a permanent directive saying, "Hey you, go, change!"  I'm freaked out by the permanence of tattoos, but I love the irony that change is one of the few permanents in life.  It's one of the few things that applies to a person's whole life in all its stages.

Even though it's terrifying at times, the capacity to change is inspiring.  I can't change others and will only waste energy trying.  But I can change myself if I work at it.  What a liberating thought!

How many people in your life right now, at this moment, inspire you?  Or make you want to overcome a weakness?  Or make you want to reach that goal you've been putting off?  If no one comes to mind, then who are you spending your time with?  Choose your influences well.  Family and friends are important, sure, but you've also got to put people strategically into your life who awaken a drive within you.

Let's say you're in charge of two projects: moving a large boulder that got stuck and traveling 1,000 miles on foot.  I know, I know, these are strange projects.  But let's run with it to illustrate one of the reasons why projects fail.

Both projects require a lot of effort.  But how to execute them varies greatly.

If you walk by the boulder every day and give it a light push, it will move nowhere.  Even if you do this every day for a year and try really hard, the boulder will not budge.  Incremental, small steps will lead to failure.  If instead you gather the troops and meet at the same time for one monstrous push, the boulder will move.  

Now imagine gathering the same troops and meeting up to take a single step together for the 1,000 mile project.  Where will that get you?  Exactly one step from where you started.  You will have missed the goal by 1000 miles minus one step.  But here incremental, small steps are perfect.  You can take a series of small steps each day, chart your progress regularly, and estimate how much time remains at your current rate.

Traveling a great distance on foot can be done in a series of small steps, but unsticking a boulder requires a single motion that is coordinated and focused.  Figure out which type of project you're facing.

Did I ever tell you about the time I gave up my seat to imaginary people?  I had been invited to a small, prestigious event and felt honored, albeit nervous, to be included.  When I arrived a few minutes prior to the start, there were 6 seats remaining, 5 in a prime location and 1 awkward one off to the side.  I quickly thought about who else was possibly attending, felt unworthy of the prime seats, and grabbed the awkward one.  While this may sound polite, imagine my sheepishness when the event started and the other spots all remained open.

Note to self:  An invited guest is welcome to take a good seat.  If someone arrives later and you want to pay deference, you can always kindly offer them the spot.  Next time, strike a balance between humility and self confidence.