My failures are improving

I’m noticing significant changes in my perspectives and patterns – I am thriving more consistently than I ever have in the past. I am still failing often, but those failures are becoming easier to recover from, easier to manage, and of greater value as I pay more attention to them.

What do I call failure? I’m pretty hard on myself, so there is a lot I call ‘failure’ that many people might not. It’s not about wanting to be a perfectionist by any means, but it is about being consistently happy. And I don’t mean massive happiness, but contentment -feeling at peace, feeling connected, feeling like you are of value and are loved, feeling accomplished, etc. Whatever it might be for an individual or for that moment, but to feel good.

My personal ‘failures’ are when I’m not in that space of feeling good, and I’m doing things that undermine feeling good in the near future. I’m a jerk to others, I am a jerk to myself, I shut down and retreat, become antisocial, depressed, start to binge or worse. It can get ugly. There are, of course, big failures and small failures, but in my mind, they all feel really shitty.

In the past even a small failure – something as simple as not exercising one day, when it was on my to-do list – can snowball and result in a dismal personal state. I am wicked hard on myself, but that’s not something I can easily turn off.

That’s where systems thinking has become so important to me – coming to understand connections and network effects, and non-reductionist thinking. For any ‘bad behavior’ there are a number of drivers and causes, and a number of approaches to modify the system that results in that behavior. For example, it’s not just missing exercise one afternoon that causes a depressed state. Other things may have caused it, and not exercising might be a consequence, not a cause. On the other hand, exercise is so fundamental for the ‘me’ system to feel good, that missing it one day can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The main point is that taking the lens that you should simply ‘stop’ a bad behavior is the complete bass-ackward approach to take. Making the decision to stop and telling yourself to stop is an important step, but it is never that simple. Pretending otherwise sets you up for failure. To say ‘just quit smoking’, or ‘just start exercising’, or ‘just stop snacking after 7’ by itself doesn’t work. For success, there are big and small system changes you need to make before and during. And for real success, those changes are unique to every individual and their situation – they need to be discovered with experimentation.

For example, recent system changes I’ve made – small things, but that impact bigger systems – and that I continue to experiment with:

  1. Gradual diet changes – reducing sugar and gluten intake, drinking more water, eating more protein and fat.
  2. Creative exercise routines – mixing and matching different exercises, for different opportunities and moods, making it easier to be physically active in some way, every day
  3. Nurturing rituals – starting simple, and modifying to where it fits me, not a ritual that someone else is doing for themselves. Rituals in the morning help me get out of bed and into a better mood very quickly, and set me up for a better day. I am working on an evening ritual that promotes healthy sleeping and not late night snacking.
  4. Casual art – this has been huge, finding a comfortable path toward more creative, artistic behaviors and mindsets, flexing that muscle that taps into a deeper creative energy that has been dormant for too long. This has been tough, but very rewarding
  5. Pacing – creating buffers, allowing more time, being thoughtful of what I’m doing when, how different tasks cost energy or add energy, and being thoughtful of how I combine or stagger them can improve the system as a whole; listening to my body, hearing what it needs
  6. Defining goals and priorities – this, too, is a work in progress…but it adds important focus.

These are all just examples, but together, they are making a big difference.  I am thriving more, aching less. I am happy and content more often than battling depression.

The ‘failures’ are happening less often, and I am able to recover more quickly because I am building resilience and creating more ‘rescue’ tools through rituals and new habits and opportunities.

More importantly, I am actively learning from them. Failures used to be just that – failure, and validation that I truly do suck, and just seem to be pretty good at hiding that fact from everyone. Now, failures are becoming signals. They are clear announcements that something isn’t right and I should take a closer look. I can backtrack from failures and look at patterns, discover new connections and understand more deeply how I tick and what I need. Failures allow for that deeper understanding and this informs changes I can make to allow myself to thrive more deeply.

So now I work towards several goals:

  1. Set myself up to thrive more, fail less.
  2. Build up resilience and capabilities so when there is failure, it’s easier to bounce back.
  3. Practice awareness around failure to learn more (to support 1 and 2)
  4. Nurture the sensitivity to feel the ‘failure’ signals sooner

One of my hobbies is martial arts and MMA (for fun). With practice, I am learning to read the signals from my opponent and anticipate punches sooner. The better I get at this, the more I can ‘see’ into the future. That’s what I’d like to do with the failure signal – become more aware and more sensitive to my feelings, thoughts, and actions, so that I can sense my ‘crash’ sooner, and learn and act accordingly to adjust course.

Works in progress. For now, my failures are improving, and that makes me happy.


Setting up for success – Goal setting

In the realm of health and weight loss one of my biggest problem areas is night team snacking…which can very quickly evolve into night time binging. ‘Simple’ solution – just don’t eat after 7 pm.

I’ve tried that and can go about a week with noticeable results, but too soon I fail…and fail…and fail again. If this were an experiment, which, really, it is, I’d conclude there was something wrong with the proposed intervention.

That’s why this idea of mental energy fascinated me and the implications of the studies showing low mental energy undermines willpower and smart decision making. It gave me this idea that rather than focus all the attention on the singular event of eating after 7, what could I do to set myself up for success so I’d be less likely to oversnack during that time?

There is a ‘simple’ approach to this as well – look at the drivers, the causes that make you snack or overeat late in the evening and remove them. Most directly – remove the food. E.g. throw out tempting food, don’t go in the kitchen after 7, find a path from living room to bedroom that doesn’t go through the kitchen. A couple of flaws with this – you need to eat and avoiding all food is just plain cumbersome and complicated. But, for some, this could work. It didn’t for me.

Plan B – understand the subconscious reasons behind late snacking; your subconscious is ridiculously powerful and drives most of what you think and do, even if we do like to pretend we have control of it. We are actually better off listening to it, and collaborating, than trying to push it under – but that’s a conversation for another day.

In all likelihood, the underlying cause is some form of stress – either from work, from self, from relationships, etc.; there are many layers there. This, too, is very important and doing this can solve the bigger problem for many. Again, not me. It helped – but didn’t resolve things completely.

I’m on to Plan C – what if I tackle this as a challenging, complex problem, and approach it how I might approach a more complex project or problem at work? In other words, rather than thinking a simple solution might work, and all I have to do is implement it, what if I recognize it’s not that simple and I might need several steps to get there. What if I treat it as a bigger problem that could be managed more effectively if I break it down into smaller, manageable steps?

Luckily, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel – I can use existing frameworks, ones often used for possibly the most common complex problem millions of people struggle with, namely implementing and maintaining a new health plan, including diet and fitness.

This is when I happened to come across Dr. Mercola’s Guide to Optimal Fitness. He includes a section in his magazine (Spring, 2016) on exactly this topic – how to set yourself up for success – and the steps he lists could effectively be applied to any complex challenge.

I’m modifying it slightly for my personal experiment. Here are the steps I will take and why:

  1. Develop the DESIRE – “Our actions are usually based on fear or desire.” Focus on and build on the desire; depending on fear will lead to failure.
  2. Believe you can succeed – This is both a mindset, but also requires thoughtful consideration of the goal and the steps.
  3. Write down the goals, in 2 forms: (1) one form in a lot of detail, something to read for added visceral motivation and (2) one form short, one sentence, that can become your mantra
  4. Make a list of all the benefits of achieving the goal and “Get Emotional” – get at the WHY, not the WHAT. This will pump up that desire component and that belief component.
  5. Analyze your starting point – and be honest. What is the current situation and what are the components that come together to cause or promote the undesired behavior, or prevent the desired behaviors?
  6. Set a deadline
  7. Make a list of the people who’s support an cooperation you need.
  8. Write out a plan with the specific steps – both what and when.
  9. Use visualization.
  10. Make the decision in advance that you will never give up.
  11. Keep going – recognize it’s a journey, and little failures along the way are signals on how to refine and correct.

Next step – map this out for myself….coming soon.