This is article is part of a series called “The 30-Day Challenge”. See all articles here.
Talking about goals is much more exciting than talking about failure. But I think they are both part of the process, so we should talk about both.
How people think about failure
I think that we often want to avoid talking about our failures. We even try not to think about them. We prefer to obsessively focus on our goals, milestones and results. I totally get that. The idea of success makes us feel much better than the idea of failure.
But let’s be realistic. If you set a goal for yourself and work on it, you are likely to fail sooner or later. You will make a mistake or give up or procrastinate. Unless you have superhuman discipline, perfect awareness and really good skills (maybe you do), you are bound to fail at one point.
What do I mean by failure? Anything that is not doing your best to reach your goal. Maybe you skip a workout, eat too much during a holiday, procrastinate because you are too stressed or miss a deadline you set. Anytime you make mistake or do less than you know you are capable of, you fail.
Keep in mind that failure is temporary. You can always go back to your normal routine and try again. Just because you did not do your best for a day or a week, this does not mean that you are a failure and that you should give up. Whether you like it or not, failure is part of the process. Now of course we do not plan to fail, but it will probably happen, so expect that!
How you should think about failure
As I said, I think we don’t want to think about failure. Why? Maybe because we think that by imagining it, we may subconsciously increase our chances of screwing up. Or even the imagined scenario where we fail makes us feel bad about ourselves. So we tell ourselves that we will do our best and everything will work out – until it doesn’t.
The way I see it, we should want to think about failure. This sounds a bit strange, but stick with me for a moment. Think about this.
What happens if you force yourself not to think about failure and convince yourself that you will only succeed? When a setback or failure comes along, you will probably feel ashamed and disappointed with yourself. You are supposed to be better than this, right? And then you criticize yourself more than you should which only increases your stress and anxiety, making it more likely you’ll make another mistake or want to give up.
But what happens if you prepare for failure? What if you accept that you will make mistakes or waste time, accept that and expect that? When it happens, you will be less negative and frustrated because you know it is part of the process. You will still feel bad, but you won’t let guilt send you down a rabbit hole of more guilt, procrastination and even more guilt. You’ll acknowledge your mistakes or failures and go back to doing your best.
Being realistic and preparing for the inevitable, instead of trying to deny it, will save you a lot of time and energy. So my advice is this: you’ll mess up, so when you do, move on and do your best!
How to deal with failure
1. Think about what could go wrong in advance
Think about your potential failures in advance to be prepared. Take some time and think about what could go wrong. Here are few questions to help you. Maybe you want to write down your answers.
What obstacles will you face? Maybe you won’t always have enough time or enough money. Maybe you depend on other people and they will let you down. Think about any obstacles that can arise.
What weaknesses do you have that stand in the way of your success? Maybe you are not skilled enough, maybe you lack discipline. Maybe you are depressed so your motivation and ability to focus fluctuates. Maybe you are a perfectionist and this makes you too scared to try new things. Being aware of your own flaws and tendencies does not make you weak. On the contrary, once you are aware of your limits you have a better chance of working with them.
Try to imagine what other major obstacles could arise as you work on your goal in the next weeks and months. But don’t make an endless list though. You don’t need to plan for a war or an alien invasion. Think about what is more likely to happen and then move on.
2. Make a plan for how to deal with obstacles and failures
Now that you have a list of things that could stand in the way of your success, think about what you can do about them – in advance. Ideally, you should do something now to prevent these failures if possible.
For example, if you expect money to be a problem, start putting some money aside every week. If you think time will be a problem, try to come up with a schedule that allows you to focus on the most important tasks. If your lack of discipline will be a problem, try to build up your discipline and find ways to make it enjoyable to do your tasks.
Whatever the obstacle, ask yourself: what could I do now that might prevent this from happening? Maybe you want to make a list of rules for how to deal with these challenges.
3. Accept your failure when it happens
The day came when you messed up. You let yourself down. This moment sucks, but how you handle it is crucial.
The easiest thing to do is to go on a downward spiral. You criticize yourself, you become more stressed and you end up in the “what the hell” effect and give up. Kelly McGonigal talks about this phenomenon in her book The Willpower Instinct. She says that while it is easy to criticize yourself, you should practice self-compassion. This way you limit the negative effects of this unpleasant situation.
So instead of beating yourself up, try to accept your failure and have compassion for yourself. After all, you did not want to fail. And you can continue to do your best.
You can get the book The Willpower Instinct by clicking on this affiliate link.
4. Think about the cause of your failure and come up with a solution
What is it that made you mess up? Is it stress? Perfectionism? Lack of skill? Whatever happened, try to identify what caused this mistake or failure. If you can find the cause, you can also do something to prevent this in the future.
Ask yourself: What is probably the real cause of this? What can I do to make sure this will not happen in the future?
Maybe you cannot avoid any other failures, but perhaps you can decrease the chance of failing in the same way for the same reason. Try to find a solution and see if it works. Whatever happens, get back on track as soon as you can.
5. Take time off if you need to
Don’t force yourself to get back into it immediately after a big mistake or failure. If you feel guilty or stressed and this is making you think about giving up, maybe you should take a break.
Do you think you need some time off? Do you need a day of relaxation and fun? If you do, allow yourself to take time off and have some fun – without feeling guilty.
Resting and enjoying life for a while is not a waste of time. It is necessary and it reminds you what makes life worth living. So watch a nice movie, read a good book or play a board game with some friends. You can go back to work tomorrow or a few days later.
But don’t take too much time off from your goals. This might make you feel guilty and it might make you obsess over your failure again which might make you think about giving up – and we don’t want that to happen.
6. Track your progress – however small
One thing that will help you carry on in spite of challenges is the feeling of accomplishment. You usually get this by doing the tasks you need to do and by seeing the progress you are making towards your goal. So try to find a way to measure your progress – no matter how small it may be at the moment. Keep a to-do list and check things off. Or measure your progress in any way that makes sense for you and your goal. The confidence and excitement you get from seeing you move closer to your goal can help you bounce back after a failure much faster.
Working on a meaningful goal will take time and effort. It will make you grow and learn new things. Because of this, I think that mistakes, setbacks and failures are inevitable. So instead of hoping you will always do the right thing, remember that it will probably happen to you too. When it happens, have compassion for yourself and remember that your goal is too important to give up on it.
P.S. I know what it’s like to fail…
I’ve had my fair share of failures and mistakes in the past. So believe me when I say, I know what it’s like. In fact, I think some of you will handle your failures much better than me (if you are less prone to stress and perfectionism, for example).
I’ve been there and I’ve moved past it. But in the past, I also had moments where I let my failures crush my motivation and I gave up. And I wanted to talk about it hoping that I could help you navigate difficulties like these much better than I had done at some point.
Maybe you know that I started a 30-Day Challenge on January 1st. My goal was to post an article about goals and habits every day for 30 days. I did that for every day – until yesterday when I didn’t. But to show that I practice what I preach (or in this case I practice and then I preach), I’m back to posting again. So let’s work hard, fail, move on and work hard again!
The Willpower Instinct is a great book about willpower and habits. Read it if you want to better understand how willpower works, what makes you have more or less of it and how your brain sometimes plays tricks on you. It’s a great book and I recommend it. You can buy it by clicking on this affiliate link.
This article is part of a 30-day series where I’ll share an article every day. I will mainly focus on goals, success and habits and I hope this series will help you have a higher chance of achieving your meaningful goals in 2020!