No matter how rough your life gets, you can always turn it around.

by Marc Chernoff

On my birthday many moon ago, when Google and I were both a lot younger, I Googled “how to change your life when you’re stuck” to see what would come up. I had been feeling hopelessly trapped – I was busy racing around in circles every day without any meaningful progress. I knew I needed to find a better roadmap as I was getting depressed with the same old grind.

Granted, I was working 60+ hours a week, struggling with a failing business, and coping with the recent deaths of two loved ones. The stress and pace of life just seemed to keep me busy from 7am to midnight every day without much time for self-reflection and mindfulness, and deep down I knew the head-spinning, circular path I was on wasn’t sustainable.

As I scrolled through Google’s search results I was fascinated by the overwhelming quantity of books, articles and quotes all designed to motivate a person to take positive action and make positive changes. Messages of “Let Go and Move On” or “Be Present” were plentiful; however, nothing truly clicked with me. I was looking for guidance that was a bit more specific… guidance like “Walk seven blocks down Main Street and turn right onto Sunshine Drive. Your ‘better’ path begins there.”

The Space to Reflect

I continued to read and look for a new set of directions I could follow, and then it hit me. My losses and personal turmoil had me running and hiding from my problems. I was doing an incredible job being incredibly busy, but I had never stopped to sort out my thoughts and figure out exactly why I was doing what I was doing. My “needs” to provide for my family and ease the pain endured from failure and loss, fueled my mindlessness – I used these circumstances as excuses for not sorting my priorities out effectively – and I became stuck in a circle of futile busyness with no crystal clear vision about anything at all.

I recognized that in order to truly move my life forward, I first had to step on the brakes. I needed to stop dead in my tracks and pause for a little while so I could take it all in, sit with it, and then breathe it all out again. I had to give myself the space to accept where I was, and sort through the possibilities ahead of me.

When I did pause, I began to think of the summer after my high school graduation. My thoughts time-traveled back to those days when I felt like opportunity awaited me in every imaginable direction. I had been accepted to a great university, I was young and ambitious, and I was ready to conquer my dreams. But remembering this didn’t make me feel better. In fact, all these years later, trying to look at the world through this youthful lens for more than a few minutes only made me feel more restless.

Some Good Advice

Maybe it’s the life lessons I was forced to learn the hard way, or the toll of pain and failure, but I had to admit to myself right then and there that the youthful world of possibility felt a whole lot scarier and riskier this time around. I wanted to be ambitious and passionate again, but I didn’t know how, until my wise mom gave me some good advice. She told me that she could still see the positive, passionate young man inside of me, but that I needed to do some soul searching to reconnect myself to him.

As I attempted to follow my mom’s advice, I remembered that I used to have two quotes written on post-it notes hanging on my bedroom wall when I was a kid:

“Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in your journey.”
“Don’t be scared to walk alone down the path less traveled, and don’t be scared to love every minute of it.”
So I wrote the two quotes down again, just as I remembered them, and posted them up on the wall over my nightstand. I woke up to these quotes every morning for several years thereafter, and they helped keep me centered.

I also took tiny steps, day in and day out, until I knew I was finally moving down the right path again. For anybody else who feels stuck and without a real sense of how to take the next step forward, I offer the following reminders. They are based entirely on my personal experiences, but they are the simple, actionable lessons that kept me moving forward when I decided it was time for a change. Perhaps they will help you too. Remember…

1. Meaningful daily reminders make growth and positive change easier.

You can post meaningful quotes on your bedroom wall, or find a coffee a mug that has a motivational message on it (mine says “Every Day a Miracle is Born”). But you can also take it a step further than that too…

Few good things come easy, and when the going gets tough we often take the easy way out – even though the easy way takes us the wrong way.

To combat this, I create tangible reminders that pull me back from the brink of my weak impulses. For example, I have my laptop’s desktop background set to a photo of my family, both because I love looking at them and because, when work gets really tough, these photos remind me of the people I am ultimately working for.

And I’m not the only one who’s successfully using this strategy…

A friend of mine who has paid off almost $100K of debt in the past five years has a copy of his credit card balance taped to his computer monitor; it serves as a constant reminder of the debt he still wants to pay off. Another friend keeps a photo of herself when she was 90 pounds heavier on her refrigerator as a reminder of the person she never wants to be again.

Think of moments when you are most likely to give in to impulses that keep you stuck and take you farther away from your ultimate goals. Then use visual reminders of those goals to interrupt the impulse and rebuild the momentum that keeps you on the right track.

2. The space between the things you do is just as important as the things you do.

Pausing for a brief second to end the chaos and busyness can save your life by winning you back precious time and peace of mind. Pausing can also provide you with a break in the habitual action, so you can begin again in a new direction when needed. But you have to leave enough space in your schedule to do so.

It’s tempting to fill in every waking minute of the day with busyness. Don’t do this to yourself. Leave space.

Leave a little space between every one of your commitments. Take a break to breathe and meditate, take a short walk outside, drink a glass of water, or perhaps do some simple deep stretching exercises. Appreciate the space, and just be.

Your ultimate goal is living a life uncluttered by most of the distractions people fill their lives with, leaving you with space for what truly matters. A life that isn’t constant busyness, rushing, and resistance, but instead mindful contemplation, creation and connection with people and projects you truly love.

3. Journaling is a priceless tool for self-reflection and self-improvement.

J.K. Rowling keeps a journal. Eminem keeps a journal. Oprah keeps a journal.

Successful people – those who consistently make positive changes in their life – track their progress, set goals, reflect, and learn from their mistakes. And they often use some kind of journal to accomplish this.

If you want to get somewhere in life, you need a map, and your journal is that map. You can write down what you did today, what you tried to accomplish, where you made mistakes, and so forth. It’s a place to reflect. It’s a place to capture important thoughts. It’s a place to be able to track where you’ve been and where you intend to go. It’s one of the most underused, yet incredibly effective tools available to the masses.

Set aside 15 minutes a day to think and write. When I first started my daily journaling ritual I had to wake up earlier in order to make it happen, but I did, and at 6am it was just me and my motivational coffee mug staring down at a blank white page. I started writing down my dreams, things I had always wanted to do, ideas I had always wanted to explore, places I had always wanted to visit with my family, etc. Then I zeroed in on the present by writing about tasks I wanted to complete ASAP, related business ideas I wanted to implement ASAP, blog posts I wanted to write ASAP, and other near-term, actionable goals.

To this day, I still journal almost every morning. And reviewing my notes at the end of the day/week/month always helps me feel positive about all the opportunities still out there for me explore and achieve. (Read The Miracle Morning.)

4. The wrong relationships pull you back – the right ones push you forward.

When you’re moving through a sizeable life transition, it’s important to have close family and friends around you that can offer their support and understanding. There’s no room for needless negativity. It’s like the transition phase in labor – that last phase before a woman gives birth to a new life. She can’t possibly stop to take on other people’s problems or feel guilty about not returning text messages. She needs to protect her thoughts, her time, and her energy.

This same principle applies to you. If you find that you have a toxic, draining relationship that’s constantly bringing you down and keeping you stuck, let them go for a while. They may not be an inherently bad person, but they’re not the right person to be spending time with every day.

Remember, not all toxic relationships are agonizing and uncaring on purpose. Some of them involve people who care about you – people who have good intentions, but are toxic because their needs and way of existing in the world force you to compromise yourself and your happiness. And as hard as it is, we have to distance ourselves enough to give ourselves space to live.

You simply can’t ruin yourself on a daily basis for the sake of someone else. You have to make your well-being a priority. Whether that means spending less time with someone, loving a family member from a distance, letting go entirely, or temporarily removing yourself from a situation that feels painful – you have every right to leave and create some healthy space for yourself. (Angel and I discuss this in detail in the “Relationships” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)

5. Taking consistent and realistic action every day sets you free.

All details aside, when it comes to making a substantial change in your life – earning a new degree, building a new business, fostering a new relationship, starting a family, becoming more mindful, or any other personal journey that takes time and commitment – one thing you have to ask yourself is:

“Am I willing to spend a little time every day like many people won’t, so I can spend the better part of my life like many people can’t?”

Think about it. We ultimately become what we repeatedly do. The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t mean you’re growing – growing happens when what you know changes how you live.

And remember that this change doesn’t happen all at once. It happens just one small step at a time. When it comes to making changes, less is more.

After I recovered from feeling stuck, being able to think clearly and plan again had me filling journal entries with ideas and mile-long to-do lists. However, I learned quickly that it’s unrealistic to accomplish 100 tasks a day, so I pared down and forced myself to make a daily list of no more than three core things I had to do in order to move myself forward. I began to feel empowered rather than overwhelmed since I took everything in smaller, manageable steps.

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