Dream Big. Start Small. Think Long.
October 20, 2021
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“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
-1 Corinthians 9:25-27
When the Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff immigrated to the United States, he was asked what he loved most about America. His answer? American grocery stores. “I walked down an aisle and saw powdered milk; just add water and you get milk. Right next to it was powdered orange juice; just add water and you get orange juice. Then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, What a country!”
Instant everything. We wish, right? We live in a culture that aims at fifteen minutes of fame rather than fifty years of faithfulness. We want the quick fix. Even better, get rich quick. We are an instant gratification culture, and it’s evidenced by how frustrated we become with the smallest delays.
If you’re going to dream big, you need to start small and think long. That’s as counterintuitive as it is counter-cultural, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Whatever habit you’re trying to make or break, it’ll take more than a minute. You have to hitch the wagon and commit yourself to the long haul called the habit cycle.
Can I be brutally honest? Habit formation feels like it takes forever. That’s when you have to remind yourself that Rome wasn’t built in a day! Making habits and breaking habits will take longer than you like, no doubt. But the more time you invest, the more meaningful it is.
Fun fact? In 1947, General Mills introduced its first instant cake mix. They expected instant success, but the cake mix didn’t sell well. The company was confused because it had simplified a difficult task. All you had to do was add water. It was easy-peasy. And that was precisely the problem; it was too easy!
General Mills commissioned a marketing expert, Ernest Dichter, to figure out why the instant mix wasn’t resonating with consumers. His conclusion? We bake a cake for special occasions. In other words, it’s an expression of love. Less effort made it less meaningful.
Our habits have to be measurable, meaningful, and maintainable. The cake mix was so simple that it felt self-indulgent. What did General Mills do? They made it more meaningful by making it less easy! They made it take more time! When consumers had to add eggs and measure milk, sales soared.
The lesson? Harder is better, and slower is faster. And it’s not just true of cake mix. By definition, a challenge involves a degree of difficulty. The technical term is desirable difficulty, and it’s a critical piece of the habit formation puzzle.
Coined by Robert A. Bjork, desirable difficulty refers to a task that requires considerable effort. Difficult tasks slow down the learning process at first, but they yield a long-term benefit called durable learning. If something is too easy, we get bored. If something is too difficult, we quit. Desirable difficulty is the middle ground where growth happens.
The sweet spot is called JMD—just manageable difficulty. It’s a little outside your comfort zone. It’s a little beyond your resources. It’s a little past your pay grade. That’s why we need coaches, therapists, and trainers. We need someone who pushes us past our perceived limits.
As a writer and a pastor, I feel like my job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. My goal is to coax you out of your comfort zone and into your growth zone. You have to get comfortable with discomfort. How? By adding time and resistance. When you push past previous limits and achieve a PR—personal record— the ceiling becomes the floor!
Mark Batterson serves as lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC. NCC also owns and operates Ebenezers Coffeehouse, The Miracle Theatre, and the DC Dream Center. Mark holds a doctor of ministry degree from Regent University and is the New York Times bestselling author of 17 books, including The Circle Maker, Chase the Lion, and Whisper. Mark and his wife, Lora, have three children and live on Capitol Hill.