Time strategy #2: Earn your merit badges

IMG_1221I spent a few years as a Girl Scout. I consider earning badges to be among my more satisfying memories of childhood. While knowledge of, say, folklore is a nebulous thing, earning a folklore badge is incredibly straightforward. All the requirements are specific, doable actions, such as reading certain books or asking people for stories.* You do the specified number of requirements and you get your badge.

I suppose there is much to be said about how life is not always like that, and it is true that the path to many things in life is unclear. Many people flounder after school because there is no structure. One grade does not inexorably follow another. What is the next step if you want to be promoted in a year? Who knows? And is that promotion the right career move for you? Even the territory of resolutions — get in shape, get my finances in order — is often vague.

But consider this from the perspective of the person who created the Girl Scout badge requirements. Faced with a somewhat hazy desire (the knowledge of folklore!) the designer broke this down into actionable steps that, if not perfect, still give the badge-earner reasonable insight into the topic. These steps create the feeling of progress, and as Teresa Amabile’s research shows, progress is a key component of human happiness.

This insight — what I call the merit badge mindset — is useful for anyone with dreams, resolutions, or goals. Big desires can be broken down into doable steps. The feeling of accomplishment achieved by completing these steps can roll you toward the finish.

So rather than say you’re getting your finances in order, think of yourself as working on a personal finance merit badge. Even better? Give it a deadline: in 180 days, you will deem yourself worthy of that badge.

Then brainstorm the potential requirements for this badge. Maybe you will keep a spending log for a month. Maybe you will start using a budgeting app. Maybe you will read 2 personal finance books (these books might help with other ideas for requirements). Maybe you will consolidate any credit card balances onto one low-interest card. You will save $1000 fast (to quote Dave Ramsey). You will set up a retirement account or adjust the holdings on any such account you already have. You can even brainstorm ones that aren’t particularly relevant to you; I remember from my Girl Scout badges that you didn’t have to do all the actions (though a few were required). Go through the list and choose the ones you are committing to.

Then, give these steps a timeline within that longer framework. I like the idea of checking in each Friday to commit to what you will do by the next Friday, taking care to put these steps on the schedule. It is one thing to say you plan to get your finances in order. It is another to download You Need A Budget this week, listen to Your Money Or Your Life on audiobook during your commute next week, set up an appointment with yourself to organize any accounts you have the following Friday morning, and so forth. None of this guarantees that your finances will be in order in 180 days, but it massively ups the odds from just thinking it would be nice.

Even goals that can’t possibly be guaranteed can go into this merit badge framework. Hoping to meet someone special? It is possible the universe will randomly throw your soul mate into your path. Or you can make a list of well-connected friends and ask them to set you up. You can join social groups, go to friends’ work events (kind of how I met my husband), hire a matchmaker, commit to going on 2 dates per week, whatever you think will be helpful badge requirements.

What I particularly like about this mindset is that it helps with that existential sense of time angst that happens when you have things you know you’d like to do in life, but you’re not sure what you should be doing at any given moment. In the merit badge world, you know you’re going to a friend’s work happy hour on Thursday and you have a date set up for Friday night, and you’re meeting up with a running club Sunday morning, so it is all good. You can just relax and enjoy yourself. You are off the clock — free to do whatever you’d like knowing that progress is being made.

*I do not know if these are actual requirements.

In other news: This is part 2 of a series I’m running on foundational time management habits. If you think this series would be helpful to someone, please share it!

In other other news: The Get Bullish company actually offers a personal finance merit badge for grown-ups.

Photo: Vintage 1988-1989, baby! 


25 thoughts on “Time strategy #2: Earn your merit badges

  1. Thought you might like to know about this book: You Can Do It!: The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls
    by Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas

  2. OMG, I had SO many of those same badges!!! The computer one with the 0011s, the rainbow, the sun – probably more. so funny 🙂

    I definitely manage my productivity this way. I love to break a seemingly unmanageable project into bite sized tasks – and I know exactly what you mean about it allowing that relaxed feeling, when you know you are making progress. Love this.

  3. I was so good at getting merit badges. I think a lot of my peers were overwhelmed seeing all the possible activities, whereas I found it really satisfying to look through the requirements and pick the ones I found doable/interesting. I really like the idea of “project-ifying” big goals so that you can feel like you are making progress and can relax the rest of the time—I know that existential angst very well.

    1. @Ana – yep, the existential angst is the worst. You tend to feel like you’re not making progress, but you’re not enjoying the downtime either. I’m having some of that this summer with a between-books few months, but I know eventually I’ll be working on one again.

  4. Love this post! I loved earning badges when I was a child, and I’ve enjoyed helping my daughter’s troop earn several badges over the years. I think it is a great lesson in working towards your goals. I think you should get a badge for still having your uniform!

  5. I have a hard time breaking down big tasks, but it’s probably because I have a hard time conceptualizing how much time things will take. Despite time tracking every few months 🙂 I think part of it is just the stage in life (2 small kids, lots of solo parenting) and part of it is tackling new projects, where I don’t have the experience to accurately judge. But I do want to keep trying, and see if I can incorporate my seasonal energy and interest fluctuations into the plans as natural deadlines.

  6. I love this idea! I love lists and checking things off lists and breaking goals/tasks down into smaller steps. I think keeping track of the small steps to earn a badge can help alleviate the angst by showing you how much you’ve actually done. It might also alleviate some of that imposter syndrome that women (myself included) sometimes have–it’s hard to not call yourself a “real runner” if you’ve spent the past three months training for a race, or to say that you’re bad with money if you’ve spent the past 180 days making progress on getting your finances in order.

  7. OMG THIS: “that existential sense of time angst that happens when you have things you know you’d like to do in life, but you’re not sure what you should be doing at any given moment. ”

    I don’t know if it’s a phase or what, but now that I’ve settled into the newish job (and just returned from a loooong vacation), I have this major panic when I find myself with free time, like I’m not sure what to do next because it could be 17 different things I want to do, and I spend time fretting over it, and then just doing something dumb like cleaning out my (non-urgent) inbox, etc. Gonna try this merit badge/project scheduling thing now 🙂

    1. I’m with you. That statement perfectly sums up the feeling. I think of it like several radios on at the same time and I can’t concentrate on just one. Maybe better planning and steps would solve this. I love to make goals, but sometimes get overwhelmed in the completion because I try to eat the elephant whole.

    2. @ARC – Yes, I hate that sense of having free time and then wasting half of it deciding what to do with it. The good thing about having a real page turner book or some such is that I always know. Very freeing.

  8. I think the psychology behind “merit badges” (I wasn’t a Scout so this term is new to me) is why I’m attracted to various monthly challenges and have done so many. A month is just long enough to accomplish something meaningful but without burning out or getting bored with it. I’ve done things like “a plank a day” and such.

    Right now on my blog(s) I’m challenging myself to write one piece of curated content each day. (This was a suggestion in an online business networking/mentoring group I’m part of.)

    At the end of month-long challenges I reward myself a virtual merit badge. 🙂

    1. @Carrie – probably true that this is the same mindset. It seems very doable. We can do anything for a short period of time. Sometimes those actions then make a great difference in our lives.

  9. It’s funny timing for me with this blog because we are elbow deep in merit badge worksheets right now. All of my kids are Scouts. My youngest is a cub so he’s not working on them yet, but my son and daughter are hitting it hard. My oldest is working his way toward Eagle and because he plays football in the fall and knows he won’t be able to work on anything during that time (he’s also in the band) he has chosen several to complete this summer. My daughter is working on her Bronze Award in the hopes of one day getting her Gold. What I love about this is that they get such a sense of accomplishment from doing the work. Trophies are nice, but let’s be real, everyone gets one. With badges you have to put in the time and effort and become knowledgeable/capable of completing a skill. Several of my oldest son’s take 13 weeks to complete. This takes time and dedication, but in the end you get the glory of wearing that badge and knowing you earned it. I say bring back the badges!!

    1. I was only in Brownies for a short period of time, so I never got to the real essence of merit badge earning. I like the idea of empowering kids with that sense of accomplishment! I do get the trophy for participants simply because you are doing something… like receiving a finisher medal for a race, you are rewarded for taking the effort to cross the finish line, even if you didn’t have the best time.
      I’ve never really thought too much about my own kids going into the scouts, but this article and the commenters are bringing the benefits to my attention! Thanks for sharing your perspective!

      1. Scouts are a big deal in my house. My husband comes from a long line of life time scouts that earns Eagle awards. He’s also a Cub Master. (Over the entire county of Cubs ages 5-11.) I agree the trophy is nice. Sometimes we should be awarded for just trying. I’m not downplaying the motivation of just doing your best, but I do love the confidence that comes from my kids when they have truly mastered something well enough to earn their badge. Usually this skill or knowledge must be demonstrated to others. Sometimes they work their tails off and fail. This is also a good lesson.

  10. Wow! I love this. for more reasons than one. Thank you for your clear description in how to approach seemingly insurmountable tasks. That is often a huge hiccup for me, I am unsure of how to get from A to B. I’ve heard the suggestion to break it into smaller tasks, but there is something about this merit badge analogy that makes it seem more approachable and fun.
    You have a real talent for breaking things down and explaining them in a way that makes it interesting and easy to follow. Love your work!

  11. Laura, I love this series! I’m curious how you actually do this: do you create a spreadhsheet? Create a checklist? I have things in many different places (handwritten and hung on a bulletin board, in my journal, etc,etc) and am curious how you centralize goals/personal projects. Thank you!

    1. @Victoria – I tend to write down everything in my little notebook. It pretty much rules my life! Then if I have an appointment for something I put it on my paper calendar. I make to-do lists for the week, and then for each day. I’m not very Pinterest-y; if I was I would probably do some sort of bulletin board.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *