Keeping Track

I spent the other morning hanging out at the car shop. The spouse was on the hook for this, but woke up sick. So I arranged to hang out and work remotely while they gave the car its 120,000 mile service. After about an hour, they came with the news. In addition to the thorough tuneup and inspection, we needed new spark plugs (expected) and a new oil pan gasket (unsurprising, but unpleasant news nonetheless). I took a look at the quote, took a deep breath, and then they went off to improve our car and degrade our bank balance.

I was frustrated because it seemed like this was the second or third big repair for this car this year. So I plugged the amount into my list of car repairs. Then I texted the spouse about the cost of the car over the past year, which as I suspected was pretty high. His response, wisely, was that this was about $170 a month in repairs and that this was an atypical year (with new tires, struts, shocks, and now the plugs and gasket). He reminded me that in previous years the costs were much lower. Yet even in this very high year, that's a lot less than the payment on a new car, especially for a nice hybrid that still runs well and looks good. I also noted, that our even older vehicle, which runs OK, but doesn't look that great only cost us $60 a month in repairs for 2015.

Note: This isn't total cost of ownership by the way (registration, gas, etc.) it only includes maintenance and fixes that we wouldn't have with a new car.

Attitude adjusted. Even though our car cost us a lot in the past 12 months, it's still far less than a new version of itself, or even a new car that's not as good. But without my tracking, I would have been going by my gut feeling and remembering how much work we put into it recently and, well, there I was at the dealership surrounded by bright shiny new cars... this is how poor decisions are made.

Before I get too full of our l33t family decision making, I should point out that it's the tracking that's the secret sauce. By keeping track of repairs over time, it's easy to get an accurate perspective. Of course I'm prone to this kind of behavior. I'm a PM by vocation and blood and just enjoy keeping on top of stuff. But I'm constantly amazed at the benefits of keeping track of things. Here's a list of items that I track, and how they benefit our family:

THE BUDGET
Of all the things I keep track of, THE BUDGET is the most important (see, it's even in caps). There are lots of way to keep a budget, including nifty tools that might be provided by mint.com or your bank. I happen to keep our budget in Excel because it's fun (I realize I may be a minority opinion on that topic) and I can make it do whatever I want. I've got income, bills, spending, savings, and debt going back to the beginning of 2011. I have nifty charts and graphs. I can tell you how much we spent on gas for our cars for the last 5 years or medical expenses in March 2013. I can even tell you how much I spent on the cars themselves. I don't think I have to explain why this is important, but let me just say that without THE BUDGET, we'd be totally screwed.

Dinner
This is new, but I've started keeping a list of what we have for dinner. Why? Two reasons. First is that the more we cook and eat at home, the better (for our budget and our health). So using the Don't Break the Chain technique and my outliner, I mark the days where we cook dinner. Then, I make a quick note of what we had. This is to solve an issue we have with leftovers. Often, we'll look in the fridge and see some leftover (either meal or ingredient -- like half a jar of tomato paste or something). But no one will be able to remember how old it is and, therefore, whether we should eat it or toss it. We were trying to get into the habit of putting dates on things when we put them away, but it's easier to just keep a short log of what we ate when. For example, this morning I found a chunk of pot roast in a container. Checking in my list (which I can do by searching for 'beef') I discovered that we ate pot roast on the 12th... yuck. So that will get tossed out.

Exercise
This is another break the chain effort. But in addition, I've been noting why I didn't exercise. It's usually some early appointment, meeting, or activity. It makes me think I really need a backup time for when I can't exercise before work in the morning. Exercise is a new habit I'm trying to make, so it's easy for me to get derailed by any other change to my schedule.

My Balanced Scorecard
So how do you pull all that tracking together for something useful?

For the last few years, I've been making myself an annual balanced scorecard. This is what I do instead of making new year's resolutions. The balanced scorecard is a tool that businesses and organizations use to align their higher level goals to their day to day activities. It's a way of making sure that everyone in a company is working toward the same strategy and that everyone's performance is based on measurable goals that fit into the overall plan. Of course, I had to shake things up a bit to create my own version.

The original balanced scorecard included four categories: financial, customer, internal business processes, learning and growth. For each category, the business can identify objectives, measures, targets, and initiatives that meet the goals for the category. The theory is that all successful business enterprises should be focused on similar classes of goals. And you could absolutely use the business metrics or adjust them slightly for personal use (customer = family?). My four categories are based on the things in my life I'm currently working on and include: prosperity, health/fitness, artistic/creative, and family. For each category, I try to come up with actionable steps in four areas: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual/magical.

Physical items include the action and tasks you need to take to meet the goal. They are the real-world change to manifest whatever you want to accomplish. Emotional items include perspective change, affirmations, and actions that affect your emotional response to the situation in a way that helps meet the goal (these psychological tricks are super powerful and I'll have a whole post on them at some point). Mental items include tracking and analysis tasks as well as research and learning you need to do to reach the goal. Spiritual items include both religious activities (in the loosest sense: offerings, prayers, meditation/reflection) as well as magical activities. The areas are ordered from most concrete to most ethereal.

This is my actual empty scorecard for 2016
If you were going to fill one of these out, how would it work?

First, create a vision of the life you want. This is the personal equivalent of a corporate vision and like some corporate visions, it can be hard to articulate. Second, identify the three or four broad categories that you want to work on -- where there's a gap between your vision and your current life or where you need to change things up to continue making progress. Third, for each category, come up with a high level goal. Finally, for each area try to come up with actionable and, if possible, measurable steps that match the goal. I find that the steps across the different areas for a category often work neatly together to form the bones of what could be a nice PMPM working.

For example:

Prosperity goal: save 6 months living expenses by cutting expenses
Steps:
   Physical: create a budget based on current spending (this is always the first step to any kind of financial goal by the way -- if you don't know where you are, you won't get far no matter where you're going). Identify how to cut 25% from your spending. Cut your spending and auto-deposit that money directly into savings. If any bonus money comes your way, also put that directly into savings.
  Emotional: stop carrying around your credit card to avoid emotional impulse spending. Create an affirmation that reflects the importance of your goal ("my savings brings me peace of mind").
  Mental: create a nifty graphic (like one of those fund-raising thermometers) where you can track your savings. Put it someplace where you can see it -- put it someplace where everyone can see it. And keep it up to date every month.
  Spiritual: create a sigil for fiscal responsibility and carry it in your wallet. Create a household altar with symbols of prosperity. Offer to your ancestors to help insure the prosperity of your household. Do a honey/money jar to attract wealth. Etc. etc.

Here is one of my actual goals for 2016...

Health / Fitness goal: Improve my overall health by getting regular exercise
Steps:
   Physical: Rejoin the gym and exercise (swim, talk, workout) at least 3x per week, buy gear to exercise comfortably
   Emotional: State intention to be healthy, give myself permission to take care of myself and honor my schedule so that I can do so
   Mental: Track exercise -- don't break the chain
   Spiritual: Practice meditation more regularly by meditating in the steam room or hot tub at the gym

Not every goal will have items in each area and some will be more concrete than others, but the idea is to approach each goal in as many areas as is logical, and to make each items as measurable as possible. This goes for both project goals (where there is a specific end result) and operations goals (where the goal is the formation of a new habit or lifestyle change). Then at the end of the year, you can give yourself a score based on how well you did.

In 2015, I accomplished a 3.5 of 4 on my prosperity goal, which was an operational goal with a large emotional and physical component as well as a mental and spiritual project (which was successful). However, I only managed a 1 of 4 each on my health and family goals and a 2 of 4 on my creativity goal (where I gave myself credit for something I did that wasn't in my initial plan but did move me toward my goal).

See, even I don't reach every goal I set for myself. These tools make things simpler, but that doesn't mean EASY necessarily.

And not everything has to happen at once either. This year I'm starting by focusing on my existing health goal in the hopes of making a lasting habit. My prosperity goal is new for 2016 and I've identified a few things I can do starting now as well, but the bulk of the work will be happening in Q2 and 3 of this year. It helps that I can look at the previous year and figure out what went well and what fell down.

So here's to the strange and derided art of keeping track in order to keep on track.

Comments

  1. I am very low tech at everything - I do keep a budget, but I keep it in an exercise book. My ex-husband set me up an excel spreadsheet once, but it was a failure because I didn't really understand how it worked, and I don't turn on my computer every day. I love my paper budget. I know exactly how much money I have devoted to every area of my life, so that is one less thing to worry or think about. Those periods of my life where I haven't kept a budget I have been perpetually anxious.. because who knows if that amount in the abnk includes enough to pay the electricity bill AND the school fees?

    I am not good at goals though. I drift, and then suddenly have a good idea that would have been better for more planning. For instance last Friday I woke up and decided to move house. Having procrastinated on certain administrative and decluttering tasks for the last year is going to make this much more difficult.

    Adding the spiritual aspect to project planning is something I have never considered. What would you suggest for the project of selling and buying a house? My thoughts so far. Trust - there is a good house out there for me. Gratitude for my current house which has so many wonderful memories. Letting go of things, which will be necessary to move into a smaller house, I feel is quite the spiritual journey. It snaps the ties to that grabby, grubby, soul-sapping need for holding on to mindless pretty baubles.
    What could I add to that?

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    Replies
    1. There's absolutely nothing wrong with low tech solutions. What you do has to first work for you if it's going to work at all.

      Your spiritual tasks are excellent. But remember spiritual can also include magic. For moving house you could try: a house selling enchantment to draw the right buyer/realtor, a house finding enchantment to help you find the right new house, a timing spell to help it all come together, work with your ancestors so they can assist you, cleansing and purifying work so your house registers as a warm, calm place when it's shown, a clear sight working so that when you look at other houses, you see them objectively and clearly.

      Since this is a sudden urge, I also recommend a divination to confirm you instincts.

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  2. My mother keeps a pad of gold star stickers in the pocket in her day planner. Any day she gets a half-hour of exercise, she puts a gold star on the day in her planner. Two kinds of exercise, two gold stars. Three kinds of exercise, three gold stars. She likes to see her planner fill up week by week with golden stars, and there are blessedly few days that don't have any exercise in them at all. She has a similar system for keeping track of the days that she spends in the studio working on art projects, but basically it's a smiley-face sticker with a dot at noon, 3, 6, or 9 depending on whether it's painting, drawing, collage, or textiles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, this is awesome! I especially love the use of it for tasks that are uplifting and fulfilling, rather than just chore-type activities we don't want to do.

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