Too often people overestimate the significance of one big defining moment and underestimate the value of making good decisions and tiny steps of progress on a daily basis.
You’re probably familiar with what’s known as the Serenity Prayer. It goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There’s an important lesson here—one that’s very often glossed over…
When a chaotic reality is swirling around us, we often try to relieve our anxiety by exerting our will over external things we cannot control.
It helps us stave off one of the most dreaded feelings: complete powerlessness.
With that in mind, I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is that generally speaking, almost everything is outside your control. What other people do, whether it will rain tomorrow, whether or not your efforts will be appreciated—all of these outcomes depend on factors that aren’t YOU.
But that’s also the good news.
The friction and frustration created by trying to change things you cannot change is the crucible where a ton of unhappiness is born. Accepting that most things are outside your influence gives you explicit permission to let them unfold as they may.
Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it this way:
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.”
Overcoming the “three big un’s” that so many of us struggle with daily—unhappiness, unconvinced things will ever change, unsure what to do next—begins with understanding what you can control and what you cannot.
The mental shift here is not easy. Most of us have spent a lifetime worrying about things that we can’t control. Society practically encourages this. For most, it’s a bona fide habit—one that should be replaced with a healthy understanding of how much we can actually change. Again though, it’s hard to get your mind wrapped around all this when you’re constantly hearing…
“Why don’t you just get over it?” or “Just let it go.”
We’ve all heard some flavor of this advice before. And it passes the sniff test, to a certain extent.
I mean, “time heals all wounds,” right? Well, yes… sort of. But wounds heal differently depending on how they’re treated.
Left alone, a gash in your skin will leave a large scar and be vulnerable to injury again in the future. This is why we get stitches—it helps the wound heal in a way that limits the chance of re-injury down the road.
Emotional wounds work the same way. Given enough time, most emotional pain will diminish—that’s true. But…
Just “Getting Over It” Leaves Scars
In the emotional sense, scars equal baggage—baggage we carry with us into every aspect of our lives. These scars grow and accumulate until one day you wake up suffering from one or more of the “three un’s” (unhappiness, unconvinced things will ever change, unsure what to do next).
So, don’t get over it. Go through it, one step at a time.
Honestly, I understand the desire to “get over” difficult experiences or situations rather than facing them. Revisiting painful memories or facing our present demons is really, really hard. And we as human beings are hard-wired to not cause ourselves pain.
However, as our parents taught us, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.
And in addition to the scars, to ignore or downplay a wound puts you at risk for infection, emotionally as well as physically.
Unresolved issues in your life take up residence in your mind and influence your decisions, your relationships, and your attitudes. They rob you of your happiness and potential.
Of course, doing the hard yet necessary things to resolve your issues and heal your wounds can feel impossible. This is how Angel and I felt a decade ago when we were knocked down and stuck in a rut after simultaneously losing two loved ones—including Angel’s dear brother—to suicide and illness. It was nearly impossible to move anywhere significant when we didn’t feel we had the strength to push forward.
So, if you’re feeling this way now—like it’s impossible to make significant progress today—you aren’t wrong for feeling what you feel. In many cases, you’re right: significant progress comes gradually with time and consistency. It’s all about taking one tiny positive step at a time, and staying the course…
The Power of Tiny Changes
Think about the fact that it only takes a one degree change in temperature to convert water to vapor, or ice to water. It’s such a tiny change—just one step in a different direction—and yet the results are dramatic. A tiny change can make all the difference in the world.
Now, consider another example where a tiny change is compounded by time and distance. Perhaps you’re trying to travel somewhere specific, but you’re off course by just one tiny degree in the wrong direction…
- After one mile, you would be off course by over 92 feet.
- If you were trying to travel from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., you would land near Baltimore, Maryland, over 42 miles away from your desired destination.
- Traveling around the world from Washington, D.C. back to Washington D.C., you’d miss by 435 miles and end up landing near Boston instead.
- In a spaceship traveling to the moon, a one-degree error would have you missing the moon by over 4,100 miles.
You get the idea—over time and distance, a mere one-degree change in course makes a significant difference…
This same philosophy holds true in various aspects of our lives. The tiniest things we do each day—positive and negative alike—can make all the difference. They either bring us closer or farther away from where we ultimately want to be. And yet, we mostly ignore this reality. We default to behaving as if our daily actions won’t ever be significant enough. Or, again, we try to exert control over the bigger things we have no control over.
Think about it…
- How many people uphold unhealthy and unproductive habits?
- How many people procrastinate on the next positive step?
- How many people live every day of their lives moving one degree away from where they ultimately want to be?
Don’t be one of them anymore!
Truth be told, everyone travels 24 hours a day, whether they’re moving in the right direction or not.
How much richer would your life be if you committed yourself to making just one degree of effort to improve something about your situation each day?
And even though it will surely be harder than doing nothing, it doesn’t even have to be anything that hard. You just need to muster up the courage to break free from the status quo and take one tiny step forward today, and then do it again tomorrow.
Pick something tiny and productive to improve upon, and then make it a daily habit.
Doing so will make all the difference in the world, just a few short weeks down the road.
(Note: Angel and I build tiny, life-changing daily habits like this with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course.)
Leave us a comment before you go…
Did this post resonate with you today?
Which specific part or point resonated the most?
Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us.
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MaryAnn Russum says
Boy can I relate to this.
You often hear about making that first step, or one step at a time… that one degree of change is very relavant right now.
I work for myself as a graphic artist and have really struggled in the past year and a half. I lost a big client last March who provided a steady monthly income, lost a contract job recently due to budget cuts and have had multiple other great opportunities fall through the cracks for various reasons that I had no control over. Through all this I feel like I’ve taken 3 steps forward and 8 steps back. It’s been very frustrating as freelancer and business owner and has caused a lot of financial strain.
You are SO correct in saying that making that 1% change can be just the thing that will change your course. I know I fret a LOT about work and money. I know I fret a LOT about what to do next and all that does it just keeps me stuck where I am. Thanks for the encouragement to just make those baby steps to keep life moving forward. I’m sure in some ways I do that but honestly, I need all the encouragment I can get these days!! Thank you!
Drina David says
“Unresolved issues in your life take up residence in your mind and influence your decisions, your relationships, and your attitudes. They rob you of your happiness and potential.”
This is so true for me! What can I do? I am suffering every day for the last two years. 🙁 What tiny change can I do today to slowly make things better in the long run? I am just so lost. May I please ask for help?
Holly Mugford says
Kedisha Forrester says
I really like this newsletter/post it makes me see I have work to do to make things better for me. Thank you
Vicky Williams says
Thanks for this the whole episode is just beautiful. I am taking the line that says pick something tiny and productive practice each day and you will reach your goal. Thanks for encouraging me personally.
Fwy Roses says
Thank You. I will do something tiny today.
Hannah Gorres says
Thank you. You made a difference in my life.
DUANE BLAMEY says
Marc and Angel – – I read your emails and blogs whenever I get them, and I thoroughly Enjoy them. I generally forward them on to my two daughters because of your INSIGHTFUL “words of Wisdom”. What you have to say in the very beginning of your Blog today about how “People UNDERestimate the value of Tiny Steps of Progress on a daily Basis.” is Exactly what I have been telling my daughter lately. She is in a New Job as a Respiratory Therapist, and has NOT Recognized the “small successes” that she make on a daily basis. Thanks for your GREAT INSIGHT on the things of LIFE. We really Appreciate YOU and what you have to say!!
I have found making my bed every morning really helps, and decluttering too.
Thanks for reminder
Thank you sir.
Bonnie Hart says
This helped me with a bit of perspective today… my sister has a medical test coming up that is worrisome with the results being out of our control. However we are headed in the right direction because she has agreed to seek help and hopefully improve the outcome.
Alice Mantey says
Today’s blog hit the mark with me. I have been struggling for the past two years as things seem to just keep going down hill. I get back up, shake the dust off and do what I can to approach my goals from a new direction. Just yesterday I decided that nothing I did was ever going to make any difference. I found myself wishing someone would just point me in the right direction. Maybe take over running my life for a bit so I could sit back and just let things happen. I truly feel that maybe I should re-examine my life at this point and figure out what are reasonable expectations. I am not getting any younger and this Covid-19 has shut down all movement forward for me. I am a classical musician and all the orchestras around me have shut down for the upcoming season. So I will re-examine my strengths and weakness, work on all that in baby steps. In addition, I will try to see if there are other areas of my life that willcould bring me joy. Orchestra is my first love and thankfully my husband is making good wages so this downturn hasn’t really affected us financially. But how do I look outside music to find happiness? And should I? I do have other interest. Travel (can’t do right now). Biking and hiking. Reading, knitting and quilting. I should be happy, kind of, but I find myself slipping down the rabbit hole into depression.
Thank you so much for the wonderful advice you’ve given everyone today … very helpful & encouraging words I needed today … inclusive of the serenity prayer. Being both a paraplegic & visually impaired plus facing several challenges affecting my future … of which I prayed this morning & asked my Heavenly Father to help me … & after reading your post today … it seemed as if He was answering my question & blessed me by my reading what you had written … Many thanks to both you & Angel
Shirley Stallworth says
Dear Marc and Angel
Your life’s work has sincerely transformed areas of my life and I am thankful. Tiny, methodical, and guided actions toward transformation are successful.
People are having success with self development program (method) -https://bit.ly/3joqd9y
Great article, thank you. Closely related to the Serenity Prayer, one of my favorite sayings I challenge myself with is “What are you going to do about it?” When I get frustrated or seemingly stuck, I ask myself that challenge. That gets me thinking, making a choice and moving forward again. I printed that saying and put it up in a few rooms in the house so it’s always in front of me. I lost my husband a few months ago, that saying has been very helpful, even on the day’s I may not appreciate it at the time. 🙂
You always give upbeat thoughtful advice and this one definitely resonates with me. Thank you
This was the very reminder I needed. I struggle with how to fill my day without work. I. Love cooking and drawing but tend to go overboard one day and do nothing for two days. Then am discouraged that I couldn’t keep up the busy first day all of the time so I got discouraged and did nothing.
Annette Lindstrom says
First off…..I love to read your articles. They give me inspiration and hope and even a feeling of “I can do this even if I’m afraid ” thoughts. Then I get that anxiety in my stomach.
I have myself stuck because I look backward instead of forward. Therefore things never change. I keep looking for that happiness within myself and I just can’t find it. I’m afraid to make a move that would probably be good for me because no matter where I go I’m still with me. So do I make changes and feel like I can never go back or do I stay stuck and never know what a change could bring to my life. I’m 74 so time is running out. I’m not happy where I am but would I find happiness by changing and moving somewhere else? I’m afraid of change . I’m by myself and don’t want to be for the rest of my life. Do I just go through the fear and anxiety to get to the other side or do I stay in my so called comfort zone and still feel like I’m just going through the motions of living?
Your article has made me aware that just small changes can lead to the change I need. One step at a time.
To tell you the truth … I feel.lost.
Holly Mugford says
I am almost 30 and am SO LOST. I get it. I feel stuck. Have this huge emptiness in my chest and stomach. Feels like it’ll never go away…
Thanks for reminding me of this treasure. For me, I my times of need, it has usually required the entire prayer to get me back on track. I’m sharing it with you here.
The Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting the hardships as a pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as we would have it.
Trusting that He will make
all things right,
if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably
happy in this life,
and supremely happy with Him in the next.
Thank you for the full prayer Wayne!
Thank you so much Wayne! : )
God bless you more!
Thank u for this article..it really hit home with me…I have done 16 years of therapy to do a complete change of living,learning,loving, and continuous self growth…I love reading articles that bring me back where I started so that when life gets me down I dont ever forget these tools I have learned for they r my lifeline ..without all of u people writing and sharing stories believe it or not is what helps me from sinking…MAY GOD BLESS YOU ALL
Thank you for this inspiring post post. Since 2020, I have been diagnosed with stage 3 uterine cancer, my fiancée died in his sleep, my father has dementia and now my long term disability has been terminated due to my doctor not being able to give my employer a return to work date. I also suffer from depression, anxiety and ptsd. The latter I had under control until I received the news that I no longer have any income. I have to patiently wait until a legal aid lawyer can look at my case of dismissal to see if I have a case. I am still undergoing treatment after having surgery in March. I don’t know how I can pay my mortgage or other necessary bills like electricity, groceries, insurance and medication. I am a Christian. I have been praying to Jesus and I keep saying let go let God, unfortunately in the back of my mind I know that I have to keep my children fed. I didn’t want them to worry about my cancer let alone my financial situation. I understand the tiny step concept. If I was counseling someone from church I could give them many ideas about what tiny changes they could make. I don’t know or have the energy to think of a tiny step I can change at this time. I have to practice patience and take things day by day. Make the most of the little food I have here, not over think about months ahead. Accept that this is Jesus plan for me. Testing my strength, and faith in him. I find peace in one thing , that my children have their father’s house to go to if I lose my home. They don’t want to, not because he is an unfit father, only because I have had soul custody since our divorce 12 years ago. He has never had them overnight. They will adjust. Until then I will search for one tiny thing that I can change to make our lives better. God grant me the serenity. Thank you for allowing me to share.
Thank you for sharing this. I want to take it one day at a time and take the little steps.
Stella bella says
Last year, I did something that took a lot of courage. I told someone how I felt about them and then I explained to them my reason for not being able to to be around them anymore.
I never intended to hurt this person but emotionally I could not be around them.
Since then, they have used that hurt to punish me and blame me for things I’ve never done to them. They’ve created a war between us that I don’t know how to end. I have tried everything that I can to make peace with this person but they just want to keep fighting. I’ve taken blame for things I haven’t done just to make them stop, but they don’t.
Every time I think enough time has passed, something happens that opens up the artificial stitches you talk about and the wound becomes exposed all over again.
I wish I could believe that there will be a happy ending to this story but If I’ve learned anything from all this is that I can’t control what people think about me, I can only control what I think about myself.
Thank you for this. I am really struggling right now. Within the last several years my whole life took a drastic change. My 25 year marriage ended , my only child went overseas to work. Then this virus hit…within a year after my divorce was final. It took 5 years to get to the divorce part. Now no socializing no even going out with friends now. I am isolated by choice. I check on my Mom and I wont risk it. The friends I have of course think the whole thing is a lie or made up and continue on with their daily lives. It leaves me feeling more than a little alone. My daughter is in a country that observes all the Covid rules and the country appears to be holding up and taking care of her. I am grateful for this….She is of course constantly reminding me to isolate and take care of me out of concern for my well being. I have now discontinued reading my Facebook News feed and it was a source of connection but I can no longer take the reading what an utter fool I am for social distancing and my mask. I am trying my best to keep plugging along but today was just one of those days 😉 I am taking this article for the encouragement I am needing! Thank you so much
Faye Homewood says
Thanks. This is what I needed to get my head out of the gutter and focus on the little changes I can do to make my life happier!! I love your articles when I feel I have temporarily zero direction to get my head right again.
nice article , thanks for sharing
Very inspirational piece. I’ve learnt to never underestimate the power of tiny positive steps. It doesn’t have to be huge just keep moving. I really need to overcome the do it later syndrome. Million thanks for this….
I will be directly quoting you when I post a reminder on my desk about focusing on what I can control with little steps. Thanks (once again) for a well written gentle reminder that our attitude sets the tone for our own happiness.
thank you as always, marc and angel. I’ve been getting your newsletter for at least 7 years now, I got the book and I still save some of your newsletters every now and then to re-read. this one though! the illustration struck me deeply: there’s no better/more direct form of demonstrating a concept than an image. two months ago I had a nasty accident which led to surgery; I’ve just been discharged from hospital and I’m facing another 4 months (more or less) of recovery coupled with inability to get out of the house and to work (I’m using crutches). my new reality in this shared flat that I had to move into because of the accident is difficult, but due to my state I have no other option, and currently I feel very weak and therefore find excuses to skip my daily rehab exercise. so this particular newsletter comes at the perfect time as a reminder that I do need to make the extra effort and do my exercise, because I want to get back to the way I was before, or as close to that as possible. and the airplane just spoke volumes to me, so THANK YOU! love, isabella
Barrett Gardiner says
The logic is simplistic, yet powerful. It’s a stop and flow, while pain is the strength in our sutures. Beautifully worded. Cheers.
This is a great inspirational article, thank you. I have been feeling bogged down, lost, and panicked, and this lovely article showed me how much power there is in just taking tiny steps, which is all I feel capable of. Our society does train us to worry over things that we have no control over, even to build our lives and concentrate all our efforts towards things we can’t control. The bible is a consolation and blueprint for living, but it’s at odds with the messages we get from society in the way school and work are structured and the way relationships are praised..I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who had to end what would be now a 16 year relationship a few months ago.
Thanks for this perspective, it’s the truth, and I’ve never seen this pointed out, I actually appreciate the “diagrams” too. This made me feel better.
Dear Marc and Angel,
Hello from Japan.
I just found about you two recently. And I have been through a lot like everybody else, but thanks to your messages today I applied to a job which seems too high and challenging never experienced field for me but I did it anyways because I was attracted to it.
I don’t know whats gonna happen but I did it. I am happy about it.
Sometimes I feel negative and feels like I’m stuck. but I amd going through it.
Thank you so much for the wonderful heartwarming messages.
Thank you Marc and Angel. Ever since I subscribed to your mail, every article I’ve read always addressed me personally.
Thanks so much to both of you! Thanks for the Serenity Prayer, I’m being reminded again. Inspiring. Enlightening. Empowering. : )
Stephanie Pick says
I absolutely love this post, thank you! The way you describe the ‘small degree’ difference is so great. It really is just about taking that first small but impactful step towards change in your life.
Dan Kristoph says
Great point of view there, Marc. Thanks for sharing.
I agree that you should focus on things that you can change and watch out on the three uns. On the things you can change, try to take the tiny steps if needed. It might take some time but, over time, the progress you make should be accumulated. Eventually, you will get to a much more positive situation in the future.
That tiny steps point, in my opinion, is really important to always remember. Often, people may expect instant change yet good things sometimes take time. Be persistent and you should get the rewards as long as you keep pushing.
Angel Victoria says
Hey Angel, we share the same name! Also, my boyfriend and I went through family death and Illness not too long ago. We lost our dog, his dad, and saved his grandfather from dying of aneurysms. A year later and I’m still trying to get my life back together. There’s a lot I could be doing to better my life but CHOOSING not to. I’ve turned to junk news since this pandemic has begun and I’m finally getting rid of it. I can only imagine how much productivity I will acquire with all this free time. Thank you and looking forward to your blog.
Angel Chernoff says
Sending you our love, Angel. Marc and I are thinking of you this evening. Please check in with us and let us know how we can further support you.