How I Got My Groove Back

20 November 2015 · 2 comments

It’s been an interesting week here in Savannah.

After Kim and I settled here six weeks ago, I slipped into a sort of routine. I’d get up in the morning, answer email, do a bit of work, go for a five-mile walk, come back and do more work, and then call it a day. Much of the time, I struggled to get my writing done. It felt like everything was rusty, like I was trying to remember how to make things move again.

That’s changed now, and in a big way.

For the past four-and-a-half days (it’s almost noon on Friday), I have been a writing machine. I haven’t been able to tear myself away from the computer.

I get up in the morning and sit down at my desk. I sit there, clacking away at the keyboard until dinnertime (with only a brief break for lunch). I’m not going for walks, I’m not answering email, and I’m not getting anything else done that needs to get done.

This will be a problem if it continues indefinitely, but for now I’m just riding the wave. It feels so good to have my groove back. This is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi means when he describes the psychology of flow. I’m doing meaningful work that challenges me, and it makes me feel terrific.

Note: As you might expect, 95% of what I’m writing is for Money Boss, my new personal-finance blog. The site went live this week, and I’ve been backfilling the archives with bits and pieces I wrote this summer. Plus, I continue to write long essays as part of the “financial freedom crash course” I’m sending people when they sign up for the email list.

What was it that helped me find flow once more? It was a combination of a few things.

  • First, I’ve begun reading about money again. After I left Get Rich Slowly, I stopped reading personal-finance books. It was as if I took five years away from immersing myself in the subject. Now, though, I’m re-reading classics (like The Millionaire Next Door), finding new favorites (like the Warren Buffet biography The Snowball), and searching for other books about wealth. The stuff I read is constantly triggering new ideas for articles. I love that!
  • Second, I’ve been talking about money with readers and colleagues. I’ve always been piss-poor at answering emails, but when I started Money Boss I made a vow to reply to as many messages as possible. (This is something Chris Guillebeau does that makes a big impression on his audience.) So, I’ve been reading the email people send me, answering their financial questions, and sharing stories and ideas. This too has given me lots of ideas for articles.
  • Lastly, I’ve been freewriting. One of the sucky things about being a writer is that the stuff you produce when you’re “cold” usually isn’t very good. In fact, it’s often terrible. But novice writers — or experienced writers who have forgotten — don’t realize that it’s this shitty early stuff that sets the stage for the better stuff later on. You’ve got to push through it. You’ve got to produce a lot of words that will never see the light of day before you get to the gold. I’m finally getting to the gold.

The bottom line: I’m churning out articles at a terrific rate, and it feels awesome.

Meanwhile, Kim is experiencing a similar resurgence in her own world.

When we arrived in Savannah, she started the long process of getting her dental hygiene license in Georgia. She’s been working on starting a side business (selling stuff online), but that’s not really her passion. In fact, she kind of hates the internet. But she loves people (and people love her). Working with patients puts her into a flow state of her own.

On Monday, Kim’s hygiene license finally came through. On Tuesday, she hit the streets, going door to door across Savannah, dropping off her résumé and chatting with doctors. On Wednesday, she worked her first fill-in shift — and she’s already scheduled for several more. She even has an interview for a temporary full-time position!

When Kim came home after her first day on the job, she was glowing. “I missed that,” she said. “I missed talking with people and doing something that I’m good at.”

I know what she means.


“You know what I miss?” Kim asked last night. We were sitting in bed, reading. “I miss the way we read The Martian together. That was fun.”

Last month, during our week-long quest to find a place to live for the winter, we read/audited Andy Weir’s The Martian as we drove all over Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Sometimes I read aloud to us, but mostly we listened to the audiobook. Kim’s right: It was fun.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “When you finish the book you’re working on, you can pick something else for us to read together. We can read it to each other. And if the audiobook is good, we can listen to that too.”

We’re both excited about this plan.

You see, Kim and I both used to be big readers. One of my first uses of the internet was to track my reading. When we were married, Kris and I used to spend our evenings reading together instead of watching television. And when I discovered audiobooks about a decade ago, I learned that listening to a book is often better than reading one.

Note: Is “auditing” a book the same as reading it? Folks who’ve never done it say “no”. But to those of us who’ve discovered the magic of audiobooks, auditing can actually be superior to reading. A great narrator reading a great book takes things to a whole new level. Even if the recording is mediocre, the reader still tends to retain more of the material. The biggest drawback? Audiobooks are linear, and there’s no way to take notes. With a paper book, things are more “random access” (which is great for nonfiction) and you’re free to mark the hell out of the pages.

When Kim and I first started dating in early 2012, we’d both been out of the habit of reading for a while. Things didn’t get any better during the next three years. But when we started our RV trip, things changed. Suddenly we didn’t have our old habits to fall back on. We had less access to easy entertainment. We had to entertain ourselves.

As a result, we both began reading again. (In fact, we made that a priority before we left Portland. We each brought a shoebox of paperbacks with us.)

Over the past six months, I’ve read (among others):

  • Colin Woodard’s American Nations. This is an interesting (if flawed) look at how the U.S. is a country made up of eleven smaller “nations”. Each nation is a cultural unit unto itself with it’s own political and social standards. Sure, we as a country share some commonalities, but there’s a reason Kim and I feel like foreigners here in the South. We’re from the Left Coast, and our values are very different from the folks we’re around right now. To my mind, the main flaw with the book is where the author divides his nations. To him, it’s an academic exercise based on statistics. It’s like he hasn’t really experienced the areas he’s writing about. If he had, he’d probably split things up differently. (When taken with Founding Brothers, American Nations has helped me understand that the U.S. was never actually “united”. We’ve always been divided — and probably always will be.)
  • James Michener’s Centennial. Michener is one of Kris’ favorite authors. The entire 23 years we were together, she tried to convince me to read him but I never made the time. My mistake. He’s great! I started reading Centennial as we approached northeast Colorado, where the novel takes place. Over about 1000 pages, the author explores the history of this region in a way that makes it come alive. Great stuff. I now plan to read Chesapeake before we explore Virginia in the spring.
  • Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is a book I like to revisit every couple of years. I enjoy the whole fiction/philosophy subgenre, and books like Siddhartha and The Razor’s Edge always bring me back for more. (Apparently this genre is called bildungsroman. It’s a thing.) Kim and I listened to most of Motorcycle Maintenance as we drove across Montana and the Dakotas, where the story takes place. For hours at a time, the cab of the RV was quiet as we listened to Pirsig’s discussion of Quality. More fun than you might think.
  • Willa Cather’s My Antonía and O Pioneers!. While stuck in South Dakota, I re-read Cather’s amazing My Antonía, which explores what life was like for immigrant families on the plains of Nebraska during the 1800s. I followed that up with O Pioneers!, which is more in the same vein. I prefer the former with its many anecdotes of death and destruction. These books are bleak, just like the land they describe.
  • Charles Portis’ True Grit. Most folks only know this as a movie. That’s too bad. True Grit is one of the best books I’ve ever read. No joke. It’s fantastic. The main character, Maddie Ross, has one of the strongest narrative voices I’ve ever encountered, with a distinct worldview that just can’t be conveyed on film. This is a short book (I read it once in one sitting) and it’s hilarious. Like Jonathan Strange, the author is funny funny funny although many readers miss the humor by taking everything at face value.

I’ve also begun reading science fiction again after an almost twenty-year lull. I’ve read (or re-read):

Right now, I’m reading Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (fun space opera with excellent character observation) and auditing The Millionaire Next Door. (The latter is homework for future Money Boss articles.)

I’m pleased with how much I’ve read recently. And Kim has read even more than I have! (I sometimes get distracted by blogs and Reddit.) It feels good to re-enter the world of words.

One big difference between how I read today and how I used to read? Most of my current reading is done on the Kindle. Yes, yes. I love paper books too, and I’ll always have them. Paper books are especially good for nonfiction (for reasons mentioned above). But when traveling, my Kindle is a lifesaver. It contains hundreds of books — but is smaller and lighter than even one. In the eight years since the first Kindle was released, I’ve purchased 310 books for the device.

Note: I prefer the “old-fashioned” Kindle Voyage with a black-and-white screen and mechanical buttons for turning pages. I have the Kindle app on my iPad, of course, and I do use it, but when I’m reading for extended periods — especially for bed — I want to not be using a computer or iPad-type screen. The Kindle’s “digital ink” is easier on my eyes and doesn’t disrupt my sleep patterns. (If I read the iPad before bed, I have trouble staying asleep.) Plus, my Kindle Voyage is tiny and light. I love it. It may be my favorite electronic device — and that’s high praise, coming from me!

Also on this trip, I started listening to audiobooks while falling asleep. I generally don’t recommend this. If you listen to books at bedtime, you’ll nod off after a few minutes, and the next night you’ll have to struggle to find the last place you heard. But I sleep well while listening to books, so I’ve found a way to make it work for me.

My secret? I only listen to books I know very, very well. On this trip, for instance, I’ve listened to The Lord of the Rings three or four times. I know the series by heart, so it doesn’t matter where I fall asleep. (Plus it’s fun to wake in the middle of the night and hear more of the narration.) My other go-to is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is probably my favorite audiobook ever. So good!

There you have it: A run-down of my recent reading habits. Now it’s your turn. Based on what you see here, do you have any recommendations? Because it’s fun to read about the places we visit, I’m looking for books that are able to capture regional character. I also want to continue kindling my passion for science fiction. And, as always, I’m interested to hear about good financial books. (If you have recommendations for great books read by great narrators, that’d be awesome too.) What should I read next?


After nearly two weeks, Kim and I are finally feeling settled here in Savannah. We’re learning the layout of the city, and discovering how to get around our neighborhood. (I like to walk almost everywhere, which is a challenge in the South. But I’m making it work.)

Both of us have started working on our respective online projects too. Kim is taking Steve Chou’s online commerce course, and last week placed her first order for sample products from China. I’ve been learning my mailing list software, and last Friday sent out the first test email for Money Boss. (Here’s the online version of that test email.) If all goes according to plan, I’ll send out my first real Money Boss email later this week. And once the designer is finished with the website, we can launch the darn thing!

I’ve been disconcerted, however, to find that I’m struggling at times to get work done on Money Boss. I’m making great progress, sure, but not as much as I’d hoped. I get distracted. Blame it on my ADHD or blame it on simple lack of willpower, but I have too much email to wade through and too many open tabs in my browsers. I feel overwhelmed.

Because of this, I’m actually getting more work done when I leave my computer and go for a walk. I carry a notebook with me so that I can scribble down stuff as I stroll through the nearby marsh/forest. (I’m not sure what to call this sort of terrain.) But this isn’t an ideal way to work. I want to be able to sit at my computer and get stuff done. The fact that I can’t has been very frustrating.

So, yesterday morning I decided drastic measures were in order. I sat down at my computer and gave myself a workflow makeover.

Too Many Tabs

You see, part of the problem is that I’ve been doing things the same way for years. In some cases, decades. And nothing about my workflow has been thought out. It’s all just sort of evolved over time in a haphazard sort of way. It’s less than ideal.

“How can I improve the way I do things?” I asked myself. “What are the things that frustrate me and slow me down? What are the things that make me feel overwhelmed?”

The first thing I tackled was my problem with tabs. I’m the sort of guy who has dozens of tabs open in his browsers (yes, plural) at any given time. Yesterday morning, I had nine browser windows open between Chrome and Safari, and each window had 8-12 open tabs. You do the math. No wonder I always feel overwhelmed by my browser! This seemed like a good place to start my workflow makeover.

When I thought about why I had so many open tabs, I realized that the pages fell into a handful of categories:

  • My email and social media tabs.
  • The sites I read regularly.
  • Articles I want to read when I have time.
  • Articles I’ve already read and want to save for later.
  • Pages I’m actively using to complete my work.

Obviously, the latter group of tabs is acceptable — but they could all fit in a single browser window. But the other pages? There’s no reason I should have all of them open on my computer. I set about finding ways to keep them closed.

Taming Email and Subduing Social Media

Long ago, when the internet was young, I managed my email with a stand-alone program called Eudora. When Eudora became defunct (2007? 2008?), I switched to Mac Mail. Mac Mail was terrible, so I opted for web-based email. The problem with this? For one, more browser tabs. (I have three email accounts that I use regularly.) For another, I have a bad habit of checking my email tabs over and over and over again.

My best bet, I decided, was to return to a stand-alone email client. I bit the bullet and set up Mac Mail again. We’ll see how it goes. I don’t love it, but it helps me get email out of my browser. (For a program that’s been around for so long, it has some severe problems.) If it doesn’t work well, I’ll try to find another option. Anyone have recommendations?

At the same time, I tackled social media. I’m not a huge sucker for Facebook, but it does drain time now and then when I ought to be focused on other stuff. So, I installed the Kill News Feed Chrome extension. I can still see notifications and I can still post to Facebook groups, but I can’t look at cat photos are read about what my friends have been up to. Now I need to pull out my iPhone or iPad to waste time in this way.

Plus I set up a Buffer account, which will allow me to schedule posts to Facebook and Twitter. Now I can batch-process my social media work once each week. Yay!

My Reading List

Next, I had to refine the way I read the web. Instead of browsing to my favorite sites and leaving open tabs with articles to read later, I decided to relegate most of my reading to my iPad. (I don’t do work on my iPad. I use it purely for entertainment at the end of the day, which is a good time to read the interesting articles I’ve found.)

I divided the sites I read regularly into three groups:

  • For the sites I value most, I subscribed by email. I don’t like getting swamped with email updates (which is why I intend to keep Money Boss emails to a minimum), but I don’t mind getting occasional messages from places like Nerd Fitness, James Clear, Afford Anything, and Mr. Money Mustache.
  • I subscribed to other sites I like by RSS. Yes, I know RSS seems to be dying, but I think it’s still a great way to get updates. Because I already had Reeder installed on my iPad, I downloaded the desktop version of the app. Now I can sync sites between devices.
  • Finally, I banned Reddit and Wimp and similar sites from my browser. I don’t know a way to actually block myself from these time-wasters, but I found iPad apps for each and will do my best to train myself to not open them on my laptop.

Once I’d set up my reading list, the next problem was figuring out what to do when I find articles I want to read later. I find interesting stuff all the time that I can’t (or don’t want to) read at the moment. In the past, I’ve just left these articles in open tabs — tabs that sit there for weeks at a time. (Or months! As I was cleaning things up yesterday, I realized I’d had one article open since late May. Yikes.)

I remembered that I once downloaded an app called Instapaper, which was designed to do exactly what I wanted: save interesting articles for later reading. A quick search revealed the app still exists and that there’s a desktop client that syncs with the iPad. Perfect. I installed the Chrome extension and quickly archived all of my open tabs. (I’m not sure if I can tag or categorize the articles I save. It’ll be nice if I can, but it’s not a dealbreaker if I can’t.)

Lastly, I had to find a way to save websites and articles for future reference. The obvious solution was Evernote. I’ve had an Evernote account for five yeas, but have never been able to incorporate it into my workflow. Now, however, I see that it fits perfectly into what I’m trying to accomplish. Whenever I need to save something (whether on the web or in Instapaper), I’ll simply funnel it to Evernote.

In theory at least, this new workflow should keep my open-tab problem to a minimum. Best of all, it lets me offload my reading lists to my iPad, which is where I prefer to consume this sort of stuff anyhow.

Writing with Purpose

The final problem to solve? How to write.

I’ve been using BBedit (and/or Text Wrangler) since the 1990s. It’s great. Except that it’s a Ferrari when all I need is a Honda Civic. So, I looked around at other text editors. I found Sublime Text 2.

Why a text editor?I use a text editor for all of my writing. People often ask why. “Because I can’t use a typewriter,” I sometimes joke, but it’s not far from the truth. When I write, all I want to do is write. I don’t need the fancy stuff that comes with a word processor. And I don’t like composing in a web browser (too many things can go wrong). A text editor lets me focus only on writing. It’s just what I need.

Surprisingly, Sublime is, well, sublime. In fact, it’s almost perfect for me. The interface is clean clean clean. I’m able to customize the display (I prefer light text on a dark background). It has handy HTML syntax highlighting. And there’s a distraction-free mode. I’ve only been using it for about an hour — to write this article — and I love it already.

Back to Work

There you have it: In just a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, I managed to overhaul my entire workflow. I upgraded my computer to the latest version of the operating system, changed the way I read articles on the internet, and — I hope — made myself a more productive writer.

I’m not sure if these changes will stick, but I suspect they will. It’d be awesome to stop getting distracted and frustrated, and instead get more done!

(Obviously, if you have any suggestions for how to reduce distractions and improve productivity, I’d love to hear them. What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?)


Everything in life is a trade-off. If you choose to do one thing, you’re implicitly choosing not to do other things. If you choose to have children, for instance, you’ve made a tacit choice to forego many of the things you valued before. Or, if you choose not to have children, you’re making an indirect choice to never experience all that parenthood has to offer.

Sometimes these trade-offs are obvious. We all know that when we choose to buy a new car, that’s money that can no longer be used for, say, buying a boat. Or a house.

Most of the time, though, trade-offs aren’t so obvious. It’s tough to take into account all repercussions of every decision because usually we don’t even know what all of the consequences will be.

What do I mean?

Trying to See the Future

Let’s take our year-long RV trip, for example. When Kim and I set out on our quest to drive across the United States, we did our best to plan for what lie ahead. We talked with other trailerites. We read books and websites. We considered our own personalities and preferences. For the most part, we did a fine job prepping and packing for life on the road.

We knew that our trip would require certain trade-offs, and we were ready for these. We trimmed our wardrobes to just the essentials. We filtered through all of the Stuff in our apartment to choose only the things we truly valued. (Or, if you prefer, those items that spark joy.) We negotiated living space. We planned an itinerary. We talked about how we were going to eat right and exercise while constantly on the move.

For the most part, our planning paid off. For those trade-offs we could foresee, we did a great job of coping with compromise. Obviously, however, I wouldn’t be writing this post if we’d planned everything perfectly.

There’s No Write Time

There were certain trade-offs we failed to foresee before setting out on this trip. We didn’t anticipate just how exhausted we’d get (mentally and physically) from the constant migration. We should have known — but didn’t — that by drinking beer and wine every night, we’d not only consume way too many calories but also thwart our motivation to work out in the morning. (And we didn’t count on just how frustrating road workouts could be.)

But for me, the primary problem has been a lack of time to write. “I’ll just squeeze my writing time between the cracks,” I thought before we left. But when you fail to make time for your big rocks, they don’t fit between the cracks!

Once on the road, I realized that regular writing would be almost impossible. Kim and I were constantly on the move, either traveling across the country or exploring the places where we parked. Even when I did have time to write — usually early in the morning — it was tough to do so without disturbing Kim in our tiny motorhome.

So, I haven’t written nearly as much as I’d wanted, neither here nor anywhere else. (Only our travel blog has received regular updates, and those haven’t been frequent.)

This lack of writing time was fine at first. It was like a break. I’ve spent the past decade of my life writing constantly, so it was relaxing to not have to think about putting pen to paper.

In time, though, the break became a burden. I’m a writer. It’s not only my vocation but also my avocation. I do it for work and play. Writing is a release for me, a way for me to unburden my mind. When I take a week or two off from writing, it’s a vacation. But when I take a month or two off from writing? I get cranky. And five months — or six? Prolonged torture!

Money Boss

Things came to a head at the end of July. While we were stranded in South Dakota, I wrote an article here about the cost of living. That one article lit a spark inside me that has grown into a raging fire.

“I want to write about personal finance again,” I told Kim on the day I published that piece. “I want to start a new money blog.” I shared my vision with her: A site that built upon the work I did developing the “Be Your Own CFO” guide I wrote a couple of years ago.

“That message seems to resonate with people,” I said. “They get it. When I say you should manage your personal finances as if you were managing a business, it seems to make sense.”

That conversation gave birth to Money Boss, my new blog about money. I’ve spent the past two months talking with friends and colleagues about the site, planning its future, trying to find time to write for it. Things may have been quiet here, but they’ve been busy behind the scenes.

And here’s another unexpected consequence: For the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to focus on our trip. All I want to do is work on Money Boss. I haven’t appreciated anything we’ve seen or done since northern Indiana (except for Niagara Falls, which was awesome). Kim too has been struggling to enjoy our adventures.

Solving the Problem

Instead of slogging through six more months on the road, we decided to take action. We need to rest. We need to eat right and exercise. We need to work. To that end:

  • We’ve rented a condo in Savannah, Georgia for six months. We’ll be here until the end of March.
  • Our number-one goal while we’re here is to get back in shape. We’ve already begun eating right and exercising. We both know what we need to do, and we’re doing it.
  • While we’re here, I’m going to write. (Hallelujah!) My primary goal is to launch Money Boss. But be warned that I also plan to post lots around here.
  • Kim too is going to work. She hopes to find a temporary position as a dental hygienist in town (she’s getting certified in Georgia). Plus she wants to launch an online store.

We moved into our new place last Thursday. Boy, does it feel good. We love our motorhome, but living in 250 square feet is confining. This condo is four times as large, so we have space to spread out. We’re close to a Whole Foods, so it’s easy to find and stock healthier food. There are also lots of ways for us to exercise here. (There’s an HOA fitness center thirty seconds outside our front door, so no excuses!)

Best of all? You guessed it: Time and space to write. This morning, I was able to do the same routine I do at home in Portland. I woke up, grabbed some coffee, and sat down in front of my computer. I wrote an article for Far Away Places. I wrote this article. In a moment, I’ll write an article for Money Boss.

It feels amazing to have time to write once more.

I’m happy happy happy.


15 July 2015

Location, Location, Location: Why Cost of Living Matters So Much to Your Financial Health

Yesterday, I gave a presentation on my “Be Your Own CFO” concept to subscribers of Leo Babauta’s Sea Change program. For an hour, I talked about how (and why) to treat your personal finances as if you were managing a small business. As always, one of the key components of my message was that people […]

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2 June 2015

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

As Kim and I slowly make our way across the United States, we’re learning a lot, both about ourselves (individually and as a couple) and about others. We’re spending extended time with family and friends, and we’re meeting strangers in the places we stay. Through this constant exposure to a diverse population of people, we’ve […]

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18 May 2015

An Update after Two Months on the Road in an RV

So far, so good. Kim and I are now 52 days, 2500 miles, and $4000 into our planned year-long RV trip. We’ve made it to Page, Arizona, which sits just south of the Utah border. (Technically, our RV is currently parked a few feet into Utah, but we’re counting this as time in Arizona. Because […]

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27 February 2015

Far Away Places: Announcing Our Year-Long Cross-Country RV Trip

“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains…” — John Muir Whenever I conceive of some bold idea, it comes with a potent mixture of enthusiasm and fear. I’m […]

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12 February 2015

How to Survive Long Flights

My friend Lane wrote the other day with a question: Do you have an article somewhere talking about how to survive long flights? I’m making my first ever trip to Europe in May and have no idea what I am in for on the flight! Unfortunately, I’ve never written about this topic before. So, I […]

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4 February 2015

My Experience with an IRS Audit (Video Edition)

After my complaints that I performed poorly during my interview with Yahoo Finance last week, it’s interesting to see how everything turned out. Here’s the article and video about my experience being audited by the IRS: It’s instructive to see how professionals take thirty minutes of footage and edit everything down to two minutes, fifteen […]

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