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How to turn failure into progress

On the path to your health goals, a setback can be your best teacher
A young woman using a laptop and having a salad while working from home

There’s a saying that goes: Failing to plan, is planning to fail. It’s a neat catch-phrase meant to emphasize the importance of planning. Planning definitely is important but we should also be planning to fail. 

This doesn’t mean we have to be defeatist or negative. But we should recognize failure is a part of almost anything we do. If we don’t accept that, we may put unrealistic expectations on ourselves or avoid taking risks. Fear of failure can impede our success.

Planning for failure

For many of us, undergoing a lifestyle change, like exercising or changing our diet, is a huge challenge. We often don’t move in a straight line to achieving our goals. It might take several attempts before long-term change occurs.

Failure is such a common part of changing or starting a new behaviour that it’s included in the Stages of Change. This is a behaviour change theory based on the process smokers go through when trying to quit. It recognizes five distinct stages along the pathway of change:

  • precontemplation (unwilling to change) 
  • contemplation (thinking about change)
  • preparation (planning to change)
  • action (recently undergone change)
  • maintenance (underwent change a while ago).

The Stages of Change refers to failure as relapse. Relapse is a far more positive expression than failure; you can’t relapse if you haven’t changed. It refers to the person who has started something like exercising and then stops or suffers a temporary setback.

Learn from the past

When you’re planning to tackle a behaviour change, it helps to look at both successes and failures in the past. If you’re starting a new nutrition plan, have you had experience with changing your eating habits before? What can you learn from that? 

Perhaps you had a goal of saving for a big vacation. What helped you succeed at that goal that you can apply to your new behaviour change? Was it discipline, outlook, resources or knowledge?
You can also try to anticipate situations that may put you at high risk for failure or relapse. It could be a temporary change, like going on holiday; once you return, you’re back to your routine. Other temptations may be more a part of your regular life. If you’re trying to quit smoking, for example, it can be challenging to hang out with friends who smoke. 

How will you handle these situations? Will you avoid them altogether, have a plan to deal with them, or accept them as temporary setbacks and move forward?

Expect the unexpected

No matter how much you plan, you’re unlikely to anticipate every situation that may lead to relapse. For example, a patient I worked with who was smoke-free for three years started smoking again after his wife died; it helped him deal with the loss. 

Another patient got a new job, which he was truly happy to have, but it had a negative impact on his eating and exercise. It took him a few months to build up a new routine.

Even if at first you don’t succeed, failing isn’t a waste of time and energy. When a relapse occurs, take stock. Don’t beat yourself up; that is never helpful. Figure out where you are. Are you interested in trying again?

Looking again at the Stages of Change, a relapse may take you back one stage or several. In fact, a person can move from the maintenance stage all the way back to precontemplation (as the patient above who started smoking again — he wasn’t ready to quit). 

This reflects the notion that with any major change in life, we need to embrace failure as part of the process, not a sign of personal inadequacies.

Getting back on track

So what do you do now? Any planning you did before making your behaviour change may help in dealing with relapse. But you may need to make a new set of plans. 

These questions can help:

  • What made you successful the first time, and how could that help you again? 
  • What was the source or trigger of the relapse? 
  • Is it something that can be addressed or do you need to re-evaluate your approach?

Failures can also help build resilience so we try again, and trying in a different way the next time. I’ve had my research papers rejected so many times I almost expect it, but I keep on trying — hoping they get accepted on the first go, all the while planning what to do if they don’t.

And remember, making a lifestyle change isn’t easy. If you’re looking to change your diet, begin exercising, quit smoking, or something else, it is likely something you want to do for the rest of your life. Over the course of years or decades, having a setback or two is not a big deal and is part of the process.

Dr. Scott Lear

Dr. Scott Lear is a leading researcher in the prevention and management of heart disease. He holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, and he is a professor in the faculty of health sciences and the department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Lear also lives with heart disease himself. Follow his blog at drscottlear.com.

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