Posts by "daniel clough"

Being good with money

The topic of personal finance has been on my mind for the last few days.

I’ve been reflecting on how I invest. It hasn’t changed since I wrote Investing, Simply, one year ago. That’s a good thing, because I’ve settled on something that works, and is right for me.

I’ve also spent the last six months getting back to some basic principles for managing money. Eighteen months before that, I was self funding an app and doing a bit of consulting. I was spending more than I was earning, so I wasn’t practicing most of these principles. This changed six months ago, when I joined DIGIT and relocated to Dublin.

I figured it’s a good time to bring together my views on personal finance.

My relationship with money has changed in the last few years. I used to care mostly about being rich. My goals were to have a house worth ‘X’, own fast cars, ‘X’ money in the bank and ‘X’ net worth. Whatever it took.

I was making progress towards my financial goals, but it wasn’t making me happy. I was often stressed and frustrated. I was sacrificing my health and relationships. I panicked and realised I might reach my financial goals, but not make the most out of life.

That said, I still think money is important because it provides freedom. It’s not always obvious, until you need to use it. Some examples include.

  • Weathering economic downturns (property or industry crashes, interest rate changes etc.)
  • Deciding to take some time out to see the world
  • Starting your own business (often requires some type of self funding)
  • Unexpectedly losing your job
  • Taking an extended period of time away from work (for whatever reason you like)
  • Changing career (often requires investment into education and less income in the short-term)
  • Being able to help people
  • Falling ill and needing to take unpaid leave from work

The above are all situations we might find ourselves in – some of them our decisions, others forced upon us. Being financially secure gives you flexibility to handle them, without worrying about money.

I can deal with all the above. I might get some anxiety about moving backwards, but it won’t break me. That’s a great feeling and it’s available to anyone if you stick to some basic principles for managing money.

Below are the principles I stick to. They work for me, so maybe they can work for you:

Save by Direct Debit

Everyone knows they should do this, but most don’t. Set up a separate bank account for saving. Then, set up a direct debit from your main account into the savings account each month – preferably just after you get paid. It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to live without it.

It doesn’t matter how small it is, do whatever you can afford. What’s important is to build the habit of saving. Because it’s automated, there is no action needed from you each month. It just happens.

It’s motivating to see a cash pot grow. You’ll find it won’t take long before you’re thinking about ways to save more and grow the pot even bigger.

Since getting back to working again, we’re saving 17% of our income. Not quite the 50% I was saving when I was single and living at home rent-free. But, now I have a family, we’re on one income and the cost of living in Dublin is high. So, 17% feels a decent number for now.

Clear Debt

A no brainer. A life without debt feels great. If you have debt, make clearing it your top priority. Put every spare bit of cash you have into reducing it.

Even though it’s technically a debt, the only exception for me, would be a mortgage. This is because you’re building equity in a property, which over the long-term appreciates.

I would also suggest saving a small amount by direct debit, even if you have debt. You sacrifice some interest on the debt you choose not to pay off, but you start to build the habit of saving early. It’s well worth the tradeoff.

Know your in’s and out’s

’Run your personal finances like a business’ is a bit of a cheesy saying, but it’s true. You should know your monthly income and expenses down to the penny.

For most people, income is the easy bit, because it’s fairly predictable. Where things tend to get out of control is with outgoings.

I have mine in a spreadsheet. It starts with income, which for me is predictable because I’m on a salary. Next comes rent and utilities (gas, water, tv, broadband etc.) Then, other expenses such as groceries, dog food, petrol etc. Then comes personal spending budgets. What’s left after all that, is saved.

This means I’m rarely surprised. Everything is predictable and I’m able to save a consistent amount each month.

Set a weekly spending budget. Take it out in cash at the beginning of the week

It’s simple, and it works brilliantly. I wrote about it here – Overspending is bad and how to stop it.

Have a cash reserve

After clearing debt, I think building a cash reserve should be the highest priority – 3 months (net) salary, but preferably 6 months. This gives you peace of mind and allows you to deal with any surprises. It also gives you freedom to treat yourself from time to time. All without worrying about where the money is going to come from.

Invest

If you have no debt and a cash reserve, you need to start making your money work for you. Most people underestimate the power of compound interest. Play with this compound interest calculator to see what I mean.

As I said at the start, Investing, Simply still reflects my views on investing. I ended up selling the Woodford funds. I now have everything in low fee indexes (half in S&P 500 and half in FTSE all-share) and I max out my ISA allowance. I have a long-term view (10+ years) and plan to keep adding to them as often as I can.

Be Frugal

I’m convinced being frugal in your 20’s and 30’s is one of the most important factors to getting into a solid position before you are 40. A frugal attitude = a high savings rate = more savings = more to invest = more wealth. You’d be surprised what you can achieve over a period of 10-15 years. Don’t believe me? See 1500days.com or thinksaveretire.com or mrmoneymustache.com or millennial-revolution.com.

Self-Insure

I hate most types of insurance. Premiums keep increasing and insurance companies make it expensive and hard to claim. Feels like a racket to me.

I prefer to self-insure. Instead of having insurance policies, I just draw from a cash reserve when I need to pay for something. Obviously this doesn’t include insurance you have a legal obligation to have (car). Also, if you have a mortgage, I think life insurance for that amount is a smart move.

By the way, I have no idea if this is the best financial approach. I just have this gut feeling that I will be better off dealing with things when they come up. I also hate the process of signing up, renewing and finding competitive quotes etc.

Avoid fast cars

I hate giving this advice, because I love cars. But, I’ve owned a few fast cars and they are a drain. Oddly, I don’t regret them (other than the BMW I bought with a personal loan when I was 20!).

For the last ten years, each car I owned, I have bought outright. I also knew what I was getting into when I bought the fast ones (maintenance and depreciation). They were fun, but they burned a big hole in my pocket.

For the last few years, I’ve got more sensible. I own an 2010 Audi A3 TDI S Line. Looks nice and is super economical. Much smarter.

Some further reading

I’ve read some great books on personal finance in the last few years. Much of it has shaped my current views. Here are some of the main ones:

As I warned at the start of this post, the above is simply what is working for me. They fit with my lifestyle, attitude to life and how I think about risk. I tend to be fairly risk adverse, so the above views tend to fit with that.

If you have any questions or different ways of doing things, I would love to hear them.


My Reading in 2016 (and five recommendations)

I’ve read some great books this year – 33 in total.

The full list is below, but here are my top five (in no particular order):

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Andre’s story is fascinating. His determination to be a winner at all costs is impressive. Even though he hated tennis and faced many setbacks, he had the most remarkable career. It was also interesting to hear about his personal struggles in the background. We assume champions have their shit together, but Andre was a mess behind the scenes.


The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni

People kept recommending this book to me, but for some reason it took me awhile to get round to reading it. I’m glad I did, because it’s awesome. Easy to read and packed with gems. If you run a management team, or are part of one, it’s a must read. It’ll change how you think about teams.


Deep Work by Cal Newport

This was so good, I called it early as my favourite book of the year. When is the last time you worked on something without distraction, and got lost in it for at least an hour? I suspect, it’s hard to remember. This book reminds us what it takes to be focused and productive. Also check out Nate Green’s How to write a million words – on a slacker’s schedule to see deep work in action – it’s brilliant.


On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

This quote from the book sums it up for me – ‘A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard’.

This book changed how I think about writing, and I hope made me a better writer. I summed up my learnings here – 8 Things I Learned From a Writing Legend.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book was so good, I read it in a day. Be warned, it’s a gut wrenching story. A delve into mortality and what it means to live a good life. I wrote a review here.


I hope 2017 is just as good as 2016 for reading. I already have a bunch of great ones lined up!

Here is my full list for 2016:

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss

How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Do Fly: Find your way. Make a living. Be your best self by Gavin Strange

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss.

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Extreme Prey by John Sandford

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco (got about 50% of the way through. Great ideas, but too repetitive. Could easily have been a blog post)

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday (got about 20% of the way through – too waffley)

Gathering Prey by John Sandford

Field of Prey by John Sandford

Silken Prey by John Sandford

Stolen Prey by John Sandford

The Simple Path to Wealth by J L Collins

Winning by Jack Welch (re-read)

Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business by Matt Blumberg

Around the World in Fifteen Friends by Tynan

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Enhanced Edition: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni

Buried Prey by John Sandford

Storm Prey by John Sandford

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Wicked Prey by John Sandford

On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Born For This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do by Chris Guillebeau

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport

Win YOUR Day by Jonathon Knepper & Rochelle Hudson

The War or Art by Steven Pressfield

Phantom Prey by John Sandford

Invisible Prey by John Sandford

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller

Level Up Your Life by Steve Kamb

Letters of Notes by Shaun Usher

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (got about 50% through —found it long-winded and hard to read).


Resources are real people

I found myself embarrassed and ashamed recently.

We’ve been having some problems with a project for the last few weeks. We outsourced the work and expected it to take four weeks to finish. We set aside some of our time to help support the outsourcer.

A couple of weeks in, we started to have problems. Our team was spending most of their time supporting the outsourcer. The outsourced project was behind and we were also falling behind on our own work. Not good.

A few of us got closer to the problems in the third week and made some changes we hoped would help. But, by the end of the third week, we were still having some of the same problems.

I decided to get closer to things in the fourth week. The project was at risk and almost definitely going to be late. I’d had lots of conversations about the project to date, but hadn’t got close myself.

We set up a meeting. Our team, a few senior people from our side and the outsourced team. It wasn’t a meeting to complain about the outsourced team. We wanted to talk things through, try and figure out exactly where we were at. Define some next steps.

We had a quick discussion before we dialled the outsourced company. I hadn’t spoken with our developers much, so it was nice to ask some questions and get some facts first hand. I started to better understand the problems and pain they were going through. It struck me that hearing about problems in a few conversations with senior people is all well and good. But, these guys are trying very hard to do a good job and having a tough time with it.

We fired up the video call and the three outsourced developers popped up on the screen. They waved and said hi. There were a few hi’s, how are you doing – that type of thing. I was instantly hit with the reality that these were REAL people.

Real people, probably with families. People with their own internal struggles. People choosing to work hard and late on this project, probably at the expense of their health and relationships. People just as frustrated with the problems we were having with the project.

I appreciate that sounds absurd – of course they are real people. But, up until this point, these three people were one word to me – the outsourced company name. I went from one company name with some bad connotations, to three people saying a friendly hi to me.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed actually. For a few weeks I hadn’t thought beyond the company name and worrying about the set backs. They were resources to me. It reminded me, we are working with real people who are no different to any of us.

My job is quite high level. Most of my conversations are about what groups of people are going to get done, over a period of a few months. What should the priorities be? Who is going to do what? What could go wrong? How might we mitigate that? What’s going wrong now? How can we fix it? When you live at that level, it’s easy to lose sight of actual people. You tend to live in project plans, only seeing numbers of people and time to do things.

One of my biggest strengths is being able to detach myself emotionally from a situation. It means I can look at the facts and make decisions quickly – despite them sometimes being tough.

But, that has it’s drawbacks. It becomes easy to hide behind plans and senior meetings. All I want is facts from senior people, so we can make a decision. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but it’s easy to slip into doing that all the time.

I need to take time to speak to people more. Like, really speak to them. Get first hand information and properly get to the bottom of things. Put myself in other people’s shoes. I’m not talking about micro-managing, but getting a different perspective. It will lead to having a better understanding of situations and better decisions. I’ll also see opportunities to help people.

P.S I’m banning myself from using the word resources!


How I run my life — a few productivity tips

A big part of being happy and successful is about figuring out two things:

  • What’s important to you?
  • How do you organise yourself around what’s important to you?

I’ve been obsessed with goals and productivity for a long time. My thinking has changed a lot in the last fifteen years — but has settled in the last couple.

I’m happy with what I’ve settled on. I’ve gone from rigid goal setting frameworks to having no goals. Instead of goals, I have a bunch of habits and systems that keep me pointed in the right direction. It’s working pretty well. I’m getting stuff done and I’m happier and less anxious.

Here is how I run my life now:

No goals

I experimented with no goals because goal setting was making me unhappy. I was constantly rewriting my goals because I either set them too high or my priorities changed. It was tough at first. I felt lost and aimless. But over time I found habits and systems that replaced goals. I move forward, but in a more flexible way.

I still get urges to set goals. But now I notice them, and let go.

My life document

This is the closest replacement to goals. I have a document called ‘My Life’, which has 3 parts to it:

  • The areas in my life (health, ella & fearne, career etc.).
  • Quotes I like.
  • A list of things that are important to me and that I want to focus on. They are not goals. In fact, I intentionally make them the opposite of smart goals.

You can see my ‘My Life’ doc here.

I look at this document a few times a week. I don’t try and do all these, all the time. They are not in priority order. They are just a collection of thoughts, ideas and things to focus on for now. When I read through the document, it helps bring me back to what’s important. It influences my planning and what I choose to do. Who I try to be.

It’s a living, breathing document. I often add, remove or tweak parts of it — depending on what’s becoming more or less important in my life.

Daily routines

I have morning and evening routines. I get up early in the morning and do my mobility exercises, meditate and write. In the evening, I remember 3 moments in the day I am grateful for and then do my mobility exercises. It means every day I do a great deal of mobility, write and be grateful.

The best advice I can give on daily routines is to keep them simple. Don’t try and do more than 3 things and aim for a little each day. It’s tempting to squeeze lots of things in and spend a lot of time on each thing. This is a guaranteed way to fail. Notice the temptation and don’t do it. Keep it simple and keep it short.

To do list

My to do list keeps me organised and productive on a day to day basis. I use a google doc and it’s basically a list of stuff I need to get done. Make a birthday cake for Fearne’s 1st birthday, cancelling a subscription — that type of thing.

The most fancy I get with it, is to put higher priority items up top. I also group related jobs together (DIY jobs etc.).
Throughout the day, when things pop up that I need to do, I make a note of them (in a pad or on my phone). I then transfer them to the google doc when I next get chance.

Calendar

I use google calendar for all meetings and appointments. Also to remind me of people’s birthdays.

Daily planning

Starting the day without a plan usually leads to an unfocused and unproductive day. So, I take 30 mins each day to make a plan for the day. I used to do it in the mornings after I write. Recently, I started doing it just before the evening so I can more easily switch off as the day ends.

I start by reviewing my to do list and often read through the ‘my life’ document. I also look at my calendar for any scheduled meetings. From these, I make a list of items I want to get done. Once I have what feels like enough, I start a fresh page and make a detailed plan. I split the day into AM, PM and evening. I put times next to scheduled meetings and batch things into work blocks of 90 minutes. Often there is only one thing in a work block, but sometimes I batch related jobs into work blocks.

I refer to this plan several times throughout the day to keep me on track.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. You might be a bit special — like in a weird way.

Yeah, it does seem like a lot of stuff. It surprised me when I wrote it out.

Bear in mind, these habits and systems have developed over many years. They are second nature now and don’t take much time to do. But, boy do they make a big difference to how I spend my time and how much I get done. I couldn’t imagine not having them.

Hopefully some of them are useful and give you ideas. I’m not suggesting you do any, or all these. Everyone needs to find out what it is, that helps them be focused, productive and happy. Trust me, it’s worth the effort and time out figure out.

What’s important to you? How do you organise yourself around what’s important to you? It’s worth thinking about.


How to double your productivity and work less (really)

Favourite book of the year alert: Deep Work by Cal Newport

If you read it and apply only a few of the strategies, I bet you’ll at least double your productivity and work less. Quite a claim I know – stick with me.

What is deep work? Cal Newport describes it as:

Deep Work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task

Stop and think about that. When is the last time you worked like that for at least an hour? How many hours a day fall into that category? Be honest with yourself.

If you’re anything like me, very few. Even those hours are spent fighting urges to be distracted – email, web surfing, twitter, talking or texting a friend, making a cup of tea, tidying workspaces etc.

It’s a subject I’m fascinated by. I ditched my smartphone a while back. I don’t use Facebook. I wake early. I try hard to restrict email and twitter to a 30 minute window each day. I sometimes avoid the internet on a Saturday. I try to avoid any computer or phone use after 9PM.

You’ll notice I said ‘try’ and ‘sometimes’ a lot. It’s hard and I don’t always get it right – less than 50% of the time. But, I’m moving the right way.

Why bother? Why not just chill and be normal? Give into the distraction, it’s harmless. I don’t think it is. I think it eats away at ambition, productivity and a good life. Life is short. Time spent doing unuseful things, is time not spent on what’s important.

I was first introduced to deep work and how powerful it was by reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. The book examines the working routines of more than a hundred and sixty of the greatest philosophers, writers, composers and artists ever to have lived. I was surprised by how few hours people worked – yet many were wildly productive. I found it hard to believe, but I get it now. Just a few hours of deep work each day adds up to significant output each year. Most of us are lucky to grab just a couple of hours per week.

Back to Deep Work. It made me realise I can do much better. It gave useful strategies for working deeply more often. And it motivated me to keep pushing to get better,

Below are some of my insights:

  • Waking up early is important. It’s a great time to do deep work. I use the first hour of the day to do mobility exercises, meditate and write. If I didn’t take advantage of the early hours, they wouldn’t happen consistently.
  • 90 min blocks feel about the right length for deep work. They should be scheduled into the day. Avoid distractions. Focus on one thing. Aim for two or three blocks a day.
  • Now and again, take 2-3 days and isolate yourself. Maybe rent a remote place. Use it to work deeply on something that’s important to you.
  • Think about the best way to incorporate deep work blocks into your life. It’ll be different for everyone. I think my ideal day would look like this:

    • 5-6am: wake, mobility, meditate & write (hour for me)
    • 6-7am: shower, get ready and into work
    • 7-9am: plan the day. 1 x 90 min deep work block
    • 1 or 2 more deep work blocks during the day
    • stop working by 6pm at the latest. Sometimes as early as 4pm.
  • If I need to make a lot of progress on something quickly, this might work:

    • 4.30am: wake and mobility exercises (my non-negotiable habit)
    • 4:45am – 5:30am: shower, get ready and into work
    • 5.30am – 9:00am: plan the day. 2 x 90 min deep work blocks
  • Deep work is hard and mentally draining. 3-6 hours a day is probably the upper limit for most. Doing shallow work between is fine, and often necessary. Separating the two is what’s important.
  • Shutdown rituals help you separate work from leisure. When you work, work hard and smart. When you’re done, you’re done – avoid work entirely. This includes thinking about it. Having a ritual allows you to get closure. Think about what makes you feel like you can switch off. e.g. clearing inbox, making a plan for outstanding issues / the next day, an activity that is the sign of the transition from work to leisure etc.
  • Don’t get tempted to do shallow work, when you should be resting (usually evenings). It will be low concentration, low quality work. It’s not worth the tradeoff. You need to re-charge for the next day’s deep work.
  • Controlling your time spent on social media, internet and email is hard. You need rules and restrictions. You have to be disciplined. Aim for small windows of use, amongst larger blocks of focus.
  • Don’t feel guilty about leisure time. Your subconscious is at work during this time and that’s valuable. Often the greatest insights come during leisure time, or just after it.
  • Take advantage of dead time – walks, shower, commute etc. You can use it to solve problems in your head, plan stuff etc.

I want to finish with a quick personal story.

When I look back at when I felt the most productive, it was 2011 and 2012. I was working at Jagex and I would often arrive at work at 5am. It would mean getting up at 4am. I would spend the first half an hour planning out an awesome day and clearing the inbox. I spent the next 3 hours working on projects and thinking things through. Mostly, before anyone arrived.

It gave me an advantage over others. Most people would arrive at 9am and start frantically checking their inbox (lots of early emails from me!). Then they would rush to their first meeting. I could see that most people were starting the day without a plan and were backpedaling from the get go. They were struggling to catch even an hour of focused work. I put a lot of my productivity down to my early morning focus.

Deep work requires self discipline and routines. It requires a commitment to winning the war of distractions. If you do it, you’ll have a huge competitive advantage over everyone else.

P.S thanks to Nate for introducing me toDeep Work and sending me a copy.