Peace in Having a Plan: Control What You Can Control

April 18, 2020

As I started this post, a 4.2 magnitude earthquake aftershock rumbled around me. Salt Lake City had a 5.7 magnitude earthquake in March, and since then we’ve been...enjoying?...the aftershocks. This has been my first rodeo with earthquakes and, talk about disconcerting. {Sidenote: I hope to not be in the shower for the next one. It was like suddenly being in a washing machine. Not that I’ve actually ever been in a washing machine, but I believe you get my drift.}

Anyway, back to the aftershock. Then add in the fact that we are all in the middle of a global pandemic, experiencing disruptions in our daily lives, and surrounded by what feels like more uncertainty than we experienced before.

With more time at home, I’ve learned that puzzles are harder than I remembered. I’ve also learned that there is not a whole lot you or I can do to prevent natural disasters, and really not much you or I can do to prevent a global pandemic or recession. However, there are some things we can control within our individual spheres of influence. And even a small amount of control can do wonders for our feelings of peace and power. So, here’s to action over inaction. Proactive hero over passive victim. Hopeful instead of discouraged.

Without further ado, may I recommend two practical suggestions that can 1) happily ground you in this chapter 2) counter some of your worries or your flourishing worry habit and 3) prepare you to meet what I believe is a bright future with better systems and habits.

1. Get organized financially.

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, this is no surprise. But feel free to be surprised if you’d like:) The blessing of having your money organized is information and power instead of stress and uncertainty. You have answers to questions like “How long can we go without income?” or “How long will our emergency fund last?” and “How quickly can we build our emergency fund?”

My favorite tactics for approaching money are below.

Organize everything on paper.

Put all your numbers down on paper. By paper, I’m talking about a spreadsheet or a piece of plain ol’ paper or in a zero-based budgeting tool like You Need A Budget. It is the only budgeting tool I recommend, in fact.

I’m talking about all your accounts and their balances and every single expense including the ones we all like to forget about. It might seem scary but I promise it’s scarier to not know and be afraid of the unknown. It’s like, as a kid, being afraid of what’s under your bed. It feels like the scarier thing to shine a light down there and risk seeing the monster. But until you do and realize there is no monster, all you are is afraid.

You can’t do a thing about the unknowns you refuse to confront. For example, your memberships each month may total $180 but you think they are around $100, or that there is simply no way you could trim any one of them. When there’s so much uncertainty around all of us, it’s so helpful and reassuring to eliminate as many surprises as possible. Once everything is on paper, indicate which things are optional or can be reduced or cut. This blog post is a fabulous look at how you might do this in YNAB.  

Budget.

This is always a grand idea. But especially now, I cannot recommend it enough. As mentioned above, YNAB is the budgeting tool that made all the difference for me and it can make all the difference to you, too. {One day maybe they’ll pay me for all this positive press, but even if they never do, I’ll keep plugging them.} The benefits are incredibly immediate and practical, as well as emotionally reassuring.

Having a tool to plan your actual money–and then keep it organized–is critical, and different from all the apps and tools that offer a retroactive view of all your spending. In times like now it’s critical to have more than a hypothetical “this is what I think/wish my monthly expenses are” or “we just try not to spend money” approach. The right tool equips you to 1) know and plan specifically how you are going to use your current money until you get new money 2) tracking your spending within those categories and 3) organize new money into this system. You can see exactly which expenses and wants are covered by the money in your accounts, and which ones still need money to cover them.

This works even and especially if you have variable income. Without a steady paycheck, you may value more the reassurance of seeing that you have at least the basic expenses (housing, utilities, food) covered for this month. I could go on and on, but that would exceed the scope of this post. Check out this Moso post or this one from YNAB for more information on getting started.

Build/organize your emergency fund.

If you have no emergency fund: I would make building it your first priority. If you have been focused on paying off debt, I would pause on making extra debt payments and stash up cash as a reserve. Don’t you just love that word “stash”?

If you have an emergency fund: Calculate–using the information you have from budgeting–how long will it stretch if it needs to? Make sure you are not digging into it every month for necessities. An emergency fund is not the thing that absorbs your lack of planning. Too many people underestimate expenses and therefore “have to” dip into their emergency savings most months. Plan well and this emergency fund can be something you depend on for just emergencies.

2. Be accountable to yourself for something every day.

I realize this doesn’t exactly have to do with money, but I offer the suggestions below in hopes one or multiple will help us all have an immediate greater sense of well-being, and come out of The Great Quarantine of 2020 stronger than we all started.

James Clear, an expert writer on the subject of habits, says:

I've found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.

In a chapter of life where it feels like we have more uncertainty than usual, we need goals–including character and maintenance goals–pulling us toward a brighter future. And systems are the only way we actually make progress toward those goals. Having your systems firing successfully allows you to feel like you are winning in even small ways every day and I absolutely never turn down a win:)

Some of the things I practice:

Clean or tidy or practice something every day.

This might be something as small as organizing a desk drawer, making sure the dishes are done every night, make progress on a larger organizing project, get out the things necessary for the DIY project you want to start tomorrow, etc. Practice that obscure instrument you picked up when you traveled to Turkey and dreamt of mastering. Each of these small actions give you a sense of control–that there are things you can do today to make your world and your future slightly better.

Get ready for the day.

You are a person, and even if right now you are not seeing other people, you are worth looking and feeling like a real, contributing human being. I have a personal belief that only people under the age of 4 can spend all day un-showered and in pajamas without diminished self-worth and motivation. Not getting ready for the day might suggest to yourself that you are not ready for the day, and you therefore expect less of yourself throughout that day.

Do the things on your daily list that you told yourself you would do.

Eat the meals you said you were going to, write that card you need to get in the mail, exercise as scheduled. Go to bed when you told yourself you were going to. Get up when your alarm goes off. If you’ve ever wanted to master the snooze button and start your days better, I highly recommend The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins, and The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. Another way to put this is to have personal guidelines. These are not rigid rules, but rather gentle guardrails keeping you safely on the track. One of the guidelines I’ve implemented is only allowing treats after my workday ends. My beloved sweet tooth took me to the kitchen way too often during the first week I worked from home, and I knew that weeks or months of that routine might make me “blow up like [Joey Jr’s] Aunt Roberta.” Name that movie?

While the above ideas are certainly not exhausted nor exhaustive, my hope is that they validate things you are already doing, or give you some practical ideas that can yield a greater sense of control during this party that is 2020. At some point, we will all be able to look back on this chapter and, if we choose to make the most of it, recognize that some of our most helpful systems and best growth were begun during this coronavirus situation.

This is the thought that motivates me most days; other days I do other totally quarantine-appropriate things like watch While You Were Sleeping while eating ice cream from the carton. But only after 5:00pm. Because...guidelines.