The Single Biggest Obstacle to Success

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Underestimating small steps is the biggest obstacle to success. If you’ve read my books and blog for long, you know I’m a big fan of small steps. My international bestselling book, Mini Habits, systemized small steps for building habits.

Small steps and habit-building are the way to success. There’s no arguing against it because of how our brains are wired for slow and steady change. But there’s a big obstacle on this path you should know about. If you practice mini habits, you may have already experienced what I’m about to tell you. 

If small steps are the best way to success, discounting them is the single biggest obstacle to success.

“It Doesn’t Really Matter”

On the way home from my usual Chipotle lunch, I thought about taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and three thoughts came to mind.

  1. Yesterday, I played basketball for three hours. My legs are sore and my body is tired. I deserve to rest.
  2. I’m wearing flip flops, which aren’t ideal for going up several flights of stairs (I live on the 6th floor).
  3. I’ve got my food here and the elevator makes more sense all things considered. I’ll take the stairs next time.

I’ve written three books (book #3 coming soon!) about small steps from different angles and for different applications, and look at those thoughts. They are everything I speak against!

I created “special occasion” excuses and made a vague promise about doing it in the future. Fortunately, due to practicing small steps for years, I was able to recognize what was happening and overcome the obstacle to success with these thoughts.

  1. Taking the stairs right now is an unique opportunity to make progress. If I don’t take it, I will lose this moment’s opportunity forever. You can’t travel back in time and take the stairs.
  2. What I do right now sets a precedent for whenever else I find myself in this situation. By skipping the stairs this time, I’m saying that whenever I’m in a similar situation (such as wearing flip flops), I won’t or shouldn’t take the stairs. This is not what I’d choose even if I did skip the stairs this time, but we set a precedent with every action we take, whether we mean to or not.
  3. I can take the stairs. It’s not that difficult and it really does matter. The immediate physical benefit may be minor, but the waves from its impact will be huge.

I took the stairs, and I’m better for it.

To Defend, You Must Know Where You’re Being Hit From

When people (including me) attempt to make mini habits work, they will sometimes encounter resistance. It seems odd to have resistance to behaviors like “one push-up per day,” but that’s because it doesn’t come from the difficulty of the behavior.

The true difficulty in pursuing small steps (and mini habits) comes from our natural human inclination to devalue them, not the behaviors themselves. 

Thus, the biggest hindrance to success using small steps is that you’ll talk yourself out of them. You’ll create (invalid) excuses to do behaviors that take less than a minute. I think this is a habitual reaction to typical goal pursuit. If I set a goal to write 2,000 words per day, I will frequently have to battle myself to get myself to do it. If you do these “normal goals” long enough, you’ll expect to have to battle yourself to do anything and everything, even if it’s something as simple and easy as taking the stairs or writing 50 words. 

Every time I think about the actual difficulty of the small action—taking the stairs as an example—my resistance fades. When I analyze the situation and think about “what makes the most sense,” I’ll feel a lot of resistance. My initial reaction to taking the stairs had nothing to do with the objective difficulty of taking the stairs, which was still really easy despite my objections. As easy as taking the stairs is, it’s even easier to take the elevator. Even though small steps are always easy, they are rarely the easiest thing you can do. That’s why overanalyzing the situation makes us create reasons to do the even easier thing.

Relative difficulty can make an objectively easy mini habit seem difficult.

Focus on the action, not the circumstances around it. Don’t worry so much about “weighing your options” in any moment when you have an opportunity to move forward. When you learn how to bypass this fruitless analysis and focus on the easy chance for progress now, you’ll get a lot more small wins that add up to huge wins in time. As with everything else, you’ll get better with practice. I’m not immune to discounting small steps even after researching and writing about them for years, but I am much better at leveraging their power in my life. (It takes time to change your perspective.)

Obstacle to Success Recap

To overcome the #1 obstacle to success and win with small goals: 

  1. Focus on how easy it would be to actually perform your small goal
  2. Don’t compare your goal to other tasks
  3. Be eager for forward motion in any size
  4. Set the precedent of ignoring circumstances
  5. Never underestimate what a small good decision can do for your life

If you can focus on these, which is a matter of choice and practice, you will be unstoppable. You’ll regularly squeeze winning days out of what should have been zeros, and that’s impressive.

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