The Difference Between What You Should Be Doing and What You Are Doing

Several times during the course of writing an article, I feel a bit stuck for what I should write next. How exactly do I say what’s on my mind? I know the general topic of a paragraph or a section of an article, but actually converting it into words for a first draft eludes me in that moment.

The solution, of course, is to do something else.

The problem, of course, is that I often choose something less than useful with that “do something else” option.

What I should be doing is something directly useful to my life goals. I should spend that time doing a household chore. I should spend that time meditating. I should spend that time reading a section of a challenging book. I should spend that time making a homemade batch of some food item. I should spend that time exercising or going on a walk. You get the idea.

What I often do is play a game or chat with one of the guys I know who also work from home. I’m in a group of several people who work from home and hang out in a Slack chatroom and we often agree to play some quick multiplayer computer game together for 15 minutes.

It’s not the worst thing I could be doing. I am at least building camaraderie with my local professional peers. However, it’s far from the best thing I could be doing.

That gap between the best thing I could be doing and what I’m actually doing seems like a little deal in the moment, but it adds up over time. Let’s say that twice during a given day, I choose to play a game for 15 minutes instead of doing household chores. That means in the evening I have 30 minutes of undone chores to do… but this evening my son wants me to help him with his homework and there are a bunch of other things going on. Eventually those undone chores end up eating into something else I really value, something I genuinely regret missing out on, and it’s because I spent that time playing Fortnite or something instead of doing that household task.

Often, it’s because I’ve accumulated lots of those little decisions, where I’ve made a relatively poor choice in how to use my time here and then another poor choice there and then it adds up to a ton of things left undone and I feel overwhelmed.

It’s that difference between what I should be doing and what I actually am doing. It really adds up.

The same exact thing is true with money. We all sometimes use our money in ways that are less than optimal. We spend it on something unnecessary when we could put it to better use buying something else. We buy something frivolous when we could use the money to invest in our future.

Most of the time, those expenses are small. We buy a bottle of Gatorade at the convenience store. We buy a pack of gum in the checkout aisle. We pick up a latte at Starbucks. We keep paying the cable bill even though we don’t watch it much these days. Those little expenses are easily forgotten, too.

Sure, sometimes those expenses are big ones, too. We buy a bigger house than we probably should. We go on a really expensive trip. We decide to go for the car with the upgrades rather than the base model.

All of those things add up, little by little, until one day you find yourself in what feels like an insurmountable financial hole. Is it even possible to save much for retirement at this point? Can you even help your kids much with college? Is it all hopeless? Will you be working until you fall down on the job?

With money, with time, with everything, it’s the difference between what you actually do and what you should be doing, added up over thousands upon thousands of choices, that ends up putting us in a place that we don’t like, wondering where it all went wrong, completely overwhelmed by the challenge before us.

The solution to this problem isn’t to become perfect. The solution, rather, is to be conscious of how those little choices add up and tweak things so that just a little more often, we make the better choice. A few times a day, we choose to do what we should be doing rather than our impulsive desire in the moment.

Maybe once or twice a week, I’ll go take care of a task instead of chatting with the other stay at home workers I know. A little decision that’s much closer to what I should be doing.

Maybe today, instead of going inside the gas station to pay and talking myself into a Gatorade, I’ll just pay at the pump and get home and find something in the fridge there. A little decision that’s much closer to what I should be doing.

Maybe instead of buying a new board game, I’ll find one on the shelves that I’ve not yet played. A little decision that’s much closer to what I should be doing.

Over time, those little decisions add up to something bigger, something that amounts to genuine life change.

The challenge, of course, is to be mindful of all of those little choices throughout the day. Saving the difference between what you should be doing and what you’re tempted to do comes down to making a better choice on the many decisions we’re faced with each day, and doing that consistently comes down to habit.

For me, the most successful way I know of to nudge that kind of everyday behavior in a better direction is to just remind myself regularly. Just set up a reminder on your smartphone to remind you once a day or so to try to do what you should be doing instead of what you are doing. Let that thought burrow deep in your head and act on it every so often.

Perfection isn’t what you’re aiming for. Rather, you’re aiming to just reduce that overall gap between your perfect behavior and what you’re actually doing by just a little bit, by making a few of your choices a little better without making other ones worse.

Do that consistently over a long period and it begins to feel natural.

Do that consistently over a long period and the trajectory of things in your life begin to change.

Good luck.

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