It’s said that the longest journey starts with one step, but sometimes, that step seems so big that we talk ourselves out of taking it.

On my to-do list, I check off the easy items and take a long time to get to the hard ones. I tell myself, “I don’t have enough time or enough energy today, so I’ll wait.” But I’ve learned that hard things can be broken down into smaller tasks that are easier for me to tackle. If I start at the margins of a big task and work my way in toward the center, eventually I’m able to do the hard things, even though I was reluctant to start them because they seemed overwhelming.

This habit of avoiding the first step can be observed in our political system. It’s easy to work on the small tasks but much harder to work on the big ones. It’s easier to pass a bill officially recognizing a noncontroversial group’s contributions to the betterment of the community than it is to pass a bill resolving a sticky issue that constituents and representatives have strong opinions about. Yet the big social, economic, and political problems of our time don’t get addressed. They appear hard to solve because nobody knows how to find a compromise everyone can live with. Or, if a compromise is found, no one knows how to begin the process of enacting change. And people fear unintended consequences of change. It becomes easier to do nothing than to come up with a plan, take action to implement it, and remained poised to troubleshoot.

A politician might fear offending too many constituents and financial supporters and feel stuck. No one wants to be responsible for unleashing unintended consequences that upset people. Legislators pass complex laws and soon, unexpected snarls develop. How can they be untangled? Few politicians want to have to answer for people’s frustrations with the process of change.

The fear of taking an unpopular action leads to paralysis. We have many people representing us who “role play” being statesmen and politicians. They like the pomp and circumstance of hearings and ceremonies about issues that ultimately aren’t that important. Easy problems take up their energy and their time. We all like to feel busy and that we are doing something worthwhile. But the tough problems don’t seem to get solved when we distract ourselves with the easy tasks.

In the State of Illinois, we have debts much beyond our foreseeable ability to pay them. Just as we are doing with our federal debt, we assume or pretend that it’s not a current problem, and that at some time in the future, the debt will work itself out. Perhaps it will. But the more we avoid addressing the problem of debt, the closer we come to a day when we will have to accept drastic cutbacks in programs or drastic increases in our taxes—both of which we would not be willing to do at the extreme levels required.

Sometimes, we have to make painful choices now in order to minimize the chance of having to make really painful choices in the future. Often, we have to learn to develop better communication and collaboration skills so that we can find common ground with others on difficult subjects. And sometimes, even when a good solution is found, the process of change is very painful and frightening for many, which leads to resistance.

Just as countries and communities will have more problems if tough conversations and decisions are avoided, will we have more problems if we avoid beginning the process of change in our own lives. It’s useful to periodically take time to examine our to-do lists to see what is truly important.

What can you do to start resolving some of your own difficult problems? What first step can you take today? Do your need to gather more information, or get input from others who have faced similar circumstances? Do you need to develop a broader perspective on the problem and better understand it? What is the first step on the journey to better understanding what you are facing today so that you can make a good decision and follow through on it?

Think about the difficult problems in your life that you’ve been avoiding. Consider spending a little bit of time tackling the tough problems every day. If you take the first step today, you will start to feel better about yourself and your situation. As you tackle your toughest problems, you will develop competence and a sense of agency, and you will not have as many weighty things hanging over your head day after day.

What one step can you take today to make progress on a difficult problem?