The Stumble

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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