I literally could not believe I failed yet again; I was in complete denial. People would ask me how the book was coming, and I’d tell them I was working on it…and I would actually believe it was true—when I hadn’t touched the manuscript in over a month. Then something would happen to remind me, “Oh yeah, you don’t even remember where you left off with the plot.”
At the same time, my weight was climbing, UH-gain. And as hard as I tried to deny my pudginess—or to accept it and love it fiercely, because I tried that, too—I still carried an inner knowing that I wasn’t putting my best self forward.
How to Deal With Failure
When we fail, it’s tempting to blame everything on our actions. But first, we need to get clear on the mindset mistakes that caused us to act the way we did. We’ll only learn to deal with failure when we see how our thoughts caused us to make mistakes.
I’m going to walk you through all the mindset mistakes that caused me to fail over and over again. What do I mean by fail? I mean I was failing at life. My weight and the unfinished book were only symptoms of everything that was going on under the surface.
I was medicating my emotions with food and wine rather than living life fully. I was putting my head in the sand and tuning out both difficulties and opportunities, because everything seemed so hard and so overwhelming. I was finding creative ways to avoid facing reality and doing some difficult work.
Here are the mindset mistakes that caused me to under-estimate my own capabilities for living a great life.
Mindset Mistake #1: “My vision is (fill in the blank: silly, impossible, selfish, etc.,) and so it doesn’t matter.”
I’ve had a juicy vision to become an author since my 20s (I’m now in my 40s), but I failed so many times that simply having a vision stopped working. My vision started to sound like static-y background noise: annoying and useless. It seemed easier to just let the dream die already. Stop shocking it back to life. Let it go. Be a happy, working mother with no dream beyond my day-to-day.
But as I’ve come to find out time and again, your destiny will never shut up. If you don’t go for it, it will bitch-slap you on your death bed.
So not only did I need to resuscitate that vision and get crystal clear on it, I also needed to believe it was possible.
How do you believe in your own vision? You surface all of your doubts, rather than ignoring them. You turn them over in the palm of your hand and you examine them. And you figure out how to overcome your obstacles. In doing this, you commit to and believe in your vision. You realize you don’t need to give up because everything is solvable. You decide that your vision is worth pursuing. And it’s important to do that because, what if you turn your life upside down and your vision kind of sucks in reality? It’s important to really look at those feelings, because maybe that vision isn’t worth pursuing. Maybe you want something else. But you’ve got to look all of this in the face to get clear on what the right vision is for your life.
So how do you stop thinking your vision is silly, impossible, or that it doesn’t matter? You reverse your mindset with all of the above tips until this becomes true for you:
Mindset Reversal: My vision is awesome and it’s important to me.
Mindset Mistake #2: “It’s okay if I take baby steps.”
Now, this is a tricky one, because there’s absolutely a time and place for baby steps, so you need to figure out what works for you in your particular situation. For example, I’d like to tackle a speaking career. Am I going to take the stage as the keynote speaker to the graduating class at Harvard as one of my first gigs? No. Don’t be ridiculous. I need to work my way up.
However, I recently made the mistake of taking baby steps when it came to my diet, and this kept me locked into addictive patterns. Many of us have trigger foods that we just love too much to put down. We overeat to the point where our pants are tight, and then we eat some more.
For me, wheat-based products are trouble. In the spirit of “baby steps,” I recently embarked on a diet that allowed wheat, and I made no progress towards my weight loss goal. Once I ditched the “baby steps” mentality in exchange for Massive Action, I ditched foods that aren’t good for my body, and in return, I gained clarity, energy, satisfaction, and I lost weight quickly.
For me, I’ve found that Massive Action combined with short deadlines help. What might this mean for you? Is there an area of your life that you really want to straighten out, but you just keep on failing, over and over again? Consider what kind of Massive Action you can take, combined with a short deadline, to help you transform your processes and thinking.
Ideally, you’ll adopt some of these changes and keep them around, even after your short deadline is over. Why? It’s important not to fool yourself into thinking you can go right back to old behaviors after you reach the finish line. Allow your grand, long-term vision to inform your short-term Massive Action plan. Then figure out how you’ll continue to reach for your goals when your Massive Action plan deadline arrives.
That said, don’t get paralyzed by planning beyond your deadline. The thought of “forever” can sound overwhelming, so hit your stride with Massive Action, and experiment to find out what works long-term when you get there.
Another example: In my novel, Secrets of People With Extraordinary Willpower, the narrator, Kelly, gives up wine for 30 days, and it helps her get out of a rut with drinking. In my own life, I used to kick back with a drink or two almost daily, but I wanted to break that habit, so I gave up wine for a whole year. Did this change my relationship to alcohol? You bet it did. I went back to drinking after my year was up, and after a long period of experimentation dotted with failures and successes, I’m at peace in this area. [In case you’re thinking about trying this, research shows that many people who have drinking problems are able to solve the problem themselves.]
Why should you consider Massive Action? Because it changes your state from struggle to excitement. You’ll see big results when you take big actions, which creates positive momentum. This momentum will change your day-to-day focus. When you change your actions and rituals on a daily basis, and you keep a no-cheating policy in place (because it’s a short deadline—there’s no wiggle room for cheating), then you’re going to get new results.
Mindset Reversal: Massive Action, without wiggle room for cheating, will bring exciting new results.
Mindset Mistake #3: “Reality Shmeality.”
Okay, so that’s not exactly a mindset, but what I mean by this is that, when we keep failing, we’re probably out of touch with reality. People are so damn good at fooling themselves, which makes it really hard to see where you’re avoiding the truth in your own life.
Most recently for me, I was avoiding the realities of both my weight, and how much I enjoyed my healthy diet. On the first week of my Massive Action plan, I ate incredibly well and got loads of exercise. When I stepped on the scale at the end of the week, I felt despondent as I thought, “The scale hasn’t even budged!” I was discouraged and pissed off, and I was ready to throw the diet out the window and go eat whatever I wanted.
Then I checked my journal to compare my starting weight with my new weight. I’d lost more than 5 pounds in a week, and I didn’t realize it because I was lying to myself about my starting weight. My new, lower weight looked so impossibly high to me, that I didn’t immediately appreciate my progress.
Thank goodness I caught myself and faced reality. I was on the verge of deluding myself into thinking I felt deprived on my healthy diet as an excuse to eat bad things. Even though I love vegetables and all kinds of healthy fare, and I wasn’t letting myself get overly hungry, I still stepped on that scale and thought, “This is too hard!” I almost made excuses (deprivation!) as to why I “deserved” to eat something naughty or overeat.
Humans of Earth: I, you, me—we all—make HAREBRAINED ASSUMPTIONS. If you’re having trouble losing weight or achieving any other goal you have, it’s almost a guarantee you’re hiding something from yourself, or you’re wrong about something that you’re having trouble admitting.
Mindset Reversal: I will track my progress or otherwise look reality in the face so that I may stop deluding myself and reach my goals.
Mindset Mistake #4: “Oh my GOD this is taking FOREVER, it’s not WORTH IT!!!”
In a nutshell, this mindset is about using impatience as an excuse to quit. There are many times in my life that I would basically tantrum out and give up on a goal because I wasn’t seeing immediate results.
I believe impatience, for many of us, is tied to the first point, of valuing a juicy vision for how you want your life to be like. When you truly value a vision, you know it’s worth waiting for and working towards. It’s worth wrestling with problems and experimenting to find solutions. It’s worth getting curious about failures so you can fix mistakes and forge ahead.
Impatience is also related to point number three: facing reality. When you’re only getting started at something, there’s a big chance you don’t know what you’re doing, and when we start out on a journey of transformation, our egos don’t always want to admit that we suck at it. Take dieting for instance: if you’ve failed repeatedly at that, it might just mean that you haven’t had the patience to figure out what works for both your schedule and your body.
In my own life, I almost let impatience destroy my latest effort to lose weight because I didn’t want to absorb in a truthful way how much I weighed; because of this, I felt impatient. When I allowed that impatience to take me over, I discounted progress and success.
Let’s all take a minute to bow our heads and ponder this: Choosing the salad over the doughnut is a triumph of the human spirit! In our impatience, we only see that the scale didn’t move. But all the chemical processes going on in your brain and body that re-wire you for health and success are silent and imperceptible, one salad-over-doughnut-choice at a time. And it’s all those choices over time that actually matter. So be patient with yourself.
I think impatience is probably a leading cause of the obesity epidemic. We are so used to an on-demand, rushed society, that when we don’t see immediate weight loss, we think, “F*ck that,” and go back to doughnuts.
Now here’s a word in favor of impatience: To lose weight this last go around, having compiled vast knowledge about the field of willpower, I used my impatience in my favor. I created a BIG, FAST goal for myself because I knew it would be a mind blower—very inspiring and motivating for me.
I knew that in order to achieve this goal, there would be no waffling, no cheating, no “Oops, I messed up, I’ll get back to the diet tomorrow.” There are also high stakes involved. I have an event coming up at which I’ll meet some new people, and this coincides with my goal deadline. (Try showing up to meet with a new group of people, overweight, and tell them you wrote a book about willpower. I dare you.)
A closing word about impatience: even with a short deadline, I’ve still had to muster up massive amounts of patience. Whatever we want to achieve, patience will help us get there.
Mindset Reversal: My goal is worth time and effort, no matter how long it takes.
Mindset Mistake #5: “It’s okay to cheat. Everyone makes mistakes.”
While I’m a big fan of being forgiving, learning from mistakes, and being persistent—it’s a slippery slope to simply not putting forth the effort required to succeed. If you’ve failed at a goal repeatedly, it’s probably time to ditch the “It’s okay to cheat / everyone makes mistakes” mindset.
We’ve ALL made excuses to cheat or to half-ass our efforts. You sneak a bite here and there. Or you think, “Oh, well, I’ve lost weight eating that (unhealthy) food in the past, so it’s okay if I have it now.” Or you say yes to happy hour even when it runs counter to your short-term goals with the excuse of, “You only live once!” (YOLO!)
This actually happened to me recently, when I was tempted to abuse the YOLO excuse. There was a happy hour event, clearly counter to my short-term goal. And yes, you DO only live once, and yes, socializing is extremely important to mental health, happiness, and longevity. So how did I resolve this conundrum without interrupting my Massive Action goal?
I solved the problem by skipping happy hour and inviting a friend for a woodsy hike. We had a lovely two-hour conversation, the kind that makes your face hurt from smiling, and I felt absolutely high with happiness afterwards. If I’d gone to “happy” hour, I would have felt miserable afterwards because my short-term goal would have been trashed.
Mindset Reversal: There are always creative compromises you can make. Don’t get sucked into false choices that cheat you out of your goals.
Mindset Mistake #6: “Change is hard and it sucks.”
If you’re failing at a goal because what you need to do to get there sucks, then you’re being punitively ambitious. This means that either the changes you’re making are punishing, or you just think they are because you need an attitude adjustment.
Change has to feel inspiring in order to last. Anything else is punishing. I get it: change can suck, however, there’s a difference between accepting the discomfort of change, and making change so uncomfortable that it’s not sustainable.
So while I tout BIG GOALS, these goals must be motivating, rather than dreadful. But sometimes we don’t know until we’re knee-deep in our project plan that it’s terrible.
We’ve all made this mistake with dieting. It’s so easy to force ourselves into a shitty, pleasure-devoid diet because we want a tiny heinie. And then we get hungry within two hours of starting the diet and we eat the contents of our refrigerators. Okay, I exaggerate, but you might be familiar with some variation of that scenario.
Here’s an example of a goal that was punitively ambitious for me. I went to a lecture given by fellow willpower-aficionado James Clear. In his lecture, he credited much of his success to twice-weekly blogging. He made a promise to himself when he started his blog to publish something every Monday and Thursday, and he was unfailingly consistent. Even at the very beginning, when it meant some of his posts weren’t that great, he published them anyway.
I wanted to try it, too.
But then my life started to suck. I wrote about this last week, about how I got caught in a willpower rut and how I climbed out again. When I was performing a post-mortem on my most recent failure, I figured out that falling into that rut stemmed from my overly ambitious blogging goal of twice per week. Blogging twice per week is great for James Clear, but it sent me off the rails on a crazy train.
Why? Because my posts sucked. I didn’t have time to give my articles the time and attention required to make them good. And so my confidence flagged, my excitement turned to dread, and I stopped blogging. And if you’ve been reading my blog for a while now, you know that when I stop writing (a.k.a. doing what I love), next I start trying to murder myself with bad habits. And that’s what most of us do.
I realized—in my desire to reach certain professional goals—that I had taken on a change that sucked. But blogging once per week rather than twice? I can do that. So after I climbed out of the rut, I made an agreement with myself that I’d blog somewhere between weekly and monthly.
Mindset Reversal: Change doesn’t have to suck; find a way that feels good and that’s sustainable.
Your Mindset Reversal Tools
Here is your set of tools. Print it out and tape it to your bathroom mirror or your computer monitor:
My vision is awesome and it’s important to me.
Massive Action, without wiggle room for cheating, will bring exciting new results.
I will track my progress or otherwise look reality in the face so that I may stop deluding myself and reach my goals.
My goal is worth time and effort, no matter how long it takes.
There are always creative compromises you can make. Don’t get sucked into false choices that cheat you out of your goals.
Mindset Reversal: Change doesn’t have to suck; find a way that feels good and that’s sustainable.
Now go forth and kick ass.
Katie Morton is the author of Secrets of People With Extraordinary Willpower.