How Failing at a Goal Helped Me Build a Positive Habit

Readers, you’ve probably heard the mythical idea that “it takes 21 days to form a habit.” You may have heard it debated and debunked like I have, too.

In a study done by Phillippa Lally, shared in the European Journal of Social Psychology, 96 participants were tasked with building one habit for 12 weeks, reporting daily if they successfully completed the desired behavior and how automatic it felt. 

For some, it took at least 18 days (this depended on the level of commitment the desired habit required) — and for many, it took much longer. Since then, though, the words “at least” were dropped, but the narrative of an arbitrary number of days to build stronger habits carried on. 

I think we can all agree it’s a subjective matter and has less to do with just setting a timer for X days and everything to do with intention, desire, dedication, accountability, and so on. 

Still, I was curious what my own journey towards habit formation could look like if I set my intention around it and focused on one thing for at least 21 days. What would I learn about that process that I could apply to my own future goal-setting tactics? What could I share with you if and when you’re looking to introduce a new positive habit into your life? 

I won’t bury the lede more than I already have. The TLDR version is that I dove into a habit-tracking challenge to cook all my meals from scratch at home and absolutely did not succeed in my goal.  

But instead of sweeping my “failure” under the rug,  I put it under the microscope. I got curious. I checked my ego and judgment at the door and pulled out my notebook and pen. And when I looked further inward, I saw not only my missteps, but I saw many beautiful wins along the way. 

I gathered the data points and made conclusions about what would’ve helped me create my own success story so that they can help you create yours, too. 

person meal prepping

Acknowledge truthfully where you are now while you state where you want to go.

After a year of nomad travel, eating out was one of my favorite ways to experience a place and support local, and that’s what I was used to. I imagined going cold turkey at the snap of a finger when I decided I would cook everything from home.

I know better than to do this, but the allure of making a big change pulled me in. The reality is that my schedule and daily life weren’t prepared for what I was asking myself to do.

Once I noticed the disconnect, I recalibrated my goal to meet myself where I was. I pivoted to making dinner three times per week and forgot about breakfast because I love granola bars anyway. 

Prepare to prepare.

Before embarking on a new goal, take a look at how you can set yourself up for success best and implement what you can before you’re even going for your goal. I didn’t have space in my calendar to go grocery shopping, so on Day 1, it threw me for a loop because I needed to come up with an hour I didn’t have.

From then on, I added a calendar invite every few days for grocery shopping to better prepare myself. If I really wanted to succeed in my goal of cooking every meal from home, I would’ve researched and utilized one of many tools out there to help with meal planning and prep. I didn’t need to go at it alone (and I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel! The SIMPLE meals were key). 

Visualize your success driven by your “why” — and visualize it often!

I always begin new projects by setting an intention, but reminding myself to come back to them is a challenging task. I wanted to cook from home because I wanted to feel more energized, and knowing the ingredients going in my body was going to help that.

I wanted to save money, which is always more possible when you can prep food in bulk. And I wanted to prove to myself that I can enjoy the process of making food versus settling for a quick fix. After beginning the challenge, though, I started to see the task at hand as just that — a task.

I forgot to check back in with my why, which pulled me away from actively wanting to participate in the process and pushed me into passively going through the motions but feeling sort of “blah” about it all. 

Give yourself grace in the process.

I give myself full marks for this. The quick pivot from aiming to make all meals from scratch to just dinners was a solid choice for these 21 days. The more we can acknowledge that changing our behaviors requires A LOT of focus and attention, the more likely we are going to be able to keep coming back when we stumble.

Treat yourself as you would a friend; pump yourself up in your endeavors, and remember that every little action or behavior that helps reinforce what you’re working towards DOES matter. It’s not an all-or-nothing game. 

Shift towards a process-oriented mindset.

Remember that study I mentioned? All those participants needed different amounts of time to turn their goal behavior into a habit… and even when we form habits, it’s possible we’ll shift away from them again. That’s okay!

Let go of the fear of that happening. When we learn to appreciate all parts of the process rather than sweeping the moments when we stumble or outright fail under the rug, we can see a way forward with greater clarity. We can learn to work with ourselves and all our tendencies, rather than fighting to overcome them. 

Maybe most importantly, say those little wins out loud.

Our brains have a negative bias, but that just means we have an opportunity to choose a different path. Reinforce the wins however and wherever you can. 

The bottom line: I proved to myself that I can make some damn good food if I want to, and there were some days when I actually loved the act of doing it. Those are the days I want to journal about more. Those are the days I want to work on replicating.

Will it take work? Of course. Can I say I’m now a full-blown chef in my own home? Absolutely not. But am I up for diving back into my own challenge and exploring how I can write my own narrative of success based on these learnings? You bet.

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About Maggie Umberger

Maggie moved to Chicago from North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in Journalism and Spanish, a 200-hour yoga certification, a group fitness cert and a passion to teach and to sweat. It wasn't until she found aSweatLife that she really started to feel at home. Here, she's incorporated her passion for health and wellness into her career as she helps to build the network of Ambassadors, trainers and fitness enthusiasts that exist within the aSweatLife ecosystem. You can also find her coaching at CrossTown Fitness and teaching yoga classes at Bare Feet Power Yoga, Yoga Six and exhale.