I’m going to take you on a roundabout today. The premise is simple: if you’ve got no free time, then you should optimize the time you do have. And I promise I’ll end up with some useful personal finance ideas at the end.
A Newt, a lion, and mouse walk into a bar…
Newt Gingerich—even if I find his ideology questionable—tells an interesting parable about the field mouse and the gazelle. Why do lions hunt gazelles, when they could just hunt field mice? A field mouse would certainly be easier to catch.
The answer is simple: calories vs. effort. Let’s compare a gazelle to a field mouse. A lion might need to spend 100x more energy to chase and kill a gazelle compared to a mouse. But the gazelle will offer the lion 1000x the caloric intake over a mouse. Over the long run, a lion will starve on mice—too much energy spent on too little reward.
Newt Gingerich used this idea when deciding how to best use his time in Congress. Go after the big political fish.
I implore you to use this idea in your life, be it in personal finance or otherwise. And we’ll get to some of those personal finance ideas.
But first, I have to tell you about my friend, Shel.
Shel is full of creative ideas. Always thinking, always searching, the epitome of curiosity. It’s a great way to think.
But only a few of Shel’s ideas are good ideas. That’s normal. Many of history’s most influential creatives (Beethoven, Shakespeare, Edison) were chock full of terrible ideas. But among all the terrible ideas were small nuggets of gold. These icons produced a sufficient quantity of ideas such that quality ideas eventually appeared.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.-Thomas Edison
While creating bad ideas is perfectly normal, there is a problem in Shel’s life worth discussing.
Shel tends to chase his ideas—including all the bad ones—down to the bottom of rabbit holes. He spends precious mental energy and time on the never-to-be-realized minutiae of bad ideas. What do I mean?
Shel’s (Too) Deep Thoughts
Here’s an example:
I want to start a business that sells sea shells to people in a midwest city.
They don’t have ocean shores there, you see?
Shel Sells Sea Shells, LLC.
So Midwesterners who want sea shells would order sea shells from me.
But then I began to read and study.-Shel
Iowa has a tax that will affect the shipping fee,
for customers returning the sea shells to me.
If I had a deal…buy a dozen, get the 13th shell free…
then this tax law could ruin the company.
So I need to figure out how to solve that difficulty.
Shel spent time researching the mollusk-FedEx industrial complex in Des Moines. It applies only to returns, and only if there was a “free” deal in the original purchase.
This is the kind of analysis that doesn’t work for someone with no free time.
Shel has too much time…
What do you think about Shel’s analysis? I hope you’re screaming to yourself…BUT SHEL, IS THIS BUSINESS IDEA ANY GOOD!?!?!
IS THERE DEMAND? DOES ETHEL FROM SIOUX CITY ACTUALLY WANT SEA SHELLS?
WHAT ARE THE SIMPLEST ASPECTS OF THIS BUSINESS MODEL?
Answering questions is a good thing. But the key, you see, is identifying the best questions to answer. That’s where Shel hits a wall.
If you’re not careful, you can waste a lot of time answering bad questions. Here are some good (bad?) examples.
- Why is course almost the same word as source?
- How many hairs are on Tom Cruise’s feet?
- What would the prize be for a limbo contest on the Moon?
These are peculiar questions. They’re also pretty pointless. If we’re to maximize the time that we have, then we should focus on answering good questions.
Focus on the best ideas
Answering bad questions makes your brain feel productive, but it’s not a worthwhile pursuit. And that’s the end of the article. Or, it could be. I think this point is important enough that it can stand on its own merits. If you’ve got no free time, then don’t waste time on bad questions. But!…there’s a parallel in personal finance.
Spending energy on improving your personal finance is a good thing. But the key is identifying the best improvements to chase.
Some people pick up every coin they see. Over the course of a year, they’ll pick up $5 or $10 or $20 in change. Not bad! But I think these people are hunting field mice.
Some people only shop at thrift stores. They save 80% or more on clothes, home goods, and little knick-knacks. Each year, they save a few hundred bucks. That’s better! But again—is this a field mouse, or a gazelle?
Other people focus only on the big three: transportation, housing, and food. These people spend time and energy trying to minimize these three biggest expenses in their budget.
They only buy economically efficient vehicles but prefer public transit or bicycles. They look for roommates, or for minimalist living arrangements. No McMansions. And then they reduce their grocery bills and dining out costs, looking for deals and prepping weeks’ worth of meals at once. By chasing these big three, one can easily save thousands of dollars every year. That’s great!
The Pareto Principle: no free time might be ok
The Pareto principle states, for a given event, that 80% of the outcomes are often created by 20% of the causes. If you have an hour to spend optimizing your budget, you can probably complete the most important 80% of the work in the first 12 minutes (20% of 60 minutes = 12 minutes).
Ignore the pennies on the ground; you can do better! Field mice, I say! If you focus on identifying the best opportunities to affect your personal finance, you can profoundly improve your life without wasting time. The problem of “no free time” is minimized, because you’re focused on the biggest ideas.
Not sure where to start? Think about the “big three” that I call out above: housing, transportation, and food. For me, these three take up over 50% of my monthly spending (and that’s after the fact that I’ve owned my car for 8 years and no longer have monthly payments on it).
If you’re interested, here’s my full monthly spending breakdown.
Better yet, if you have no time, make your saving automatic. My friend Jonathan wrote this post about how busy moms can save money…on autopilot!
A Fun Exercise
Answer these three questions. I’ll give you some of my answers as I ask them.
- What do I love and spend a lot of time on? (i.e. gazelles)
- Relationships (though I ought to spend more time with family—hi family! More on this below)
- Squash—my best workout, a game I love, and even a source of side income
- This blog—I love writing! And I hope you enjoy reading it.
- What do I spend too much time on that isn’t worth it? (i.e. field mice)
- My phone. Nobody, to my knowledge, has hoarsely whispered on their death bed, “I just wish I had seen more Instagram stories…”
- Work—at least kinda. In one way, work is the biggest gazelle for me, since it funds every other aspect of my life. But what I mean here is that I spend too much time on my work, and I feel like my long-term work prognosis is that of a mouse-hunting lion. It gives me the calories I need, but saps a lot of my energy in the process.
- Bad moods. This is a tough one for me. Brain chemistry is a cruel mistress. Similar to my comment for “work”—I can’t recall too many moody days that I feel nostalgic about. Improving my mood has been a decade-plus effort of two steps forward, one grumpy step back.
- What do I love that I want to spend more time on? (i.e. gazelles that escape your grasp). My list is loooooong. I hope yours is long too. These are all the things that you find amazing about this world, but that our 24-hour existence makes challenging to fit in. Here are just a few of mine:
- Family. This semi-famous article “The Tail End” illustrates my thoughts extremely well. If you’re over 18, you’ve probably already lived through 95% of the days that you’ll ever get with your parents. The percentage is not quite as high for siblings, but still significant. Make the most of those remaining days. I’d like to move this entry up into the first section.
- Making music. I really like playing the guitar and singing
- Playing games—chess, cards, nerdy role-playing games.
- Traveling. I’m 40% of the way through life, and feel like I’ve seen approximately 0.004% of this planet. Not a good ratio.
- Getting outdoors. I get outside a lot, but not enough for how badly my itch itches.
At life, at work, in personal finance, wherever…identify the field mice and identify the gazelles. And don’t be a Shel, if you can help it.
And, as always, thanks for reading the Best Interest. If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.