6 min read

Pay yourself first

  • Why you need to pay yourself first
  • My experiment with sequencing
  • Useful strategies for your life
  • An important disclaimer.

Why You Need to Pay Yourself First

Personal finance gurus recommend you pay yourself first. The common advice is to set up an automatic payment for your savings or investment goals, so the funds are gone on payday before they leak into something else. There's rarely much left.

What if you treated your time and energy in the same way? If you need to look after yourself better, take time for your most important goals, or invest in a relationship, waiting to see what's left is a poor strategy. This is particularly true if you're in a busy season, or have a heavy load right now (a big project at work, young kids, ageing parents, etc).

You're unlikely to get to the end of your to-do list, and you're unlikely to reach the end of the day with gas in the tank.

Which means sequencing matters.

My Experiment With Sequencing

Last week, I spent two glorious days in an off-the-grid Unyoked cabin with just some birds and my thoughts for company. I left feeling calm and clear about what matters to me... until I walked in the door at home.

The weight of responsibility hit me like a freight train. With groceries to order, appointments to book, housework up the wazoo and a bulging inbox, I felt hopelessly overwhelmed. 

After a brief mental sojourn coming up with a plan to run away from society, set my business on fire and leave my kids to raise themselves, I headed out for a self-pitying walk.

(Side note: when you're feeling overwhelmed by your own neurosis, it's easy to believe your problems are impossibly unique, complex, and intractable. But we're really just complicated houseplants. Odds are drinking some water, eating a sandwich, or getting outside for a walk will solve 80% of your anxiety. The other 20% might need a nap.)

Within 30 minutes, I felt calmer and more capable - which made me wonder: if I got outside and moved my body before the overwhelm set in, how much of a difference would that make?

So this week, I've been running an experiment where I front-load my day with my most important priorities. Here's what I've learned.


The good

When I head straight out for a walk or a run after school drop-off, I don't make it to my desk until 10 am. In theory, I've lost an hour.

In practice, I get straight into my most important tasks without faffing around checking emails, making coffee, and opening multiple tabs. I'm in a better mood, I already feel accomplished for the day, and I'm clear on my priorities.

When I'm really organised, I'm crystal-clear on what those priorities are because I wrote them on an index card and left them on my desk the day before. I cap the index card list at three items, so I know I'll get the most important tasks done.

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As an unexpected benefit, I've brought this sequencing logic into other parts of my day. If I haven't had a break between work and kids before launching into dinner prep, I don't wait until they've gone to bed for some time to myself (it won't happen).

Instead, I have a cup of tea or read a book before I put dinner on. The impact on bedtime is negligible, but the impact on my attitude is noticeable.

The less good

I've realised pretty quickly that what I start with, when I reach my desk, is just as important as what I do before I get there.

The sequence of my work day is important: if I do the creative projects first, I'm clear-headed from my exercise and time outside, and I had a useful idea or insight while I was out.

If I dive straight into meetings and admin, with the view to writing or working on my creative projects later, I feel like I'm racing the clock all day - and I forget that great idea I had while I was running.

Most significantly, I've realised that on most days, not all of my tasks will fit.

This is not a sign of the system failing. It's a sign that it's physically and temporally impossible to achieve all of my expectations and still look after myself. When my days are muddied by less intentional sequencing, I sacrifice my wellbeing by default, and possibly beat myself up about being more effective as icing on the ambitious-high-achiever cake.

But when I've prioritised myself, I've had to face the cold hard truth: some of this sh*t needs to go.

How you can Pay Yourself First

I'm fortunate to control my own schedule. Outside of teaching and client work, I decide how my days play out.

You might not have the same luxury, and the idea of declining your early morning stand-up with a note ('Sorry Kevin, I'm paying myself first, you'll have to wait') might seem out of reach.

I get that. But you know what? You're an adult. You choose your own bedtime. You make your own decisions. Control the things you can control.

Here's a few ideas for how to pay yourself first, with the most accessible (and impactful) strategies listed first.

  • Prioritise sleep. Sleep is the ultimate savings account. No matter how your life is structured, getting enough sleep will change your attitude. (If you have an infant... I'm sorry. Harriet (my youngest) didn't sleep through until she was 4, and I was a zombie for literally years. In this case, it's time for drastic measures. You need to remove stuff from your plate, reduce your to-do list, and lower your expectations, so you can nap. Seriously. It's that simple. You. Need. A. Nap. Humans need sleep to survive. It won't derail your entire life and career to spend this extremely difficult season prioritising sleep, I promise. It's temporary, but it's important. Have a messy house, and nap. Do not read the rest of this list. Nap. Did you hear me? NAP.)
  • Make meals in advance. Make your breakfast or lunch a day ahead, at dinner-time. This way, you've safeguarded the health and energy of tomorrow-you ahead of time.
  • Schedule recurring tasks. If you have to hit the same deadlines every week, but you're scrambling every time, stop pretending they don't exist. Put them in your calendar now.
  • Get ahead on the infinite tasks with time-chunking. If you do something daily, give yourself the grace of margin by rearranging those small pockets of work into bulk sessions. This works for meals, but also for social media posting, content creation, gift-giving, stationery supply ordering and more. Buy all of your birthday gifts for the year this Saturday. Write 10 posts at a time. Buy 6 notebooks instead of 1. When you're a step ahead, you breathe differently. 
  • Prioritise tasks with a clear head. Decide your most important tasks for the day before you leave your desk the day before. Write your list of 3 and leave it for yourself. Pat yourself on the back the next morning, then dive in.
  • Change the order of things. If you have schedule flexibility, change your sequencing. Put your most important projects and priorities at the start of your day, so if things turn to sh*t, you still made progress on the things you care about most. Important note: This does not mean skipping on sleep to exercise or work before your day starts. Sleep comes first. See above.
  • Bookend high-intensity activities. If you have draining tasks, meetings, or events in your day, bookend them with space before and/or after. Have a 30 minute break before the dinner and bedtime routine. Create a morning buffer after a big evening event. Look after your future self, based on lessons learned the hard way by your past (tired) self.

An important note on prioritisation

I'm always wary of giving this kind of advice, because it feels a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Ultimately, if you're trying to fill a finite container (your time, energy, and f**ks to give) with more volume than it can hold, these tips won't change your life.

Most of us aren't overwhelmed because we don't prioritise well. We're in a state of legitimate deficit, where the demands on us exceed our available energy. We're operating in late-stage-capitalist silos, battling alone at home and wondering why we can't keep up - while everyone else is doing the same.

The famous Steven Covey 'rocks' analogy (put the big rocks in the jar first, then all the pebbles and sand will fit neatly around them) is largely bullsh*t. It doesn't work if you've got too many rocks in the first place.

So it's really, really important that you don't read this email thinking "oh, I just need to get some snazzy index cards like Alicia McKay and try harder, and I'll be better." Odds are:

  • The demands on your time and energy exceed your capacity for fulfilment
  • You're expecting too much of yourself - in both volume, and quality.

Both of those things are hard to change. But investing in yourself is still a worthy strategy. Here's some confronting truth: your boss will replace you in a month. Your kids will leave home and forget how much you did for them. Your clients will find a new service provider. Your friends will move away. Your committee will disband.

When all is said and done, the only constant in your life is you. 

You are your biggest asset, and your most important relationship. If you're looking after the tyres on your car or the filter in your dishwasher better than your own mental and physical health, it's time to adjust your priorities.

You matter, and this is your permission slip (not that you need one!) to put yourself first. Not so you can serve others better, not so you can be more productive, and not so you can get more done.

Just because you're a living, breathing miracle, and your happiness, peace and enjoyment has intrinsic value. You weren't put here to work, and you don't have to suffer to earn joy.

The work will always be there, and there's no "some day" coming with infinite time and relaxation. Don't defer your investment in yourself for a day that will never come. Do it now.

Til next week,



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