When I first realized I needed to turn my financial life around, the changes that needed to be made seemed immense. Just thinking about the sheer size of what I needed to do would drag me down and leave me feeling as though it were hopeless.
It was in those moments of seeming hopelessness that I would be at my weakest. I’d try to convince myself that the changes I was trying to make weren’t really working – they weren’t really changing anything at all. And I’d tell myself that I should go back on my positive progress by spending money on things that I didn’t really need.
What got me through those tough moments wasn’t some sort of grand vision of what could be. Instead, it was focusing on the immediate. What actions could I take today? What good choices could I make today? In short, the big success of turning around our debt situation was actually built brick by brick, one day at a time.
It sounds incredibly simple: just focus on today and not worry about tomorrow. The truth, however, is never quite that simple. It’s easy to make short-term choices that make sense – like eating nothing but lettuce for a day when you’re dieting – only to find out that they’re disastrous in the longer term – you’re starving on the fourth day and eat a whole Sara Lee poundcake.
Here are seven vital tactics to use when you’re trying to make a giant change one day at a time.
Make your goal for the day very clear and concrete. “I will spend less money today” or “I will eat less today” doesn’t cut the mustard – these goals aren’t specific at all and rely on an imperfect memory of what you spent before or what you ate before. Instead, clarify what exactly you want to do. “I will not spend any money today besides buying groceries or paying bills” or “I will only consume 1,500 calories today” are concrete, measurable goals that have a very clear route to success.
Make your goal for the day realistic. When you’re setting that goal, make it realistic. Don’t say, “I’m going to eat nothing today” or “I’m going to improve my net worth by 1% today.” Those goals simply aren’t realistic or attainable. You need to set specific, concrete goals that you can actually reach every day with mental focus and effort. Goals that are beyond the pale will lead directly to failure.
Consider the impact beyond just today when choosing your goal. Another thing to consider is whether or not your daily goal is one that will adversely affect your ability to complete goals in future days. For example, if you pledge that you will spend no money at all today, that likely means you’ll just be postponing spending to a future day. Instead, focus on not spending a dollar beyond your budget – or not a dollar on anything extraneous. Similarly, if you’re trying to diet and you set your daily goal too low, you’re begging for a big rebound when under-nutrition catches up with you.
Keep a daily journal to mark your progress. Each day, whether you successfully completed the goal or not, spend a moment or two jotting down how things went with regards to your goal that day. Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve? What difficulties did you face? What good ideas did you have? Make this journal a part of your daily routine at the end of the day. In fact, use my wife as an example – part of her pre-bedtime routine is to write in her own paper journal.
If you’d prefer to type, you can easily set up a very basic anonymous blog online. This will enable you to record your thoughts and daily progress no matter where you’re at, as long as you have internet access.
After several days, note the change that is happening in terms of your bigger goal. After a week or two, recalculate your net worth and see how it compares to when you started. Or, weigh yourself and see if you’ve dropped any pounds. You may find that this simple “focus on one day at a time” tactic is really producing the big changes that you desire. I find it better not to do such measurements every day, because individual days show a lot of fluctuation.
Instead, spread out your evaluations of success so that those fluctuations in weight and financial state that happen day-to-day do not impact your impression of how your progress is going.
Keep focused on just one day at a time until that one day becomes easy. After a bit of success, it’s easy to think you’ve “got it” and stop worrying about daily goals. Don’t fall into that trap. It’s that very focus on daily goals that has brought you this early success – don’t let go of it now.
Instead, you should stick with your daily goals (and recording your progress with them) until the goals become very easy and almost automatic. In effect, what you’re trying to do is change your definition of what “normal” is – and when your new behavior becomes your “normal,” then you’ve really achieved something.
Move on by picking a new daily goal or focusing on longer-term goals. Once you’ve reached the point that you’ve truly altered your normal behavior, it’s time for a bit more soul-searching. You can start looking for a different daily goal to focus on, or you can start looking at things from a bigger scale. In short, look for a new challenge to bring you towards the big dreams you have – don’t rest on the laurels of your early success.