How To Align Your Money And Your Meaning (And Build Time Assets)

In The Education of Millionaires, author Michael Ellsberg lays out four steps to aligning your money and your meaning. That is, getting to a place where you’re doing work you love and getting well paid for it.

The four steps…

1. Get on your feet financially

This means doing whatever it takes to get a steady stream of income, so you don’t have to worry about feeding yourself and paying the bills. Sell your crap, move back in with your parents, work a shitty job (or two), whatever it takes. We’d all like to go from zero to hero overnight, but reality usually dictates that hard work and sacrifice are required along the way.

For me, getting on my feet financially meant giving up chasing passive income and focusing on freelance web design for a while. That kind of work didn’t exactly fit the lifestyle design dream I had when I quit my 9-to-5 a year earlier, but I was able to pull in about $2k a month pretty steadily and finally stop draining my savings. I’m pretty confident I could have built it to a $5k-a-month business if I’d kept at it.

2. Create more room for experimentation

Once you have food in your belly and the debt collectors off your back, the next step is to free up some time so you can experiment and see what kind of work you find fulfilling. How do you free up that time? Maybe you can negotiate a remote work agreement with your employer and save yourself the daily commute. Or you could work long hours for six months and build up a nice savings cushion so you can afford not to work for a while.

I caught a break here, stumbling into a nice passive income stream that has allowed me to spend much of the past few months learning and experimenting. However, even when I was running my web design business full-time I was on the road to freeing up my time by building time assets (explained in more detail below).

3. Begin experimenting

Maybe you already know what kind of work you find fulfilling. In which case your new-found free time can be spent figuring out how to make good money doing that work. If you have no clue, then fill up that time trying as many different things as you can. Meet more people, read more books, attend more events, travel to new places, put yourself in unusual situations.

I’ve personally been experimenting with a lot of business stuff these past few months. I’ve learned a ton about outsourcing and automation, started an SEO writing business, and I’m currently practicing idea extraction and looking to build a software business with a friend. Because I have a pretty steady income stream flowing while I’m doing all this, I can take a few risks and endure a few failures, no big deal.

4. Strike out on your own

This step is for anyone who may still be holding down an unfulfilling 9-to-5 for financial reasons. Assuming you’ve pulled off steps two and three successfully, you should now be in a pretty good position to start working for yourself full-time. Ideally you’ll have set up a side-business and seen some encouraging real-world results before taking the leap.

Building time assets

Let’s jump back up to step two, which was all about creating more time for experimentation. I came across a great way to do this via Patrick McKenzie’s blog. I’d known about the concept for years, but never had a name for it. Here’s how McKenzie describes time assets and time debt.

Most people think, intuitively, time always rots.  You get 24 hours today. Use them or lose them. The foundation of most time management advice is about squeezing more and more out of your allotted 24 hours, which has sharply diminishing returns. Other self-help books exhort you to spend more and more of your 24 hours on the business, which has severely negative effects on the rest of your life (trust the Japanese salaryman!)

Instead of doing either of these, build time assets: things which will save you time in the future. Code that actually does something useful is a very simple time asset for programmers to understand: you write it once today, then you can execute it tomorrow and every other day, saving you the effort of doing manually whatever it was the code does. Code is far from the only time asset, though: systems and processes for doing your work more efficiently, marketing which scales disproportionate to your time, documentation which answers customers’ questions before they ask you, all of these things are assets.

The inverse of time assets is time debt. Most programmers are familiar with technical debt, where poor technical decisions made earlier cause an eventual reckoning where forward progress on the program becomes impossible until the code is rearchitectured. Technical debt is one programmer-specific form of time debt. Basically, time debt is anything that you do which will commit you to doing unavoidable work in the future.

Last year I wrote some documentation for common tasks in my $50 Blogs business. I wrote out the step-by-step process for setting up a blog for a customer, and separate documentation for hooking up an Aweber mailing list to their blog. Once I had those docs created, it was just a matter of ripping through the steps whenever an order came through, instead of trying to remember everything that needed to be done. Later I brought a partner into the business and he was able to do much of the work right off the bat by following that same documentation.

A recent example of time debt would be the process I had for tracking my spending and putting together my monthly finance report. I was using the Notes app on my iPhone to record my expenses, then entering them into a Google spreadsheet at the end of each day, then totaling everything up at the end of the month to produce my report. On average, it probably took me 2.5 hours each month to put together that report, much of that time wasted because of an obviously inefficient process. So I’ve been experimenting lately with a couple of tracking apps that should improve the process. It’s a little bit of extra time (and money for the apps) invested up front to figure out a better way of doing things, but once I have a handle on it I’ll have significantly reduced the debt.

Time assets you can build

Thinking in terms of time assets vs. time debts is a good habit to get into. Always be considering where you can invest a little time up front to save yourself a lot of time in the long run. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Learn touch typing. I did this last year (using this free software) and it literally saves me hours each week nowadays.
  2. Learn shortcut keys for the computer applications you use most.
  3. If you have a business, write documentation for common processes. (By doing this you’re also likely to think of many ways the process can be improved.)
  4. Automate your finances.
  5. If you have a blog/website and people often email you with the same questions, post the answers to those questions online so they can be found easily. (This is exactly why I wrote Your Parents Vs. Your Dreams.)

I’m guessing you’ve already got some quality time assets built up for yourself. Which of them saves you the most time? Would love if you could share in the comments.

P.S. If you’re interested in self-employment and/or entrepreneurship, I highly recommend you check out Ellsberg’s The Education of Millionaires. I’ve gotten ridiculous value out of it already. Also, if you’re a freelancer looking to raise your rates, check out Breaking the Time Barrier from FreshBooks. It’s free, and you’ll wish you’d read it years ago.

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  1. Hey Niall,

    very useful tips and you just inspired me to try a business venture a different way. I also tried making websites, but after a few months and analyzing how much I earned per hour compared to other things I do, I decided to stop doing it. But there´s still interest.

    Never thought about collaborating with someone, who can do most of the work, get paid and I get a cut, for not doing much :).

    Cheers man!

    1. Go for it, Lukas. I think it was reading The E-Myth Revisited that got me started writing the documentation. Once you have a system in place you open the door for automation and outsourcing. Hope it goes well for you!

  2. Time Assets:

    Swift app for iOS to watch videos and listen to audio at variable speeds.

    Exercise makes the other 23 hours more efficient.

    Dictation feature vs. thumb-typing emails.

    Batch cooking after food shopping. Later, just pull healthful choices from the fridge and reheat.

    1. Meant to mention that Swift app. Been using it for about a week now and I absolutely LOVE it! Saving me oodles of time with no loss of comprehension. Thanks for recommending that, Scott.

      I’ve done batch cooking/food prep before, might try that again soon. Certainly saves a lot of time.

      Can you tell me more about the dictation feature? I’ve always been wary of dictation software.

      1. I am sorry for seeing this so late. I thought that when I posted my comment I had checked the notify me of follow-up comments box.

        I am thrilled you decided to check out the Swift app. It has made such a difference in my learning that I tell everyone I can about it. I noticed you mentioned it in the Paid In Kindness section of your June finance report. You are quite welcome.

        The dictation feature I am referring to is on all the iOS and OSX products. It is the microphone symbol next to the spacebar on iOS and the function key hit twice on OSX. So, your iPhone and your MacBook Air have that feature.

  3. I like the ideas of doing things “in a bunch” so you’re in a roll and you don’t have to go through the starting-up slower period as often. Like answering emails in a bunch, cutting all your veggies & keeping in the freezer in different bags, posting mail once a week, etc. 🙂

    Or having templates for the customers I have to email daily. Just copy-paste & change the details I need.

  4. Niall,

    You just blew my freaking mind by suggesting “Breaking the Time Barrier”

    It’s completely made me rethink everything I know about freelancing, and frankly, this might make freelancing worth doing. I believe it is time for my death cookie.

    you are epic sir. just EPIC!

  5. What are the apps you’re using for budgeting? I freaking hate keeping track of my receipts, then writing them down, then typing them up, then organizing them….

    I totally had to look up touch typing though. I thought “what is this? I can type faster??” but it’s…. typing. I don’t get it, what other way to type is there?

    1. The other way is the hunt and peck method, like I used to do. Just index fingers and looking at the keyboard every time you need to press a key. Verrrrry slooooooow.

      For budgeting I tried the Trail Wallet and MoneyWiz apps for iPhone. MoneyWiz looks to be a bit better for my needs, but Trail Wallet is perfect for backpackers looking to stick to a budget.

  6. Niall D reader since before it was hip

    Cool to see you getting sharper and sharper all the time. Impressed that you read patio11.

  7. I really appreciate the advice you’ve provided us throughout the years but I found this article especially helpful for me today. Ever since my wife immigrated to the United States I racked up credit card debt from visits to and from Colombia, visa fees, embassy visits and her settling into Central Florida. I’ve never been in this much debt before and am not sure how to get out of it; therefore, I put my dreams and goals on hold to try and slowly, with little success, tackle this debt.

    Long story short you’ve given me some ideas Niall and I greatly appreciate it. I’ll let you know how they turn out!

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