I often write about living in the NOW and about doing needed activities now rather than waiting for some mysterious better time, but living in the PRACTICAL NOW deserves deeper and broader discussion.

In an exercise article from the writer’s friend had been saying for a long time that she wanted to take an exercise class “someday”, so the writer finally asked her “What are you waiting for?” This is the perfect question for hundreds of activities we know are important or would make a difference in our lives but put off for a wide variety of usually ill-defined reasons.

Many students report having vast numbers of articles from magazines. Of course, no one can (or wants to!) sort through piles of articles to decide what to keep and what to toss (hint: if you haven’t used it in a year, it isn’t worth saving, except for important but rarely used documents, like your lease or mortgage papers). But the deeper concern is what is gained or lost by keeping articles (or making any undefined commitment to oneself to carry out some future beneficial activity or saving any object that has not been used in a long time). I believe the assumptions behind saving articles are: a. they have knowledge or information that is potentially important for my life, b. I don’t have time to study them or put the ideas into practice now so I will keep them so they will be here when I have more time, c. later (?), I will have time to go through them and make use of the knowledge in them.

There are several pitfalls in this thinking. One is the belief that magazines are trustworthy sources of information. Few magazines deserve this kind of trust {1}– they are sold to make money by selling space to advertisers whom they attract by showing a high readership (the more readers, the more they can charge for ads, so the real products magazines are selling are its readers). Most magazines’ main concerns are attracting readers; vetting information for accuracy, scientific validity, or correct analysis is much lower on their priority list. Questions have been raised about the credentials and expertise of many magazine writers, especially in health, exercise and organizing fields. Even writers with good credentials are not immune to crackpot ideas, sloppy or non-existent thinking or research, vested interests, or a host of other reasons why their advice might not be worth taking; MD’s and psychologists come up with many iffy ideas too. Being published doesn’t mean that an article or book is trustworthy. This is not to say that there aren’t good ideas in magazines – there are – but every idea in print isn’t healthful, safe, affordable, sensible, beneficial, or appropriate. Also, the rapid pace of change in health and related fields means that an article that might have been the best information available at the time can be not only out-of-date, but dangerous a year or five later.

Even assuming that the knowledge, information, or wisdom in any book or magazine is worthwhile, then the original question “what are you waiting for?” becomes even more relevant.
Any knowledge that is worthwhile later is even more worthwhile now. The longer we practice any beneficial activity, the better we become at doing it and the more its benefits accumulate in our lives. So when we don't immediately act on any wisdom we find, we miss out on the benefits in any area of life that the practice or behavior would affect (and possibly more widespread benefits if the behavior could become a keystone habit {2}).  Actions that benefit physical health are more beneficial the earlier in life that we begin them (BUT, it is never too late!). Emotional health improvements have immediate benefits because emotional turmoil is mental torture, and mental torture greatly harms quality of life, physical health, and, it is now believed, even our DNA. If an activity really would improve your life, the time to do it is now.

The second pitfall of saving unread articles or unused objects is that philosophically and often practically, there is no such thing as later. The only moment we can control is this one, the moment that we are in, this second. We can only influence what happens in the next second, not control it. Whether that moment will be better or worse than the moment before depends on, in part, what we do this moment as well as a host of factors that are mostly beyond our control. We could have a stroke or heart attack, be hit by a speeding car as we cross the street, an asteroid could strike without warning and obliterate life on this planet {3}or any of thousand other catastrophes could occur that are beyond the control of anyone. Life is fragile, so we must enjoy, celebrate, and make the most of every second because there are no guarantees on the next second. (This statement is not intended to make readers depressed, resigned, or bitter, but to recognize what a short, precious, miraculous gift life is and to accept that its ending is not up to us and can only be influenced, not controlled…but it would be foolish indeed not to do all that  we can to influence it)

Even assuming no disasters strike, control over the next moment can change in an instant: we could get sick, fall in love, or a phone call or letter could upend our plans for the day, week, or month or shift our priorities. Beyond having our schedule rearranged without our desire or plan, many things can happen that change how we use our time:

There is no certainty that we will have more time, interest, willingness, or capacity to read, study, understand, or implement information to any greater degree in the future than at present. This truth applies whether it is to reading and using articles or other items, implementing a beneficial life change or practice, or most of all, to gaining control of our thoughts and emotions.

Whatever change you envision would make your life better, the time to implement it is NOW. You cannot improve your health tomorrow, you can only do so today, this minute. Saving articles, books, or any other source of information, no matter how valid, is worthless if you do not put the advice and wisdom into practice. If you read a bit of information that seems true and worthwhile, begin using it as soon as you learn it; if not this precise moment, then at least today. Sometime today, any time today (but better this minute). Don't go to bed or do anything non-essential until you have done at least one tiny part of the action that you believe will benefit your life.  Not doing so breaks a commitment to yourself and diminishes your internal credibility, self-confidence, and self-esteem, all terrible prices to pay for whatever benefit you expected from not keeping your commitment to yourself. Keeping promises to other people is very important, but nowhere near as important as keeping those you make to yourself.

What does it actually mean to “make the most of every second”? I believe it is to make the most healthful, beneficial, and compassionate actions that we can at any moment to foster our bodies, minds, emotions, or other beings. And there is also the practical business of managing life: cleaning house, overseeing our finances, keeping up with the news, being good citizens, and having fun (all these practical and self-care elements can be fun, in part because it feels good to take good care of ourselves and because fun and pleasure are largely a matter of what we decide to enjoy). So at every moment, do the most that you can to keep your body healthy. Exercise needs to be, not just some isolated and time-limited activity we do whenever it occurs to us, but an overriding element that goes on in the background of everything else that we do (as I write this, I am bouncing on a large exercise ball while rotating my arms or lifting my legs – Dragon is typing). Exercise is not something to put off because the body will go downhill (and be very hard to push back up), so figure out how to build exercise into EVERYTHING you do.{4} You can’t take care of your body tomorrow because you don’t control tomorrow; you only control TODAY, NOW and not taking care of it today does harm that tomorrow would be hard-pressed to undo, and you will have lost the benefit of all the good that could be done today.

Similarly, good posture needs to be maintained throughout our entire day and during every activity we do. An orthopedist once told me that “knees are very unforgiving” but in truth, all parts of the body are unforgiving: if they aren’t taken care of, they deteriorate. Build little posture checks into your hourly activities so that you are never slumped or hunched for very long.
Don't be discouraged by how difficult it is change such ingrained behavior as posture – it will take thousands of posture checks to even begin long-term improvement. As one of my former housemates was always saying, “what else have you got to do?” (meaning all other activities will likely be improved by adding this). You will either be practicing good posture or bad posture – it might as well be good posture.
Until the beneficial behavior becomes automatic, put little reminders everywhere: on your to-do list, on sticky notes on your computer and TV, mirrors, the headboard or nightstands by your bed, the door to your home, or any other spot where a reminder will encourage doing whatever is needed. Have your phone, computer, or a timer alert you when it is time to do whatever healthy habit is needed right then. Even when the beneficial activity becomes dependable or automatic, be wary of allowing even little lapses – good habits can be so easily lost.

Working for optimal health applies even more to mental and emotional health, areas of health that should not be postponed for even a moment. Building mental health consists of several different types of activities:

If articles or books motivate healthy practices, then they have earned your respect and time, but they can only do this if you read and act on their advice.

Acting on wisdom does not mean you have to do everything at once. Just making a start is enough, and usually preferable to carrying out the entire task in a single pass. The idea is not heroic actions, but establishing healthful practices you can maintain as long as they are beneficial. So if your most beneficial activity for today is organizing your files, you don't need to do all of them to meet any reasonable expectation; 15 minutes, the time it takes to figure out where to start, is an entirely reasonable first goal and more effective in the long run. Pick a few most important files; clearing and organizing those is a good day’s work. The next day, do the next most important files. A crisis may force doing far more file organizing or other activity than is optimal; this can’t be avoided, but only dealt with. The lower your resistance to taking any required action, the more effective you will be. 

It often seems that when people save articles and books they aren’t so much looking for wisdom or knowledge but inspiration, motivation for action that is needed but they haven’t been able to get themselves to do. This can work, but only if you are receptive and adaptable. Postponing acting on inspiration never really works, so if you want an article or book to inspire constructive action, you must act on it as soon as possible (like the next minute) after you become aware of the need to do it. Just preparing to do it (such as, organizing your gym bag and putting it in front of the door or putting up a reminder sign) so that tomorrow you will certainly do whatever an inspiration prompts you to do, is a good beginning (make it as uncomfortable as possible to not do what you believe you should do). If you read about a great exercise or organizing method or anything else, try it out now. See if it really works. Don't do too much – don't overdo anything – just find out if or what benefits the new behavior offers and any hazards it might create.

Don’t assume that you will be more willing to build a new habit later. If something is holding you back, merely saving the book or article won’t help. Analyze the reasons for your reluctance: it’s never that you are lazy or undisciplined (ain’t no such things – these are just labels that avoid digging deeper) but that something prevents you from being diligent or motivated – what is it? –what you can do to change it? Question every excuse you give yourself for not doing what you know you need to do:

Maintaining motivation for positive activity is always a challenge until you have vanquished the nattering voices in your head that distract from doing what matters most. WRITE DOWN your reasons for wanting a constructive behavior and put them where you will see them often  (especially where you will be tempted to blow it off). Write down the rebuttals for your excuses. Until you master the art of self-motivation, there isn’t a lot of point to saving the information.

The immediate questions to ask when you find an article you are tempted to save are:

  1. when will I read or study this?
  2. when will I implement the ideas?

If the answer to a. is not today or tomorrow, you are fooling yourself. The odds that you will EVER read it shrink with each passing day. Question b. is even more telling: if you do not act on the knowledge from the article immediately after reading it, you probably never will. This is not a put-down of any individual but a recognition of how human nature works. We are all pre-occupied by whatever is right in front of us. Tasks that exist only in our minds or in the future get lost in our day-to-day busyness. We are more likely to remember new actions if we build them into our to-do or reminder lists. Knowing this, we can protect ourselves from our human frailties by not letting them undermine our desire for a better life.


{1} Actually, any? Maybe Consumer Reports, but their evaluative criteria may not be the same as yours.

{2} A keystone habit is one that triggers the development of other positive behaviors in a beneficial cascade known as a “virtuous cycle”. Exercise and meditation are well-known virtuous cycle triggers but there are other common ones: making one’s bed in the morning, neatening surfaces before going to bed, making frequent gratitude lists, or sometimes just dressing better.

{3} Remember the meteor strike in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2011? No one saw it coming before it entered the Earth’s atmosphere; 1,500 people were injured and many buildings damaged but we were really lucky – the damage could easily have been so much worse.

{4} I have a 12+ page frequently revised plan I wrote to guide my own daily exercise, parts of which are for remembering what kinds of exercise can be done in various locations (such as, bed, desk, pool, or bus), times of day (waking up, before sleep), needs (aerobics vs. strength training vs. balance vs. flexibility), or current physical limitations. This is a great resource for using the information in those articles, for remembering what is helpful to do in any location, and for generally keeping on track. I look at my list shortly after waking each morning to program my mind to look for opportunities to incorporate exercise throughout my day. I would share my list with readers but it is so custom-tailored to my physical limitations that it would have little benefit to anyone else (and might be hazardous). But creating your own list to encourage ongoing maintenance of an exercise program that meets your needs would be fabulous – and the articles can help you do it!


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