How to Manage Setbacks So You Stay Motivated

Have you ever given up on a health goal when you find yourself slipping back into old habits and routines? You’re not alone.

Creating new habits and routines takes time, especially when it comes to health. You’re changing your behaviors, beliefs, and mindset about your health and what that means for you. You’re faced with making new decisions multiple times a day to fit your new habits while unlearning less desired habits. At times, this process can feel exhausting and overwhelming. 

Lasting lifestyle change rarely happens all at once. Instead, it takes making a series of small steps that build on each other. You can achieve and maintain your health goals with a small changes approach

However, consistently making and maintaining these decisions and changes is hard. At some point, you’re likely going to slip-up. You’re going to order french fries instead of a side salad or head home from work to watch tv instead of exercising.

Slip-ups, setbacks, or relapses to former habits are common and part of the behavior change process. Yet, for some people, a setback or slip causes them to question whether they can change their behaviors and live a healthy lifestyle. One missed workout or eating food they meant to avoid can lead them to more missed workouts or not making healthy eating choices. Eventually, they give up and tell themselves they can’t live a healthy lifestyle.

This reaction doesn’t have to happen. You can learn to live a healthy lifestyle no matter how many slips or mistakes you make. You can turn those setbacks into opportunities to learn and grow, which can strengthen your ability to live a healthy lifestyle. 

5 Ways to Handle Slips and Setbacks, so You Stay Motivated

A slip or setback can be frustrating. You can feel like all your hard work and healthy choices no longer matter. However, the truth is that eating that slice of cake or missing some workouts doesn’t undo the positive changes you’ve made. 

How you view and respond to setbacks and slips can impact how well you deal with them. These five ways can help you manage slip-ups and setbacks, so you keep moving toward the healthy lifestyle you desire.

1. Acknowledge the Slip

The sooner you acknowledge and notice the slip, the faster you’ll be able to address it and determine what you’d like to do about it. Slips happen when we change our behaviors and habits. It’s a part of the process. However, if you try to ignore mistakes, it’s harder to move forward and get back on track. 

2. Learn From the Setback

Mistakes and setbacks are a signal that something isn’t working as you expected. They represent an opportunity to learn. Take time to explore why you’re struggling with the health behavior or goal that you set. 

Consider these questions to get you started:

  • What are you thinking right before the slip occurs? 
  • What is happening right before the slip occurs?
  • How do you feel afterward?
  • What do you tell yourself after making a mistake?
  • Was there something that interfered with doing the behavior (like exercising) or preventing a behavior (like eating a bag of chips)?

Try to keep an open, curious mindset when you’re thinking about what happened. The goal isn’t to label or judge yourself. You’re trying to learn what thoughts, feelings, or actions prevented you from sticking to the health goal you set. The more you understand what contributes to your setbacks, the easier it will be to find a solution to stop the slip from occurring in the future.

While you’re evaluating the slip, you may also want to reexamine your health goals as well to make sure you’re setting yourself up for success. For instance, if you plan to live a healthy lifestyle by never eating chips or sweets, that goal will be a challenge. Most of us will eat some chips or a candy bar on occasion. A healthy lifestyle isn’t about depriving yourself but finding a healthy balance.

If you’re struggling to examine the situation or come up with a solution, consider talking with a trusted friend or family member. You’ll want to speak with someone who you know has your best interest in mind, won’t judge you, and who you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings. Alternatively, you could consider consulting with a qualified professional, such as your doctor or a health coach.

3. Remind Yourself of the Healthy Choices You are Making

When we have a setback, we can become so focused on what we did wrong that we can lose sight of all the good choices and actions we’re making. Take the time to focus on the healthy choices, thoughts, habits, and decisions you are making every day.

Just because you make one mistake or backslid on one set of healthy behaviors doesn’t undo the other healthy decisions, thoughts, and actions you’re taking. For example, backsliding on exercising regularly doesn’t take away from the healthy eating choices you may be making. Acknowledging and reminding yourself of what you’re doing well can help increase your confidence and motivation. As a result, you’ll be more likely to work through and problem-solve situations that are challenging. 

4. Reconnect With Why You’re Choosing a Healthy Lifestyle

Making lasting behavior change is a long-term process. Sometimes, we can lose sight of our reason for changing when we are in the middle of the process. Reminding ourselves of why you want to create a healthy, lasting lifestyle can keep you motivated when you’re struggling or doubting yourself.  If you haven’t already, write down your reason why and keep it where it’s easy to access, so you can read it whenever you need it. 

5. Treat Yourself with Kindness

When you experience a slip or setback, it can be easy to blame or criticize yourself. Sometimes people feel being harsh with themselves is necessary to motivate themselves and get back on track. 

However, criticizing yourself can undermine your well-being and fuel your negative emotions, making it harder to get back on track with healthy choices. Blaming yourself can also lead to feelings of anxiousness and less self-confidence, which can decrease your motivation. 

Instead, forgiving yourself and treating yourself with kindness and compassion can increase your motivation and well-being. Being more accepting of yourself and patient with struggles can help you recover from slips and return to healthier choices and behaviors faster. 

Remind yourself that:

  • You are not alone—everyone struggles sometimes 
  • You have made numerous healthy choices and will continue to do so
  • You are working toward a lasting lifestyle, which is a long-term process

Setbacks and Slips Are Normal

No matter what you are trying to change, setbacks and mistakes are going to happen. Instead of criticizing yourself, you can use this as a chance to be kind to yourself, learn from any missteps, and identify potential barriers you are facing. The slip can be a chance to reconnect with your reason for pursuing a healthier lifestyle and, ultimately, help increase your motivation to live a healthy lifestyle.