You've set yourself a goal. It may be to finish a report, proposal, or blog post. It may be to go to the gym every morning, or stick to healthy eating, or avoid losing your temper. Whatever that goal was, you've screwed up. You've fallen into the old, lazy, counterproductive behavior that you know is undermining your health, success, and happiness. What do you do next?
The answer to that question is what sets successful people apart from everyone else, says clinical hypnotherapist and holistic coach Maria Rippo. "I'm such a perfectionist that if I got off track, I would think, 'Oh my God, I'm off track! I messed it all up. Why try?'" she says. Does that sound familiar to you? It does to me. Unfortunately, it's the kind of thinking that turns missing a goal in the short term into long-term failure.
Rippo started to change her thought patterns after she learned about piloting an airplane: setting a course for your destination is the easiest part of the job. Most of the work is in returning to that course after you've strayed away. Success in most other areas works the same way, she says. "I learned that the most successful people spend 90 percent of their time course-correcting. Getting off track is normal."
If getting off track is normal, how do you get yourself back on track again? Here's Rippo's advice:
1. Stop expecting yourself to be perfect.
This suggestion really hits home with me. On any given day, I expect myself to make progress on my blue-sky projects without falling behind on day-to-day ones, get some exercise, work on setting up and improving the home my husband and I just moved into, spend some time writing my blog, get to an event where I can network, and make a salad from scratch. The odds of my fulfilling all these expectations are zero. And yet I bet you have a similar to-do list of your own.
"Normalize the idea of getting off-track in your own mind," Rippo says. "It's the perfection of imperfection."
2. Notice without judging.
This one can be challenging because most of us are so accustomed to constantly judging ourselves and everyone around us that we're barely aware we're doing it. So, Rippo says, start by paying attention. If you're having judgmental thoughts, just stop and notice those thoughts.
"When you get off track, notice that you're off track and notice the judgments that you have," she says. "'Oh look, there are all those thoughts. Isn't that interesting?'"
3. Ask yourself what you can do right now.
After you've taken a moment to notice that you've missed your goal, and to notice how you're reacting, ask yourself what small action you can to improve matters right away.
"What is the next thing I can do to get back on track?" Rippo says. "Not 20 years from now, but right now. What can I do for five minutes that will help?" Set yourself a small task that you can do for just a few minutes, and chances are you'll do it.
4. Consider meditation.
Mindfulness meditation has well-known benefits for your heart, brain function, productivity, and mood. In addition to all that, it can help you cope better with getting off track, Rippo says. That's because the process of meditation is a repeating cycle of getting off track and gently bringing yourself back again without any self-scolding.
"It is non-judgmental awareness of what is happening," she explains. When she first began meditating, she adds, she worried that she spent all her time getting distracted and then bringing her focus back. Eventually, she realized that process is exactly what meditation is. "From the outside, it looks like I'm focusing on my breath the whole time like a good little spiritual person," she says. "On the inside, I'm getting off track, and coming back to my breath, over and over."
The key is to keep bringing yourself back over and over, without judging yourself or getting impatient or frustrated. That's a skill that can carry over to every aspect of our lives.