Take Back Control Over Your Life

Let’s face it: living in our world today is pretty awesome. Sure, there are significant political and social issues that we have to wrestle through together, and there is unfortunately significant inequality in the global society, but day-to-day life for many American millennials is great. We’re instantly connected to anyone in our social circles, we have the world’s information available in our pockets, we can take a ride in fully-electric vehicles, and holograms are just around the corner.

But this standard of living comes at a cost. The fast-paced nature of the digital age means that if we as people are not living intentionally, then our resources will quickly be claimed by other people and organizations…unbeknownst to ourselves. We lose hours to Instagram, dollars to in-app purchases, and mental energy to the person that is currently ghosting us. Simply put: by not being intentional about who controls our lives, we are de-facto relegating control to others.

While I can’t give the end-all, be-all guide to taking control of your life, I can certainly give some quick hits about the three resources I named above. How do we intentionally take control of our money? our time? our attention? My thoughts are below; I’d love a discussion about some tips & tricks that help you ensure control over these things as well.

Disclaimer: I’m not totally there yet. I know what to do, but just haven’t done it all yet. My money, my time, my attention are all currencies that are constantly in circulation for me. This post is just as much for me as it is for anyone else.

Your Money

  • One of the first things to realize about your money is that you’re trying to accomplish something with it. Before you create a budget, create a purpose. What do you want your dollars to do? Are you funneling economic resources into social good, which means donating to charity and perhaps traveling to places where you want to volunteer for a season? Are you in the phase of life where you want to find a significant other, and are therefore going out more often to mingle with others? Write down what you’re trying to accomplish and then it’s easy to plan how to better spend your money. I use Exeq to help me do this, but I’m a bit biased.
  • Follow the tried & true guide for financial responsibility: put aside an emergency fund, eliminate your debts, set aside 3–6 months of savings, and then invest well.
  • Your initial emergency fund should be anywhere from $1000–2000. This is not to be touched unless it’s an absolute emergency. Brunch is not an emergency, for the record.
  • Eliminate your debts. There’s no “right way” to do this. Some people choose to pay down the smallest balance first, then pay down the next smallest, etc. Others choose to pay down the highest interest rate first, then the next, etc. My advice? Pick a way and be disciplined about it until you’re debt free.
  • Set aside 3–6 months of your salary into savings. You can do this via an app like Stash or Qapital, or you can simply open a savings account at your bank and transfer the money yourself. Either way works. But do it.
  • Invest well. I’m not talking about day-trading like you’re the Wolf of Main Street. I’m talking about a long-term investment. No, bitcoin doesn’t count. Open a interest-bearing CD. Open a 401K or IRA. Open an investment account full of ETFs. I use Fidelity and Wealthfront for this, with a 60/40 split between domestic and foreign investments. Set aside 10–15% of your paycheck into your stable investment vehicle of choice and don’t touch it until you need to pay for education or retirement.

Your Time

A glance at my task management system.
  • Invest in a task-management system that works for you. There are plenty of digital solutions out there, including Google’s tasks for those of you already using gMail or Apple’s Reminders for those of you already using iOS & MacOS. I use Things, and have enjoyed OmniFocus and Todoist before. You can also just keep sticky notes or a small notebook on you at all times and write tasks down as they come up. I also have a Hobonichi Weeks that I carry with me at all times to make notes throughout the day. Get in the habit of marking them done, reviewing tasks, etc. It’s easy to let things slip through the cracks, and then it costs you more time to make up than it would have if you had just performed the task on-time to begin with.
  • A lot of people will talk about time-management in terms of tasks. And that’s super important, as noted above. But that said, something that’s even more important than managing your tasks is managing your priorities. Again, if you don’t control your life, someone or something else will. Write down your to-dos/tasks, sure, but also write down your priorities. If something arises during the day that would distract from your priorities….don’t do it! Or delay it. Or be honest with the other party that it’s not a priority at the moment. As many have said, don’t just do the next thing….do what’s best…next.
  • Say no more often. There’s a party coming up. An after-hours lecture you’re interested in. An invite for drinks. Your parents neeeeed you to come home. Taking control of your life means taking control of your life. By saying no more often you’re taking ownership of your time and not letting other people own it on your behalf. You have permission to decline event invitations. You have permission to say no, which will allow you to say yes to higher-priority items.
  • This one may be the most controversial or eyebrow-raising thing I write in this article: think of your own death more often than you do. What’s the point of this? To be morbid? Absolutely not. It’s to realize that time, like your bank account, is finite. It runs out. Like money, you have to budget time. If we’re lucky, we get 70+ years to enjoy life. If we’re not prioritizing, if we’re not managing our tasks well, if we’re not saying no to good things in favor of great things, we’re essentially over-spending our most precious resource. Realizing that time is finite and that, unlike money, can’t be earned back is one way of forcing yourself to be more disciplined about how you spend it.

Your Attention

My iPhone Home Screen. No Instagram. No Facebook. No LinkedIn. Made room for Instapaper, NYTimes, and Pocket Casts. Wallpaper is a picture I took standing on our balcony during a recent cruise.
  • Attention is the currency of the digital age. It’s very related to time in the sense that it’s finite and can’t be taken back once it’s given, but budgeting attention is more than just how you spend your time. It’s also about regulating the inputs into your mind that determine your worldview, how you think, and where your focus is placed. We’re inundated with things vying for our attention: notifications, advertisements, media, etc. The list goes on and on. Realizing that your attention is being fought for is the first step in retaining control over it.
  • Do a notification audit on your phone. What apps have notifications turned on just because you clicked through their onboarding? Do you really want notifications from every activity in a random game you play during your commute? Do you need to know when your friend liked your other friend’s status about dinner? Maybe the answer is yes, and that’s fine. But be thoughtful about it. With the exception of Twitter, I’ve also removed social media from my phone altogether. No FB. No LinkedIn. No Instagram. I don’t miss it.
  • What are you learning? What are you reading? What do you listen to? What are you watching? Seriously ask yourself these questions. You’re always consuming information. Consider the sources and if it’s things that you want to be learning. Think through what you could be reading, listening to, or otherwise consuming instead. Make conscious choices over the things that you are mentally ingesting.
  • Establish rituals. Eat lunch alone. Coffee in the morning before work or class. An evening bath. Whatever it is, establish habitual time for you to think and create. This gives you a blocked-off amount of time to pay attention to whatever it is that you want to pay attention to, instead of the things that demand your attention throughout the day.
  • Get away regularly. Grab an Airbnb in the wilderness. Check out Getaway if you’re in one of the markets they serve. Go camping. On a regular basis (quarterly?) get out of the grind that you’re in day-to-day, and get an overview of your life. What’s going well? What’s not? Utilize the time to not just be in your life, but to work on your life.


There are plenty of resources out there for taking control of your money, your time, and your attention. Leverage them! At the same time, there comes a point where you have to simply act. Sure, you may not get it right on day one. You may change methods over and over. I know I do, often penduluming between analog and digital solutions. But, you can spend so much time, money, and focus on gaining control that you never actually do it. I’d encourage you to experiment: try some things that you think may work and iterate from there to see what works for you!

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