Updated on 09.30.14

Taking Dramatic Change One Day at a Time

Trent Hamm

High To Low by GregHickman on Flickr!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.

7 Tactics to Making Big Changes One Day at a Time

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

Good luck!

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  1. Matt says:

    I agree with you one hundred percent! I for example weigh myself only once a week no to bother with daily ups and downs.

    And if I have a bad day, that is the only thing I focus on – maintain the diet that particular day. Each successful day reinforces new habits and new routines and each successful day is a step to a better tomorrow..

    I wish everyone all the best on their roads to better themselves

  2. Great article Trent. Change is very difficult for a lot of people. I think the best piece of advice in the article is “one day at a time.”

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Francine says:

    Thanks for the helpful article. I wanted to share my story:

    When I lost my job, we were forced to make significant changes. I listed all of our expenses and we immediately cut back as much as we could. Since then, we’ve been making small, lasting changes a little at a time: switching from sponges to washable dish rags; buying store brands as much as possible (I’ve been surprised at how many are just as good or better than the name brands); shopping at a less expensive grocery store; Starbucks is now a once a week treat; selling books, cds, dvds; etc

    We’re paying all of our bills, and adding to our emergency fund every month. We were able to pay for car repair from this fund. We’re not incurring any new debt, and think long and hard before most purchases. We hunt around for the best deals.

    I’m on unemployment and actively job hunting. We’re living on $27,5000 less than we were last year. We plan on continuing to live this way so we can possibly purchase a house. The above figure would make quite a down payment.

    I’m so happy that my spouse is on the same page and has the same goals. It’s all from living as my parents did, and communities like this. Thanks, Trent and all of you readers/comment posters.

    Best of Luck, Everyone,

  4. Nate says:

    Good work Francine! $27,500 is a huge cutback. I’m sure that isn’t easy. Thanks for posting your story and good luck with the job hunt.

  5. liv says:

    makes ya think.

    i’m always about changing for the positive, but i am the worst at keeping a journal consistently.

  6. Focusing on realistic goals is very important. We fail most of the time because we try to achieve something unrealistic.
    A Dawn Journal

  7. Great advice Trent, it’s very similar to what goes on in AA and other substance-abuse treatments. If it works for them, then surely it can work for financial/life changes.

  8. RDS says:

    This is great advice and applicable to just about anything that is worth doing.

    Whether you want to save more money, lose weight, run a marathon, or excel at a career or hobby it takes many little steps to achieve your goal. Keeping track of your progress is vital. It can be very encouraging – and surprising – to see how much all of those little steps add up to.

    In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers”, he claims that his research suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at anything.


  9. Buck says:

    The goal setting advice is well stated and critical to moving into a positive personal financial situation. Realistic goals with a journal record of progress are key items. Great advice in an understandable format. Add dedication and determination to this excellent post for a total package that will work

  10. doctor S says:

    Your post justifies the fact more that progress in any facet of life is often a gradual process tat tests us along the way. You hit it right on the nail, you have to take it day by day, small task by small task.

    I have tried keeping a journal and I failed miserably at that, physically writing down things in a little book.

    Then I stumbled on how easy blogging was and it changed my life. I know it is an often used cliche but “Rome was not built in a day” and either is achieving financial success.

  11. Trevor says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Today I found out that my department will no longer BE in about a week’s time. It’s really depressing! Your taking one day at a time is a great approach to anything tough in life.

    Thanks Again.

  12. Trying to get everything done at one time can be an extremely daunting task and eventually become overwhelming. Some of the most successful people I’ve ever met, both on a personal relationship level and financial level, typically have 1 thing in common…..they all do a number of “little things/tasks” on a repeatable basis that eventually add up to to large changes!

  13. Studenomist says:

    A common problem that I find is that many people will try to set the bar so high that they are destined to fail. It is one thing to say you will work to get out of debt and it is a completely different thing to go around saying you purchase a new home..

    the reason I say this is because I have a friend who has racked up $30,000 in debt since high school ended (5 years ago. Instead of working on reducing his debt, he feels that by taking on more debt to fund unrealistic business ventures it will lead to an eventual success.

  14. kristine says:

    One day at a time works- at anything. I lost over 50 pounds, and have kept if off for 3 years now, taking it 1 day at a time.

    It was the cheapest diet ever made- I just followed the government’s food pyramid, and rode my bike 30 minutes a day. So incredibly simple- and so FREE!

    I now employ 1 day at a time to not purchasing anything new for a year. Otherwise, it would never work!

  15. L. says:

    Sincronicity working! :)

    Before reading your post, I’ve been setting aside money for lunch for the rest of the week and trying to catch up with the spendings these last few days (need to make that daily journal one my priorities…).

    Immediately after thinking about cutting the daily budget for this, I started to feel hunger and thinking about some expensive alternatives that I usually don’t eat!

    Considering that at this time here in Europe is breakfast time and I’ve had breakfast already, I guess I could feel that psichological impact that really prevents us to go ahead in lots of situations.

    So, as I usually have lunch with my co-workers, I decided to consider other alternatives such as avoiding Friday lunches, which are always outside the budget (because we share and divide all costs and we have more time to eat) and/or bringing lunch once a week.

    Focusing on today, I remebered of fruits and other stuff I brought from home, so, that “panic” of hunger is completely unjustified because:
    * eating on a lower budget doesn’t mean necessarily eating less or low quality
    * if i’m hunger after lunch I’ll have those things I brought!

    A wonderful timing you had with this post!

  16. Ryan McLean says:

    These are some great tips. I just got married and I find myself in kind of the same circumstances as you once were. I am in debt about $20,000 and I find myself constantly spending money on things I don’t really need because I want to.
    I even just spent like $100 on my entrepreneurs blog to get a new theme. Granted it was a business investment but I probably didn’t really need to do it so early.
    Great tips and I am loving your blog lately

  17. When I tell people about their larger goals in life, I always describe it as a long slow road. But at the same time, I also tell them that the first thing they need to do on that path is to take a step.

    That way, even though they can’t see the end of the road, they do know where their first step is going to be.

  18. SimplicityinKansas says:

    Small continual change is the method I believe works the best for constant steps forward in small ways. The overall technique is called Kaizen and it has proved very valuable to me in my efforts to make significant change over change.

  19. moolah says:

    We never seem to have enough moolah no matter what. I can sure relate to that. My hubby is on unemployment and is going about job hunting. It is sure scary in this economy! We have to only buy what is totally needed, nothing more. It’s not even like we have a choice. Thanks for the good advice and just reading about others in similar circumstances is helpful.

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