Too often people overestimate the significance of one big defining moment and underestimate the value of making good decisions and small 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.
Consider the following section, which is an excerpt from our upcoming guided journal, “The Good Morning Journal”:
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 toward improving 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 small 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 — it could literally change your life — 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, and again, we also establish a foundational habit of consistency through daily journaling in our newest publication through Penguin Random House, “The Good Morning Journal: Powerful Prompts & Reflections to Start Every Day”.)
Now, it’s your turn…
Yes, it’s your turn to focus on those surprisingly small yet life-changing steps today.
So give yourself some credit right now for how far you’ve come in recent times, and then take another step forward today!
But before you go, please leave Angel and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
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.
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!
I’ll be checking out your new journal too!
This really spoke to me this morning. Dealing with chronic and acute health challenges and financial issues. This article emphasizes taking one small step forward every day. Thank you
DUANE B. 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!!
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” in this essay too. This made me feel better. And I will be getting myself a copy of your guided journal. Might be just the tool I need right now.
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.
Betsy Snovall says
I am especially grateful for this information about the Sceptic Epictetus and how we have so little control over so much. We stretch ourselves every which way to follow the rules and when others do not we want to make sure they do. Instead of complaining about what I cannot do, I try to step back and see what I can do. When I feel those abilities I can do, I then have an opportunity to follow through or not. Recognizing the limitations of one’s own powers to control is hard but you have pointed out so skillfully why we must. Making the conscious decision to DO THIS..is powerful too. Thank you
Gary Crawford says
You two do great work !! Thank you !
Diana Carroll says
This really helped me today I am going through a really painful separation and I feel so lost. Small steps.
I enjoyed the analogy of the one degree off, the one step in the wrong direction and that, in truth, we all have 24 hours and our actions, even the slightest change can land us closer to where we would like to be. I struggle daily with mood swings and try so hard just to slip up and end up calling quits on my day. Maybe just rethinking in the manner which you spoke of I can still find some progress in my days after all. I plan on purchasing your morning journal. I do enjoy all the articles I have read you have written since discovering you on my news feed and thank you for the insight you provide me. Each day, each step in a set direction that is a more fulfilling life. Thanks!
Thanks for this article. It made me realize how easily I forget to measure my progress. Lately I do find myself more happier 🙂
Loved that phrase “Don’t get over it, get through it.” I will try.
Ellen Caamano says
My mom used to say the longest journey begins with 1 step.
Thanks so much!!!
john Hardy says
Great article- Jesus Christ says to his disciples to not worry- I agree.
More than 10 years ago, I was bouncing between jobs The first step I took was taking a remote job for a company that outsources to the real estate industry, which led to the next big step of beginning my career as a freelance virtual assistant. This has been a big change for me and has paid dividends. I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of its founding on Sunday.
Marc and Angel,
I love all your inspirational articles. Every bit of advice is so doable. The one small step at a time or small changes etc, are such common sense advice especially when I feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. I simply say ” I will just do a task for 10 minutes and then stop if I want to.” But of course I never do and a job gets done.
My one small step this week is to restrict recreational reading and TV to 2 hours a day.
Barb Whitney says
Oh my, just like the 1000 + Things Happy Successful People Do book, this was just what I needed to read tonight. And just like the book, every morning your emails seem to just open to what I need at that moment. Thank you so much for this email tonight. I have been struggling a little lately and know that I can make small one degree changes and this reminded me ofd that.
Thank you for all you do for the world. Entirely Grateful!
Ellen G. says
Thank you for your words of wisdom. This reminds me of the true story about Play Doh. It was originally used to remove soot from wallpaper. When that was no longer needed the company was in dire straits. The founder’s sister-in-law, a teacher, commented that kids like to play with it and suggested he color it and and market it as a toy. As we know it was a huge success. We are all just one small adjustment from making our life work.