It happens to the best of us. You get an idea of what you want to accomplish: how you’re going to perfect your life…how you’ll tame your appetites…how you’re going to become rich…or how your home (or your body) is going to look like a magazine spread.
You start making plans. You’re going to perform the perfect exercise ritual daily. You’re going to put away every last scrap of paper and knickknack cluttering your house. You’re going to eat the most perfect diet ever to have been invented.
For the sake of clarity here, let’s say your plan is to lose weight. You make your plan, in this case, you figure out what you’re going to eat, and maybe how you’ll exercise. You get started. You feel terrific. You think, “This is so easy. I should have done this years ago. I can eat like this the rest of my life.”
You peel off a few pounds. Your will feels rock solid. Someone offers you a doughnut in the break room at work. You feel smug as you smile at that poor slob and politely decline.
Then after a few days, your hunger starts to amp up a tiny bit. The healthy meal plan you were so enthusiastic about a few days ago is now beginning to bore you, just a tiny bit. You falter. You find yourself sneaking pieces of cheese. Or maybe a bite of a cracker. Or a grape or twenty. “It’s cool,” you think. “I’m still losing weight. No biggie.”
The diet gets solidly boring. You begin to feel a little cagey. You can feel your inner animal pacing and growling at the bars of the diet cage.
Then something happens. Your kid wipes out in a parking lot and you can’t get to the grocery store to purchase diet-sanctioned food. Or your boss gives you a project you hate. Or a meeting is scheduled over your normal lunch time.
Whatever happened, your schedule has been wrestled from your control. You’re stressed out. You’re hungry. In the context of whatever you’re facing, the diet no longer seems that important. So how do you cope? You eat.
Then you think, “I’ve blown the diet. I might as well order that pizza I’ve been craving. Might as well get that over with.”
So, what could have prevented this? Well, not dieting for one thing, you say. Yup, not dieting. But think back to that hopeful part of you that just wanted to eat a little better, who wanted to feel thinner and healthier. What could you do better next time?
All we need is pessimism.
Yup. A dash of pessimism back when you were forming your goals and plans would have helped head off some mistakes.
When we’re in the planning and goal-making stages, we don’t yet realize that we’re not always going to feel so strong and determined. We can’t imagine feeling any other way, and so when our human animal rears its head and starts mucking up our perfect plans, we feel deflated and discouraged.
The best way to short-circuit this folly is with contingency planning. Come up with a list of ways you’ve failed in the past, and how you might react in the future in order to prevent the same failures.
Now, a word of warning. So many of us wind up on this treadmill of life:
“I want to lose weight. Here’s my plan.” Followed by, “This plan is perfect! I feel great!” Followed by, “Holy crap, what is WRONG with me? Where is my self control?” This is a way to distract ourselves from real life. It’s a way to hide out and avoid our feelings and avoid getting in touch with ourselves.
And so it’s vitally important to set aside time each day to get in touch with your innards. Have some time alone in silence to pray or meditate. Take some time to journal what’s really going on inside yourself. Set goals that are in line with what would actually make you happy.
Only then will your goals be the right goals. But okay, so once you have the right goals, now what? Notice how you might fail, and address those issues in the planning stages.
For example, if you feel hungrier than usual on your plan, what foods can you add so that you’ll feel more satisfied? If presented with foods outside of your plan, how will you react? Will you eat them in moderation to tide you over, or will you avoid them altogether? When you make a mistake, will you decide to blow your diet and eat like there’s no tomorrow? That’s probably not part of your plan, so figure out what to do once you make a mistake. Can you hop right back on your plan without melting down and taking an extended detour?
While belief in yourself and confidence that you can succeed are keys to success, contingency planning is just as important.
Katie Morton is the author of Secrets of People With Extraordinary Willpower.