Nothing sparks procrastination quite like a to-do list of financial tasks. Sometimes the only thing scarier than making a financial choice in the first place is making the wrong choice, which can happen when you don’t totally understand what you’re doing. In that sense, the default – standing pat – is often easiest.
Tackling money-related chores can be difficult even for those of us who write about this stuff for a living. The mere mention of rolling over old 401(k)s elicited eyerolls from a few of my colleagues in a recent video meeting. But delaying these tasks can cost you a lot in the long run, like if you’re paying fees on the bank account or credit card you plan to switch, or you’re delaying opening an investment account and missing out on possible gains.
Thankfully, you can trick yourself into productivity by rethinking how you approach your financial to-do list.
START WITH YOUR `WHY’ “Giving yourself a 10-item to-do list of tasks you won’t enjoy is the perfect recipe for procrastination,” Meera Meyer, a financial planner in Boulder, Colo., said in an email. Meyer has her clients review their financial goals, then consider why an item is on their to-do list in the first place. Crosschecking your goals with your list may inspire you to keep that list short. This exercise can also help you prioritize the remaining tasks, so you know exactly where to get started.
BIG TASKS, SMALL BITES A big, vague goal is a surefire path to inaction. But when you break that goal down into pieces, it begins to feel doable. Even a tiny step is progress. “Sometimes, just downloading that initial statement is the jolt you need to get on track,” Meyer said. “A lot of the time, once you’ve downloaded that statement, you realize that you might as well keep on going through as much of the process as you can.” Lauren Martin of Portland, Ore., describes herself as a diligent saver, and that left her with a good problem to have: what to do with additional savings once she fully funded her emergency account. She set a goal of opening her first taxable brokerage account, but she found the prospect of taking that first step toward investing to be daunting.
“It seemed like it was for other people, like wealthy people or day traders,” she says. “It was still a couple months before I actually went through with it because the process seemed intimidating.”
Learning more about how to open and fund a brokerage account, as well as understanding any tax implications of selling investments, helped Martin feel ready to take action. To her surprise, she realized how little time each step took.
“It was super easy,” she says. “I built it up to be this crazy complicated thing. It took me maybe 10 minutes to open the account.”
THE RIGHT RESEARCH
Research and comparison shopping are a big part of making a financial decision and can help you feel confident in your choices. But eventually, the research must end and the action must begin. If you feel stuck, here are some ways to move forward: Identify where you lack knowledge: You may be afraid to make a move because you have unanswered questions. List your knowledge gaps and start finding answers. Articles from reputable sources can help, as can talking to experts like a financial adviser.
Shop around, but within a limited scope: If you’re seeking a new financial product like a bank account or credit card, comparison websites and other resources can help you weigh contenders. Be careful, though. It can be easy to get trapped in this phase, paralyzed by the overwhelming number of products on the market. Limit yourself to a handful of options. When in doubt, ask for help: Sometimes picking up the phone can save you hours of searching online to identify the steps you need to take. When Matt Iadone of Boston decided to roll over an old 401(k) into a new account, he hesitated because he didn’t know how to begin. He called the account providers and got the forms he needed to fill out. “It was actually a fairly simple process,” he says. “Once I learned the steps, accomplishing the goal was easy.”
You’ve prioritized your goals, picked the one to tackle first and broken it down into small tasks. Now, assign deadlines and set calendar reminders to nudge you along the way. It may help to work with an accountability buddy – whether that’s someone you share expenses with, like a partner or roommate, or a friend who’s working toward their own goals.
Regular check-ins with your buddy can encourage you to get stuff done. You may also turn to a financial planner or coach who can assist you in crossing items off your list. The important thing is to get started.
“Don’t put off things that are going to be important to getting your financial future on track, because time is money,” Martin says.