The first time I fell off a horse, I was about 9 years old.
My riding instructor scooped me up and said, “Let’s get back on.”
Even though I knew I had to, the last thing I wanted to do was get back in the saddle. Falling had been scary and embarrassing, and I didn't want it to happen again.
But with tears running down my cheeks and only my ego a little bruised, I climbed back up on the horse and we walked around the arena for the rest of my lesson.
Reaching your goals rarely feels like a series of successes. It often feels like 1 step forward and 2 steps back.
Progress that feels more like a series of setbacks, while frustrating and confusing, is completely normal.
Facing a setback when I’ve set a goal feels a lot like falling off a horse. I know it’s necessary to start again, but it’s daunting. Just like when I was a little kid, I’m a little embarrassed and it sounds easier to just call it quits sometimes.
In the end, though, it’s always worth getting back on. Why? Because there is only one guaranteed outcome if I don't keep trying: I won't achieve my goal.
If I keep going - if I take what I learned from my failure and try again - then the possibility for success is still there. I can still do it.
We’ve all fallen short on goals. It’s so easy to get off track on a diet, a budget, or even something that's supposed to be enjoyable like completing a reading list, and seeing our failure can be demoralizing.
Even though there are so many reasons why we may fail, like setting goals that are too lofty (don’t expect yourself to go 1-100 overnight) or that our goals don’t align with our lives, so we keep putting them off (psychologists call this “goal congruence”), there are lots of ways to overcome those hurdles too.
Here’s what to do when you’ve fallen short of your goal and you want to get back on track.
1. Reflect on what happened
Have you thought much about what created your setback? Not how bad you feel about it - how guilty or embarrassed that you didn't follow through - but what actually happened?
Maybe it was one major factor or maybe it was a series of little things that didn’t go right. Maybe it was something totally unexpected that you didn’t plan for.
Whatever it was, think of it as a comma, not as a period. Your sentence isn’t over! What you do next is up to you, and now you have experience and growth to learn from, if you choose to.
It’s helpful to pinpoint a few things that contributed to your setback. Like, maybe happy hour invitations have led your budget astray or maybe you’ve filled lulls in the day with online shopping. When you find the missteps, you can address them.
Reflecting lets us investigate our actions and hopefully find solutions to things that aren't working. Incorporate daily reflection into your process as you restart your goal, so that you can catch potential hurdles as they arise, rather than after they've tripped you up.
2. Start building on what worked before
While you’re reflecting on your failure, don't forget to find the good!
It’s highly unlikely that you’re facing a setback because everything you did was wrong. Getting back on track means re-aligning your goal with reality. Find the things that were working, and work on incorporating more of those things.
Maybe you were great about staying on schedule, but struggled to focus during your work sessions. Remember that you are still allowed to be proud of the things you did well, and that you should continue to incorporate the elements that worked for you in your future plans.
Just like you were able to find what set you off track, specifically list the actions that were helpful. Think about why they were helpful. Was it because you were able to make it a habit? Or maybe it was because you were more eager to implement that action, so it just stuck.
This isn't just about boosting your morale. When you see not just what is working for you but WHY it is working for you, you can start to make other parts of your plan work for you too.
Different goals require different actions, so consider that too. The Behavior Wizard from Stanford University is a great tool. The quiz asks you a few questions about what you’re trying to accomplish and places it somewhere on the Fogg Behavior Model.
For example, if you want to reduce a behavior over the long term, you’re “seeking a Grey Path Behavior.” For health that might mean cutting back on sugar. The model suggests for these goals you remove the trigger (like an afternoon candy bar), reduce ability to perform behavior (instead of hitting the vending machine, take a walk), or replace the motivation of doing that behavior with a “de-motivator” (if you have that candy bar now, you can’t have that small treat after dinner).
3. Start somewhere (literally anywhere)
Just because you had a setback doesn’t mean you have to start over - this isn’t a race. You make the rules!
Where do you want to start back up? What sounds enjoyable or appealing or momentum-creating to you?
Making progress - somewhere, anywhere - will help you kickstart yourself back into your goal. Your progress doesn't have to look like anyone else's.
Good habits take time, persistence, and determination. If you can get yourself started and commit to consistent, incremental growth (even if it's 5 minutes a day - one paragraph of your novel, 10 pushups, whatever it is), then your good habits will compound on themselves.
4. Make a plan
Once you have gone through the mental process of reviewing your setback and getting in a mindset to start again, making a plan can be incredibly useful.
Small, steady progress is good - but you also need to make sure, at a certain point, that you are still going in the right direction.
Another useful strategy is incorporating your goal into your regular schedule. Many people try to silo their personal goals, squeezing them in "after work" or "on the weekends", but this lack of clarity makes it easy for your goal to be the first thing that gets pushed to the back burner when life gets busy.
Instead, create an overall view of your life - personal, social, family, and professional - so that you can truly see where all your time goes (and if you need to change where it's going).
Monitor progress, not perfection. We tend to dwell on whether we’re good enough or doing something well enough, but really it’s repetition and practice that makes us better.
There will be setbacks no matter the goal, but that doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made. Take time each week to count your wins and pat yourself on the back for putting in the work, especially if it’s something you couldn’t do a week or a month ago. Goals take time and sometimes the learning curve is steeper.