Have you started something new and felt really good about keeping it going for days, weeks, or months only to hit a roadblock? Did you think you had established a good habit only to get sidetracked and struggle to go on? Has your brain told you that you will never change when your progress falters after an obstacle? Yeah, me too, all the time. But I am getting better a picking myself up, and you can, too.
My latest challenge was going great
I signed up for a challenge to finish the year strong. The challenge was to commit to three small daily activities of my choice. The main thing I wanted to do was wake up at a specific time each day. I chose 6:15 am, just one hour earlier than what I was used to. I did great for the first 43 days and only missed my goal three times. I was feeling energetic and inspired. So many cool things happened with that extra hour in my morning routine. I was feeling pretty unstoppable.
Then it happened. I got sick. As in, cancel everything on my calendar sick. I missed my wake-up time five times in 13 days. Ugh. I knew I needed the rest and tried to tell myself I would be back to my preferred wake-up time soon.
Has this happened to you?
Two weeks later, I struggled to get back to my routines. And it wasn’t just the wake-up time. Pretty much all the other good habits I had that flowed from that wake-up time were suffering. I wasn’t exercising, had brain fog, felt tired, and my motivation was low. Basically, it sucked, and I felt awful.
Soon, negative thoughts were taking over, saying this was typical of me. My brain wanted me to believe that I can’t sustain good habits and that I will never change who I am. Sound familiar?
Getting back up
This time, I decided to find the mental will to start over. The most important thing was to tell my brain to shut up and replace those negative messages with better thoughts. I said to myself that I was doing my best. This was a short break, and a gap in my streak would not derail me. In fact, overcoming setbacks and starting again was a bigger win than coasting through easy days with no challenges. If I started once, I could start again.
So I started fresh on day 57. The first day, I hit snooze once, then got up. I did not hit snooze the next day, but I did not put my feet on the floor right away either. The day after that, I got right up, but dang, was I tired. I started the day very slowly with tea and yoga. My brain slowly adjusted.
Soon I was able to get myself on the treadmill or walk the dog for 20 minutes. Boom. Getting exercise was the accelerator I needed. Getting back to moving my body intentionally finally got my neurons firing properly again. I kept the goal small, just walking one mile, or 20 minutes or even 5 minutes a few times a day, but the cobwebs began to clear.
Now I am back to writing and operating with a clearer mental state. When those negative thoughts come, I am better equipped to fight them off. I use affirmations to train my brain to think more positively every day. I am getting better. I am learning that being successful means meeting challenges and doing hard things. What other people are doing may look easy from the outside, but in reality, we are all facing the difficulty of doing the things we want to do, or that we know are good for us, consistently enough to make a difference in our lives.
Struggling to consistently do the things we want to do is normal
I envy people who do things for days, weeks, or years without taking a break. But I suspect even high achievers don’t remain consistent in every aspect of their lives. And they may not even love what they are doing all of the time. I recently read Brendan Leonard’s “I Hate Running and You Can, Too,” which was a refreshing take on the love/hate relationship many of us have with the sport. He shares that running is not always fun in the entertaining sense of the word, but there are moments of enjoyment in between the minutes that suck, and most of the fun is in the finish or looking back and knowing that you did the thing.
We can try to plan our lives, but the truth is, the things we want to do will not always happen the way we want them to. We will get sick, have a bad day, or encounter issues beyond our control. But we have to be resilient. The physical actions we want to take only happen if we exert the mental effort to do them. You need to find what helps you through the mental block before taking physical action.
After thinking about it, here is what helped me get back up and try again:
First of all, I told my brain how the story should go
My intention is to get up at 6:15 am. I know I won’t always do it without fail, but I will most of the time. When I mess up, I won’t give up. When I miss a day, it’s not because I am incapable of change. It’s because sometimes I get sick or I need rest. Looking back, I have a long track record of completing challenges at different times in my life. The missteps are less of a pattern than the positive things I have done, like writing almost every day this year, continuing to play volleyball recreationally for over 35 years, or learning skills that have moved me from one career to another.
Next, I prepared myself to be uncomfortable for a short time
I embraced the unpleasant feeling of starting over and got through it because I know it feels good to have done it before. I also lowered my expectation of success at first to give myself a small win to build on. Maybe I couldn’t actually get out from under the covers right away, but I could make sure I didn’t fall back asleep either. When I got up, I did things slowly and calmly until my brain agreed to do more. I had to put up feeling tired at first, which isn’t fun, but a little tea and yoga got me through it. Overcoming that feeling made me feel stronger and ready to take on the challenge the next day.
Third, I added movement to my day
I tend to be a person who needs to ponder and think a lot. This sometimes gets me stuck in a still position. Lying in bed thinking. Sitting in my chair thinking. Staring at my computer, thinking. Soon, my mind wanders, and I may even go blank. Progress falters. But once I start moving my body, I remember that I think better and am more inspired when I get up and move my body. I can listen to an inspiring podcast on the treadmill. I can think more clearly when I walk the dog or see the big picture better when hiking a nature trail. And I just feel much better physically. I actually want to get up and feel the benefit of endorphins. When I move my body, I am a person who is much more likely to meet challenges. Physical activity contributes to mental clarity and strength.
Finally, I documented what worked
It helps to write down what help me succeed in the past. I want to remember that positive self-talk, choosing to be uncomfortable for a short time, and adding exercise to jump-start my mind and body are good tools for getting back up when I am down. That is precisely why you are reading this article. By documenting what worked, I am encoding this information in my brain and passing along tips that might help others who struggle to pick themselves up after a setback.
Reinforce what you know
I also find that I am naturally drawn to information that reinforces what I know. To help me fight off negative thoughts, I got back to listening to Jon Acuff’s All it Takes is Goal podcast. From there, I heard Jon’s interview with author and adventurer Brendan Leonard. That inspired me to read Leonard’s book about “hating” running and doing it anyway. His account reinforces my own conclusion. Leonard’s book publicly documents what works for him and will work for others. One domino leads to another, and soon I am back to where I want to be.
It’s your story; you choose where to take the plot twist
It’s day 63, and I feel confident I will make it to day 90 and beyond. This wasn’t how I wanted the story to go, but it is more interesting than having effortless success. After all, I signed up for a challenge for a reason. If creating habits or achieving goals were easy, a challenge would not be necessary. The difficulty is part of the game, and resilience leads to lasting change. I am writing the story of my life to say that I always pick myself up when I fall down, and you can, too.