When Living for the Moment Gets in the Way of Living

A few weeks ago, I was absolutely struck by this article from The Atlantic, which talks about Sarah Manguso’s recent book “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.”

Manguso’s book focuses on her personal history of keeping a diary/journal, something I’m very familiar with personally. Her perspective on keeping a diary full of events was, at least in part, pretty negative:

I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem… I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

That little passage really strikes a chord with me.

Our lives are full of memorable moments and experiences that we often don’t want to let go of. When I think about my life, I can’t help but think of a long series of moments that have meant a lot to me, things like holding my children when they were babies, wandering around London with my new bride, and countless other great moments.

It’s really easy to look at one’s life as a series of those moments, things you want to remember with big gaps of nothing in between them.

Manguso falls into the trap of using her diary to try to remember all of them:

How could I have believed that if I tried hard enough, I could remember everything?

But it goes deeper than that. When you begin to fixate on all of the moments in your life – all of the details that you want to remember about this perfect moment – you begin to lose track of your life as an ongoing adventure:

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.

For most of my life, I wanted to create these perfect moments. The perfect meal. The perfect conversation with my wife. The perfect weekend with my parents. The perfect Christmas. The perfect image of me that could be portrayed to others. The perfect laugh with friends.

A great life, I always believed, was a collection of these perfect moments. A great life, I always believed, contained a lot of these moments. They came up every day in the kind of great life that I envisioned.

So, I began to spend much of my life chasing those great moments. An ordinary breakfast was meaningless – it had to be something delicious. An ordinary dinner with my wife? Nope. It had to have a great conversation or a great main course or a great dessert. Reading a book? Nope. I had to have a beautiful edition for my bookshelf and if it wasn’t life-changing in the first fifty pages, I was disappointed.

Everything had to be memorable. Everything had to be the best. If not, how could I possibly be leading a great life?

So, yes, my life had a lot of great moments in it back then. I went on a lot of great trips. I had a lot of great meals. I did a lot of fun things. I owned a lot of cool stuff.

Yet, over and over again, I wasn’t left with joy thanks to my great life. I was left with a sense of emptiness and a sense of anxiety and stress.

Why? I devalued the life in between the moments. I put so much emphasis on the moments where something really good or really cool was happening that the moments in between those points just felt empty.

And unless you’re spending a lot of money on a life of nonstop thrills, most of your life is spent between those points.

The truth is that life is an ongoing experience. Your life is not just made up of those big moments. It’s made of a very, very big pile of everyday moments. If you put all your focus on those handful of more important moments and decide that those are the ones that are important, you’re going to lead an anxious and stressful life.

This is a sentiment I’ve seen expressed in a lot of different ways by people who have undergone change in their life. That big moment of success? It’s really not very fulfilling because that moment doesn’t last.

I really like the way that the idea is expressed at Can Anybody Hear Me, a blog about one anonymous woman’s weight loss journey. In a recent post, she expressed the following:

I’m not at After. There is no After – happily ever or otherwise. There is only today. Just today – During.

If you expect the big moment to bring you lasting happiness and joy, you’re going to be disappointed. If you think that throwing money at a bunch of expensive items and events will bring you lasting contentment, you’re going to be disappointed.

This whole thing isn’t just a personal phenomenon. I can see it and hear it all throughout culture and all throughout the relationships that I have. I see it in the lives of people who “get through the week” to live it up on the weekends. I see it in people who work hard to pull off extravagant and splashy birthday parties for their children. I see it in people who constantly talk about the same big thing in their life – their new car, their new house, the big trip they’re going on or just got back from.

The truth, the real truth, is that your life is made up almost entirely of everyday moments, and it’s the quality of those everyday moments that has far more to do with your happiness and freedom than the big moments in your life.

Over the last several years, I’ve become convinced that the absolute best thing you can do for your life is maximize the quality of all of those everyday, forgettable moments. I’ve seen it reflected in almost every aspect of my life, from finances to families, from friendships to hobbies, from spending money to eating meals.

Maximizing the Every Day

There are several specific reasons why focusing on a life where maximizing the quality of everyday life is better than focusing on building up memorable moments.

First, a quality everyday life is consistent and sticks with you all the time. Big moments can come and go, but a good everyday life is something that you can enjoy every single day without fail.

Second, a quality everyday life means that you don’t have to throw your money at big things or big moments. Your life doesn’t revolve around creating big moments. If they happen to organically appear, that’s wonderful, but there’s no real desire to create them. Your life is good every single day.

Third, when big planned moments fall apart, it’s devastating. You’re relying on moments working out as well as possible and when that doesn’t happen, it feels like your whole life deflates. Everyday life can’t deflate. It’s a reliable base level for your life.

Fourth, everyday life does not drain your money, energy, and focus. When life is a sequence of big moments, those moments draw all of your energy, money, and focus. The value of putting money aside is less than before.

Finally, when your everyday life is good, it’s easier to appreciate what you have instead of wanting more. If you spend your time and energy and money building to big moments, you’re not investing that time and energy and money in your day to day life. Thus, it makes sense that your day to day life is lacking, which makes those big moments even more appealing and makes them even more of a focus in your life, financially and otherwise. Building up an everyday life that isn’t focused on moments means that you’re not seeking the next big moment any more.

What About Goals?

When you focus more on your everyday life instead of achieving big moments, aren’t you foregoing the idea of goals? If you’re content with your day to day life, why work for anything in the future?

For me, goals revolve around making my day-to-day life as good as possible. I want my ordinary life to be as low stress and as joyful as I can possibly make it.

When I start asking how I can achieve that, it’s easy to come up with some big projects to work on. Financial independence. Weight loss. Positive career goals.

In other words, a great goal is one that improves your ordinary life, not one that creates great moments.

But how do you do that?

Five Strategies for Maximizing the Everyday

Over the last few years, my primary focus has been on improving my day-to-day life so that I have no desire to build toward “big” moments any more, and I feel like I’ve really achieved that, particularly in the last six months or so.

So, how did I make that transition? For me, it came down to five key strategies.

No. 1: Spend Less Than You Earn. Way Less.

This strategy has been a major part of my life for the last several years. It was the implementation of financial change in my life that caused me to launch The Simple Dollar in the first place.

My original motivation for financial change was to dig myself out of a desperate financial hole. I quickly learned that the only way to extract myself from that pile of credit card and student loan debt was to put the brakes on my spending habits. That meant trying a lot of different things in how I lived my life, especially with regard to spending money.

I had to move from spending more than I earned to spending less than I earned, and do it abruptly and quickly.

Was it miserable? There were moments when I really thought so. I missed many of the things I was giving up. But, at the same time, I discovered a lot of things, too. I learned to appreciate the art of cooking at home. I found lots of great free activities in my community. I rediscovered things, too, like my love of reading books (rather than merely collecting them).

The thing that really mattered, though, is that when our financial recovery got rolling, our stress levels began to fall. We didn’t go to sleep worrying about bills. We no longer felt as though we were walking a professional tightrope where disaster strikes if either one of us loses our job. We stopped worrying about things like car problems, as we had the funds to just handle them easily and quickly. It made our day to day lives better.

No. 2: Improve Your Diet, Get Some Exercise, and Get Some Sleep

This is a real focus of mine right now, with many personal goals oriented around this. I find it a big personal challenge.

However, I find over and over again that taking care of myself results in better days. I feel more alert, more energetic, more focused, less anxious, and less stressed.

The biggest key, for me, is just making sure I get enough sleep – but not too much. I strive to go to sleep at such a time so that I get about eight hours of sleep each night. If I get too little, I get anxious and cranky – my ordinary life is worse. If I get too much, I’m lethargic – and, again, my ordinary life is worse.

In terms of exercise, the big thing for me is to just set aside some time each day to move around and get the blood flowing. If I do it consistently, I feel more alert and energetic as a natural state; if I don’t, that natural state declines and I feel less alert and less focused and less energetic.

Eating better has a similar impact. I can feel the difference when I’m eating healthier stuff versus when I’m eating less healthy stuff. When I’m eating a lot of vegetables in my diet, I feel more energetic and focused; when my diet has a lot of less healthy stuff in it, I feel lethargic.

Taking the right little steps every day in terms of my sleep, diet, and exercise makes me feel better, and if I feel better, than my day to day life is simply a better experience.

No. 3: Organize Your Thoughts About Your Life

As I’ve mentioned before, I have been a (more or less) daily journal writer since I was in the seventh grade. For most of my life, my writings have mostly centered around the events of each day, with only a bit of discussion at the end that revolved around trying to understand those events.

Over the last few years, the table has flipped on those things. Now, I scarcely write more than a few details about my day. Instead, I use my journal to try to figure out things going on in my life.

Why did I react that way in that situation? Why did I make that choice? Why do I feel distant from this person I used to feel close to? Why am I feeling closer to this other person lately?

I find that the more I think about these things in an organized fashion and really seek out answers to them, the better I understand myself and the better choices I naturally make in personal and social and family situations.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m far from perfect. However, right now I have a better understand of what makes my mind tick than I’ve ever had before. I often know why I react in certain situations and I have a much better sense than I’ve ever had of how to direct those reactions in a healthy manner. I understand most of the key relationships in my life very well. I understand that other people are as flawed as I am and, often, it’s the flaws in those people that make us able to connect.

For me, the best technique I’ve found is to take the single most joyful moment and the single most troubling moment of each day and ask myself why they occurred. Then, I ask “why” about the answer to that question, and I keep asking “why” until I come to a meaningful conclusion.

This takes some thought and self-reflection, don’t get me wrong, and sometimes you’ll come to conclusions about yourself that you won’t like. However, it’s in the process of coming to those conclusions that you begin to understand yourself, and when you understand who you are, appreciating your ordinary life becomes so much easier and so much more natural.

I now believe that much of my desire to chase “big moments” in life was a desire to escape from myself. Coming to terms with who I am took away that appeal from the “big moments.”

No. 4: Engage in Doing Things You Enjoy, Every Day

This is simple: set aside a block of time each day for doing something that makes you happy.

For some people, this sounds challenging because their personal schedules are already full to the brim. If that’s the case, you’re in one of two camps: You’re already doing things that you enjoy every day or you’re outright miserable. If you’re outright miserable, then you owe it to yourself to be doing something different with your time, so commit to unsubscribing from some of the things that you’re personally committed to.

I felt somewhat in the same boat. For several years, I really didn’t do this at all. Most days, I didn’t take time out for something that really mattered to me and, without really realizing it, it wore me down. While I certainly loved spending time with my family and with my wife, it still felt like there was something missing from my life. What was missing was the ability to devote time to personal interests, each and every day.

I now spend a minimum of an hour and a half each day following up on things that interest me. For me, that usually means learning something new or exercising my mind. I read challenging books. I play strategic board games with friends. I solve puzzles.

I know myself well enough to know that exercising my mind in new and varied ways is something that truly makes me happy, so I devote time to that each day. It makes ordinary life that much richer.

On top of that, I also encourage you to spend some time each day working on things that will make tomorrow better. There are many, many tasks in our lives that might seem dreadful to do today, but if you just follow through, they make tomorrow better. Organizational tasks come to mind for me, things like cleaning out my closet. I might not enjoy it right this moment, but it makes the next day and every subsequent day a little better.

No. 5: Build a Handful of Very Strong Local Relationships

I’m an introvert, which means that I value having time to myself. Yet, even with that big introverted streak, I constantly value and enjoy the large handful of strong relationships and friendships I have with people who live near me that I can see on a regular basis.

Not only do these relationships give me a chance to socialize, they also provide constant support and assistance when I need it. They don’t have to be a daily presence in my life – something that I might not necessarily want, as I do like my personal time – but they’re there for me when I need them, whether for something as simple as a lunch eaten together or a dinner party or something as big as helping with a home repair or watching our children during a medical emergency.

Having a collection of people in my life that I trust and that have similar values to me adds a great deal to my life. It turns social occasions from a “big” moment into something that’s woven into the fabric of daily life.

To build these kinds of relationships, you simply have to go out there to community events that might interest you and meet people. The vast majority of my strong local relationships today started at community events where I pushed myself to talk to people there and get to know them. Now, they’re people who share advice and ideas with me and help me out when I need it – and that makes a surprisingly large difference.

Final Thoughts

Don’t get caught in the trap of not seeing the forest for the trees. In the chase to have great moments in life, it’s easy to completely overlook our ordinary life.

Better yet, if you put a little bit of effort into it, you can lift up your ordinary life to the point where those big moments cease to matter and you’ll no longer feel as though you need to dump your time or money or energy into chasing those “perfect” moments.

Good luck.

Loading Disqus Comments ...