The art of failing well

the art of failing well image

Most of us start our journey of health with massive ambitions. You feel energized, motivated and ready to turn your diet on its head, or rather, on its feet. You clear all the crisps, sweets and treats from your cupboard, and fill your trolley with Wholefoods goodness. But two weeks in, and you’re binging on a tub of Ben & Jerry’s while watching a trashy film.

We all fail. But the failures don’t define your destination: it is what you do next. In the following paragraphs I would like to highlight the worst and best ways to respond to your inevitable failures, and how to use them to create sustainable changes in life.

Turn it into a lesson

“Today, you are just the Prototype-version of who you will be tomorrow.”

Isn’t this a fantastic motto? It reminds us that we are never quite ‘done’ with our growth and development. It reframes any situation from a disappointment into an opportunity for learning and improvement.

Society has made us obsessed with success vs. failure, winning vs. losing. This extreme mindset makes it hard to learn from our situation, and – ironically – makes it hard to succeed! If you beat yourself up every time you fail, you only become more fearful and despondent, and your risk of ultimate failure increases. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If, on the other hand, you view every day as an opportunity to learn, an experiment to fine-tune yourself, and an adventure, everything becomes useful! You turn both success and failure into an opportunity, by asking yourself: ‘What can I learn from this?’ and ‘How can I use this information in the future?’.

The curious mind has limitless potential.

Taking four steps away from the failure

We don’t stop learning when we leave our formal education. Our minds can be moulded day after day. As adults, this learning works in a cycle with 4 components:

1. Action

This is the physical action: You buy healthy food / You cook a healthy meal / You go to bed early / you phone your mother-in-law. Or, on the negative side: You binge-eat / You kick the dog / You arrive late for the meeting.

If your life is overly rushed, you can get stuck in this rut of ‘do-do-do’, with no headspace to make better decisions. You end up running through time like a hamster on a wheel, with very little control over where you end up.

2. Experience

It may seem as if this happens during the time of the ACTION, but not necessarily. Here’s an example: What did you eat last Tuesday evening? If you remember, do you recall what the first bite was that you took? And the last one? Do you remember which part of the meal was the best? Was it seasoned well? What time did you start eating, and what time did you finish? If you were with friends, can you recall your favourite moment in the conversation? What did they say about the food?

We cannot experience all of life – there is simply too much for the mind to pay attention to. We can, however, run the risk of experiencing too little, especially when we want to learn. I have had clients who don’t even remember what they ate for lunch, or what it tasted like. Which is no surprise, if your lunches consist of wolfing down a Pret sandwich while staring at your screen.

To experience life, we need to slow down, bring our attention to the present moment, and take in what is happening. This is one reason we ask clients to track their food, bowel habits and mood – so you can learn from your actions and experience.

3. Reflection

It is only if we are attentive to what we eat, who we eat with, what the food tastes like and how our bodies feel, that we can learn. The reflection-component of the learning cycle usually happens during your session with Steve, or myself. We ask you a bunch of questions about your last week: “What did you eat?” (ACTION), “How did you feel after that meal?” (EXPERIENCE), “How often did you prepare food?” (ACTION), “What prevented you from eating healthy?” (EXPERIENCE/ACTION).

If we stop to think about our lives, we can start noticing patterns, motivations, triggers and other factors that either limit us, or free us.

If we don’t stop, we can’t change, and our failures will simply repeat themselves.

One way to reflect on your failure, is to run through a set of questions. For example: in the case of binge-eating:

  1. What were the triggers / What set me off?
  2. What role did my emotions / stress play?
  3. What role did other people play?
  4. What are my strengths that I can use, to prevent this from happening again?
  5. What kind of support do I need to prevent this from happening again?
  6. How can I meet my needs in a healthier way?
  7. How can I better prepare for the next time I am tempted?
  8. What is the main lesson?

4. Plan

This is the last part of the learning cycle, and it is pretty straight forward:

  1. You didn’t take food to work, so your blood-sugar drops by lunch-time, and you eat a Doughnut. (ACTION).
  2. You feel sick, and guilty (EXPERIENCE).
  3. You get home and do your mindfulness meditation (ACTION). Then, you think about your day, how the food made you feel, or tell your wife about it (REFLECT).
  4. Tonight, you prepare an extra helping during dinner, so you can take that for lunch tomorrow (PLAN).

The next time you find yourself half-way through a box of cookies, don’t crucify yourself. Instead, take these 4 steps away from the failure, and turn it into your future success.

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