5 ways to pay yourself first (that aren’t about money)

Pay yourself first is a fundamental principle for building financial assets. You save some money — however small the amount — as soon as you receive income. These consistent, small contributions eventually grow into a sizeable financial asset with the aid of compound interest. If you don’t pay yourself first, expenses have a nasty habit of growing to match (or exceed) your income. If you plan to save what’s left at the end of the pay period, your balance rarely grows.

Monopoly board

photo credit: William Warby via flickr cc

This idea also works in other aspects of life. What would happen if you also paid yourself first when it comes to your body, mind, spirit, relationships and creativity? These facets of our lives share some common characteristics with finances:

  • they take time to build;
  • consistent, small investments can grow into something substantial in time; and
  • results accelerate the longer you stick at it.

Building these non-financial assets takes energy. The demands of work and family life often leave us running on empty by the evening. When we’re in this state, watching TV or surfing the internet are much easier options than exercising the discipline to do a workout or practise a new skill.

The solution is to spend the first hour of each day making investments in these non-financial assets. You don’t have to start getting up before dawn either. Just commit to spend some time investing in yourself when your day begins. This approach means you’ll have made progress even if the rest of your day goes completely pear-shaped.

In his book, The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life (Before 8AM), Hal Elrod describes how he saw successful people doing various activities as part of their morning routine. Not knowing which of these was the most important, he decided to try all six (silence, affirmations, visualization, exercise, reading and writing) for 10 minutes each.

I don’t think you need to hit all these areas every day — especially if you’re starting from zero. There will be seasons in your life where one or two of these areas emerge as the priority. Pick a few areas that you may have neglected or that resonate with you and work on those. My mornings start with about 10 minutes exercise to get the blood pumping and 15 minutes reading and/or writing.

It’s easy to dismiss 10 minutes as being too short to even bother, but these small blocks of time add up. If you spend only 10 minutes on an activity on each week day, that’s 43 hours you’ll spend during the year. Maintain the habit on weekends and you’ll put in 60 hours over the course of the year.

Consistency is more important than the how much time you spend each day. Commit to the process and improvement is inevitable. If you spend 43 hours on one activity you’re sure to get better at it. You might find these short time blocks start a virtuous cycle. As you begin to see improvement you’ll often find you want to spend more time on the activity. The more time you spend, the better you get.

Here’s some ideas for building assets in five important areas of your life:

1. Invest in your body

Without good health, everything else becomes so much more difficult.

  • Go to bed early enough to get sufficient rest. A good start to the day begins the night before. Quality sleep makes a huge difference to my energy levels, patience, and ability to deal with obstacles through the day.
  • Include some exercise in your morning routine. It doesn’t have to be a 5 mile run or a 45 minute gym session. The 7 minute workout app is a great tool to get the blood pumping at the start of your day. This shouldn’t be all the exercise you do, but it helps boost your energy in the morning.
  • Eat a decent breakfast. You can combine this with reading or writing. I drafted this post over a couple of breakfast sessions.
  • Get some sunshine. Sunlight plays a role in helping to regulate melatonin levels — a hormone which controls our sleep cycles. Exposure to sunlight early in the day helps wake you up and improve sleep quality at night (source: Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health).

2. Invest in your mind

All action begins with thought. Finding interesting new ideas can lead you to recognize opportunities you might otherwise miss. There’s many ways to sharpen your mind like:

  • Read a book.
  • Watch a TED talk .
  • Listen to a podcast or audio book.
  • Work through an online course.
  • Work on mastering things you can already do well or practise a new skill.
  • Review notes you’ve captured into your reference system for new insights. (My free Supercharged Notes ebook covers my approach to capturing and reviewing reference material in Evernote).
  • Solve puzzles like sudoku or crosswords.

3. Invest in your spirit

This isn’t about religion (though you can include it here). It’s more about understanding what’s important to you, the values behind your decisions, and checking that your actions are congruent with those values.

  • Spend time clarifying your values and what’s important to you.
  • Write down three things you are grateful for. It’s hard to feel down when you focus on the amazing things in your life.
  • Write in a journal. If you aren’t sure how to get started the five-minute journal format has five simple questions to answer each day.
  • Meditate.
  • Review your goals to help you stay focused through the day and work on activities that will move you closer to these goals.
  • Spend a few minutes outside appreciating nature.

4. Invest in relationships

If you start making pre-dawn calls to your friends, they may not be friends for long. But you can still use this time to plan how you might deepen important relationships or develop new ones.

  • Spend 10 minutes reaching out to online communities who share your interests.
  • Find 3 people in your contact list that you would like to reconnect with and schedule a time to get in touch with them.
  • Write a note of appreciation to your significant other and plant it somewhere they will find it during the day.
  • Spend some time planning for an upcoming birthday for someone close to you.

5. Invest in creativity

Most people have an inbuilt need to create. Whether you’re doing it as a business venture or just for enjoyment, this process generates assets. In the process you’ll also develop domain specific skills and more general skills like planning, persistence, and problem-solving. Try one of these:

  • Develop and prototype ideas for new products.
  • Create content for a blog or podcast.
  • Draft a book chapter.
  • Pursue your favorite form of artistic expression. Begin creating a painting, poem, song, article of clothing, wood carving, book, photograph, etc.
  • Work out how to automate something you do regularly to make time for more important activities. Write out the steps for recurring tasks — especially ones with a long interval between each occurrence. This will help you teach the process to someone else or improve your efficiency for the next time you need to do it.

You can apply these principles again when you get to work. Instead of diving into email, make asset creation the focus of your first hour. Spend this time building content, relationships, products, services, new skills — whatever makes the most sense at the time.


It’s easy to think that 10 minutes is too little to do anything useful. And by itself, that’s usually true. But 10 minutes each week day translates to more than 43 hours in the next year. Consistency is key. You’ll look back a year or two from now and see how paying yourself first has created a valuable asset base.

Question: Which of these areas will you focus on for the next month?

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