Home » Learning to Fail in Order to Succeed in Changing Behaviour (Part 2)

Learning to Fail in Order to Succeed in Changing Behaviour (Part 2)

There’s a saying that goes: Failing to plan, is planning to fail. It’s a neat catch-phrase meant to emphasize the importance of planning. Planning definitely is important but we should also be planning to fail. This doesn’t mean we have to be defeatist or negative but rather recognizing that failure is a part of, and present, in almost anything we do. If we don’t accept that, we may put unrealistic expectations on ourselves or avoid taking risks that mind end up in failure, and a fear of failure can impede our success.


Planning for Failure

Failure is such a common part of changing or starting a new behaviour that it’s included in the Stages of Change. The Stages of Change recognizes failure as part of the process and refers to it as relapse. Relapse is a far more positive expression than failure because its definition includes improvement (you can’t relapse if you haven’t changed). It refers to the person who has started something like exercising and then stops or suffers a temporary set-back.

Looking at previous changes, both successes and failures can help when planning. If you’re starting a new nutrition plan, have you had experience with changing your eating habits before? What can you learn from that? Even changes that have nothing to do with what you are planning to do now can help. Perhaps you had a goal of saving for a big vacation. What helped you succeed at that goal that you can apply to your new behaviour change? Was it discipline, outlook, resources or knowledge?

snakes and ladders

For many of us, undergoing a lifestyle change, like exercising or changing our diet, is a huge challenge and we often don’t move in a straight line to achieving our goals (see Goal Setting here). We might move forward and then move backward before moving forward again. It might take several attempts before long-term change occurs; it can take smokers more than a dozen times at attempting to quit before long-term success is achieved.

We can also try to anticipate situations that may be high-risk for failure or relapse. It could be any number of things that may lead to relapse. It could be short and temporary, like going on holiday; once you return, you’re back to your normal routine. Other times it may be more a part of your regular life. The person quitting smoking who hangs out with friends that smoke may be tempted to smoke during those times. A new diet routine can be interrupted by going out to a party or wedding. How will you handle these situations? Avoid them altogether or have a plan to deal with them, or accept them as temporary setbacks and move forward?

No matter how much we plan, however, we’re unlikely to anticipate every situation that may lead to relapse. It’s especially hard to prepare and plan for major life situations that have nothing to do with our behaviour change. A patient I worked with who was smoke-free for three years started smoking again after his wife died to help him deal with the loss. Another patient got a new job, for which he was truly happy to have, but it had a negative impact of his eating and exercise, and it took him a few months to build up a new routine.

When You do Fail, Try to Learn From it

Even if we at first don’t succeed, failing isn’t a waste of time and energy. We can draw from previous failures to learn from what worked and didn’t. When a relapse occurs, take stock. Don’t beat yourself up over it as that is never helpful. Figure out where you are. Are you interested in trying again?

In the Stages of Change, a relapse doesn’t mean moving backward just one stage. In fact, a person can move from the maintenance stage all the way back to precontemplation (as the patient above who started smoking again- he wasn’t ready to quit). This reflects the notion that with any major change in life, we need to embrace failure as part of the process, not a sign of personal inadequacies.

Any planning you did before making your behaviour change, like in the preparation stage, may help in dealing with relapse, but sometimes it may require a new set of plans. What can help is to focus on what made you successful the first time and use that as the foundation to succeed again. What was the source or trigger of the relapse? Is it something that can be addressed or does it present a challenge in a way you need to re-evaluate your approach.


Failures can also help build resilience allowing us to trying again, and trying in a different way the next time. I’ve had my research papers rejected so many times I almost expect it, but I keep on trying hoping they get accepted on the first go all the while planning what to do if they don’t.

And remember, making a lifestyle change isn’t easy. If you are looking to change your diet, begin exercising, quit smoking, or something else, it is likely something want you do for the rest of your life. Over the course of years or decades, having a setback or two is not a big deal and is part of the process.

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2 responses to “Learning to Fail in Order to Succeed in Changing Behaviour (Part 2)”

  1. So true, in every little aspect of our lifes!

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