You’ve done it. You’ve crafted long term and short term goals, made an action plan, set reasonable expectations, nurtured the skills that empower you to focus — and now you’ve failed. Welcome to being a human on this earth! Almost nothing of significance or importance, even on a personal level, has ever been achieved without a little bit of failure. It’s an inevitable part of trying to do something that matters to you. What you do next will determine whether or not you really succeed.
Examine your missteps with clear eyes
When we don’t achieve our goals, we’re likely to either: 1) trip over our guilt and fall headfirst into a shame spiral (“I didn’t get this done” becomes “I’m a failure and a disappointment”) or: b) refuse to clearly assess why we failed, and how our actions or inaction contributed to that failure. The best thing about failing is you can learn from it and give yourself a better chance to reach your goals, but you can only do that if you’re willing to look at it right in the face and be honest with yourself. One way you can do that is to walk backward through the progression of things you’ve learned over these last few weeks.
You didn’t get the thing done. Okay, were you doing the things you needed to do to ensure you were focused on the task? Did you say yes too many times when you should have said no, did you stumble on the mental hygiene you needed to engage in prior to sitting down to the task, did you minimize your distractions? If yes, were you realistic in the expectation you set for yourself? Did you give yourself enough time, did you budget enough emotional energy, did you learn from your previous missteps? If yes, dig back to those original goals. Do they align with your ethos and serve your highest purpose? Even if other people were involved in you not getting the thing done — they didn’t respect your boundaries, they demanded too much, there was an emergency, they triggered a mental health crisis for you — it’s important to ask yourself how you can better manage their expectations in the future.
It always comes back to balance: The reason you didn’t accomplish your goals is probably somewhere in the middle between all your fault and all someone else’s.
Make a plan to address the specific issues you identified in your clear-eyed appraisal
Maybe you’ve realized you can’t perfect your chestnut and mushroom tartlet on Sunday afternoons because your mother always calls to complain about something that happened at church for at least an hour and it’s a distraction and you have to spend your emotional energy to talk her through it. Can you set aside a different time in the week to talk to her? Or a different time in the week to bake? Maybe your co-workers haven’t respected your request to stop talking to you every time they walk past your cubicle in your open-floor office plan. Could you invest in some headphones as a visual signal that you’re busy and they need to leave you alone? Did you spend too much time getting outraged on Twitter? Can you delete the app or install a different app to lock you out of it for a certain amount of time?
If you’re not accomplishing what you want to accomplish, but you keep trying to accomplish it in the same way, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Acknowledge what didn’t work and why and look for a different path forward.
Learn to manage your negative emotions
Just because you haven’t worked out yet how to achieve your goals doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Do not let failure become part of your identity! It’s something that’s happened to you, maybe even because of you, but it’s not who you are!
You can’t undo your failure, but you can use the “undo effect” to combat some of the frustrating things you’re feeling. Researchers have discovered that positive emotions help speed recovery from negative emotions: “Negative emotions undermine the brain’s capacity to think broadly and find creative solutions. The vise grip of fear and stress and the emotions they generate — anger, blame, panic, resentment, shame — limit thought to a narrow field that obscures options.” So in the face of failure, do something you enjoy. Read a book, take a bath, go for a hike, ride your bike, host some friends for dinner, visit a museum, watch a favorite TV show or movie. Allowing yourself some joy will feel good and it will help reset your brain.
It also helps to cultivate a sense of humility. Not meekness, but a quiet understanding that we all fail, that it doesn’t mean we’re bad people; just that we’re people, period. In Jim Collins’ wildly successful book, Good to Great, he names humility as the one thing that sets really successful people apart. Humility allows you to look at your failure honestly without chastising yourself because a humble person doesn’t expect to always succeed or feel compelled to lie to themselves about why they failed to preserve a fragile self-image. Humble people are more likely to learn from their mistakes and not wallow in them.
You could also manage your negative emotions by meditating, a practice that urges you to be gentle with yourself.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t project your own feelings of disappointment onto the people around you and isolate yourself from them. We are notoriously harder on ourselves than other people are on us, and the more we hide away, the easier it is to convince ourselves that they’re as upset with us as we are at ourselves. That’s hardly ever the case.
If your failure has caused stress or anxiety disappointment for someone else, accept that, apologize, explain what happened, and tell the person you’ve let down what you plan to do to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.
You can spend a whole lot of time feeling badly about messing up or you can acknowledge some simple truths — everyone fails, people who succeed are the ones who learn from their mistakes, failure can make you wiser and more compassionate, the only failure that’s final is the failure of giving up — and try again. Start at the beginning if you need to. Ask yourself what you truly love, make a plan to pursue it, cultivate the habits of focus that will allow you to succeed, and get up and dust yourself off and get going again.
You only have one wild and precious life on this earth. You’re in control of you. And you know what else? I believe in you.