The phrase "two steps forward, one step back" carries a degree of guilt when spoken aloud. After all, it's often used to describe someone who is having trouble making progress, or a person who works hard only to have setbacks. It’s not the most motivational idea to contemplate.
But what if a simple wording adjustment could change the way you approach setbacks or slip-ups? What if, instead of "two steps forward, one step back" we stay open to opportunity and growth by saying "one step back, two steps forward"? In doing this, rather than feeling guilty about missteps, you can still come out ahead by putting your head down and pushing forward. No matter the obstacle, you can still overcome it–one move at a time.
We’ve all experienced steps back or choices that move us farther from instead of closer to our goals. Perhaps it’s the family vacation that got you off track with your healthy eating goals, or maybe it’s an injury that disrupted your workout routine. Sometimes a lack of obvious results is enough to bring your motivation to a grinding halt. Whatever the reason, know that the path to success isn’t always smooth sailing. What’s important isn’t that you took the step back–it's what you do after it happens.
Unlike people who run 10 miles today because they should have run two yesterday, "two steps forward" doesn’t necessarily mean doing a lot more to make up for a blunder. Instead, reframe your thinking about those two steps. The first step forward will get you back to where you were, and the second step is some kind of progress, even if it’s small. For example, perhaps you set a goal to avoid emotional eating, but today was tough and you ended up eating an unplanned meal. Your first step might be to journal about what happened and the emotions tied to the meal; your second step could be to brainstorm what you will do instead of reaching for food the next time you have a tough or emotional day.
When life, stress, scheduling, emotion or a simple bad decision causes a disruption to your routine or progress, don't make the mistake of beating yourself up and feeling like you need to start over completely. Instead, determine what small steps you can take to start moving forward again. Taking two steps forward will still leave you ahead of where you were before–far beyond the starting line.
When a step back leaves you feeling stuck and you aren’t sure what to do next, ask yourself the following questions:
1. How did I get here? What went right and what went wrong?
It’s not easy to look at a situation objectively when feelings of frustration or disappointment cloud your judgment. Try to separate the feelings from the circumstances and make it a learning experience. Was the problem a lack of motivation or something outside your control? What was my state of mind in the moment and was it driven by a specific emotion? By taking the time to reflect, you can pinpoint the crux of the issue and be better prepared to handle it should the same situation happen again.
2. What is my why?
There’s a reason you’re working toward this goal. Remind yourself of it when times get tough. If it helps, write your why down and post it in a place you will regularly see it–bathroom mirror, refrigerator, on your desk–so you're constantly reminded that every good decision you make it getting you one step closer to your future.
3. Are the expectations I’m trying to live up to realistic?
Make sure your goals and the timeline for achieving them are reasonable. Expecting perfection can lead to disappointment. If you find that you're regularly struggling to stay on track, take it as a sign that you need to go back, reevaluate your long-term goals and set more realistic, short-term habits.
4. What tools do I need to keep moving forward?
If there are specific skills you need to develop, make a plan. For example, identify your emotional eating triggers and brainstorm healthier behaviors to replace them. Decide how you’ll motivate yourself to work out instead of heading for the couch when you’re tired, or find a positive way to deal with stress instead of engaging in negative self-talk.
Of course, consistent success is still something for which to strive. The “one step back, two steps forward” strategy doesn’t lessen the need to do your best. You should still work hard to keep those steps back from happening, but it helps to be prepared with a plan and a positive attitude when they do.
If you're feeling defeated, consider taking the next step forward by engaging in one of these restorative practices:
- Take a walk in the woods to clear your head and regroup.
- Write in a gratitude journal.
- Choose a personal "bounce back" motto that will re-energize you. Put it where you’ll see it often.
- Create a motivational playlist to get you pumped to move forward.
- Do a mindfulness exercise to help you refocus.
- Think of one small thing you can do right now to improve your mood and attitude.
- Plan ahead for irregularities in your schedule. Check out the restaurant’s website ahead of time to make a healthy meal choice, keep healthy snacks in your car for emergencies and have a backup plan for a shorter workout if you end up working late.
- Remind yourself of your successes so far.
With any big goal, setbacks will inevitably be a part of your journey, but it's up to you to decide if the setback will defeat you or if it will be an opportunity for refocus, recommitment and personal growth. What will you choose?