It’s not too late. You aren’t behind. You’re exactly where you need to be. Every step is necessary. Don’t judge or berate yourself for how long your journey is taking. We all need our own time to travel our own distance. Give yourself a little more credit right now, be thankful you made it this far, and take the next tiniest step forward.
Seriously, don’t waste another drop of your time and energy fighting against where you are. Invest your time and energy into getting to where you want to go. Do your best to let go of everything from the past that does not serve you, and just admire the fact that it brought you to where you are now…
To this new beginning.
That’s the super-simplified gist of what Marc and I preach on a daily basis to course students, blog commenters, book readers, friends, and just about anyone else who pings us for some general advice on getting unstuck in life.
And it’s pretty good advice for the most part, right?
You might even say it’s common sense.
Yet, so many of us do the exact opposite on a daily basis.
In fact, many of us do nothing productive at all until we get to a catastrophic breaking point.
In other words, we waste all our time and energy waiting for the ideal path to appear. But it never does. Because we forget that paths are made by walking, not waiting. We forget that we shouldn’t feel more confident before we take the next step—that taking the next step is what builds our confidence. And so, we hesitate, procrastinate, and ultimately succumb to the same old routines that have been making us miserable.
The underlining reason for our errors in judgment?
A Lack of Self-Discipline
Many of us lack the self-discipline skill set required to make consistent, meaningful progress.
Think about the most widespread sources of unhappiness we deal with in our lives—from laziness to lack of exercise to unhealthy vices to procrastination, and so on.
In most cases, problems like these are not caused not by a physical ailment, but by an conditioned weakness of the mind—a weakness that persistently urges us to avoid discomfort.
Too often we dream about the reward without the risk, the shine without the grind. But we can’t have a destination without a journey. And a journey always has costs. At the very least, we have to give up a little time and energy to take a step forward every day.
So, instead of dreaming about what you want right now, first ask yourself:
“What am I willing to give up to get it?”
Or, for those inevitably hard days:
“What is worth sacrificing for?”
Seriously, think about it…
If you want the six-pack abs, you have to also want the sore muscles and the healthy meals.
If you want the successful business, you have to also want the long work days and the possibility of failing twenty times to learn what you need to know to succeed in the long run.
If you want something in life, you have to also want the costs of getting it—you have to be willing to put in consistent effort. Otherwise, there’s no point in dreaming. In fact, as long as a meaningful dream is just sitting around in your head it’s doing far more harm than good. Your subconscious mind knows you’re procrastinating on something that’s important to you. The necessary work you keep postponing causes unhappiness, anxiety, fear, and usually more procrastination—a vicious cycle that continues to worsen until you interrupt it with ACTION.
Yeah, taking action seems simple enough but, really, it’s not. Because, again, what we truly need to do is often what we most feel like avoiding. This is a harsh reality…
- How often are we stuck in a cycle of worry, fear, and other forms of over-thinking?
- How often are we aimlessly distracted?
- How often do we procrastinate?
Waaaaay too often! But there’s hope…
Practicing the Skill of Self-Discipline
After consistently honing my self-discipline over the years, I’ve become reasonably proficient at getting things done with minimal distraction and procrastination.
Today, for example, I wrote a 1200-word newsletter email for blog subscribers, proof-read and cleaned up the last few edits for a brand new book Marc and I just finished co-writing, coached one of our Getting Back to Happy course students, responded to comments and emails from dozens of students and readers, worked on business planning and strategizing for a few active side-projects, spent a quality evening with my family, and of course now I’m writing the article you’re reading now which I’ll queue up for tomorrow morning.
It might seem like a lot, but it happens one step at a time, with presence and focus.
With that said, however, I’ll be the first to admit that Marc and I still struggle with occasional self-discipline breakdowns that sneak up on us and get in the way of our effectiveness (because we’re human). When this happens to me, first and foremost, I forgive myself for messing up, and then I strive to be mindful about what’s really going on. Am I procrastinating for some reason? Am I distracted? Instead of telling myself that I’m “bad” or “undisciplined,” I try to productively uncover a more specific, solvable problem, and then address it.
In a nutshell, I remind myself that self-discipline is just a skill to be honed. It’s simply the practice of overcoming distractions and focusing on what matters. It involves acting according to what you know is right instead of how you feel in the moment (perhaps tired or lazy). It typically requires sacrificing immediate pleasure and excitement for what matters most in life. And it’s something that must be revisited, again and again.
But (there’s always a “but”)…
What do you do if your life is in complete disarray, you have hardly any self-discipline or beneficial routines, can’t stick to anything, procrastinate constantly, and feel miserably out of control?
How do you get started with practicing self-discipline when you have so many changes to make?
You start small. Very small.
If you don’t know where to start, let me suggest that you start by simply washing your dishes. Yes, I mean literally washing your dishes. It’s just one small step forward: When you eat your oatmeal, wash your bowl and spoon. When you finish drinking your morning coffee, rinse the coffee pot and your mug. Don’t leave any dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter for later. Wash them immediately.
Form this small ritual one dish at a time, one day at a time. Once you do this consistently for a couple weeks, you can start making sure the sink has been wiped clean too. Then the counter. Then put your clothes where they belong when you take them off. Then start doing a few sit-ups every morning. Eat a few vegetables for dinner. And so forth.
Do one of these at a time, and you’ll start to build a healthy ritual of practicing self-discipline, and finally know yourself to be capable of doing what must be done… and finishing what you start.
But, again, for right now, just wash your dishes. Mindfully, with a smile. (Marc and I build small, life-changing rituals like this with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy course.)
The next step forward is yours for the taking. Just one step today—like washing your dishes—and then continue focusing on it for a few minutes a day going forward. The key is making sustainable shifts in your beliefs and behavior. That means practicing gradually, one step at a time, one day at a time, and letting your progress build over time. Go from zero to 60 steps over the course of a couple months, not all at once.
Will it be easy?
But it will be worth it.
As you marshal forward in life, adversity is inescapable. And it’s much like walking into a turbulent windstorm—as you fight to step onward, you not only gain strength, but it tears away from you all but the essential parts of you that cannot be torn. Once you come out of the storm, you see yourself as you really are in raw form, without the baggage that’s been holding you back.
And that makes all the difference—because it frees you to take the next small step, and the next.
So tell me, which part of this article resonated with you the most? Why does it resonate with you?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Marc and I would love to hear from YOU. 🙂
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Very wise words here, especially the ones about upholding positive rituals and how greatly your constant daily actions effect your ability to think, live and making meaningful progress. I also loved the analogy of “coming out of a turbulent windstorm” — that gave me a strong visual. And I have been carrying extra baggage for too long, although I’ve been making healthy changes in this regard recently, thanks in part to your work.
I’ve been a student in your Getting Back to Happy course for two months now, and the whole concept of building and sustaining heathy rituals has benefitted both my professional and my personal well-being. It’s actually quite amazing when I look back at how reactive and disorganized I was with everything and everyone that’s important to me, and how focusing on a couple simple, healthy daily rituals shifted me out of the negative hamster wheel I had been spinning in for years, in jut over a couple months. I’m not exactly where I want to be just yet, but I’m feeling really good about where I am now in comparison to where I was.
One step at a time, in the right direction, with the right support, and magic happens! Boom!
So today, I’m going to press forward with the rituals I already have in place — just the next small step forward.
Here I go . . .
Angel & Marc,
Your blog, book (I’m looking forward to you new book too) and emails continue to assist me with taking the appropriate steps forward you speak of. I am truly thankful for the time you put into sharing most of your teachings free of charge. It’s honestly why I invested in your first book in the first place—I was a blog reader for years and wanted to pay you back. And now I love the book, too.
As it relates to this post, it all resonates deeply with me. I really love your point about accepting the costs of the things we want in life. I know sometimes we don’t do this. We only look at the benefits, as if there is no downsides. I think that’s important perspective. If we can get our minds wrapped around the sacrificing that need to be made from the get-go, we can better prepare ourselves for the journey.
I couldn’t agree more that you have to do the work to be happier in life, especially in the long term. The seeds we plant today grow tomorrow.
I actually attended your most recent Think Better conference in San Diego a few weeks ago and this blog post brought me back to some of the incredibly pertinent principles I learned from you both and the other speakers. I have honestly done my best to uphold these principles in my life ever since.
Oh, and “Just wash your dishes!” As simple as it gets and yet such a profound reminder to do the little things that need to be done to live a more sane and happier life. Thank you.
Receiving your reminders give me strength to keep moving forward! Thank u always for making a difference to so many of us?
THis is a fantastic article and just what I need right now. I am feeling very stuck and thinking about moving forward with such small steps is a big motivator to know I can achieve any goal I chose.
I know this approach to attaining goals works because about 10 years ago I was a smoker , smoking around 20 cigarettes a day. I had tried to give up a few times and knew it was the right thing to do but it seemed overwhelming to do something so big and hard .
I chose to give up 1 cigarette at a time every time I felt like another cigarette, I told myself I was just giving up this one cigarette, not forever . This was a one step at a time journey and it was easier than I thought with the right mindset. I had forgotten how easy goals are to achieve when you take one small step at a time towards them.
I feel very motivated and am very excited to start moving forward
thank you 🙂
Celia Claire says
Thanks so much. There’s a build up of washing up in my sink right now. I felt that you were talking directly to me. I’m starting now!
Thank you so much for all your articles. Every one seems to come just as the right time. For months now, personal drama has revolved around me. I found myself drowning so deep in all of the negative, I broke and shut down for the weekend in a silent retreat. First, I realized not only was I allowing the drama in my life, but I was also creating it–procrastination! The fear of moving forward, it’s so easy, like you said to stay stuck, because it’s familiar. Moving on is painful and hard. Second, thank you for reminding me it’s okay to fall. Getting back up and trying again is okay. I’m right where I’m supposed to be. So Thank you!, Thank You!
Thank you M&A!
Just last night I was beating myself up for being “behind” on my path to medical school in comparison to my friends. Reading this article reminded not only that everyone has a different journey, but also that going to medical school is something that I am willing to sacrifice for.
I loved this paragraph. It resonates with me because I believe I let how I am feeling in the moment and lose motivation. I can be in the mood to do something, take action, and then I can get distracted and my mood changes. I need to really work on self-discipline.
” In a nutshell, I remind myself that self-discipline is just a skill to be honed. It’s simply the practice of overcoming distractions and focusing on what matters. It involves acting according to what you know is right instead of how you feel in the moment (perhaps tired or lazy). It typically requires sacrificing immediate pleasure and excitement for what matters most in life. And it’s something that must be revisited, again and again.”
Marc and Angel,
Your articles are so well written and seem to come right when one needs them. I am getting into a habit of first looking to my inbox for an advice! Thank you for your great work!
That entire intro just spoke volumes to me. It’s exactly what I needed to hear right now.
I read this during a break from writing my dissertation and it couldn’t have been at a better time! I’m feeling very pressured by deadlines and struggling with sleep and time with 2 young kiddos at home and often feel that I’m not making the progress I need but even the smallest step forward is still progress! I will give myself more grace and work on better time management. Thank you for the words of wisdom and encouragement!
Also, this reminded me of the book I read to prepare myself for my first 50k trail run “Relentless Forward Progress” by Bryon Powell. If only I enjoyed typing at my computer as much as I do running in nature 🙂
you have hit the nail on the head! after getting married my discipline actions went out the window, now 19 years later i can see what i have become and i don’t enjoy it ! so now it’s time to get into a life that gives a little pain, a road not so soft has to be walked.
Marsha Asbury says
I have been on a personal journey for 3 years that i think is closely related to this article. Your statement “as long as a meaningful dream is just sitting around in your head it’s doing far more harm than good” resonates in my soul, reminding me of my personal history. I was 61 years old, desperately wanting to plan for retirement, but mired in a 40 year marriage that was too chaotic to allow planning for the weekend, let alone next year. I finally realized my dreams were worth the effort and began a difficult, humbling but rewarding journey to a new life. I have a ways to go, but have come far from that desperate place. I have recently discovered your articles and books, and find they touch me profoundly. I look forward to your emails and books. Thanks for the continued inspiration.
Lloyd B Schneider says
I like your comment about “do the dishes” as soon as you finish your meal. It resonated with a point in my mindfulness project which says “always leave the place better than it was when you arrived.”
This article feels like it was written about me and my day today.
I have sat here full of ideas and possibilities and done really nothing with my whole day.
I make To-Do lists, but I sometimes feel they are counter productive: The big jobs can’t be ticked off, and often starting them reveals a number of extra steps I hadn’t even thought of, so I retreat to the things on my list that are easy to tick off — to give myself that boost — but which are often trivial. I feel like I am rewarding myself for time wasted.
Whenever I feel depressed or caught up from all the stresses of my work and life, I always go back to your blog because I know there is something in there that will help me get back up again. This article is very timely and I really liked the opening paragraph “It’s not too late. You aren’t behind. You’re exactly where you need to be. Every step is necessary. Don’t judge or berate yourself for how long your journey is taking. We all need our own time to travel our own distance. Give yourself a little more credit right now, be thankful you made it this far, and take the next tiniest step forward.”
Thank you very much for your time and effort to write these articles. 🙂
I did my dishes, I had let it go for too long. I have much to work on, it’s a bit overwhelming. One spoon at a time. This was a very timely article for me. Thank you for posting it.
NANETTE MIRANDA says
Thank You Mark and Angel ……today is the day I slipped back…….tetering on where I was 3 years ago….but then I read your email about the dishes…something so simple to do. I am getting up out of bed and out of the darkness to go start those dishes I think every time I look at them it will remind me to not let things get me down and to push through it. Your work is remarkable as to how you make us all see things differently, you are really both very special people. I can never Thank You both enough.
virginia stoltenkamp says
Thank you M & A encouraging me to carry on is everything I need to take me through my journey you just made me realize that one can still uphold your sanity even when you feeling totally helpless .
Great article, thank you.
I had a low day earlier in the week, an uncomfortable reminder of depression. Thankfully it lifted.
To help me grind it out I just reminded myself to keep stepping forward, no matter how small the action – like washing up – it is so important to be kind to ourselves during these slumps and say, it’s ok to stall and feel down just try to do something productive.
great reminder!! i like to do things as they are in the moment so i don’t have to catch up later..but i still fall behind LOL
Many people lack self discipline to get what they want and then they are unhappy about it. My problem is that I work TOO hard and have TOO many high expectation. And if things do not work as fast as I want them to be and as soon as I want them, then I start to get inpatient and unhappy. I am working on that though.
Thanks for this, have been through a lot after developing bad habits over the years, but now i realize the solution its self discipline, you are indeed an eye opener.
Rinyapam Shatsang says
This was really an inspiring one, one that has made me act upon. Very realistic n practical. Thanks Marc n Angel.
Just a short sweet message to say that I ABSOLUTELY love you guys! Please keep the articles coming!!
Great words. I have a plan that I’ve been holding on to for several years. For the past week, I’ve just sat around and told my self that I needed to veg out. That was a lie. I was afraid to move forward. There is only one more step I need to take to fulfill my dream. You made me realize that it isn’t circumstances holding me back – it’s me. Wish me luck as I tackle the last leg of my trip to doing what I want to do. Thank you.
That’s right, Many Thanks
When I feel like I’m not being productive, I naturally gravitate towards the kitchen to wash dishes. It’s a mindless activity, and I feel like I’m doing something that I would have to do no matter what.
The problem is, once I finish doing the dishes, I feel like I can relax, but really all I did was something I would have gotten to at some point anyway. I end up regretting that I hadn’t spent my time on a more long-term focused activity.
Recently, I’ve trained myself to stop before going to do dishes, sit on the couch, and think for up to 20 minutes about what I would feel best if I accomplished. I usually do that, and then get to the dishes in between busier things.
Karen P says
I love the idea of starting small…very small; too often we want to jump in feet first and attempt too many changes or too big of changes and then don’t accomplish and feed the self doubt in our mind; thank you for sharing and I am off to wash the dishes.
Ruth Levy says
I love your compassionate and yet practical view. Your drive to help others figure out why they are stuck, coupled with steps to help them move forward is awesome!
Beautiful as always, thank you