A Bad Day is Good Data
So it’s the first of the year and many of you have set intentions, goals, and even resolutions for lifestyle changes. Big or small, it takes work and conscious effort. And sometimes we make mistakes. But mistakes aren’t failures! How you handle them and move on makes all the difference. Bad days can produce good data! It doesn’t matter whether your goal is healthy eating, zero waste, fitness, or any other change, here’s how to get past a slip-up, brush yourself off, and keep going in a positive direction.
I haven’t failed—I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
It’s important to recognize that we are not going to be perfect, that we are going to make mistakes. And understand, I have been a HUGE self-perfectionist my whole life, so I completely get how difficult it is to recover from mistakes. I hate screwing up, but errors are a sign you are trying, growing, and a signal to pause and figure out what went wrong. There is a business approach called Kaizen, from the Japanese word meaning “change for better.” In Kaizen, mistakes are little gifts, signals for examination and change for improvement. Our slip on our way to a goal is a gift, a sign we have an area to spend a little work on in order to reach success.
An Examined Life
Socrates talked about living an examined life. Now he focused in terms of morality and virtuousness, but the same holds true for self-improvement and habit change. Self-examination is critical when changing behaviors. For example, when we worked to reduce our garbage and recycling, we did a monthly assessment on our trash, and it made all the difference for us (see What’s in Your Garbage). It’s not punitive, it’s information you need for success! You get what you inspect, not just what you expect or desire to get. Examining your progress, even just going over your day, can cue you in on areas to work on. Mistakes, missteps, and break-downs are great cues!
Avoid the What the Hell Effect
What we want to avoid is something known as the What the Hell Effect. This is essentially throwing up our arms when we make a mistake and then intentionally repeating or overindulging in the mistake because, what the hell, I already blew it, I guess it doesn’t matter now. It’s the phenomenon where we go off our eating plan by eating something we were trying to avoid and then finishing the whole package because, what the hell. Or missing a workout one day and then not working out the rest of the week because what the hell, we already blew our training plan.
So how do you recover from a mistake and move on?
Do a Post-Mortem
Become an investigative scientist! Now’s the time to figure out what went wrong and what you can do better next time you’re faced with similar circumstances. In the fire service, we did an After Action Review after every critical event, whether mistakes happened or not, because it provides excellent insight for future success. Howard Jacobson of WellStart Health, calls this process a Post-Mortem, and it’s great for examining and overcoming hiccups in our path toward behavior change.
There are seven steps in the Post-Mortem:
- Remove the Shame
- Do an Instant Replay
- What Was the Critical Moment?
- Identity Your Personal Contribution
- Brainstorm Other Choices
- Rewrite the Scene
- Make a Plan for Future Success
Remove the Shame
First and foremost, stop the hurtful story talk. Negative self-talk can be very destructive. It feels like discouragement and it’s a signal to catch yourself and investigate. Shameful self-talk often just comes in phrases:
- I’m a failure.
- This is too hard.
- They were right, I can’t do this.
- I guess I’m just going to be fill in the blank forever.
They feel true at the time, but they’re just feelings, not who you are. Don’t beat yourself up, resist feeling ashamed. Dust yourself off and move through the next steps to examine what happened, make necessary changes, and move on.
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
My dad used to tell me, “It’s water off a duck’s back,” meaning, just let it roll off, don’t dwell on it. Figure out what happened, how to change it, and keep going. This does not define you.
Do an Instant Replay
Be a Scientist! Go over the details and figure out what occurred. This is not an examination of what caused the issue, but an objective review of what actually happened. It’s like the instant replay in an NFL football game.
Close your eyes and objectively visualize the scene. Imagine what a fly on the wall saw.
What Was the Critical Moment?
After you’ve replayed the scene, identify where things went astray, that critical moment where you decided to go one way instead of another.
Maybe it was:
- I ran out of the house without my to-go bag with my zero waste container, reusable coffee cup, and silverware.
- The alarm went off for my morning workout and I hit snooze.
- It was a work event and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by asking for plant-based options.
- I grabbed a cookie in the break room.
Have you seen the movie, Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow? Her critical moment was whether she made the train or not. It made all the difference. This is the moment we are looking for here.
Identity Your Personal Contribution
You’ve done the objective visualization and identified a critical moment, now consider how your emotions, actions, physical condition, and thoughts contributed to the situation.
- Emotions: What was I feeling at that time?
- Actions: What was I doing?
- Physical Sensations: What did I physically feel (hunger, cold, tired, etc.)?
- Thoughts: What I thinking at the moment?
How did these contribute to your decision? What one thing could you change to have a different outcome?
For example: I was stressed and feeling rushed, at the grocery store surrounded by food and hungry because I hadn’t paid attention to the time when I ran out the door. I thought I really wanted to eat something right now and didn’t think I could wait until I got home.
Brainstorm Other Choices
Now that you have objective and subjective data, brainstorm other choices. Don’t limit yourself, let the ideas flow, even if they seem silly and irrational!
In the example of oversleeping and missing a workout:
- Move the alarm away from my bed so I have to get up to shut it off. This way I’m up and out of bed, not likely to go back to sleep.
- Sleep in my workout clothes.
- Go to bed earlier so I’m not so tired in the morning.
- Schedule my workout at 10 AM instead of 4 AM.
Sometimes you’ll discover different critical moments during this phase other than the ones you came up initially. For example, perhaps the alarm isn’t the issue, sleeping patterns are the critical issue. This is ok, actually, it’s great! Go back to the previous step and identify your personal contribution to this newly discovered critical issue so you can work on that.
Rewrite the Scene
Now, given everything you’ve done, use this data to rewrite the scene with the outcome you want. Visualize those critical moments, imagine the physical sensations and emotions, and watch yourself making your preferred decision and happy ending.
Make a Plan for Future Success
Now turn this vision into a plan. Codify how to avoid making this mistake in the future. Write it down if that’s helpful. For example:
- When I’m invited to a party, I will bring a whole food, plant-based item to share so I know I have something I can eat.
- If there are cookies in the break room, I’ll go outside and sit on the bench in the sunshine to eat my afternoon snack.
- When I wake up too tired to do my workout at 4 AM, I will reschedule my workout for later in the day and adjust my schedule to make sure I get it done.
- I will keep a zero waste to-go kit in both of our cars so whenever we’re out I have containers and utensils to get food without creating waste.
Bad Day = Good Data
Make progress, not perfection. You have all of the information to turn a bad day into a great future! You are human. You’re going to make mistakes now and again. I make mistakes now and again. How you handle them makes all the difference.
I hope the Post-Mortem technique is helpful for you. It’s a great tool to turn a bad day into good data!
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Cindy wants you to be Trimazing—three times better than amazing! After improving her health and fitness through plant-based nutrition, losing 60 pounds and becoming an adult-onset athlete, she retired from her 20-year firefighting career to help people just like you. She works with people and organizations so they can reach their health and wellness goals.
Cindy Thompson is a national board-certified Health and Wellness Coach, Lifestyle Medicine Coach, Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Behavior Change Specialist, and Fit2Thrive Firefighter Peer Fitness Trainer. She is a Food for Life Instructor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Rouxbe Plant-Based Professional, and Harvard Medical School Culinary Coach, teaching people how to prepare delicious, satisfying, and health-promoting meals.
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