Today is All You Get

Life is short, as the saying goes. With every step, we narrow limitless possibility into realized reality. Every action we take is something chosen at the expense of all else. This is one of those quiet, unyielding, occasionally sharp laws of the universe: you can’t have everything.

But in another sense, life is quite long! The future is full of potential. You could learn languages or climb mountains or study history or collect figurines or make apps or design furniture. Nothing is guaranteed, but most anything can be accomplished with enough commitment and hard work. The present is a blank slate.

So, we must choose. What really matters to you? What is worth striving for, spending pieces of your life on? We’re entangled in this dilemma throughout life. From moment-to-moment decision-making to existential contemplation, we wrestle with the same fundamental question. What do we want?

The trouble is, it’s easy to want things. Wanting is barely a beginning.

Wanting is Easy, Doing is Hard

Desire can be channeled in two ways. It can be transmuted into action, or it can fuel fantasy. Action is real but plain. Action requires effort, and effort can be uncomfortable. Fantasy, though ultimately insubstantial, is exciting. Fantasy sends you to an imaginary realm where you have what you want without having to get it. It’s gratifying, it feels good. But it isn’t real.

Wanting is worth little if it never drives you to act. Empty desire might provide you a sense of hope or security—and it might deceive you into believing you’re working toward something when you’re not. Beware any story you tell yourself resting on unacted wants.

We get lost when we confuse the feeling of wanting something for the reality of trying to get it. You might like the idea of something, but do you actually like the experience of doing it? You can’t truly know the measure of a want without applying yourself to it, incrementally renewing it into your reality. Effort is the ultimate test of desire.

Since effort requires motivation, working toward things is largely a matter of pointing yourself in the right directions. The energy cost of effort depends on its target. Some wants are naturally more attractive than others—and your mind is not always right about which is which. Look for wants that don’t just consume your attention, but actually compel you to action.

In the digital age of algorithms and instant gratification, wanting has never been easier. To find truly enriching desires amidst endless inputs and options, we must inspect our wants carefully. We must test them, try them on, and explore whether they can sustain us.

Escaping Outcome Fixation

Clarifying what you want requires separating action from outcome.

Forget the finish line: if you’re not attracted to the raw, step-by-step work of pursuing a goal, you’ll never reach it. End results can be motivating in the short term, but won’t sustain you through a long project or journey In the worst case, after a grueling slog of self-coercion you'll finally cross the finish line only to feel crushingly empty as you realize it wasn't actually the thing you needed or wanted.. For best results, find paths that are fulfilling every step of the way, not just means to an end. Seek rewarding process.

To figure out if you really want something, transform it from an outcome-oriented desire to a process-oriented desire. Redirect your attention to the day-after-day effort it will take to get there. Want to run a marathon? Try wanting to run every day. Want to “be a writer”? Try wanting to write every day. You may still desire the outcome, but put yourself face-to-face with the practice required to get there.

Converting outcome-desires to process-desires is immensely revealing. One of two things will happen. Either you’ll be motivated enough to work toward your desire, or you won’t. Either you’ll be sparked to life by the process you envision, or you’ll realize your desire is mostly fantasy. With the right vantage point, it’s really that simple.

Outcome-fixation is the honeypot of desire, the pattern that will keep you stuck spinning your wheels. If you don’t want the full breadth of the thing, the journey itself, you don’t truly want it. You just think you want it, you like the idea of it, the flashy finish line you conjure up in your imagination. But you’re not serious.

Today Is All You Get

Reframing your desires around process is half the battle. The final obstacle is starting. Drawing yourself together, facing this thing that you want to do and getting moving. Due to resistance, friction, and limited bandwidth, this is non-trivial even if you’ve found worthy, fulfilling goals.

To spark myself into action, the mantra that is helpful to me is today is all you get.

If you really want it, you’ll do it today. The future is an illusion. Future days are days just like today, with the same old difficulties and distractions. “Later” is an intention sink. Deferring your effort to later is a story you tell yourself to make yourself feel better, not a guarantee that you’ll actually make it happen Over-reliance on "later" without follow through degrades self-trust, which can put you in a downward spiral of failing to keep your commitments.. Don’t kid yourself.

Today is all you get. Is your desire important enough to be a part of today? Do you care enough to carve out 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour for your goal? This is the difference between fantasy and reality, between mere wishful thinking and actually making something happen. Goals are not reached in grand swells of future effort, they’re worked toward inch by inch, day by day.

Will you let your dreams be dreams? Will you rest in the comfort of hope and deferred aspiration, fantasizing about what you say you want? Or will you wrest some of these spilling minutes into your own hands? Will you pick yourself up, look to the horizon, and step forward?

Today is all you get.