Today’s Promise, Tomorrow’s Challenge

Most mornings, I wake up at about 5:30 AM and spend an hour or so waking up, stretching, doing a bit of reading and exercise and a few other odds and ends, and planning my day. The day before me feels like it’s full of promise and possibilities.

What will I do? How will I fill it? Will I be smart with my money and not buy anything foolish? Will I be really productive at work and write something that clicks with people? Looks like I have a morning meeting with my coffee group… will I have a lot of good conversations there and build some relationships? Will I learn some new things? Will I get some great exercise? Will I build up my relationship with my wife and my kids?

Today holds a lot of promise. Can I fulfill it?

Most days, I fulfill at least some of that promise. Some days, I write really well. Most days, I keep my spending completely in check. Most days, I have at least a few moments of genuine bonding with my children and my wife.

In other areas, I might fall short. I’ll clam up in a social encounter because I’m introverted and it feels much easier to just clam up. I’ll play a computer game instead of reading a challenging book.

At the end of the day, as I’m changing clothes for bed and brushing my teeth, I’ll think about the day that just passed and judge it. Was it a good day? Did I really do the things I set out to do? Did I do something positive in each of the major areas of my life? Did I practice good virtues? Or did I mess up and make mistakes?

As I go to sleep, I recognize that tomorrow is another challenge, another day. I could see it as just another day in an endless string of them, but I prefer to see each new day as a new challenge, to do things just a little bit better than the day before and to build on the good things I did today. Sometimes I succeed at that challenge; sometimes I fall short. What matters is whether I tried to do things a little bit better than the day before.

There are some really good pieces in all of this that anyone can pull out.

First of all, treat each day both as a fresh start and as a fresh challenge. Maybe yesterday wasn’t all that great, but today is a blank slate. You can control your spending. You can do great things at work. You can connect with people.

Don’t view the sequence of days that fill your life as an endless void of similar days, but as a constant opportunity to make yourself better. Today might seem similar to the last one, but if you genuinely use today to improve some aspect of your life – or multiple aspects – tomorrow will be just a little bit better. The difference might be so small that you don’t even notice it, but if you do the same thing tomorrow – genuinely try to make an aspect or two better – and then the day after that and the day after that, you will notice change.

Let’s put this in a personal finance context. There are really two ways to improve your financial state – spend less or earn more. Makes sense, right?

Today, what can you do to spend less than you do on a typical day?

Today, what can you do to put yourself in position to earn more money?

Ask yourself those two questions in the morning and come up with a genuine answer for each one.

For the first one, maybe it’s something as simple as skipping your morning coffee.

For the second one, maybe you can dedicate an hour of your time at work to taking care of an unfinished project that’s just been sitting around.

At the end of the day, think a bit about your progress on each. Did you manage to cut your spending a bit? Did you manage to do something that will nudge your career forward a little bit, or help you to launch a side business or take a new career step?

Ideally, that answer is “yes” (most of the time).

The question then becomes how can you keep that momentum moving forward to tomorrow. What can you do to build on this little success today? Maybe you can actually plan out a meal plan and a grocery list tomorrow and do some well-planned grocery shopping to take care of your food needs for a few days without breaking the bank, and then slowly get into a routine of cooking at home more often. Maybe you can start an online class to help master a new skill and then dedicate some time each day to going through the lectures and exercises.

To put it in simplest terms, today’s promise is the opportunity to do something positive; tomorrow’s challenge is coming up with a plan to build each of those little steps into something life changing and then sticking to it. Today’s promise, tomorrow’s challenge.

Which one is more important? I go back and forth on it.

At times, I relish today’s promise. I understand that if I can keep my eye on the ball today, that’s the fundamental element of building something bigger.

At other times, I relish tomorrow’s challenge. I plan for the future and try to come up with ways to channel today’s opportunities and time and effort into something bigger and better.

What I’ve come to realize is that in order to have the life you really want, you need both today’s promise and tomorrow’s challenge. You need to focus on making the absolute most out of today, but without putting some sort of direction around that effort, you wander in circles without really going anywhere or building anything.

I might be incredibly frugal each and every day, but if I don’t do something worthwhile with what I’m saving, it just goes to waste. At the very least, I should use it to pay down debt with a debt repayment plan or invest it for the future.

I might work my tail off today and do a great job, but if I’m not using at least some of that effort to make myself better so that I can perform better and create better things and simply do better work, I’m just going to run in circles forever.

We need today’s promise because that’s where all of the action is. That’s where we expend all of our effort and that’s where we get the results.

Without tomorrow’s challenge, all of today’s promise amounts to surprisingly little. We must take our best efforts today and build on them.

Today’s promise calls us to do our best this very day and be proud of those efforts. Tomorrow’s challenge is to build up all of those best efforts into something far beyond what we could ever achieve on our own with a single day’s efforts.

We need them both.

Today, live up to the promise that a new day gives you. Do your best to succeed at the challenge you have in front of you. If you’re trying to improve your finances, make the decision that today you will focus on making great spending choices. If you’re trying to improve your career, make today a great day at work. Only today really matters in terms of that actual effort.

Tomorrow, challenge yourself to build on those efforts and put them in a broader plan. If you’re trying to improve your finances, figure out what you’re going to do with the money you’re saving from your daily frugal efforts and put that cash to work. If you’re trying to improve your career, start building big resume-worthy things and improving your education.

Today’s promise, tomorrow’s challenge.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.