zen habits : breathe

What I Do When I Fail

By Leo Babauta

I fail at things much more than you might imagine, given that I’ve written books on forming habits and being content with yourself and being a minimalist and more.

I fail at all of that stuff, and it feels just as horrible for me as it does for anyone else.

I get down on myself, feel guilty, try to avoid thinking about it, would rather hide it from everyone else.

Failing at things can really suck.

And yet, I get back up and try again.

I fail at eating healthy on a regular basis, but I keep trying again. I’m pretty good these days at sticking to an exercise plan, but I failed and tried again, regularly, for years and years.

I’ve made several attempts at writing the book I’m writing now, and scrapped it all each time because it didn’t feel right. And yet, I started again, and I’m almost done now.

I fail at loving myself. But I don’t give up on that.

I fail at being a good dad, seemingly multiple times a day. But I continue to try, and sometimes I succeed.

When I try over and over again, once in awhile I succeed.

So what’s the secret? Well, there isn’t any. You just have to keep trying.

That said, here’s what I’ve found to work:

  1. I learned a more flexible mindset. When you are rigidly trying to stick to a plan or achieve a goal, and things don’t go according to plan, then you feel like crap and things can get derailed. But if you have a more flexible mindset, and think, “I might not be able to go according to plan but that’s OK because things change,” then it’s not a disaster when you get off track. There’s no single track that you have to stay on.
  2. I came to realize that every attempt is about learning. When you fail, that’s actually really good information. Before you failed, you thought that something would work (a prediction), but then real-world information came in that told you it didn’t work. That means you now know something you didn’t know before. That’s excellent. Now you can adjust your plan, figure something new out, try a new method. Keep learning.
  3. I ask for help. When I’m struggling with something, I know that I can either give up, or I can figure out a better way. But it’s not always easier to figure out a better way, so I reach out to my wife, friends, trusted family members, and I ask them. They might give me simple, obvious, why-didn’t-I-see-that advice that I need, or brilliant tips, or accountability. Whatever happens, my friends and loved ones never seem to fail me.
  4. I give myself a break. If I’m struggling, sometimes my mind or body just needs a break from the discipline. So I’ll take a day or two off, or a week, or even more. There’s no set time that’s right for every situation, so I’ve been learning to go by feel. For some things, I’ve taken a month or two off from trying to learn something.
  5. I remind myself why it’s important. It’s easy to give up on something, because not doing it is always easier. But giving up means you’re losing something important, like helping someone, and so if my reasons for doing something aren’t just selfish (pleasure, vanity), then I will renew my vigor for the struggle. This alone is often enough to get me going again, especially if I’m doing it to help someone important, like my kids.

I realize that I’m far from perfect, and that the guilty secrets I hide inside myself are no different than anyone else’s. You guys are just like me, in the inside, and while we all share the commonality of failing to live up to our better nature, we also share the bond of being able to start again.

So start again.



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