Did you know that January 19th is unofficially dubbed “Quitter’s Day?”
If you are one of very few who haven’t yet given up your New Year’s resolution, give yourself a high five or a “great job” post-it note next to your computer monitor!
If you have given up, don’t feel bad. A study of over 800 million people who use Strava in 2019 predicted that most people would quit on January 19.
800 million people--that’s equivalent to the populations of the United States, Indonesia, and Pakistan combined!--abandon their plan within three weeks! Even a lifelong pessimist like me believe that we can do better.
In my last post on the topic of New Year’s resolutions, I propose that setting the type of goals that don’t leave much to chance is one way to ensure our resolutions have legs. This time, let’s look at failure.
Consider the saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” The two-fold message is clear: failure is bad and you must avoid it.
But researchers from many fields tell us that failure isn’t inherently bad. Studies on scientists just getting (narrow wins) or just missing (near misses) grants showed that ten years later, the near-miss scientists “produced work that garnered substantially higher impacts.” 1
Bioethicist Alex London and Jonathan Kimmelman, writing on the subject of trials for drugs and therapies, go further to claim that "the failure of well-designed studies benefits both researchers and healthcare systems.”2
Most parents today know it’s important to allow children to fail in safe environments without too-high stakes.
So why then, when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, so many people quit after they encounter early failures?
Does it have to do with the residual belief that failure is, in fact, inherently bad? Do we still view failures as definitive feedback that tells us we should stop going down the present path?
Failures feel bad. As does touching fire. The same survival instinct that keeps our hands away from flames could mistake the former to be just as threatening.
Our rational minds know the difference. But unless we expect failure and know how we will respond we would likely go with the most natural reaction.
So, how about turning the earlier saying into To succeed, you must plan to fail.
Or rather, plan to expect failure. If you don’t allow for setbacks, obstacles, discouragement, weak moments, and other types of falling-short, you will not stick with your plan long enough to get to your goals.
Imagine what failure would look like in your resolution. Cold winter mornings making it difficult to get up early for a workout? Your lunch buddy’s constant sarcasm and criticism when you’re trying to be positive? That stitch on your side when you run even a little bit longer? Children who insist to be re-tucked every night when you’re trying to read about a subject that fascinates you?
And then plan your responses.
That way, when it’s still pitch dark at 6 a.m. and you know there’s a good chance that you’d choose sleep and warmth now over long-term health, you will already have made allowance for that. Maybe you’ll have planned your work out in the middle of the day instead. Maybe you’ll already have cued to that show on Netflix you’ve been meaning to watch for two years as your reward and distraction for your workout.
Don’t be surprised when even those back-up measures fail. Because they will. And when they do, you are ready with Plans C, D, and E instead of having your good intentions mocked and your enthusiasm doused.
Include failures in your resolutions. They are not signs that the goals are not meant to be. They are not an indictment of a weak character.
Failures are not electrons: they are not necessarily negative. They could just be neutral, as part of a process of changing. They may even be positive if we choose to learn from them.
“Failures are friends, not foes.” Say that in the accent of Bruce the shark from Finding Nemo.