PLANNING FOR OBSTACLES + FAILURES
We’ve all been there – excitedly launching into a new goal. Everything is going well at first, and then you encounter an obstacle and hit a standstill. Anticipating and planning for obstacles ensures that when you do run into the inevitable challenges on your way to your goal, you are ready to push through and continue your progress.
There are two main types of obstacles, INTERNAL and EXTERNAL.
INTERNAL obstacles can take many forms but a few tend to come up repeatedly:
Challenges with IDENTITY
Challenges with MOMENTUM
Challenges with DISCIPLINE
By contrast, EXTERNAL obstacles are harder to categorize. Sometimes we run into limits on time or money, sometimes genuine emergencies demand our attention, sometimes we get injured, sometimes a worldwide pandemic hits. In all these cases, something urgent is getting in the way of something important.
I had a friend who was trying to establish a meditation practice. He had noticed that he was a better version of himself after he meditated and so he determined to make mindfulness a daily habit. All of the pieces were in place. He had a clear goal, a set timeframe, a program he was ready to follow, and for accountability he had told his wife about his intent – he was going to wake up and meditate for 10 minutes first thing in the morning.
Almost immediately he encountered two obstacles. The first challenge was their youngest child whose morning wake-up time was pretty variable. As soon as the child was awake, my friend felt like he needed to jump straight into running the morning routine with his son. The second challenge was my friend’s own habits. He liked to start his day by looking at his email in bed, and depending on the morning, that project might eat up all his time before the kids were awake. The first obstacle was external, the second internal.
Dealing with the external challenge, he had a few options:
ASK FOR HELP – My friend had shared his goal but never explicitly asked his wife if she would be willing to manage their kids until his meditation was complete. Explicitly assigning household duties could create the space he needed to establish his routine.
Asking for help is a surprisingly powerful tool in managing obstacles. For my friend it seemed like an obvious option, but my experience is that asking for help works more often that you would expect, regardless of the situation. So many times we have the sense that we must be able to independently manage everything, but sharing your hopes and challenges with someone who can help you work through them is usually the clearest path to success, and deepens your experience of community and joy. Trust that the people who care about you also want to see you succeed!
REFRAME SUCCESS – Sure, the best-case scenario was a silent 10 minutes to meditate. But could 5 minutes be adequate? Could he do a two-minute practice in his car between dropping his son off at school and going into work? Could he take the dog for the morning walk and do a moving meditation? Could he meditate before returning home?
Or more – what if he didn’t need to meditate every single day to see improvement? What if four days a week was sufficient? Introducing flexibility into his definition of success could help him progress toward his goal even when the practice wasn’t exactly as he originally envisioned.
CHANGE EXPECTATIONS – My friend was stuck on the idea that his son needed attention from the moment he woke. What if the kid could actually be ok on his own for 10 minutes? Sometimes our obstacles vanish when we ask the question – is this real?
CHANGE HABITS – Getting up earlier and/or not reading email first thing is an internal change to respond to external forces. If your obstacle is something that you can simply avoid by making a change yourself, that is invariably the simplest solution!
RESCHEDULE OR REFRAME THE GOAL – If he was unwilling to do any of the above, could he reschedule the start of this goal to the summer when morning routines were more chill? Alternatively, studies have shown that meditation retreats can be as effective as daily practices, my friend could consider changing the goal to doing a retreat instead of a daily practice.
DEALING WITH FAILURE
Everyone fails. It never feels good. Just remember when you do fail, you are not uniquely terrible. Some thoughts on failure:
YOU LEARNED SOMETHING – Success is a shitty teacher. Figure out what went wrong. The time you spent working toward your goal is still valuable. Reflect on that time and what you learned and next time might be better.
YOU SLIPPED UP AND DECIDED THAT WAS FAILURE – Let go of needing to be on a straight trajectory toward your goal. Everyone is going to have some crappy days. Look at your overall direction instead of your occasional mistakes.
YOU GAVE UP – Yeah, we’ve all given up. Maybe you had a good reason, maybe not. Giving up once, or 20 times, doesn’t prevent you from trying again. Your past self doesn’t define your future self.
YOU ENCOUNTERED A TRULY IMMOVABLE OBSTACLE – Yeah, sometimes shit happens. Lean on your community, be there for others, pick up when you can.
Thinking through obstacles and failures is absolutely not the most fun part of the goal-setting process. It has none of the excitement and energy of the dreaming phase, nor the promise of the research and scheduling piece. Nonetheless, mentally working through all the many ways your plans can fail works like in immunization, protecting you from giving up when things get tough. To learn more about internal obstacles and how to manage them, read through the next three articles, Swallow the Toad, Keep Moving Forward, and Identity is Motivation.