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Belly of the Whale: Timeware

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A blogumn by Howard Leder

The last couple days, I’ve become intrigued with a new piece of software on my computer: RescueTime, a software/website combo that bills itself as “Ridiculously Easy Time Management and Analytics.” In a nutshell, it’s a little program that every two seconds scans your computer to see what you are doing.  So, whichever software you are using, it logs it and for how long; if you are on the web, it records the current website you are visiting & categorizes it.  For instance, Facebook it recognizes as Social Networking, the New York Times (or Fierce & Nerdy) as News/Blogs, and so on.

If you’re at all like me — a habitual time waster — you can see the immediate appeal of this.  Like many people, when I’m at work–or at home writing–I tend to drift between “work state” and (for lack of a better name) “procrastination state,” typically riding that forward tilting wave of web surfing, twittering & YouTubing that seems to suck up countless hours of my waking life.  (Lately, of course, there’s the presidential election, which seems to require near constant surveillance out of fear that the whole bloody thing will unravel in a repeat of 2004.)  This is a state of affairs that I’ve been almost perpetually unhappy with and that I’ve been looking for ways to reform.

The first thing almost anyone will tell you when trying to make a change — particularly when breaking an addiction or letting go of a bad habit — is to develop awareness of your behavior. It’s a model I’ve put to use elsewhere in my life, particularly in regards to money.

Several years ago, I woke up & found myself in heavy debt. I had known in the back of my mind that I owed crazy amounts of money to people in seemingly every direction, but had never really dealt with it in any kind of serious way.  Things (on your planet you call them bills & taxes) were constantly sneaking up on me, catching me by surprise.  Money just seemed to slip through my fingers, without me having any real sense of where it all went.

Things became so bad, that at one point I started attending meetings for Debtor’s Anonymous — which for various reasons wasn’t a good personal fit — but I did come away with one very useful tool: numbers.  The first thing they have you do in the program is track how much you spend & earn.  Every penny.  Indeed most financial planners will tell you to do the same if you’re trying to get a grip on your spending.  So starting about a year & a half ago, I began carrying a little notebook with me everywhere.  Every time I spent, I wrote it down.  Every time I got a paycheck, it went into the book.  Then every night, I would transfer all that info into the program Quicken on my computer.

Quicken is a pretty great tool if you’ve never used it.  It allows you to categorize everything you spend and makes kick ass reports and charts that let you analyze where the cash is going.  I love the charts!  I have been fairly rigid about my record keeping.  So when I wail to the heavens, “Where has all my money gone???” I can now turn to Quicken and get a fairly precise answer.  And it isn’t always pretty.

But it has helped me to reign in my spending.  This past year I made a career shift that resulted in a fairly sizable pay cut.  Using my numbers from Quicken, I was able to spot places I could cut back spending.  One of the most remarkable changes, though, has centered on bouncing checks.  In the previous Regime of Moi, I had a tendency to bounce numerous checks; during certain periods of my life, I was bouncing at least 2 or 3 a week. As you can imagine, that adds up very quickly in NSF fees.  If I had to guess–conservatively–I would say I’ve spent at least $5000 in bounced check charges in the last 7 years.  It was that bad.  Since I’ve started keeping my numbers, though, I’m pleased to reveal that I have not bounced a single check.

So, I’m going to use RescueTime in the same spirit.  Quicken, in its cold, accounting sort of way, held up a mirror to the way I live: You spent this; end of argument.  I’d like to change the way I spend my time, but I think it’s going to take seeing my life pinned down on a ledger in all its pathetic glory to begin.