How to Stick to Your Goals When Life Disrupts ‘Em

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” – Jimmy Dean

By Leo Babauta

Have you ever been doing great with a goal or habit change — exercise, waking early, becoming organized, eating healthy, anything — and your progress was completely disrupted because of some major event in your life (death, marriage, illness, work, etc.)?

Of course you have. It’s happened to all of us.

Life gets in the way.

Fortunately, although we often give up our goals when something like this happens, a life event that disrupts your progress doesn’t have to sidetrack your goal completely. You can overcome this obstacle — and it is an obstacle, just like any other.

Reader quench recently wrote in with a great question:

“Oftentimes, I have just one goal, as you suggest, and I am focused fully on that one goal, the baby steps, etc. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, there’s some crisis in another part of my life – my boyfriend will become enormously demanding, my brother will get hospitalized with a life-threatening illness, my boss will decide there is an emergency that I have to handle overtime, etc.! This happens will such frequency, that it’s almost predictable, every time I start really buckling down on what I need to do to accomplish my goal. Then when I thoroughly demoralized, and lying around unmotivated, everything else in my life seems to calm down, and I’m just left wondering how to pick myself up again.”

This is an awesome question, because it’s so true to life. Things happen to all of us … but the real determination is how do we deal with them. Do we get discouraged and give up, or do we figure out a way around and keep going?

Here’s the thing: the path to every goal is littered with obstacles. You must, must, must, absolutely must anticipate that you will run into obstacles … figure out ways around them … and keep going.

Here’s how to do that:

1. Anticipate, anticipate. Think ahead. What obstacles do you see on the horizon? What obstacles have you run into in the past? What will change your routine? Weekends are a mini-obstacle that often seem to derail people trying to create a habit. But there are other changes in routines … holidays, summer, big events, changes at work, birthdays … these are often things you can anticipate and plan for. When you see something coming up on the horizon that might derail you, plan for it. Make it a part of your plan.

An example: I’ve been trying to learn to eat under my new meal plan … and I knew that a birthday party was coming up. Well, I anticipated it, learned the restaurant, researched the menu, and incorporated it into my plan. But on another occasion, I just anticipated the family event and allowed it to be one of my two cheat meals for the week. You have to be able to let up a little if you want to stick to it for the long term.

2. Find the path. When you see an obstacle, are you just going to give up? I hope not. An obstacle is just something we have to get around, or over … it’s not a reason to quit. So instead of quitting, ask yourself: how do I get around this obstacle? There’s always a solution, if you’re creative enough.

Sometimes there isn’t just one path. And it can be hard to decide which solution to choose. But don’t fret: choose one path, and see if it works. If it doesn’t, try another. Life is an experiment.

3. Two steps forward, one step back. You will face some setbacks every now and then. That’s a part of achieving any goal worth achieving — if it were too easy, it’s not a worthy goal.

But instead of seeing the setback as something discouraging, just accept it as a part of the journey. “Two steps forward, one step back,” is what I always tell myself … and it’s a realization that even with setbacks, I’m still making forward progress over the long run.

For example, I’ve had some setbacks when it comes to my exercise habit. I often seem to get sick after a few weeks of continuous exercise. But though illness has set me back a few times, I’ve now learned to see it as a welcome break, allowing my body to recover. Think of it as a time out … you’re allowed to rest when you’re sick, and when you get better, you’ll be recharged and ready to start again.

4. If you fall, get up, and learn from it. All of us fail, from time to time. No one is successful all the time. But instead of letting failure stop us completely, you just need to get up and dust yourself off … and this part is important: learn from your experience. When you fail, ask yourself: why did I fail? What stopped me? What obstacles got in my way? And how can I get around them next time it happens (and yes, it will happen again). And plan for next time.

An example: When I was quitting smoking, I had several failures. But each time, I asked myself what I did wrong. What derailed me? And I incorporated those obstacles into my plan. The common obstacles that led to a relapse in my smoking included stressful events, going out and drinking (and smoking) with friends, and stressful family events. Eventually, I succeeded … but I wouldn’t have done so if I just kept letting the same obstacles derail me.

5. Find new motivation. Sometimes a setback will leave us not only derailed, but demotivated. So the real problem is finding the motivation to start again. So, it helps to get back to the basics: what made you want to start in the first place? What was your reason for change? What motivated you? Thinking about that, and the benefits it will have in your life, and the way things will be once you’ve accomplished the goal, can help motivate you.

But I also recommend adding additional motivators, to help jump start you. Read this article about motivation, and these articles for more.

6. Go with the flow. Change is good. Change is a part of life. We might like our routines, but there will always be something that comes along to disrupt them. Accept that, embrace it, and learn to flow with it. If we become too rigid, we will break in the face of the pressures of life. But if we learn to accommodate those changes that life throws at us, and still head towards our goal, we’ll be happier and we’ll get to where we want to be.

Be willing to be flexible. Change comes at you … don’t despair, or get frustrated … take that change and make it a part of your plan.

Life will throw us curveballs. With practice, we can learn to hit them out of the park.