Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Frequency Continuum

It's a week of firsts for the Done by Forty household, as today I am guest posting for the very first time over at the Cash Rebel blog. [edit: Cash Rebel's blog seems now to be defunct, but original post is now included below.]  If you don't already read Cash Rebel, do yourself a favor and take a look around: he has a ton of great posts in the archives and an entertaining writing style, to boot.

And luckily for you, 99.9% of the posts on his site are not written by Done by Forty.

Hi, Cash Rebel readers!

Earlier this month, I wondered what it would be like if I were as frugal with my time as I was with my money.  It seemed like a reasonable enough idea, since I can make more money but not more time.  Why not optimize my hours as I try to do with my dollars?  So I started charting my time every day and at first I thought, “Hey, I'll just try to cut out the downtime, insert more productive activities like working out or starting a business, and bam, efficiency shall be achieved.”

But I'm not sure pure efficiency is really what I'm after.  I value my downtime.  I figure having some unproductive time to spend at my leisure is part of the bargain of financial independence.  Don’t most of us daydream about the day when we can finally spend our Monday mornings as we wish, relaxing over a cup of coffee, playing with the dogs and the kids, and letting the day come to us?

So pure efficiency might not exactly be what I'm after, but I do want my days to be spent intentionally.  I’m okay spending a couple hours watching bad television and drinking beers with my wife and friends as long as I purposely chose to do so.  But lately I am realizing that many of my actions are the result of a string of habits - some good, some bad - but many of them occurring without much conscious decision making at all.  I start reading my favorite websites when I drink my morning coffee, because like Pavlov's dog I've just associated those two things over time.  When I'm done with my coffee, I mysteriously keep browsing from site to site.  The next cup of coffee or the next day, the same pattern emerges, and so goes my time.

The Frequency Continuum

When thinking about how habits are likely driving a lot of my behavior, I came up with an idea of how I can chart these sorts of habits: the Frequency Continuum.  Instead of tracking the specific costs of activities, like I normally do with my budget, I'd simply chart out how frequently I performed an activity, regardless of its cost.

Afterwards I assigned a value to the activity: 1-5 for how beneficial to my well-being it was, then 1-5 for how it beneficial it was to my finances, and then I add those two scores together.  An activity that costs me a lot of money will rate as a one, while one that earns me money can rate as high as a five, with free activities rating as a three.  So for example, riding my bike rates as a four for my well-being, and again as a four for my finances (since it lowers my transportation costs), for a total score of eight.

Over time, I should strive to make the most beneficial activities more frequent via habit formation, and to lower the frequency of the activities that don’t score highly on my well-being or finances.

The Results

Over an eleven day period, I charted out all my activities except for sleep.  When counting how frequently I performed a task, I counted both the hours I spent on an activity (so, working for eight hours a day counts as “8”) as well as occurrences (so, cooking for only 30 minutes still counts as “1”).

When looking at the graph, the more frequent an activity is, the further to the right it is listed (see the number underneath the activity).  The green bars themselves show how beneficial the activity is, regardless of how frequent.

Here are the results:

The Analysis
I was surprised and, honestly, a bit disappointed with the results.  A cursory look at the chart shows I spend more time working (63) and watching television (22) than anything else…by a lot.  And while I’m sure I’m not alone living that sort of life, it still kind of sucks.  The most beneficial activities, like church, riding my bike, and writing, aren’t happening often enough.  Sadly, I spend more time in front of the television than I do on all these activities combined.

The goal has to be to move the most beneficial activities to the right, and shift the least beneficial activities to the left. Or, I suppose I could try to squeeze more benefit out of the activities that are necessarily frequent, like work.

Here are my next steps:

  • Cutting television is the quick win.  As much as I don’t want to admit it, I think I need to finally cancel my DirecTV subscription in order to break my habit.  Over eleven days I watched about 22 hours of television: so two hours a day (roughly 12% of my waking hours).  Steeler games have always been my justification for keeping the subscription, but in the context of other goals football can’t rank that high.  For the upcoming NFL season, I might just need a way to see Steeler games that doesn’t involve a DirecTV subscription or skipping church to watch in a bar.
  • Even cutting my television viewing in half would free up seven more hours to spend on other activities that have real benefits for me, like writing for my blog, reading the bible, and going to the gym.  Another approach might be to set a parental lock that limits television time, and hoping that I properly use the “found” time on the right activities.
  • I spend a lot of time reading blogs, mostly because I just enjoy reading about personal finance, learning new perspectives, and hearing new voices.  But it’s possible that I need to cut down on my blogroll if I’m going to devote the proper time to my physical & spiritual health.
  •  I need to ride my bike more: twice in eleven days isn’t nearly enough.  I’ve been a home body more lately so, while our gas costs are still low, there’s still some benefit of just getting on the bike and riding around the neighborhood.
  • Work seems to currently have a bad ratio of time spent versus benefit realized.  Since reducing my hours isn’t likely (or recommended) at this point in our push towards financial independence, it might be good time to rethink my development goals and inject a new interest into my career.  If I can’t cut down my hours on the job, I’ll have to make them better hours.

I don’t think I was quite prepared to take an honest look at how I spent my time, and the results are a bit embarrassing to post out there for anyone to read.  But I remember feeling the same way when I first started tracking my spending to establish a budget.  I was spending hundreds on restaurants and bars each month, while still carrying unnecessary debt.  I had no cash savings and barely any retirement investments.  The thing that jolted me out of my bad financial habits was an honest and ongoing look at how I really spent my money.  It was embarrassing.  It was frustrating.  When I took a hard look at my finances for the first time, I knew I couldn’t get back any of the money or time I’d wasted.  But that reaction was what I needed to break the habit loop.  So even though it’s upsetting to see the results, that’s okay.  That’s the point.  I’m going to keep tracking my time and push to make my good habits more frequent ones.

*Photo of Pepper Continuum is from woodleywonderworks at Flickr Creative Commons.


  1. I read your guest post cashreb, it is awesome and i mentioned my comments there, Very impressive idea about frugal time, Nice post

  2. Thank you, Sam! I really appreciate the feedback, as I wasn't sure how the idea would go over. Thanks again for reading!

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you, Nick! I'm glad you like the post & thanks again for reading!