Staying focused when progress seems slow

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” – William James


It’s hard not to get discouraged sometimes.


So many areas of our life require this relentless grind before we see any results at all. And this can make it hard to stay focused and believe that what we are doing is right.


Maybe it’s making a healthier food choice or going for a walk when we don’t feel like it, knowing that it will take many weeks of the same behaviors before we start to feel healthier and stronger.


Maybe it’s working 12 hour days to finish a project that is still weeks away from completion.


Maybe it’s taking your kid to the bathroom for the 32nd time today because you’re working on potty training (but nowhere near success yet).


In all of these scenarios, there is relief in giving up. If we decide that the benefits are too far away or too abstract, we may choose to let go of our efforts and do something that brings more short-term pleasure. But of course, if we do, we miss out on an opportunity to add another brick to the path that leads to our long-term goals.


Working on an inpatient drug and alcohol detox unit in residency gave me a perspective that helps me focus when my goals seem far away.


I remember feeling discouraged one day after a few patients hadn’t done well. A few had recently left against medical advice, some relapsed after discharge, and others had such difficult circumstances that they had become angry, depressed, and bitter towards anyone who tried to help.


I remember talking to a seasoned doctor on the unit about my sadness. He reminded me that there was no quick fix for a substance use disorder. Most people who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction (or any mental health issue) need treatment for a long time. And often, when you look at the person’s progress through the tiny window of the present, it seems like things aren’t moving.


But, my attending encouraged me to step back, saying,


“You never know when you might plant a seed that will bloom later.”


He recalled a story of a patient who became angry and threatened him when he wouldn’t prescribe a dangerously addictive medication. The patient ultimately left the treatment program against medical advice. My attending said that he saw this patient again years later, looking like a whole new person. He had been sober for all those years and reported that the respect and kindness my attending showed him long ago had been a major driving factor in his recovery.


Your choices and hard work might not seem to make a difference in the present. But you never know when you are planting a seed that will bloom later. Maybe it is positive self-talk that will bloom into self-compassion, kindness that will bloom into a friendship, discipline that will bloom into resilience, or a small habit that will bloom into health later.


No matter what you are working towards, try your best not to be discouraged when you don’t see results right away. Remind yourself to act as though what you do makes a difference. Sometimes it just takes a while for things to bloom.

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