What to Do When Your Resolution Fails

A new year is a great time to take a fresh perspective and renew your strategies and goals – both personally and professionally. However, often these “resolutions” fail, bringing us at best back to where we started or at worst feeling demotivated and unsuccessful. So what do you do to avoid taking two steps back when your resolution fails?

Rethink resolutions: We tend to make grand resolutions that require us to do things out of character or extend a great effort. These can not only be daunting, but are more prone to challenges and failure. If you find that your grand plan has failed, it’s time to rethink it.

Instead, set realistic goals. Don’t misinterpret this as lowering your standards, but instead as creating a path to achieving your ultimate goals. You have to walk before you can run, right? So take your overall goal and break it into smaller steps. What do you need to do to get there? What are key milestones along the way? How will you achieve those milestones? Then focus on the milestones instead of the finish line.

Habits weren’t built in a day: Much like Rome, habits take time. I recently changed my computer password and I can’t tell you how many times I started typing the old password automatically before my brain truly internalized the new one. Once it’s engrained though, it’s automatic, but as Jason Selk pointed out in Forbes, getting there takes work. And habits aren’t just something we do to get healthy. Whether it’s networking with more colleagues, implementing a new system, or dedicating 20 minutes a day to creative thinking, establishing habits is essential to achieving professional goals.

So, in order to achieve goals – we can’t just say, we must do. We must do, and do, and do again, until we’ve created habits. We must push through even when our motivation waivers, but if we can build and sustain habits, we can make meaningful, lasting changes.

Don’t go it alone: The trick is recognizing that even seemingly small changes can be difficult to make. Our minds only have so much capacity for sustained effort and change. Make it easier for yourself to succeed by identifying techniques and cues to help stay on track, such as scheduling specific time to review emails or setting alarms when it’s time to head home. For organizational goals, seek help from colleagues and experts. Get their input on the best strategy; then take digestible pieces of the overall goal and divide and conquer.

We’ve all said it, “This year is going to be the year that I…” Well, unfortunately willpower alone isn’t enough to make you successful. In fact, “the brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others,” write neuroscience authors Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. Alternatively, focus on breaking things down into feasible pieces, creating habits that support your goals, and getting support from your colleagues and technology. If your New Year’s resolution fails, don’t give up; there are 364 other days to make realistic resolutions that will work.

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The Only Real Failure

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

The above quote by the infinitely wise Nelson Mandela is a valuable lesson for us all to learn: Failure is not avoidable, nor should it be, failure is what defines us. From failure, we learn, we grow. But failure can be hard. It can leave us feeling lost, demoralized, and unmotivated. We worry what others will think of us should we not succeed, so we avoid risk in order to protect ourselves from failure. Instead though, we should learn how to accept and manage failure.

Scenario 1: You receive feedback that your performance does not meet expectations

Feedback can be hard to take, especially when it’s not positive. We have a natural tendency to go on the defensive. We start rattling off excuses or pointing fingers. Sometimes our performance failures may indeed be the byproduct of something beyond our immediate control, but either way it doesn’t change the outcome. Instead of looking backward, look forward. Accept the feedback and take it a step further – ask how you can improve. Set up a plan to reduce the barriers to your success, whether that’s taking additional training, working out issues with a coworker, or delegating work to make your load more manageable. Many people will never get feedback on their performance, so if you do, take it as an opportunity – which is exactly what it is – an opportunity that someone else has given you to prove you can do something great and that this particular performance doesn’t define your entire career.

Scenario 2: You realize you don’t know how to do something

I’m going to let you in on a secret: We can’t do everything. This is especially hard for us go-getters to accept. We think we can figure it all out – delegate something? Never! While it is great to be resourceful, and your first step should always be to try to do something yourself, it is equally acceptable to admit that you can’t. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to say, “Could you clarify that? I am not sure I understand.” or “Who would be a good person to ask for more information on that?” Be willing to do the legwork, but don’t hesitate to ask for direction.

Scenario 3: Something goes wrong

Well that wasn’t in the plan. A client pulls out last minute; a system fails; a deal is lost; you’re going to miss a deadline; someone important is unhappy. There are innumerable ways that something could go wrong. Change, human error, technology glitches – they are all inevitable. The key is to get ahead of these things as much as you can. Develop plans with flexibility for errors and contingencies for unexpected situations. Address issues as soon as they arise. Don’t wait for something to become a disaster before mentioning it to your boss. Just like with the previous scenarios, you need to be willing to let go of pride or fear and admit that things aren’t on track and that you may need help to fix it. As things do go wrong, remember your attitude is critical – be humble, take responsibility, and stay positive about your options.

It is easy to be great during times of success. It is much harder to do so during times of difficulty. But your ability to come out of challenges stronger than when you went in is a testament to your true abilities. Failure is inevitable, but not terrible. Think of it not as the end, but instead as a stepping stone to greater success.