Let’s say someone has been working on losing weight, but over Thanksgiving gave up and ate way, way too much. Or they were going to write 50,000 words this November for NaNoWriMo, yet here it is a few days from the end and they’re only 28,000 words in. Or they’ve gone back on a promise, done something they had vowed to stop doing, failed to stick with a new habit that they really wanted to keep up, or in any other way completely wiped out.
Often in situations like this, we’ll start telling ourselves in one way or another that whatever plans we have are now ruined. The promise is broken, the diet has failed, the project has flopped. It’s easy to lose all enthusiasm at this point and give up, to conclude that people who are successful at achieving difficult goals don’t have these kinds of setbacks. That conclusion would be wrong.
It’s true that failures on the way to a goal can cause a more than their share of trouble. If I’m trying to build a new habit, interruptions to the thing I’m trying to make habitual will make it take longer for the habit to form. If I suffer a setback, it can often create additional obstacles, because slip-ups erode momentum in the same way that taking initiative builds momentum.
Yet it’s clearly typical–in fact, I’d hazard a guess that it’s almost inevitable–for a person to have some failures on the way to successfully building a new habit or pursuing a goal if that goal is sufficiently challenging. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, “most of those who attempt [to quit smoking] cannot do it on the first try. In fact, smokers usually need many tries — sometimes as many as 8 to 10 — before they are able to quit for good.”
Another way to put it, as strange as it may sound, is that the kind of person most likely to succeed at a goal is someone who has already been working on it but has failed one or more times.
Yet knowing this probably doesn’t make you automatically feel like a winner. What will do that is getting back to working on your goal right away. It’s easy to fall for reasoning like “I’ve blown it anyway–a little more won’t hurt” or “I’ll recharge my batteries before I take another crack at it,” but that kind of logic is usually flawed, because whenever we let a setback “give you permission” to stick with old, bad habits for a while, or to stop something we were working on, we are strengthening and refreshing the behaviors we don’t want and letting the behaviors we do want fade in our minds. The neural connections we’re building by prolonging the interruption will make it easier to make wrong choices and harder to make right choices. We’re also often doing more damage that will have to be repaired once we get back on track, making restarting even harder.
We can learn from setbacks by analyzing what went wrong and coming up with ways to act differently in future. And we can cut off failures, keeping them to the shortest span possible, so that they become just blips on the graph. In practical terms, all a setback does is take away a little progress and lower our spirits. We can gain that ground back and raise our spirits at the same time by renewing our plans to pursue our goals and not letting the problems claim any more of our lives than they have to.
Photo from Cornell University Library.