Day-by-Day: Making the Most of the Present

May 25, 2020 Updated: May 25, 2020

Many of us turn off our televisions, close our computers or books, and wander off to bed at night dissatisfied, wondering why we accomplished so little that day. Having set ourselves goals that morning over coffee, here we are once again, worn thin and ready for sleep but discontented by what we have done and what we have left undone. As we drift off, we vow to embrace tomorrow, follow through on plans, and tackle projects great and small.

But that next day brings another repetition of frustration and a sense of failure.

Time for a change.

We can enhance every day by making some small, painless alterations in our approach to the time given us. Here are a few simple suggestions to help you fall into sleep satisfied by your accomplishments.

Make a to-Do List

Some people, including me, are great list-makers. We write down tomorrow’s self-assignments before going to sleep or, like me, map out a rough schedule when we wake the following morning. In my case, it’s a rare day when I scratch through all the items on my list—that scratching-through brings enormous satisfaction—and so I move the unmarked items to the next day’s tasks. 

For those of you who are hard on yourselves, who reach day’s end feeling as if you have done little or nothing, try a different sort of list. Before you sleep, write down everything worthwhile you accomplished since getting out of bed: feeding the kids a wonderful supper, pitching an idea to your boss, going for a run, shopping for groceries, speaking to a broken-hearted friend for half an hour. You may be surprised to find your time is much more productive than you imagine.

Avoid Procrastination

For some of us, this is a tough one. We are the ones who select the easy or pleasurable obligations and put aside the difficult ones. We enjoy getting our hands dirty in the garden, but meanwhile that pile of bills goes unattended on our kitchen counter. We telephone a friend and chat for half an hour, but once again neglect calling our stepmother.

Not so long ago, I needed to make corrections to some Latin tests I had written for a homeschooling company. Every day “Latin tests” appeared on my list, and every day it reappeared on the next day’s list. After about two weeks, I finally broke out the tests, opened my computer, and began making corrections.

That much-dreaded job took me about half an hour from start to finish.

And yes, I felt foolish for having dawdled for so long on so simple a project.

Focus on the Task at Hand

When we concentrate on a job or chore, when we give ourselves fully to a task, we complete the work more easily and more efficiently than otherwise. Let’s say you’re mowing the lawn. You’re thirsty, you turn off the mower and get a glass of water from the kitchen, and you start back outside, but pause to see if you have any email. No mail, but you next decide to check out your favorite website and see what news has been posted since you looked an hour earlier. You then remember that you’ve forgotten to look at another favorite site, where you become entranced by several stories posted there. 

When you close your laptop, an hour has passed, and it’s raining. 

Avoid distraction and complete the mission.

Make Haste Slowly

Our present pandemic has forced many of us to decelerate from a sprint to a stroll. Accustomed as we are to racing through each day, we may have found this adjustment pleasurable or horrible, but we might perform better in the race we run in our normal lives by acting with greater deliberation and care. 

Last fall I was visiting my son and his family in Asheville, North Carolina, where I had lived for a number of years. One day I had a long list of things I wanted to accomplish and people I wanted to see. I raced from the bookstore to the pharmacy, stopped to withdraw $200 from my bank’s ATM, hurried to the grocery store, went to the self-checkout aisle, opened my wallet, and realized I had left my money at the ATM. I quickly paid for the groceries with the cash left in my wallet, sped back to the bank, and found the money was gone.

And here’s the kicker: I left my change for the groceries in the machine at the store.

“Haste makes waste” took on a whole new meaning that day for me.

Expect the Unexpected

For a good part of my life, I owned a homeschooling mail-order company and taught literature, history, and Latin to seminars of home-educated students. As a result, moms new to homeschooling sometimes asked me for advice. “Start every day at a given time,” I would tell them. “If the school day is supposed to start at 9 a.m., start at 9 a.m. no matter what. Because many times something will happen and the day will fall apart, but at least you started on time.”

Allowing for the unexpected can bring calm and stability when the unforeseen arrives. You had grand plans to get together with friends for a Saturday hike when your elderly mom calls and asks if you can take her to the pharmacy for some necessary medication. It’s a Friday night, you’re whipped out from a 60-hour workweek, and you want nothing more than a glass of wine, the sofa, and a good movie when your sister calls, weeping over the phone about the antics of her son, your beloved nephew who lately has become rebellious.

By girding ourselves for the extraordinary, we can often render it ordinary.

Let Tomorrow Take Care of Tomorrow

All too often we fret about the future, wasting time and energy imagining disasters and difficulties that have yet to happen. Many of these calamities turn out to be less arduous than we’d anticipated, and a good number of them never take place at all. 

If you go back to the title of this piece, you will notice that the last word is a double entendre. The present is the present. When we make it ours, we can unwrap that gift, engage its joys and sorrows, and live more fully. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.