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Overcoming Failure Mentality: Why Small Steps Are the Key to Lifestyle Change

The desire to improve ourselves and become happier in our lives is something the majority of us experience. We’re always promising ourselves that tomorrow is the day that we’re going to start eating better, exercising more, getting organized and working harder. It’s a perpetual to-do list which states that as soon as we get our act together and transform our habits, our lives will be changed.

Unfortunately, it’s also this very attitude that ensures we never actually do it. We make New Year’s Resolutions each year, and more often than not they are the same commitments, made again and again. The mantra of “I’ve ruined this week, I’ll start again on Monday” keeps us eating badly, not exercising, retaining bad habits like smoking, and leaving our projects unfinished.

But why is this? The usual explanation is that we are too lazy, self-indulgent and short-sighted to do what’s good for us. But most people work incredibly hard, balancing their work commitments with hobbies, families, partners and plenty of life events. In this context, any kind of lifestyle change is going to be hugely challenging — especially when you consider that people are trying to break life-long (and possibly even neuroplastically embedded) behavioral patterns.

The issue with willpower

The pervasive myth that if we just exercised our willpower we could transform our lives overnight is something that hinders any real personal development. The idea that all this change would be easy if we were only able to apply ourselves adds a layer of guilt each time we fall back into our old ways. We feel like we’ve failed, and can really beat ourselves up for it — often perpetuating the cycle of bad (but comforting) habits, and the renewed, yet soon to be broken resolutions.

When people come to my meditation centre, they are hoping to start a new habit that will have a ripple effect in their lives – and they have often tried countless different tactics to change beforehand. They may be experiencing anything from habitual overwork, to difficulty sleeping, to digestive problems, and believe lifestyle change will make them feel better — but have yet to find anything that sticks.

This is why I encourage small, consistent changes, and finding ways to fit the new daily habit of meditation as seamlessly as possible into their current routine. By teaching a technique that requires no uncomfortable positions, and can be practiced anywhere — from the commute to sitting in the bath — the aim is to reduce the amount of willpower people need to practice. And I believe this low-effort approach can apply across various commitments.

How to overcome failure mentality

Don’t over-commit.

There’s a reason why gyms tend to be full to the rafters in January, and progressively quieter as the year heads towards March. People decide that now is the time that they are going to get fit, and join a gym with sincere intentions to go four times a week — as well as giving up drinking and embarking on a sugar detox. For the vast majority of us, this all-or-nothing approach is a sure-fire way to make sure nothing actually changes.

It’s easier to take a look at our lives and decide where we can most easily fit in a bit of exercise, rather than deciding to go all-out straight away, and lessen some of the expectation on ourselves. For example, you could try going for a 15 minute walk on your lunch break at work, or doing two minutes of skipping while dinner is in the oven. Or, if you are giving up smoking, simply don’t worry about your diet for the first few weeks you spend smoke-free.

It doesn’t sound like much, but even the smallest action can be a positive — and most importantly, more achievable — step in the right direction.

Make it easier to apply discipline.

It takes discipline to do something we’d rather not do, so anything that makes it easier to apply this discipline will help. If you have decided to go walking everyday, try to make the destination pleasant, so you are more inclined to head out of the door. Alternatively, if you’re going on a diet, don’t do anything too drastic like completely give up carbs. Instead, try to reduce your portions of the calorific stuff, and bulk up meals you already enjoy with more vegetables.

Focus on a keystone habit.

Sometimes, one simple change in your life can snowball into the complete overhaul that so many people are striving for. Perhaps it will start with a trip to a climbing wall, once a week. If you find you enjoy this exercise, you might decide to improve your diet, as being lighter makes climbing easier. Then, you may want to take up meditation to improve your problem-solving skills and push your improvement in climbing further. After this, you could find yourself heading outdoors and spending more time in nature, to find exciting climbs outside.

With this one commitment, in a couple of years time you may find yourself happier, healthier and less stressed: leading the life you aspired to, but that no amount of gym memberships could make happen. And it could be anything that you find you enjoy, from yoga to drawing everyday. Enthusiasm for the habit could be all you need to make the comprehensive lifestyle change that seemed so difficult before.

Overcoming Failure Mentality: Why Small Steps Are the Key to Lifestyle Change

Will Williams

Will Williams is a highly-trained meditation teacher, who is particularly interested in what effect the unique pressures of the modern world have on people’s stress levels and mental health. He founded Beeja meditation and his first book, The Effortless Mind, collates scientific research and experiences of his students to explore the benefits of meditation in the modern world.

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APA Reference
Williams, W. (2018). Overcoming Failure Mentality: Why Small Steps Are the Key to Lifestyle Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Dec 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.