A montage with elements representing money, family, fitness and stress.

Pay Yourself First

Pay yourself first,“ is advice you’ll often hear given to entrepreneurs, with the rationale being that they will be better able to manage the company if they aren’t stressed about their personal expenses.

It’s also advice provided by financial advisors when referring to retirement savings - invest that money before you use any discretionary income to ensure that your retirement funds get more than just “whatever’s left at the end of the month.” (If anything.)

Allow me to offer another (mostly obvious) context to use this advice:

Your mental and physical well-being

For years, I would wake up, check my email, and start work as soon as I had my first cup of coffee, usually around 6 AM. I did this even when I was working for someone else because, surely, if it’s in the company’s best interest, it’s also in my own, right? (Answer: not usually.)

Why did I continue to do this for decades? Why did I work so much that I missed time with family, or allowed responsibilities to go unresolved or, worst of all, didn’t file taxes for a few years because, at the end of the day (or week) I just didn’t have the emotional and cognitive gas to get it done?

Due to some personal baggage (which I have long since jettisoned) was my biggest concern: financial security. Yes, my wife is succesful in her field and she gets paid well for her work, but I guess that just wasn’t enough to make me slow down, think, and process the rest of my life. Couple that with undiagnosed ADHD and general anxiety, and it became a mental and emotional storm brewing in my head.

Since moving to Austin 7+ years ago, I have been much more disciplined with everything in my life, including my health. I’ve been kicking ass in my work and have spent more time with family.

Then, you could say that I had a relapse.

Recently, I took on a new role at a startup/public-company-turnaround where I was practically a Product Team of One, and I started this unhealthy process all over again: 6 AM start, meeting after meeting after meeting, interviewing new hires, followed by getting “real” work done because, after all, who else was going to do it?

I was feeling deflated every day because I couldn’t get it all done and in the way that I knew was best. Too frequently, I ended my workday with a cocktail to relax.

After only a few months of that, I reached a point where my clothes no longer fit. I weighed almost 220 pounds (I’m only 5’ 6”) because I was neglecting my body. I was neglecting my other responsibilities. I was neglecting myself.

I wasn’t paying myself first.

After realizing that I was back in a space full of undisciplined practices, I had to again change that. I have a son who is 20 years old, finding his way in the world. I have a wife who fulfills the often cliche’d ideal of being my soul mate. (She really is.)

I want to be there for my son, to help him learn lessons long before I did in my life. I want to spend time with my wife, both now and in our golden years. I can’t do either if I cut my life expectancy by years.

This realization has once again resulted in better habits and improved discipline.

These days, I’m still up a 6 AM. I still check my email but I only respond to critical messages and then, I take time for myself when I’m fresh and full of potential.

Not just for fitness, but also to read and to think and, yes, even tinker with my hobbies, and write. I’m a creator at heart and realize now how much I missed the process.

During the act of creation is the only time when you’re in complete control of your work - no matter how good or bad. It’s where you can get lost in a state of Flow and enjoy the process as well as the outcome.

The additional benefit is that fitness and flow states improve my thinking and allow me to better handle stress throughout the day, making me a better leader and coach.

I still have to get fitter. I still have to make more time for family. I still have to file taxes.

But today, I am at the top of my game.

Paying yourself first is one of those “obvious” lessons, but if you don’t follow it, you end up with clothes that no longer fit and a tax debt to Uncle Sam - or possibly worse, depending on your circumstances.

Figure out what “paying yourself first” means for you, then get on it! Do it! For yourself and for the people that love you.

(Scene: John gets off soap box and goes for a workout.)