Updated on 11.02.09

The Stumble

Trent Hamm

It happens to the best of us. We resolve to make some change in our life and, for the first month or two, it goes great. We see real progress in the area we want to change.

And then it happens. We give into temptation and make a mistake – sometimes a big one. We devour half of a Sara Lee pound cake after two weeks of careful dieting on raw foods. We blow $150 on clothes after a month and a half of careful spending control.

And we feel horrible about it later. We feel some guilt. We feel some shame. We begin to doubt that we can ever do this. And we eventually revert back to our original behaviors.

I found myself doing this recently while writing my second book. During much of the summer, I was taking long walks five days a week (by long, I mean 4-5 miles) and I felt incredibly good. But as the deadline for my book approached, I found myself skipping these sessions simply because I was so focused on writing. Then, when I’d realize that it was too late to go on a walk that day, I would be upset and frustrated with myself. Eventually, though, I began to simply discard my old routine, replacing it with long evenings of writing.

It’s happened to me many other times as well. I’ve backslid on spending promises, on musical practice pledges, and so on.

Why do we all do this? This is obviously a common human thing – one only needs to read a newspaper a month or so after New Year’s to read about tons of backsliding. What causes us to stumble back against our best intentions?

To put it simply, it’s all about the planning. When we stumble, it’s a clear indication that our plan for success had a fatal flaw in it.

What kind of flaw? In my own experience, I’ve found four different types, each with four different ways to correct it.

Poor time management. In the case of my exercise routine, my own time management was to blame. Instead of planning ahead to make plenty of time to finish my manuscript, I indulged in a lot of fun activities in the late summer that ate up several days. The result of this is that in September and October, I was pressed not only to keep my normal work activities going, but to also finish and polish up a full book manuscript. This caused me to have to make some tough choices and discard a lot of “important but not urgent” things – like my long walks.

The solution? If your commitment requires you to put aside a significant amount of time regularly, work harder at your other tasks on a consistent basis so that you have a “buffer” to help you in the event of a crisis. Get ahead on your projects at work. Take care of household tasks as they come along instead of allowing them to build up into a wall of work.

Temptations. Eating five slices of pizza after dietiing all week is giving into temptation. Buying a $300 pair of shoes after being careful with your money all month is giving into temptation.

We’re all tempted by things. Quite often, our resolutions are a recognition that such temptations are bad for us in the long run, but we desire these things all the same.

The solution? I’ve found two that work. First, an allowance of splurging often helps keep our better behavior in check. Allow yourself $25 a week to splurge with. Put that $25 in cash in a jar on top of the fridge. Then, when you’re truly tempted, take down that jar and freely spend it with no guilt. This trick often “releases” the pent-up desires that we build up without destroying all of our positive work. A similar trick is to allow yourself one saucer-sized plate of whatever food you desire twice a week or so.

Second, supportive friends that are involved with and aware of your goals will often help make it easier. Perhaps they’ll diet or exercise with you, or at the very least won’t tempt you to go shopping and spend money.

False commitment. We commit to some sort of change, but on some level, we’re not really committed to it – and we know it. We pledge to give up eating fatty foods, but we don’t really want to do it at all. Often, we’re just trying to commit to something because we know other people value it, not because we value it.

The solution? Such a commitment will never work over the long haul. You need to spend some time rethinking why you are committing to this goal. Often, such goals are conceived and attempted out of a desire to fix an interpersonal relationship of some kind, often one that’s suffering due to reasons completely unrelated to the goal. Focus on fixing the relationship, not on “fixing” some element of yourself that you’re not committed to fixing. Try communicating in a healthy and mature way – and if that’s impossible, it may be time to step back from that relationship.

Self-destructiveness. You have a self-destructive element that undermines whatever you attempt to do to improve yourself. This can often be borne out of low self-esteem.

The solution? If you find yourself doing this, it’s likely that you need counseling of some sort. Discuss the situation with your medical doctor and ask for a referral to a trained mental health professional that can adequately help you overcome such urges.

Let’s not pull any punches about it: big, life changing goals are hard. They become even harder if you aren’t surrounded by people who support you and want you to succeed and if your desire and commitment toward the goal is not complete.

It’s important to remember that a stumble is not a failure. It’s a wake-up call to regroup, replan, and succeed.

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  1. Dianne says:

    Been there, done that plenty times. You’re correct – a stumble is not a failure. I’ve learned to recognize them as opportunities to listen to what’s really going on inside me. Sometimes one of the four weaknesses you noted above stands out. Sometimes it’s something I think is unrelated but is affecting my efforts in other areas. Gentle listening and noticing is a gift we can give ourselves in these instances. No plan is ever going to be perfect but if we can accept these stumblings as learning opportunities, they will not be wasted.

  2. Stephan F- says:

    Got to keep remembering that. Wanting to change and changing are different and take time to develop new habits. And it doesn’t help reading stories of people who did do massive personal change quickly. The reason they are stories is because they are unusual. Why aren’t there good stories who change over time?

  3. Maggie says:

    I think sometimes our big life changing plans are unrealistic. Maybe if the diet change did not go all the way to a really restrictive plan from the start, it would be an easier change to make. “I will only eat that one time a month” seems easier to take than “I will never eat that again”. The same seems true for money spending as well- it seems unrealistic to expect to go from overspending rampantly to a strict budget with no room for wiggle overnight. I think once we see that we can make the first change, more will follow.

  4. Des says:

    I don’t think this is always caused by a “fatal flaw” in planning. Sometimes, priorities change. I used to go running every day. I made it a priority because it was important to me. Then, things got busy at work and I had to make a choice. I could either lose my job, spend even less time with my family, or run less. Running was at the bottom of the list. It was a priority when my choice was between running or TV, but when circumstances changed, my “plan” had to adapt.

  5. chacha1 says:

    I think the only real “fatal flaw” is inflexibility. If we make a plan that is so rigid that any stumble shatters it, it may not be due to time management, temptation, false commitment, or self-destructiveness; it may just be due to our inability to see other ways to accomplish the goal.

    For example, if a daily hourlong walk is a value, rather than abandon the walk, adjust the plan so that other daily priorities can be combined with it. (For Example, need to meet a words-per-day goal + need to spend time with baby): Strap on the baby, pick up the digital voice recorded, and compose out loud while you walk. Obviously this is a grossly simplified example but, you know.

    Tunnel vision about our plans means we don’t see all the other routes we could take. As long as our plans are flexible, we can adjust variables (including timelines) and still move forward.

  6. Marsha says:

    I agree that better planning and preparation can help avoid stumbling, but I disagree that a stumble means there was a “fatal flaw” in the plan. We are human beings and by definition we are not perfect. Hence, we stumble.

    Besides, chaos theory (as I understand it) means that we are always drifting from organization to disorganization…and vice versa.

  7. Stumbling and stumbling to finally get things right.

  8. K says:

    I like what others above said – it seems to echo my own feelings that a stumble doesn’t necessarily reveal a fatal flaw – it just reveals that we are human and need to be flexible and adjust our plans.

    I really like the Kaizen philosophy for making big behavioral changes. The idea is that you make a small change first, and focus on that one change. After you have achieved success focusing on that small area, you can add another small change, and another. The success breeds positive energy that rolls right into additional change.

  9. Russ says:

    I think all four of these points collapse down into one basic underlying principle – you have to change your habits. An example often mentioned on this blog is changing your route to work to avoid the coffee-house/bookshop. When you stumble, identify the habit that lead to it, and work to change it.

    Long walks were also a feature of my summer, and I stuck to it by making it a habit to get off the train 4 miles away from my destination. I’ve recently cut down my beer consumption by noticing that I most often bought beer when stopping off at the supermarket on the way home in the evening – now I make sure I go shopping on a Sunday morning (when beer isn’t an impulse buy) and never pop in on the way home any more. I few years ago I lost a ton of weight by following a well-planned fortnightly eating routine, and the weight stayed off until I moved house and broke the routine.

    The easiest way to habitualise your behaviour is to fit it in with your normal day. In order to walk, I don’t need to change my route, I just need to get off the train early.

  10. Angela says:

    How you think about the stumble is important too. You touched on this under Self-destructiveness. If you feel like you have completely failed and you can’t do anything right and you’ll never meet your goal… then chances are that you won’t succeed. But if you recognize a stumble as just a stumble, a temporary fixable setback, then it’s possible to move forward and get back on track.

    I just finished the book ‘Learned Optimism’ by Martin Seligman. It outlines the benefits of optimism for success and provides tools for moving from pessimistic thinking to optimistic thinking. It’s a good read and could have implications in financial decision-making and management.

  11. Bavaria says:

    Every moment is a new start.

  12. John S says:

    Great post, Trent; this really resonates with me. I suspect that such cyclical behaviour is nearly universal. We all recognize room for improvement in our lives, and we all have bad habits that impede this change. It’s part of the human condition.

  13. I think it’s the humaness in all of us with each of these breakdowns. They’re inevitable because we aren’t perfect! The cause isn’t always something wrong inside–we live in a world that’s constantly, relentlessly pulling us in other directions, many of them “easy” or otherwise enticing.

    The solution is having the ability to get back up and get on track after falling off. The discipline part isn’t necessarily avoiding distraction, but the ability to correct our course. Distractions are bound to happen, and sometimes we’ll fall into them–all it takes is the right (or wrong)combination of circumstances…then we need to get back up.

    Very insightful post, and follow up comments!

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