Make Failure Into a Stepping Stone, Not an Excuse

Whenever I push myself into a strict diet or a strict exercise regime or a strict set of personal finance rules, I find that I thrive in the short term.

For the first week or so, I’ll hit every benchmark I have within those strict rules. I’ll exercise. I’ll eat incredibly well. I’ll avoid spending an unnecessary dime.

Then, at some point, I fail. Usually, it’s out of thoughtlessness – I just backslide into a bad routine for a moment. I’ll eat something way outside the bounds of what I should be eating. I’ll tell myself I’m going to exercise later today – then I’ll get distracted by playing with the kids. I’ll buy something small on a whim.

Soon after, I’ll realize that failure, and I’ll beat myself up over it. I’ll think really negative thoughts about how I’m hopeless for a little while, then I’ll resolve to get everything back on track. I’ll have a few more days of success, then I’ll fail again.

The cycle repeats itself a few more times, with a smaller and smaller period of success in the middle, until I simply give up.

It’s a common cycle that a lot of people find themselves in when they’re trying to make a major change in their lives. I’ve been through this cycle quite a few times myself, and I’ve come to realize that there’s one big thing at the core of all of it.

I set myself up for failure by adopting changes that offer a very narrow path for success. If you choose life changes that require a significant change from the habits you already have, it’s going to be hard. If you make it so that those changes must be absolute – no backsliding allowed – you’re begging for failure. You need an approach that you can slowly build on.

Instead of saying, “I’m cutting out all food and drinks I don’t eat at home,” simply say that you’re going to cut out those treats three days a week. That way, if something comes up and a friend wants to meet you for coffee on Tuesday, you don’t have to freak out about failing at your goal and you won’t feel like a loser if you do. If you find that this goal becomes trivial, change it to four days a week or five days a week.

Instead of saying, “I’m going to exercise every day for 30 minutes,” simply say that you’re going to work out three times this week for thirty minutes. That way, if you miss an exercise session one day, you haven’t failed at your goal. If you find that this goal becomes trivial, increase the number of days.

In other words, it’s a lot easier to stick with a goal if one mis-step or a simple life interference doesn’t mean failure.

What happens if you fail anyway? If you still find failure, then you should reassess what you’re trying to do.

Failure at a personal goal means that there’s some significant aspect of your life that’s working in opposition to that goal. It’s a sign that maybe you need to work on something else first.

For example, if you find that the reason you’re failing at spending goals is because it’s so easy to buy something incidental with a friend, your challenge shouldn’t be to adopt strict spending limits, at least for now. Your goal should be to separate social encounters from shopping, because it’s that connection that’s causing you problems.

If you find that you mess up on your spending goals because of the ease of online shopping, your goal should focus on your online behaviors.

It’s pretty hard to win a race if there’s a speed bump in the way. Sometimes, you have to stop and smooth out the speed bumps before you can really get going. A failure doesn’t mean you’re incapable of winning the race. It just means that maybe you should stop and smooth out the speed bumps.

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