We’ve all been there: You had plans to start exercising. Maybe you wanted to start running, so you bought running shoes and looked up some running tips for beginners. You thought about where you were going to run and you downloaded a mileage-tracking app. You developed a training plan, and daydreamed about how you’d get up early and run every morning, and eventually you’d run a marathon or something spectacular like that.
And then you went for a run. Once.
The next day, you were sore or tired or you had some other stuff to do, and you dropped the running habit before it had even begun. And there you were, back where you started, out of shape and feeling like a failure to boot.
Whether it’s a plan for exercise, dieting, learning a new skill, or any other self-improvement project, it’s much, much easier to fail than it is to succeed. How can you end the cycle of initiative and failure, and stick with a plan long enough to make a difference?
The root of the issue is an inability to embrace failure. Learning to love failure takes a long time, but it’s possible to circumvent the self-defeating reaction to failure that prevents you from sticking with the projects you plan. To be clear: Failure isn’t always a bad thing, but when the smallest failure completely derails your plans, that’s a problem you need to address. If one day of weakness or faltering resolve prevents you from reaching your goals (or even getting started), you need a different way of thinking.
I have quit countless projects in my life. Usually I have given up after only a few days, as soon as I realized that the project would be harder than I originally thought. I’ve abandoned one plan after another, from small self-improvement schemes to educational degrees and career paths.
I had two habits that consistently led to quitting projects or abandoning plans. The first was black-and-white thinking, and the second was biting off more than I could chew.
Thinking about things in black and white means there are no shades of grey. You’re either failing or succeeding, fat or thin, happy or sad. Things are good or they’re bad. Thinking in terms of true or false (with no middle ground) is problematic, because the world simply doesn’t work that way. Sure, a lot of things can be categorized into “opposite” categories, but there are almost always variants. Nearly everything happens on a spectrum. When you’re feeling like a failure, there are a lot of emotions in the mix. You’re more complicated than that. You might be hopeful, and frightened, and eager, and self-conscious, and discouraged, all at the same time… and those emotions don’t add up to failure, even if that’s what it feels like in the moment.
I never used to consider all of the complicated emotions I might be experiencing at the moment I “failed” at a plan for self-improvement. When I missed a run, I dumped myself into the “failure” category, and that was that. I didn’t give myself room to experience other emotions. I didn’t allow myself to be complex. I was thinking in black and white.
The other habit is biting off more than you can chew. I have tried to start a running routine at least 15 times, and I have never managed to stick with it more than a few days (until about a year ago). Why? I’m built like a runner, I’m relatively fit, I have enough time… I have a lot of advantages as a potential runner, but I still couldn’t get into the habit. Why could I never manage to go for more than a couple of runs before giving up completely?
Here is what I would do: I’d come up with the idea to start running. I’d plan to start the coming Monday, before work. I’d buy running shoes, and shorts, and a shirt, and a watch with a timer. I’d do research on injury prevention. And then (this is the kicker) I’d daydream about maybe eventually running a marathon, or beating my high school mile time, or just running every day for the rest of my life, even in the snow, even on vacation. I’d build up the idea of myself as a runner until there was no way I could live up to the daydream. I wasn’t just a guy going out for a run – I was a potential winner of the Boston Marathon. When a potential marathoner can’t even run three days in a row, what does that make him?
Some people have the drive and resiliency to push through failure again and again until they find success. Some people can overcome black-or-white thinking and can set lofty goals for themselves without risking discouragement. Others have to chip away at it, and find their way around the mental and physical roadblocks they set for themselves. If you’re one of the latter (like I am), how can you bypass failure and find your own way to success?
There is a way for people like us to succeed at self-improvement. You have to prevent failure from occurring in the first place. You have to ensure success by setting fail-proof goals (or better yet, not setting goals at all – just getting started, without a plan).
When you resolve to start running for exercise, don’t plan any further than that. Don’t buy equipment, don’t think about how far you’ll go or how long you’ll run. Don’t guess at how much progress you might make in a week or a month or a year. Just go for a run.
Grab the shoes you wear to mow the lawn. Find an old t-shirt – doesn’t matter if it has wicking properties or it fits just right. Wear sweatpants and tube socks. It doesn’t matter. Just go for a run.
It doesn’t matter how far you go today. Up the block and back? Fine. You have to stop and walk because you’re out of breath? Fine. Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it. Concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Just go for a run.
If you’re dieting, just eat half of that cupcake. If you’re learning a language, just watch a video on YouTube in that language. If you’re building something, just gather the tools. If you’re trying to be nicer, just smile at yourself once in the mirror. Do something, anything – just keep it small enough that you can’t fail. Push yourself a little bit every day, but keep it small enough that failure is impossible. If that means all you do is think about your plan, then that’s all you do today. Then you pat yourself on the back for being successful. Tomorrow, you’ll do it again.
Now, you might be wondering how much progress you’ll make if all you do is jog once around the block. Not much… today. Not much tomorrow, either. But after 30 days maybe you’ll jog twice around the block, and in a year you’ll be running a few miles. It will probably happen even more quickly, if you can stick with it – if you don’t defeat yourself with old ways of thinking. You’ll keep making progress day after day after day. By bypassing the self-defeating mindset you’ve always had, you accomplish more than you every could before.
What are your goals? Have you experienced the cycle of lofty aspirations and perpetual failure? Did you find a way around it? Share your story in the comments.