We often look at unfortunate situations through a pessimistic lens—but what does that really do for us? Instead of fixating on “coulda, woulda, shoulda,” maybe it’s more beneficial to set your mind on moving forward. A good way to do this is by focusing on possible solutions for the future, rather than the problems of the past.
“When people are obsessed over a problem, they may be discouraged by the lack of progress and by the fact that they have repeatedly failed to achieve their goals,” says Hengchen Dai, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Olin Business School.
Dai explains that this can lead to what researchers call the “what the hell” effect. Think about a situation, such as slipping up on your diet by eating a slice of cake. Since you’ve already failed, you continue to indulge and binge on even more junk food, because “what the hell,” why not? But all of this drives you further and further away from your original objectives. Instead, forget about that one little slip up and shift your focus towards fixing it for the future. Then you can more quickly get back on track with reaching your goal.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done, but there are some tricks that can make it easier.
The timing of when you set your goal can be very influential on overall success. Dai explains that people are more motivated to create and initiate goal pursuits at moments that feel like a fresh start, such as the beginning of the week, a new season, or right after the holidays. “Around those moments, people may not only be more receptive to messages that encourage them to find solutions, but also be more willing to put aside their past failures and try out new solutions,” she says.
How you approach a new challenge can also affect how successful you are at reaching a goal. Research shows that people with a learning orientation—meaning they focus on mastery and improvement as opposed to outperforming others or demonstrating competence—react to failures more positively and are more persistent. “Focusing on learning and self-development could help you build resiliency in the face of failures, which is often required for finding the right solution,” Dai says.
No person is perfect, so don’t expect your diet or fitness plan to be perfect, either. You’ll hit a few bumps in the road, but they don’t have to stop you from reaching your end goal.