Phillip Smith

Pay yourself first, in life.


I was laying on the floor staring at the ceiling this morning and for some reason the phrase “pay yourself first” came to mind. I’m familiar with the saying from various business, finance, and leadership books that I’ve read over the years. It’s a great business philosophy, but it didn’t hit me until this morning what a great personal philosophy it is too.

As I blathered last week, I’ve had to shift to exercising in the mornings, because in Oaxaca it’s getting pretty hot by 10AM this time of year, and it often doesn’t cool off until after 8PM. Now, as mentioned, I hate getting up early, and – frankly – I hate exercise too, so getting up early to exercise is about the last thing I want to do on a given day. However, in the middle of a set of sit-ups early this morning, the thought hit me: I’m paying myself first.

The feeling I had in that moment was roughly equivalent to the feeling I experience when I start the day by either reading a book or writing (preferably, a bit of both), which is a sense that I’m doing what deeply fulfills me before offering my services to others.

Along a similar line of thinking, I made a number of decisions earlier this year – some that have been a challenge to stick with, I admit – that I hope will work toward a sense of putting priorities right, for example:

  • I put my phone on airplane mode before I go to bed each night. There are really very few emergencies that can’t wait until the morning. I find this ensures that I’m not tempted to check my e-mail before bed, or first thing in the morning.

  • When I get up, I leave the phone off, and my computers off. I make my first breakfast and get straight to exercise. Having had a good eight or ten hour reprieve from e-mail or interruptions, I find that my mind is more meditative and creative.

  • If it was a run day, I would listen to the New York Times front page on route to the park (sadly, discontinued in March; currently looking for a replacement). In general, I look at a screen too much of my day, so when there’s an opportunity to use my ears instead, I take it. Though I’ve listened to fewer audio books this year than previous, I think that is solely due to the fact that I don’t currently have a hammock. All that to say, to change my news consumption habits (addictions?), I try to consume it through my ears, not my eyes: radio, podcasts, etc.

This list goes on, and it extends – or tries to put into practice – some older ideas that I’ve pondered like slow e-mail, not working weekends, living on the learning edge, and a commitment to trying new things. What all of these commitments have in common, I now see, is the concept of “paying myself first.”

Though I start my “work day” later than most, I’m often able to start it with a sense of calmness that helps me stay focused and not easily distracted. My personal commitments already complete (writing, exercise, phone calls, etc.), I don’t have to worry that a work “emergency” will keep me from them later in the day. And, when friends call in the evening and ask me to join them for some R&R, I can close the laptop, head out the door, and be fully present; to paraphrase the Taoists “let go, when your work is done.”

None of this is new. I suspect we all know this in our guts. We use the amount of time we have available: if you give yourself eighteen hours a day to work, you’ll work eighteen hours a day. If you give yourself six, you’ll get the work done in six. I shared these ideas – stolen blatantly from all the best time-management books – with a room from a social-change activists back in 2008, and I’m quite sure I saw people’s heads explode.

There are two key take aways from that presentation. One, most of us in our 30s have approximately 40 more summers left to enjoy in our lifetime (harsh, I know). Two, to do important work in the world, we have prioritize important work in ourselves. For me, these two ideas boil down to: when I pay myself first, I’m better able to serve those that I invest the rest of my time with – my collaborators, my clients, my friends, my family, and my community – and I’m confident that I’ll get to fully enjoy those remaining summers.

In summary: Pay yourself first, in life.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


Want to launch a local news business? Apply now for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp

I’m excited to announce that applications are now open again for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp. And I’m even more excited to ...… Continue reading