How to Budget: The 1-to-5 Minutes Rule

What Is a Habit?

As I mentioned in my first article, What Is a Budget and Why Does It Matter?, I believe that the ideal financial goal is to develop a daily habit of budgeting. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word habit, as I use it in this series, as “an acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” Let’s discuss this definition in more detail:

A habit is acquired: It is possible to learn and establish new habits no matter one’s age or life circumstances. The fact that a habit is acquired implies that it is a deliberate action that develops due to diligence and practice, just like any other skill you may have learned, are learning, or hope to learn. It must be worked at consistently; it does not just “happen.”  

A habit is a mode of behaviour: Habits are acted out. Essentially, your life is a succession of patterns of behaviours (read: habits) you have repeated so often that they have become second nature to you—but they can be changed if you apply yourself to the task.    

Habits [are actions that] become nearly or completely involuntary: You wouldn’t expect to become fluent in another language in just a month or even a year. You wouldn’t expect to play the drums comfortably and competently in that same amount of time, either. Yet, you probably know that such goals are within the realm of possibility, given time and practice. With proficiency comes instincts. This is true with any skill set, budgeting among them.        

As opportunities present themselves in your daily life, you have the power to make the decisions that align best with your goals. If you want to improve your financial situation, thereby improving your life in general, you must first work hard to establish the individual behaviours that, added all together, will constitute a habit of budgeting. It will take time, and it will be hard at first to deny your current instincts (read: your current undesired habits). Overtime, it will become less and less difficult, until one day you realize that you are not thinking nearly as much about choosing the right financial decision —it will just happen!

Furthermore, the difference between learning a habit like budgeting and something like a musical instrument or a new language, is that budgeting does not require an incrementally greater dedication of time and energy as you improve. Almost all financial/budgeting tasks require 5 minutes or less of your time (more on that below).

At this point, you may be wondering—that’s nice and all, but how do I get started?

Start Strong by Starting Slow

“When you feel the need to speed up, slow down.”

Martin Štěpánek (world class freediver) to Kimi Werner (freediving underwater huntress)

I believe it’s best to start slow and to start small. Start so small, in fact, that it is impossible for you to generate any excuses that justify not doing the task. I suggest that to start you dedicate one or more sessions of minimum 1 and maximum 5 minutes per day to the task of budgeting/finances—or what I call the 1-to-5 Minutes Rule.

This may strike you as absurd, to dedicate so little time to a task, but I ask you—which scenario do you prefer?:

Dedicating 30-60 minutes of your busy life to figuring out all of your finances (whatever that means) only to realize you’ve underestimated the time it will take by about 5 hours, generating all kinds of frustration, irritation, stress, and anxiety.

OR….

Finding 5 minutes of time in your day to execute a single action which you can concretely check off as done and move on to the next action and the next and so on and so forth until one day you realize you’re actually doing your finances—and it’s not that hard or overwhelming at all!

It’s easy to avoid doing a task, especially an unfamiliar and unpleasant task, when it’s seen as a massive consumption of energy and time. Not only do you have to find a time to fit it into your habitual—and probably already overbooked—schedule, but then you have to summon up the will-power to sit down and do the task. And even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll manage to repeat the process on a regular basis, thus invalidating the effort you put into the task the one time you did manage to do it.

Those problems disappear when the task is reduced to five-minute increments. Rare is the person who can find genuine, honest reasons that prevent them from dedicating five minutes of their daily time to a necessary task. You only need go on Google to find an abundance of statistics revealing the hours upon hours we spend in front of our screens every single day—and not doing important stuff, either, but torturing our self-esteem on social media and rotting our brains on Youtube (I do it, too).

The beauty of the 1-to-5 minutes rule is that you’re setting yourself up for success. Here is how it works:

Determine the “overall action” you want completed
Break that “overall action” up into its smallest possible units of individual action
Tell yourself that you will sit down—for no longer than 5 minutes—once per day every day this week to complete one of those individual actions
Give yourself a mental “congratulations” whether you’ve worked on the task for one minute, one and a half minutes, three minutes, five minutes, or anything in between
The point is to accomplish something, no matter how small: Even if all you do is sit your butt on the chair and create the empty folder labelled “Finances”—that’s accomplishing something! That folder wasn’t there five seconds ago, so you are literally one step closer to your goal than you were before. Remember: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

When I begin something new, I give myself credit even if all I do is think about doing the task. The power of the mind is not to be diminished in creating habits. I will write a future article addressing this topic, because it is absolutely crucial. Visualization of a task is almost as important as its execution, and sometimes taking some distance from a task to think about it is a great way to figure out what’s working and what’s not.

So, if you feel a little bit like this puppy when you’re trying to take on the monster that is your finances, you may actually be more on the right track than you thought! 😉

It’s Not the Habit, It’s the Technique: A Case Study

I truly believe that this method is a good approach to whatever skill/habit (in my opinion, a skill and a habit are interchangeable) you’re wanting to learn. Starting about a year and a half ago, I created and applied the 1-to-5 rule to build my practice of stretching and exercising.

I told myself that if I worked out for anywhere between 1 to 5 minutes, I would give myself a mental check mark and pat on the back. When I started, I could only stretch for 1 minute at a time (I timed myself), but because of the rule I had established, I was not allowed to feel like a failure—I had to give myself a “pat on the back,” even for that one measly minute.

It wasn’t a straightforward process. There were periods of time when my “rest” day extended for many weeks. But—again—thinking about the task was included in the 1-to-5 rule. The goal was to actually exercise, but thinking about exercising was a way of getting me there. If I thought about it enough, eventually I would start up again (and I did).

Even though I made little to no progress in my flexibility or core strength, I did make progress in my ability to make time for my exercising. Thinking about exercising even when I didn’t act upon the inclination gave me time to troubleshoot what was and was not working, and my exercise time increased gradually over time.

Each skill/habit/activity will differ in its details. Budgeting differs from exercise in that it does not require additional time as the practice matures. But the founding principle still applies in general.

 I don’t have pictures of myself exercising, but I applied the 1-to-5 minutes rule when studying for my motorcycle knowledge test.

Task of the Week: Your Online Finance Folder

“Five minutes spent in sharpening the … shovel before work will save hours of time on the job, and the back won’t be so lame the next day.”

Anonymous

This week, I suggest that you create a folder on your devices in which you bookmark the links to the login page all of your online accounts or recurring expenses: bank accounts, credit card accounts, manual payments, automatic payments, even your stock investments. You don’t need to login yet, you just need to bookmark the exact place you go to go to login.

Make sure you have your bookmark toolbar displayed in your browser
Place the folder somewhere roughly in the middle of the bar so it is pretty much directly in your sight of vision when you look at your screen.

What I see when I open my browser

Don’t save the website’s home page. Bookmark the exact login page. Some websites require you to search around to find out where to login in to your account. Eliminate having to repeat that process every time you want to access your account.
Keep your bookmark titles SHORT. Keep it tidy. That makes a big difference in whether you ever open the folder again.
Create a bookmark for EVERY recurring payment or investment, even the ones you pay automatically or don’t pay online. For example, our vehicle insurance comes out of my husband’s checking account automatically. I found the online page with our local insurance broker’s contact information and bookmarked that. Another example: we pay our rent cash, so I bookmarked a random Google page and labelled it “RENT.”

It’s important to have a visual reminder for every bill, no matter how you pay it.

My finance folder, expanded.

As you can see, my finances are relatively simple, but this system can be expanded as needed to meet your needs. Create subfolders to keep things organized and manageable. Label the folders to whatever makes sense for you. It’s your folder, your system. My pictures are just templates to be modified as you see fit.

I recommend adding this bookmark folder to every device you may realistically use for your finances. For example, I have this exact set up on the following devices:

My phone
My tablet
My personal “office” laptop (my office is in the bedroom hehehe)
The family laptop (located in the kitchen/dining room)

Caveat: You do not need to set up automatic login on all of these devices; but it’s important to have the website addresses readily accessible anywhere you may use them. You never know when you may want to “pop on” to one of these accounts, for whatever reason, and having them already ready for you makes everything so much easier.

You may not recall all of your bills in one sitting, and accounts you need to add may pop to mind at times when you are not near your device or truly can’t take the time to act on the thought. Here is a very easy and convenient way I make notes to myself:

I pull out my phone
I open up Messenger (it can be any other instant messaging app you use regularly)
I send a message to myself
When I have time, I pull out my phone and make use of the note(s) I made

The benefits of this system are:

It’s super quick
I pretty much always have my phone on me or accessible nearby
The message is sent right away. Even if I don’t have data or Wi-Fi, the message is displayed immediately and saved automatically
Once the note is written, I no longer have to use brain power to remember it, relieving stress and anxiety
All my notes are gathered in one place that’s convenient to access
The benefit to using Facebook is I can also login to my account on my laptop in the rare situation my phone isn’t readily accessible.

A Note On Pacing:

If your finances are in such a state that even going to a credit card website is terrifying, then I suggest the following steps:

Spend the 1-to-5 minutes of your day just thinking about creating the folder. Stop there. Let the folder sit empty in your mind.    
Repeat this visualization until it becomes so mundane and boring that you find you can actually execute the action for real (be careful: the temptation may be to stop thinking about the action rather than executing it. Don’t let that happen)
Once that’s done, stop, step away from the computer, and resume your other activities
Next, visualize the first account you’d like to bookmark to the folder. Start with the account that feels the least threatening
Visualize this process until it also feels achievable
It may also help to visualize the 5 minutes. Try and feel the passage of time in your mind. If it helps, visualize only 1 minute instead of 5. Hopefully you’ll find that thinking of the task in terms of just a few minutes is not as scary as imagining minutes upon unending minutes of financial agony
Repeat this process until you have a complete folder. This may happen after a couple of days, after a week, or longer. That is completely fine

Remember, this isn’t a race. This is about you and your life. You’re not competing with anyone. So move at your own pace.


When you take your time, you have more time.

I hope this article helped. See you next week for the next step!


Head over to the series masterpost to start the series from the beginning or to find a specific article within the series.

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