9 mind-hacks to tackle your money to-do’s

The first rule of personal finance is that it’s not personal and it’s not financial. It’s about your ability to make ten changes and not get too depressed about it.


James Altucher

Tackling money tasks is a constant challenge for me – I know they’re important, I know exactly what needs to be done; heck, I even have all the tools I need laid out neatly, just waiting invitingly for me to begin.

But. I. Just. Don’t. Start.

It’s as if an invisible huge repellent magnetic force is pulsing away at its highest power preventing me from moving an inch closer to my task.

This is why I love Altucher’s quote above so much – it captures the heart of the problem in a nutshell.

If personal finance is all about playing a successful mental game well, then it only makes sense that mental hacks and tools are what will give you an edge in tackling these critters, especially when you don’t want to, but absolutely have to.

To that end, I’ve collected here nine of my favorite most-used mind hacks to get me going when I’d rather…just not.

Nine mind hacks

Hack #9: The “Motive”ator: Ask why

The one trigger that has never failed to work for me is to stop and ask why this task or area matters. If it’s tackling bills, then it’s about being on top of my money game because I want to be secure. If it’s about dealing with mind-numbing loan documents and terms, it’s because I want to never have to look at them again so paying them off fast is the only way to go.

Invariably, I can connect the dots to the immediate task at hand – and get motivated enough to do whatever needs to get done at that moment. Mission accomplished, with the big goal getting a tiny bit more reinforced.

Hack #8: Act as if

I’m a big sucker for trying to become better, fitter, more financially savvy, or whatever the current flavor of “healthier, wealthier and wiser” happens to be at the moment. This means I have a picture of this great person I am going to become.

When stuck with a boring task, I ask myself what I’d do if I were already this shiny, new and improved version of who I want to become. Surprise! This person is typically excellent at managing her money and finds a way to breeze through all her money chores. Just visualizing precisely how she would have handled this specific task seems to immediately make my mind fertile with the specific solutions and behaviors. Bingo, job done! I merely have to imitate her actions.

Photo by Melissa Askew

Hack #7: What would X do?

A variant of the one above. I tend to idolize certain people, especially people I secretly call “the smart money” in my mind. These are the people who (in my mind’s eye) never fail to read all their financial documents, open and dispose of their mail the same day, never get hit with fees or charges because they were not too lazy to look at the small print, and who always check their statements carefully every month – you get the picture.

I keep my immediate problem in my mind and ask myself what this person X (who I envy and admire intensely) would have done. Whether it actually is what they’d do or not, I end up getting a jolt of energy and inspiration and have no problem getting to do the same on my humbler task.

Hack #6: The values question

One of my favorite books is called “The Happiness Trap“, by Russ Harris. The core suggestion of the book is that when we’re faced with negative moods (who isn’t when tackling boring money tasks), then the best way to stay functional is to acknowledge the negativity and pivot to values.

  • What are your top 3 values?
  • What small action can you take that’s consistent with those values?

By using these two simple questions, I’ve found that I’ve been able to move from utterly stationary on my money tasks to moving forward, even if at a glacial pace. But momentum soon kicks in and I end up making more progress than I expected. As a side bonus, I usually even end up in a better mood

Hack #5: What Victor Frankl discovered in Nazi concentration camps

Victor Frankl was a doctor who was taken to a concentration camp during World War II. Separated from his beloved wife and all his family, he survived unspeakable horrors (although sadly, his wife did not). The amazing thing about this man is that in order to survive, he started to clinically and objectively study why some people survived these horrors and others didn’t.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning“, Frankl writes that the one big difference between those who survived and those who didn’t , was that the former had something that gave their lives meaning, something they found worth living for, and living up to. This may have been a family member, a dream, a value, an ideal – it didn’t really matter, as long as it imbued their life with meaning. This sense of meaning helped them survive what tens of thousands of others didn’t.

Even the worst financial task isn’t anywhere near these horrors – but the tool of finding meaning in every action we take has immense power to not only get us moving in the direction we want to, but it even deepens and enlivens the smallest, most trivial action.

I’ve found myself falling back on this hack more times than I can remember, and immediately my mind presents a concept, an image, something so deeply meaningful that I can instantly muster strength and energy to get moving on the task.

Photo by Alora Griffiths

Hack #4: Survival in strengths

There is a hot new field in psychology that’s focused on how we can increase our sense of well-being – it’s called positive psychology and it has spawned an entire happiness industry.

One of the core tenets or findings of this field is that we each come hardwired with some innate strengths that are integral to our character. Expressing these strengths contributes reliably and immensely to our well-being over the long-term. Not only that, these strengths come as naturally as breathing to us, so we find it impossible not to use them often.

Use any one of the several credible strengths-finder tools to identify what your top 3-5 are. You can use the Gallup StrengthsFinder here. My favorite, though is the VIA Survey developed by the fathers of positive psychology. Find it here.

Then figure out how you can bring one of your top strengths to bear in tackling your immediate money challenge. One of my most reliable and highest strengths is honesty. Being up to date on money is a core expression of what living honestly means to me. With this lens, even the most tedious money task takes on a bit more beautiful hue because it’s now fundamental to who I am.

The next few hacks move from the heart and mind into the tactical – the value of things that work just because they do, without any deep underlying philosophy or meaning, is highly underrated. Try them out for yourself and see!

Hack #3: The 2-minute commitment

When all goes to hell in a hand basket, as the saying goes, and I can’t muster the strength to mess with values and other mumbo-jumbo, I make a 2-minute commitment.

I set the timer on my smartphone for two minutes, grit my teeth, and jump right into whatever I am dreading doing. All I’m committing to is sticking to it for two minutes – once that’s over, I promise myself I can do whatever I want.

Shockingly, more than nine times out of ten, I end up wanting to continue because the task is not as hard as I imagined and I am actually making progress ( a big huge drug for me). Then 2 minutes turn to 10 and half an hour later, I can pull back my chair knowing that the back of this ugly task has been broken. Further progress is usually easier.

Hack #2: The Toyota trick

I’m sure many of you have heard how Toyota was the star player in turning around Japan’s dismal prospects in the ashes of World War II to become the automotive overachiever of the world. The core of the turnaround was an approach to work in which making small, continuous improvements in every aspect of car production was the centerpiece. This approach is called “kaizen”, and has inspired change in every industry and field of personal endeavor.

The trick? Rather than tasking yourself with big, scary changes, at every step ask yourself, “What is the smallest step I can take with what I have right now”, and take that step. If dealing with your entire student loan strategy is too much, then maybe just finding some recent statements and stashing them away in a folder is something within reach.

I’ve used this trick often with the most success in tackling nebulous tasks where I am not really clear what accomplishing that task really means, but don’t want to admit it to myself.

Photo by Kasya Shahovskaya

Hack #1: The underachiever’s secret to living the easy life

I’ve saved the best one for last. Years ago, I read an incredible book called “The Underachiever’s Manifesto“. At the time, I couldn’t figure out if the writer was just pulling a massive joke on everybody or if he really was serious.

The whole premise of the book is that out of 7 billion people, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to be “best” at anything, so why not focus on being happy instead, and actively seek to underachieve on every aspect of your life?I think it’s a brilliant strategy. Next time you’re berating yourself about not keeping up with where you “should” be (as I often do), ask yourself how you can do worse than what everybody else is doing. If everybody trying to get the task done in a week, then aim to finish it in two or three.

But be deadly serious about underachievement.

This crazy method works!!!!

Because adopting it makes you so relaxed and even playful, it gets you out of your own way and frees up your mind to explore, play, be open and curious, and do a thing or two along the way. Result? Progress far greater than you would have ever expected!

I took a break intentionally from writing a lot about student loan topics – you have enough of that with the simplest google search – but perhaps focusing on the person who’s doing the managing for a change will amp up your results and dial down the stress and self-recrimination. Good luck!