In health coaching, one of the ways we achieve behavior change is by breaking down larger goals into smaller, more manageable steps.
Want to get to the gym five days a week but only currently work out once? How about we start with two times and see what works about that routine rather than run full-throttle into a Monday through Friday routine?
Building small, incremental change helps to create long-lasting, sustainable change and supports patients in creating habits rather than a short-lived burst of motivation and enthusiasm that quickly fades when they realize they can’t keep it up.
As humans, most of us have a gap between where we are (or how we’re living) and where we want to be. We also tend to want to get there now. But, for most of us, making the leap between where we are and where we want to be isn’t immediately possible—and even if it is, it’s not sustainable. And so when we inevitably have a bad day (or a week, or month) and slip up, we fall. And we end up feeling even lower than we did before.
“How could I be so dumb [or lazy/careless/insert your favorite self-critique here] ?!” we think to ourselves. “I was doing so well at this for the last few days. And now I fell off the wagon. Since I didn’t work out today, I might as well forget about my diet, too. It doesn’t matter. Today is a wash.”
Of course, it does matter. Yes, maybe you didn’t make it to the gym. In that regard, you might not have hit your goal, but the choices you make next are critical. Maybe even more important than the initial decision to go (or not go) to the gym in the first place.
I’ve heard from countless patients that they allowed one small slip to trip them up completely so that they gave up on whatever it was they were working on: indulge in a cookie at the office? Diet is blown, I’ll stop tracking my meals. Stayed up too late last night? Netflix till midnight tonight. Forgot to meditate this morning? What’s the point in meditating ever again if my practice is no longer a perfect, consecutive string of sessions?
Here’s the thing about not sticking to a plan or accomplishing a goal you’ve set for yourself: it’s okay. (Yes, it is. I promise. And as a professional coach — someone whose job is literally helping people set and stick to goals — I think I qualify as an expert here.)
There’s learning in the not doing sometimes. And how you pick yourself up after a setback and keep going is great information.
I was working with a patient recently who had set an ambitious (but realistic) goal for themselves. When they came in for their next session, they reported that work had gotten hectic and they hadn’t been able to make the progress they’d hoped for.
We talked it through, and I reminded them not to be too hard on themselves and asked how they’d recommit to getting it done.
“It’s not a failure,” they said, looking peppy and determined. “It’s progress.”
I loved that so much that I added it to the list of inspirational quotes on my office bulletin board.
It’s not a failure; it’s progress.
The lesson here is not to give up trying altogether and call it a success.
The lesson is to remember that even when you don’t get the results you hope for, you can learn; and when you fall down, use the tools and frameworks as steps to get yourself back to where you were. And then keep going.
Curious about how you can recover after a setback? Here are three easy steps to help you get back on track:
1. Consider what caused you to deviate from your plan.
Identifying potential barriers can help you plan for and avoid them in the future. For example, you planned to meal prep on Sunday evening but found yourself curled up on the couch watching your favorite show with your partner instead.
What was more tempting about that option than meal prepping? Can you do both? How? What values did you honor? Which did you not honor? How did you feel?
Maybe you realize that Sundays evenings are the only time your partner have together, and that’s the quality time you need to feel balanced and secure in your relationship, so you try meal prepping that morning. That way, you have a meal to enjoy together that evening.
2. Think "big picture" and consider why you set the goal in the first place.
Ask yourself what was important about your goal. How do you want to feel? Did you tell yourself you’d meditate three days a week because work has been super stressful, and you need a way to feel centered and connected to yourself?
Focusing on the way you’d like to feel—and noticing the things that make you feel that way—can help you get back into your groove. Often times, patients tell me they draw on the good feelings their habits evoke as motivation.
3. Be here now.
Take things one moment at a time. Call it mindfulness, being in the present or whatever you’d like, but try just focusing on the now.
Making the decision—right now—to work toward your goal, without worrying about what you did yesterday or will do tomorrow may help. Just concentrate on what you need to do to take a step forward now. After that, the next step will probably feel much easier.