Changing Your Day Versus Changing Your Trajectory

Back when I was in my early twenties, my professional mentor at the time would often tell me something that didn’t really click with me until the last few years. He would tell me, “Trent, you can either have a good day, or you can have a good trajectory.”

At the time, I really took his meaning the wrong way. I thought he was telling me that if I focused too much on long term things, I would fall flat on my face regarding the things I was working on today. I took it to mean that I should really focus on succeeding at the task at hand, because if I succeeded at the challenges before me, things would always turn out good.

That’s not what he was saying at all. I didn’t understand it then, but it’s much clearer now.

His point was this: each day has only so many hours in it, and you choose how you’re going to spend those hours. If you choose to spend those hours on things for which you’ll mostly just see the benefit today, you’ll probably have a good day. On the other hand, if you choose to spend those hours on things for which you’ll mostly see the benefit far off in the future, you’ll change your trajectory for life.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t enjoy the moment – you absolutely should enjoy today, at least sometimes. The issue becomes when your life’s focus is on enjoying today and you spend little or no energy on improving your trajectory.

I can give a lot of examples of this. Here are three.

Let’s say you’re walking by a Starbucks kiosk. You can either walk on by, or you can stop in and grab yourself your preferred drink.

The first option – walking on by – is almost always the one that puts you on the better trajectory. You’re not consuming the calories of that drink and you’re keeping that $5 (or whatever) in your pocket to be used elsewhere.

The other option – stopping in for that drink – is the one that makes today better. You get to enjoy that delicious drink and it’ll put a little spring in your step for a while. However, the next day, you’ll have the remnants of those calories in your body and $5 less in your wallet.

It may seem like a one-off choice, but what if you repeat it four times a week? That’s a thousand empty calories or so and $20 in the balance. Over a month? Over a year? You’re starting to look at a different trajectory in your financial life and your personal health.

Yet, at the same time, it’s probably true that your individual days where you stopped in would be just a little more pleasurable than the ones where you walked on by (of course, until the long term health effects of a daily sugary beverage began to kick in). That’s a completely different trajectory.

Let’s say you have an hour to burn. You could spend that hour by putting on some workout clothes, doing a bunch of yoga and planks and jumping jacks and such, getting really sweaty, and then taking a shower. Or, you could spend that hour channel surfing and looking at websites on your phone.

The first option – the exercise – is almost always going to put you on the better long term trajectory. However, it’s also going to be a pretty intense use of your next hour. Some people really enjoy exercise, but many don’t. (I personally hate getting started, but I enjoy it during the flow and really enjoy how I feel afterwards.)

The second option – the relaxation – is probably going to be more enjoyable over the next hour, but you’ll be in slightly worse physical shape for that choice. You likely won’t notice the health difference in any way, but you’ll probably enjoy just sitting there with a bit of time to just unwind more than busting your tail exercising.

Again, it may seem like a one off choice, but if you choose to spend that hour that way three or four times a week for a year, well, that’s a much different trajectory than if you spend an hour channel surfing three or four times a week for a year.

With every day, with every choice, you’re shaping those trajectories, and life is loaded with choices. You choose to sit there web surfing at work versus taking care of a task or studying some materials? Those are different trajectories exiting from that moment. One option might be more enjoyable right now, but it doesn’t lead in a great direction compared to the other options.

If you want an amazing life, you have to make a lot of choices based on the trajectory rather than on what feels good today. This means that today might not be as awesome as it could be, but it means that tomorrow and all subsequent days will have an ever so slightly better baseline than the day before. Repeat that enough times and your life is simply better than it used to be, regardless of your daily choices, and you’ll also find that making “trajectory” choices is much easier than it used to be.

A Simple Plan

Actually making this change is really simple. In the morning, right when you get up, spend a few minutes thinking about each of the areas of your life and what you’re going to do today to do something trajectory-based in that area. I usually think of ten areas of life: physical, mental, spiritual, intellectual, professional, marital, parental, social, avocational (hobbies), and financial. I want to try to do at least one thing each day where I choose the trajectory-based thing rather than what’s best for me right in that moment, but ideally, by thinking about them, I set myself up to also make several little choices that are trajectory based.

For example, with the “physical” option, I might decide that I’m going to work out today instead of web surfing as my one thing that’s trajectory based, but having thought about it in the morning, I might choose to eat a lighter lunch or eat a banana instead of a cookie.

At the end of the day, spend five or ten seconds thinking about each area. Did you do your best to try to do something trajectory-based in that area? What was it? Was it really hard? Did you have to give up something you really wanted? Or was it kind of fun, and you really didn’t have to give up anything? That thinking will help refine your choices going forward.

You can make that system a little more robust if you want; it’s essentially a simplified version of the system in Marshall Goldsmith’s Triggers.

Here are some suggestions for each of those areas.

Physical: do some exercise; eat a smaller meal; skip an unhealthy snack; take the stairs when you could take the elevator; park on the far end of the parking lot.

Mental: get a good night of sleep; spend some time outside, particularly time in the woods if possible; write down some stream of consciousness thoughts in a journal; make a list of things you’re grateful for; make a list of positive things about yourself.

Spiritual: meditate or pray for a period of time; read slowly and deeply and carefully from a book about your faith or spiritual tradition and mull it over in your mind; consider whether an action you’re about to take is in line with your values and do what your values tell you; talk to someone else in your spiritual tradition about your spiritual tradition; attend a religious service.

Intellectual: read something that really challenges your thinking; play an intellectually challenging game; make the best argument you can on behalf of a viewpoint you disagree with; solve (or work on solving) a puzzle; take on a mentally hard task at work or at home.

Professional: take on a challenging task you’ve been putting off; reach out meaningfully to someone in your professional network by simply starting a conversation or inviting them to lunch; take the next step in your own professional development plan or make a professional development plan if you don’t have one; provide some help to someone in your professional network; attend or plan to attend a professional meeting or conference.

Marital: listen carefully to your partner today without interjecting your own thoughts; do something for your partner that they’ll appreciate and which feels like love to them; take care of a task your spouse dreads doing; write a note for your partner; hold your partner in your arms and kiss your partner.

Parental: listen carefully to your child today without interjecting your own thoughts; help your child with homework but do it slowly, with patience and care; ask your child about how their life is going and listen to the answers without interjecting; genuinely participate in whatever it is your child is currently into; talk to your child seriously about a difficult topic.

Social: contact an old friend with a meaningful message about how they’re doing, not you; celebrate a friend’s achievements publicly; plan and then host a dinner party; reach out to a new potential friend in a meaningful way; schedule a lunch or some other social gathering with a good friend you haven’t seen lately.

Avocational: do some deliberate practice related to a hobby (meaning that you intentionally work on refining a basic skill that the hobby relies on); organize your possessions related to a particular hobby; create a resource (such as a video or a how-to guide) that helps others who are interested in that hobby; organize an event related to that hobby; give yourself an uninterruptible block of time to enjoy that hobby.

Let’s do a whole bunch for financial.

Financial: choose to skip over an incidental spending opportunity; review a bill in detail and ask to have any excess charges removed going forward; cancel a bill (like cable) and figure out how to move forward without the service; buy store brand versions of products that you’d normally buy in name brand form; make a bunch of meals in advance and freeze them; do some careful research on an upcoming purchase; sign up for your workplace retirement plan; sign up for a Roth IRA; review your investment choices within your retirement plan and/or Roth IRA and make sure you’re happy with the risk/reward; learn about a financial topic that might be relevant to you; write a will; write a living will; write a medical power of attorney document; sell off some of the things in your closet; read a personal finance book or article and take action on something you learned; shop around for a better cell phone plan.

If you fill every single day with at least one of these “trajectory changing” choices in each category in place of the “day changing” choices you would ordinarily make, your life will gradually head in a better direction in almost every respect. It will take time, but it’ll get there. If you’re unhappy with one particular area of your life, focus on that and make a lot of trajectory changing choices in that area in place of your usual day changing choices.

Approaching this idea in that kind of gradual way means that you can still fill your life with daily pleasures and joys as you already do, but that your life will gradually start moving in a better direction over time.

The best approach of all? Try and find new routines that are better in terms of trajectory but also provide some daily joy and pleasure. Find forms of exercise you actually enjoy. Stick with store brands that do the job as well as the name brands, if not better. Block off devoted hobby time instead of filling in the gaps with it.

One final note: almost none of these shifts cost money. Most of them are oriented around different time and energy use. Some of them save money, even ones outside of the “financial” group. Why? The truth is money can’t buy happiness and it can’t buy a truly better life. Happiness and a better life is found elsewhere, mostly in your time and energy and focus and emotional choices.

Putting your life on a better trajectory in any area will gradually lead to a better life, with less stress, more energy, more opportunities, and more sources of happiness and joy. It all starts with making daily choices that are about the trajectory more than about today. Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.