New Year’s goals don’t always go as planned, but setbacks lead to learning.
“Begin anywhere,” says philosopher John Cage. At any point, Cage tells us, we can choose to start over.
Yet for many of us, it’s the new year that heralds change and gives us the opportunity for a fresh start. You may have started the year with exciting new goals and the determination and enthusiasm to make them happen.
Often, in just a few weeks, the excitement fades and your carefully laid schemes don’t exactly go as planned.
I can admit it’s a pretty deflating feeling when your goals fail. Whether you planned to take better care of your health or you vowed to start saving more money, not being able to achieve your goals can deal a pretty devastating blow to your self-esteem. It can even prevent you from trying again in the future.
According to a study conducted by Strava, most people give up on their New Year’s goals before the end of January. If you’re feeling deflated, it may be good to know you’re not alone.
Failure isn’t always a sign you should give up, and it’s certainly not a reason to beat yourself up. In fact, failure can be an excellent opportunity to learn your limits and your strengths. This can set you up for future success.
You can learn to treat yourself with kindness in the face of failure, making it more likely you’ll try again.
Why New Year’s goals often fail
The first step in treating yourself with kindness is acknowledging why your New Year’s goals might have failed in the first place. Spoiler alert: it’s not because you suck.
“Setting goals for a new year can be problematic,” says Fiona Hall, a psychotherapist. “The month of December can be a very busy and stressful time for people. It can be hard to find the time to sit down, come up with relevant goals, and become fully committed to making changes.”
People often bite off more than they can chew.
“For some people, their goals are aspirational. They are thinking of implementing goals to change into someone who is ultimately not their authentic self,” Hall says. “In these instances, it can be hard for individuals to maintain a commitment to goals that will ultimately bring them further from their true selves.”
Hall also notes that most achievements actually consist of many smaller goals. “The main goal is broken down into smaller tasks, which makes the goal more manageable,” she says.
Otherwise, a new commitment may become overwhelming. This can lead people to give up.
“A common defense mechanism for coping with goals that have not worked out is ‘black and white’ thinking,” Hall says.
This involves focusing on the negative and labeling their efforts as failure rather than devising an alternative strategy for success.
How to get back up
It can be hard to take so-called failure on the chin. If you find you’re still beating yourself up about not achieving your goals, focus on building compassion and confidence.
By changing your perspective, you can begin to see failure as an asset. It’s an opportunity to learn, improve, and potentially try again.
You can reflect on where you went wrong and gather important info about your limits and strengths.
“Everything is grist for the mill,” Hall says. “Not everything worthwhile will be achieved on the first attempt.”
Even when things don’t turn out your way, you can ask what you’ve learned about the situation and about yourself.
On top of that, Hall notes that picking yourself up and trying again is a sign of resilience. “Not achieving and trying again is what builds resilience in the first place,” she says.
Focus on the process
“I believe goals are the destination, and the process towards those goals is the journey. The journey is where we learn more about ourselves,” Hall says.
When you make it about the process and not the end result, you zoom in on all the positive benefits of your efforts. It’s likely you’re learning, growing, and changing for the better, even if you fall a little short of your goal.
It doesn’t have to be about the achievement itself. There’s so much in the act of getting there.
Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses
In this process of self-learning, you may discover strengths about yourself you didn’t know you had. Hall suggests creating a new plan that plays to your strengths while humbly acknowledging your limits.
“Explore different ways to get your goals back on track in a compassionate manner. If a goal is worth achieving, it’s worth trying again to get there,” she says. “Acknowledge the time and effort you put into the process and how these skills can be utilized in other areas of your life.”
Look at how far you’ve come
Next, remember the progress you’ve made. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, you’ve likely made some steps forward.
“I’m a firm believer that baby steps bring about lasting change in life. Even though [someone] may not have achieved their intended goal, they will have made some progress and learned more about themselves during the process,” Hall says. “This new information can be built upon … to work towards happiness and fulfillment in their lives.”
Give yourself some credit
Finally, congratulate yourself.
You may think there’s nothing worth celebrating, but knowing you’re deserving of a pat on the back is a crucial step.
Set yourself up for success
During this process, you may realize your goals aren’t truly aligned with what you want. In this case, it’s okay to let them go.
If you do decide to try again, there are steps you can take to ensure greater success next time around.
“Evaluate the process and see if it can be changed or improved when implementing future goals,” Hall says.
Hall suggests planning your route and expecting there to be a few bumps in the road. These realistic expectations can help you make it all the way.
“If a goal is important to us, it’s worth investing time and effort in planning out a realistic journey to get there. Take your time and be aware there may be setbacks,” she says.
After all, setbacks are where the real learning happens.