6 ways to keep yourself from getting sidetracked

This post is Step 10 of Unstuck’s 30-Day Habit Builder. Please find all the content here. You can also sign up for the free email program here


Anyone who has worked hard to change themselves knows that there’s a big difference between setting goals and achieving them. Situations arise that derail your progress. You get busy and overwhelmed. Life happens.

Sometimes small setbacks can spiral into self-sabotage: Sneaking one cookie leads to eating the entire plate. Taking a week off of the gym becomes six months without exercise. Before you know it, you’re sidetracked from the goals and good habits you aimed for. Truth be told, we all fall victim to this “what the hell effect” every once and awhile.

In order to truly create positive change that sticks, you have to harness your determination, even in the face of the occasional setbacks. You don’t need superhuman willpower to stay the course. The most successful people learn to use getting sidetracked as an opportunity to reset and refine their approach. So let’s get to it!

6 ways to keep the setbacks at bay

Whether you slipped up, got overwhelmed, or simply lost steam en route to habit change, here are six ways to maintain perspective and move forward:

1. Remember why you started. When you feel your momentum dwindling, orient back to your purpose. Why did you want to make a change in the first place? Connect to the core values underlying your goal.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, maybe it’s because you want to run and play with your kids. Perhaps you want to pursue a new career path so that you have more freedom in life. Reminding yourself what’s driving you toward your goal will help your reignite motivation. 

2. Jump back in, wherever you are. Developing good habits takes persistence and perseverance. Inertia will halt your progress if you let it, so dive back into your routine as soon as possible. Give someone permission to hold you accountable to the schedule you set up for yourself, whether that’s getting to the gym once a week or writing for 15 minutes a day. 

3. Make a plan for the future. The better you can plan for potential pitfalls and setbacks, the easier you can overcome them. Anticipate possible challenges that might arise and potentially derail you from your goal. Then create a plan to deal with those triggers.

For example, if you know you’ll be tempted to indulge when going out to dinner, look at the menu earlier in the day. Choose what you’ll order in advance, when you’re in a positive frame of mind (and not ravenously hungry). 

4. Say ‘no’ to time sucks. The average person has over a dozen personal projects going on at once. Hello overwhelm! Can you relate?

To stay focused, keep the endless distractions out there from eating away at your time and attention. Eliminate or limit the obvious time-wasters like TV and social media, especially while you are in the middle of working toward a big goal. Try setting specific times when you’ll check email to create more boundaries. It’s also import to avoid wasting precious attention on trivial, unimportant matters and be mindful to limit time with energy-draining, negative people.

5. Recommit to your goal in writing. The physical act of putting pen to paper has a powerful effect on your ability to follow-through.

People who write down their goals are 42 percent more likely to achieve their dreams than those who don’t. Visual reminders can also be motivating. It doesn’t have to be anything grand. (I keep a note on my computer with a smiley face to inspire me to stay positive even on stressful days.) 

6. Focus on progress, not perfection. If you’re getting sidetracked, it could be because your goal is too big or too vague. When there’s uncertainty, it’s easy for missteps to arise.

If you feel overwhelmed, try designing weekly or monthly mini-milestones to aim for, breaking down what might be a gigantic life change into a series of steps. Each day pick one essential task to accomplish that helps move you forward. Slow, consistent progress is much better than taking on too much and giving up quickly.   

And if you do get distracted, don’t worry. See it as an opportunity to strengthen your resilience. You’re getting better at rolling with the unpredictability of life each and every day. And that is the most valuable confidence builder of all.


Melody Wilding

Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others. 


Top image by Unstuck artist-in-residence Bridgette Zou 

(This Feels Nice Series, 2017, © Bridgette Zou)

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