The Essential Skill of Recovering Abandoned Goals

We like to believe that things will go as planned. We should know better.

One of the keys to accomplishing a goal is to focus everyday not on the goal itself, but on the routines and systems needed to reach the goal. Define a routine, and stick to it. Identify a cue and associate it with the routine. With time, an habit is established. The routine no longer implies effort, you just do it without much thinking every time the cue is present. If you are mindful, you enjoy the process1.

Now and then, something happens that throws you off balance. The usual cues –the signals that trigger your brain to effortlessly start your routines– may not be there anymore. Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, divides what he calls The Habit Loop in three components: Cue, Routine, and Reward. When something disrupts your balance, what is happening is that one of the elements of the habit loop is collapsing. Your routine is broken, and now your goals are at risk.

For example, a trip changes our environment, therefore the usual clues that helped you starting your routine are not there anymore. Maybe you lost motivation. Or, you have a new boss and need to adapt to her managing style.

Some things that can help you get back into the race:

  • You should ask why. Why I’m off balance? If you don’t, your fixes will be cosmetic. (This is specially important if lack of motivation is your main issue.)
  • Don’t get demoralized. Know yourself. Some people, in the face of failure, give to the temptation of throwing everything away. Don’t get tired of starting again2.
  • Remember that we are great at making excuses for ourselves. This doesn’t mean everything is your fault, but beware of thinking someone else is to blame for our lack of consistency.
  • Restart small. Choose some part of your routine that gives you great satisfaction, or you consider easy to do.
  • Get up as fast as possible. If you missed running one week because you got the flu, don’t wait another week to start training again.

If you had been working for some time and your routines stuck, then it will require you less effort. Your attention should be focused on protecting your cue. Were you just beginning to implement your routines? It will take some effort on your part, because you have not acquired the habits. Again, start small.

Don’t be naive, something happens eventually. Therefore, as important as the skill of building habits is the skill to recover fast when you go off track.

  1. I love one of ideals of fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson’s Knight Radiants in his Stormlight Archives novels: “Journey before Destination”. 

  2. To quote Carol Dweck’s great book Mindset, quitting because things didn’t fold out as expected is one of the symptoms of a fixed mindset. People with fixed mindset believe, consciously or not, that they are not able to improve, learn new things, or adapt to new situations. They believe they were genetically gifted with their skills. 

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