How We Fail Our Goals
Every year we set goals with the best intentions, but far too often, we let our first setback put an end to our ambitions. See if this hypothetical sounds familiar:
It’s the New Year and you’ve made a resolution to start running: three times a week, every week, all year long.
You start strong on January 1st, pushing past aches and a cramp to complete an entire two miles — farther than you’ve run since high school!
By the end of week one, you’ve got your three runs finished, and you’re feeling better than ever. Things stay smooth all through the next two months, and by the time March rolls around, you’re starting to feel like a real runner.
Then, in the first week of March, you hurt your ankle. You decide to take it easy for a couple of weeks and put the running on hold.
The rest works. Two weeks later, your ankle is feeling great. Unfortunately, now work has picked up. Your body is fine, but with work getting so stressful, you don’t want to add even more to your plate. Besides, you’ve already gone a couple of weeks without running, so why not wait for another until you start back up?
The next week, work is back to normal, but your cousins make a surprise visit. You haven’t seen them in over a year, so you put running on the back burner one last time.
Finally, it’s April, and you have a totally free week. It’s time to start running again. But then you realize: it’s already been an entire month since your last run. At this point, it’d be like starting over from scratch. What’s the point? Maybe next year.
So, sound familiar? Whether it’s running, reading more, learning a language, or improving at work, every goal-oriented person probably has a few stories similar to this.
When setting out to pick up a new hobby, learn a new skill, or even drop a bad habit, it’s easy to start strong. Unfortunately, it’s almost inevitable that eventually, we hit a point where we unintentionally take a break.
Even when we do everything right, sometimes these breaks are just unavoidable. Life gets in the way. We get sick, we have busy schedules, or we go on vacation. Often we have to put our goals on the back burner, through no fault of our own.
These breaks aren’t failures in and of themselves, but unfortunately, they often lead to failures. Where these breaks become truly dangerous is when we allow them to turn into excuses to abandon our goals entirely.
I’ve been very goal-focused for the last few years, and achieved tremendous success: I’ve quit drinking, quit smoking, started running, lost 65 pounds, improved my diet, and more. On the other hand, there are a few goals I’ve failed to achieve. For example, I tried hard to bring my Hebrew ability from an intermediate to an advanced level and ended up failing twice.
The goals that I achieved and the goals that I failed at both had times when things felt off-track. The key difference is that for the goals I achieved, I anticipated these slips and didn’t let them completely derail me.
Next time you realize that you’ve let your goals fall by the wayside, here are a few tips for getting them back on track:
Don’t Dwell on The Lost Time
If you realize that you’ve taken an unintentional break from working towards your goals, don’t make it into a bigger deal than it is.
It’s easy to get in your head about a slip-up and start thinking that you’ve lost all your progress. You take a month off of running, and tell yourself that you’re going to have to start back from the beginning.
The truth is that a month off will likely have a negative impact, but not so bad as starting from scratch. Even if your body is physically back to where it started, you’ve at least learned a few things from your first time around which will continue to help you.
Dwelling on the weeks you missed is totally unproductive. It will only discourage you from getting back to your goals.
Don’t Play Catch Up
With some types of goals, it can be tempting to play “catch up” after a few weeks off.
For example, maybe you have a goal of reading a book each week all year. After missing a few weeks, you decide to read two books a week for the next few weeks to make up for it. This rarely works out well.
If you couldn’t keep up with your original goal, how could you possibly keep up with doing twice as much? Instead of “catching up,” you’re much more likely to get sick of your goal and give up on it entirely.
Instead, just let the missed weeks ago, and start back on your original goal (or even adjust your goal to make it easier).
It’s important to spend some time reflecting on what caused your setback in the first place. Was it something outside of your country, or mere carelessness?
Think about whether there are changes you can make to avoid similar setbacks in the future. For example, if sloppy scheduling got in your way, you could start adding time to work on your goals into your calendar.
On the other hand, sometimes there really was nothing you could have done to avoid the setback. In that case, just get back to your goals and don’t dwell on it. Don’t search for reasons to beat yourself up over something outside your control.
Celebrate Your Progress
When goals go awry, many of us have a tendency to only think about what went wrong. Instead, force yourself to think about what you’ve done right.
Even if you took a few days off from your new exercise regime, you’ve still got a lot to be proud of: you started exercising in the first place, you stuck with it for a while, and most importantly, you’re getting right back to it.
Don’t stress over lost progress, instead think about how far you’ve actually come from when you were just starting. Focusing on these positives is the best way I know to stay motivated in the face of setbacks.
Setbacks Are Not Failures
Getting sidetracked and forgetting about your goals for a few weeks can feel like a total failure, but it’s absolutely not. Setbacks only turn into failures when we allow them to become excuses to give up entirely.
Next time you experience a setback on one of your goals, remember that it happens to everyone and that the most important thing is to start right back in on your hard work.