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zen habits: Golden Goals series: Secrets to the success of J.D. Roth (of Get Rich Slowly)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Golden Goals series: Secrets to the success of J.D. Roth (of Get Rich Slowly)

This is the first article in the Golden Goals series of interviews with notable bloggers about their goals, habits and productivity systems.

The first in the Golden Goals lineup is J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly, which is probably the most successful personal finance blog around. But it's not just his success that brought me to invite J.D. to be a part of this series. He's most definitely a notable blogger, but I've admired J.D. ever since I discovered his blog for his common sense approach, his sincere writing style, and his philosophy that building wealth is not something that should happen overnight. He's the opposite of the Get Rich Quick marketers -- he builds wealth like he's built his blog -- one gold brick at a time.

1) What would you consider your greatest achievement in the last few years? Feel free to add other achievements or goals if you'd like.

My greatest achievement has been finding a purpose. For years I plodded through life with no real objective. I was going through the motions. I hated my job. I felt like I had failed, had left the promise of my youth unfulfilled.

When I was young, I wanted to be a writer. But like most early goals, I was more attracted to the idea than to the actual practice. I didn't actually know what it meant to be a writer. For a decade after I graduated from college, I didn't write anything. In the late 90s I began to keep a web journal. In 2001, this became a blog. With time this blog became an outlet for my writing urge.

Last year I realized that blogging could be a legitimate use of my writing skills. It also became apparent that I might be able to make money at it. So here I am today, writing for money. It's not at all like what I expected it would be, but in a way it's better. I write every day. I do research. I'm helping people. I have a purpose.

2) What was the key to achieving that success for you? Was there one thing, or were there a number of factors?

I think there were several factors that allowed me to achieve success.

For one, I've always maintained a ready mind. I am curious about things. I'm open to new experiences. This has allowed me to see opportunities that I might otherwise have missed.

Second, when I understood what it was I intended to do, I applied myself with diligence. Previously I'd always been something of a slacker. But when I had a goal, a purpose, I threw myself at it with passion. I worked hard.

Finally, I've tried to approach my goals with a balance of personal vision and the wisdom of others. I read and listen to what others have to say about the subject, but I temper their viewpoints with my own opinions. There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that this is the way to run a web site or this is the way personal finance should be approached. I don't believe there is one right way. I take bits of advice from others and put them to work for me, but I forge my own path when I feel it is warranted.

3) What are the essential habits that you've formed to help you achieve your goals?

Hard work! Seriously.

I recently purchased an old book (from the 1920s, I think) entitled "Touchstones of Success". It features interviews with successful men of the day. Nearly all of them cite the same two factors: their mothers and hard work. My mother had little to do with my current success. But hard work has had everything to do with it.

I write nearly every day, often for several hours. I read constantly. I'm always absorbing information from books, magazines, and web sites. Sometimes it's overwhelming. I recognize that by devoting myself so wholly to my goals now that I am sacrificing other momentary pleasures. I tell myself that I enjoyed these pleasures over the past ten years, back when I had no purpose. Sure I had fun in the moment, but I felt unfulfilled. I feel fulfilled now. And maybe after a few years of hard work I can relax, and reap the rewards over the rest of my life.

4) How often do you think about your goals, review them, and take action on them?

Not often enough. Perhaps once every three to six months.

What usually happens is this: some crisis will cause me to re-evaluate my current situation and where I'm headed. I'll spend a day or two thinking about my goals. I'll set them down on paper (or a text file, actually). This process is pretty intense, and I'm very focused on it. But once I've set my goals down, I rarely refer to them again unless I stumble upon them in doing some sort of clean up. I feel like this is one area of my life that could be improved.

5) Describe how you overcome failure, how you pick yourself back up if you are struggling, and how you motivate yourself if your enthusiasm is lagging.

I used to let failure get me down, but more and more I'm learning to roll with it, to learn from my mistakes. For example, I recently was asked to give a radio interview about the country's negative savings rate. I agreed to do so. But when the station phoned me and I went on the air, I froze. I had stage fright. I couldn't remember even the most basic facts. I talked and talked and talked, but I didn't say anything. It was an embarrassment. I could have let this get me down -- I did feel a little bummed -- but instead I decided to view it as a learning experience. I e-mailed the show's host, and she offered some tips for how to improve next time. (I'm also planning to take a Dale Carnegie public speaking course once I have enough web income saved.)

When my enthusiasm is lagging, I take time off to recharge. I get up and turn off the computer. It's easy for me to get wrapped up in my work, to become so focused that I neglect other aspects of my life, particularly physical fitness. When this happens, it can be like I'm beating my head against a wall. I'm working extra hard, but getting little done. At times like this, I've learned to stop, to take a break, to ignore all of the things that I "have to do". For example, a few weeks ago I had several important pieces I needed to get written. Things just weren't coming together. I'd written for hours, but felt like it was all rubbish. It came time to attend a friend's birthday party, but I told my wife I couldn't. I had to stay home and write. She persuaded me to go, and I'm glad I did. We spent three hours roller skating. It was exhilarating. I'm serious. Those three
hours roller skating did more to improve the quality of my writing for the next week than anything else I might have done.

6) Could you describe your productivity system and any productivity tips you have for people?

The key to my system is: JUST DO IT.

I have a bad habit of putting things off. I've learned that if I want to get things done, I just need to do them. For example, I've adopted an e-mail system that is based on a hybrid of those suggested by Merlin Mann and Gina Trapani. When e-mail comes in, I try to act upon it immediately. (In practice, my e-mail box actually has about 100 messages in it, waiting to be processed.) I find that by taking care of e-mail now, people respect my responsiveness.

Another key is to prioritize things. I am actually attempting to actively maintain six separate blogs. I love each of them, but I have to make certain sites higher priorities than others. It used to be that my personal site was my top priority. Now Get Rich Slowly has taken that position. It's more important for me to generate new content for GRS than it is for me to, say, post an entry at my animal intelligence site.

As for the mechanics of my system: they're pretty rudimentary. I'm actually looking for a better way to work. Currently I use BBEdit on a Mac. A wide screen is essential to my work, so I bought a 17" laptop. I keep a browser window on the left side of the screen and a BBEdit window on the right side. Whenever I find something that's worthy of writing about, I create a new document. I have hundreds of documents on my hard drive, most of which are half-completed
articles about personal finance, animal intelligence, or vintage popular culture. I keep a couple of important text files as constant reference:

  • Schedule file - This lists the next week's worth of planned entries at Get Rich Slowly. It also lists when I most recently updated each of my other sites, along with any upcoming scheduled entries for them.
  • Idea file - As I mentioned, most of the time if something seems like a good article topic, I start a new text file. But I also have a separate text file that I use simply as a dumping place for ideas that occur to me.


I've found that I profit greatly from reading, watching, and hearing other success stories. I know this probably seems trite, but I don't care. It works. Reading sites like 43 Folders and Lifehacker and Mutual Improvement keep me focused on the positive. (I'm hoping that Get Rich Slowly helps people do that with their money goals.) I have an iPod. I have a subscription at audible.com. Every month I get two books. One of these is usually fiction of some sort, but the other is some sort of self-improvement book. I'm careful to seek out highly-regarded books -- there are few things worse than a bad self-help book -- and then I listen to these on my commute. They are amazing.

If anyone's curious about possible books to read from this genre, I recommend Tom Butler-Bowdon's "50 Success Classics", which provides brief summaries of fifty such titles. This book itself is highly motivational. And one can build a great success library from its recommendations. (Complete list here: 50 Success Classics)


stayfly said...

fantastic interview!! lots of great info here

one thing I would love to know from people from J.D. and Leo is how you guys summarize books you read. I would love be able to summarize interesting books I read so I can refer to them frequently when I need to review the key info however this is something I currently struggle with :(

Leo said...

Thanks for the excellent question, Stayfly. I'd like to hear JD's answer to this. I don't have a good system myself ... maybe other readers have suggestions?

When I read non-fiction, it sometimes inspires me to action, if it's good and useful and well-written. I then take the book and use it as an action plan or guide. In the case of GTD, for example, I immediately followed the steps in the book. Once the steps are incorporated as a part of my life, I just refer back to the book as needed.

In a couple of cases, I was actually inspired to write out the key points of the book. In those cases, I just listed the main points of each chapter, using Backpack or Wiki web software. I still refer to those lists sometimes. Other times I've written it out in a journal.

Hope this helps! I'd love to hear from others about how they do this.

stayfly said...


that dies help Leo - thanks!

I do try and do a point form summary for each chapter but I do find myself having difficult time what deciding what to keep out and what to keep in and then I often have to go back and re-read the book to summarize it effectively. I guess I should really write down the main points as I read the book. Overall I definitely do need a better system.

thanks again fir the suggestion though and for the excellent interview with J.D.

J.D. said...

Hi, Stayfly.

My system for book summarization varies from book-to-book. I'm actually trying to find my Rich Dad, Poor Dad summary at this very moment -- I came to check comments here as a means to procratinate! (We can't all be good all the time.)

Some book -- How to Win Friends and Influence People, for example -- lend themselves well to bullet-point summaries. Some, like Getting Things Done, lend themselves to "process" summaries. But most books require a more general approach. Mostly I simply read the entire book, then attempt to go through and re-member the main concepts that impressed *me*. I don't feel there's any use writing down everything. If I know something's not applicable to my situation, then I ignore it in my summary.

Really, though, there's no one right way.

Instead of summarizing, you might consider some form of bookmarking. The small-sized sticky notes are my best friends! If used judiciously, they can be a great tool for marking ideas you want to remember. (If you use them like my wife does, you just end up with a book full of sticky notes.)

Hope this helps...

Leo said...

Thanks, JD, for that. Just as you find it useful and inspiring to read about the success stories of others, we have enjoyed reading about you, and your suggestions for summarizing bookmarking are useful. Thanks for checking back!

J.D. said...

Here's a random thought about productivity that occurs to me here as I'm cleaning my office:

Music is a powerful tool for my personal productivity. Seriously. I basically operate in two modes: thought-intensive and thought-minimal. Each mode can be enhanced by a different kind of music.

Most of my work is thought-intensive. I've found that when I'm engaged in some sort of task that requires focus and concentration -- programming, writing, web design -- then my productivity is greatly enhanced by listening to either classical music or "chillout" music. This sort of music does just enough to keep my stray cycles from wandering to other paths, paths such as Battlestar Galactica or YouTube or Lifehacker.

But when I'm doing thought-minimal work, such as cleaning my office, I love to listen to dance/electronica. The driving beats and the catchy tunes keep me moving for hours at a time. It's great.

Each person probably has different productivity music. My wife listens to NPR when she wants to get stuff done. (I call it "noise pollution radio", though, because I cannot do *anything* thought-intensive when NPR is on.)

Just a random thought!

kamal said...

Great post. Like he said, it comes down to the ol' Nike slogan: Just do it!

jamver said...

Thank you for the interview.

It seems that there may be a mistaken link in your second last paragraph?

"""Now Get Rich Slowly has taken that position."""

The link on "Get Rich Slowly" there is to a .com address that appears to be either SEO or a domain squatter.

Leo said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Jamver ... I've fixed the link.

David said...

Thanks for that Leo! I love the new series, I look forward to the next one!. Truly inspirational!