Do you know where discouragement comes from?1
Discouragement is feeling far from where you want to be.
Think about someone looking for water in the desert, and not seeing anything but harsh desert terrain for miles in every direction. They will feel discouraged about finding water (and their chances for survival) because of how far away they are from it.
Life can often feel the same way. Maybe you’ve had a bad streak of the wrong results and you feel discouraged that you’re far away from the person you want to become and the results you desire. I’ve been there countless times, but there’s an answer.
The Secret to Instant Encouragement
Is there a difference between you and a lost person seeking water in the desert? Yes! They can’t see water because there isn’t water nearby, but while you might not see near-term success, it’s very close to you and within your reach.
To always be encouraged, recognize that success is right next to you. But how is that done?
This isn’t some motivational plea for you to chase your dreams. (You should know me better than that.) It’s a fact. Success exists on many levels, so while it may be true that you are far away from a particular result that takes time to achieve, you are never far away from success today. The latter is encouraging on two levels—the feeling of immediate success and the knowledge that a successful life is made from successful days. Who feels discouraged about not exercising enough while exercising? If you’re going to feel discouraged about not doing something, it won’t be while you’re doing it.
Small steps can bring constant encouragement, but not if you practice them mindlessly. You can practice small steps and still feel discouraged if you don’t see them in the context of the big picture. They’re like any other tool—those who get the most out of them know when and how to use them.
My best, most productive, and dream-chasing days have always started with a small step in that direction. My worst days begin with small steps in the wrong direction. I’m encouraged when I see that truth and discouraged when I forget it. When you take a step in the right (or wrong) direction, it changes everything, and it’s important to understand that (and why).
One Small Step Creates Four Success Engines
Four areas change instantly when you take a step in a new direction.
- Forward Momentum: Newton’s Law states, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” One step, you’re in motion, and this powerful law takes effect. Momentum in the context of human behavior means that we’ll continue our current behavior unless we’re interrupted by something. In any given moment, our default behavior is influenced by our pre-existing habits and the action we have just taken, and taking a small step changes the latter part of that equation. Total behavior obviously includes conscious decisions, but if we’re on cruise control, habits and current actions determine what we’ll do next.
- Increased Motivation: Changing direction takes extra energy compared to continuing, which is a powerful incentive and motivator to continue what we’re doing (whether it’s ideal or not). Momentum carries us forward without thought. Motivation means we’ll also want to continue the behavior even if we exit autopilot mode.
- A Chance for Engagement: You can only engage with an action once you start it. Engagement is how I’ve had sessions of “just write a little bit” turn into hours of writing and how “I’ll just play a bit of this game” turn into hours of gaming. You know you’re engaged with something when you lose track of time. It can happen with any activity. You’ll look at the clock and say, “Wow, I’ve been reading for two hours?”
- Improved Mood: Once beginning an activity, your general feelings will change. If it’s something you don’t think you should do, you might feel shame. If it’s neutral, your feelings won’t change. If it’s something positive, your mood will improve immediately. We like doing the right things. It feels good.
These four powerful engines of success are literally one step away from you at all times. If you don’t take that step, you get zero of them. The margin between success and failure, then, is so miniscule that simply leaning in the right direction can create a massive shift in your daily and long-term results. You don’t have to conquer the world in a day. Lean toward the right behaviors and you’ll achieve more than expected.
We’re not talking about slight success or minor failure here, we’re talking about major success or major failure. When you understand why massive results come from the smallest choices and movements we make, you also see that we are always very close to success even if we can’t see it.
Thinking smaller, however, is not as easy as it sounds. Small steps themselves are so easy, but it’s quite a bit more challenging to get yourself to trust the process. I basically “wrote the book” on this concept (or one of the popular ones, anyway), and I constantly have to remind myself of what small steps can do for me. They transformed my life in numerous areas and I still forget, precisely because of the “can’t see it” factor. It’s difficult to understand how so many good things can happen from such a small movement forward, even after proving it to yourself.
When you’re engaged in an activity, you might forget the first step that brought you into it. You might only see the whole of “I worked for two hours” instead of the spark that made it happen. Later, when you would like to write another two hours, you might think “Oh, I worked two hours on Monday, so I’ll just do it again.” This is when I procrastinate, because I’ve set the mark at two hours, and anything less is unacceptable. Procrastination is caused by perfectionism, and “big goal syndrome” is a subset of perfectionism (i.e. if it doesn’t seem impressive, it’s not worth doing).
I often focus on the mechanics of small steps, but this is about seeing them as a conduit to success now and later. If you were always motivated, always in a good mood, and always succeeding, you would never be discouraged, but you and I both know that real life is not as it is portrayed in movies or your friends’ perfect-looking Facebook lives. It can be challenging to see the light at times, but small steps will show you the way. Here’s an example to bring this concept into the real world.
How to Clean a Messy House (the Easy Way)
Let’s say that your house is messy and that you’re discouraged by that. Fair enough. The common response is to look at the whole mess and quickly get overwhelmed by the work required to clean it. The small step response is to look at one area, be it a countertop or pile of laundry, focus on one item, and do something with it, whether that’s throwing a sock into the laundry bin or throwing an old piece of mail into the trash. You’ve barely done anything, but hold on just a second. Something has changed! As you reach for a second sock to throw into the laundry, and then a pair of jeans, let’s pause and discuss why you’re doing that.
After the first sock is thrown, you’re in motion. Your current activity is listed as “doing laundry.” Yes, it’s one sock, but it counts. After the first sock, you feel more motivated to throw in the sock next to it. You’re looking at the pile of laundry still, but not in the same way. What used to be a mountain of overwhelm is now a mountain of laundry targets you feel compelled to attack. This means you’re engaged. Now that you’ve done something, you’re in a better mood. This avalanche of positivity can come from throwing a sock into a bin? Yes.
Never underestimate the power of socks. It’s ridiculous, but true that a trivial task can provide life-altering benefits. This is the process for how I keep my apartment from ever getting too “bachelory.” I don’t “wash the dishes,” I decide to put a plate in the dishwasher and it’s fully loaded and running three minutes later.
This is how you destroy discouragement quickly. Small steps are instant success, instant encouragement, and sparks for greatness. It’s impossible to feel discouraged when you believe you are within reach of your goal. Imagine a person standing next to a water fountain being discouraged about finding water. It doesn’t make sense. Big wins are natural extensions of small wins that you can obtain easily right now. You’re closer than you seem. The biggest thing holding you back in any moment is the idea that you need to do more. Try doing less, and I bet you’ll get more. Go ahead and try it.
Whatever you’ve been avoiding, take one small step and pay very close attention to how you respond. It’s going to change how you feel. And the more you observe this phenomenon, the more unstoppable you’re going to become. You’ll feel overwhelmed, and then think, “Oh, right, I can turn this around with one step in the right direction.”
If you can do this every day, well, you’re doing a mini habit, and those have been responsible for the greatest successes in my life and many others’ lives.
Whenever you feel discouraged, remember this. Confront the lie that you’re far away from success and remind yourself that success is right in front of you, if you would just take a step toward it.