How I Turn Mistakes into Motivation

Health Coach Stories is a series on the blog where coaches candidly share their personal experiences and struggles with leading a healthy lifestyle. This first story comes from Diana, who shares her process of not letting a mistake get her down and choosing instead, to turn it into an opportunity for self-improvement and change.

I’m looking at the bottom of an empty peanut butter jar while feeling a huge surge of regret and the beginning of a stomachache. My inner monologue is cycling through stages of grief for the version of myself that actually has self-control. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression. Why do I do this? Why is the pull to bury my emotions with food so strong? More importantly, why did I even buy that peanut butter in the first place? I should have known this would happen. In fact, I did know. I absolutely knew that I would eat the whole jar. But I wanted it. I. Wanted. It. So I lied to myself and pretended I could handle having peanut butter around despite every last bit of evidence to the contrary. Some things I learn the hard way and some things I learn the hard way fifty times before it finally sinks in.

In the past eight years that I’ve been maintaining my weight loss, I’ve learned a lot about myself. For one, I now know that I have much more success when I don’t bring danger foods like peanut butter into my home. If I can resist it at the store then I don’t have to resist it every time I’m stressed, bored, tired, or frustrated. I also know that I don’t make good choices when I eat in front of the TV or when I fail to proactively deal with stress in my life. I know these things because I’ve messed up plenty of times and figured out what doesn’t work for me. Repeatedly failing doesn’t have to be a terrible thing; those mistakes can actually fuel my progress. Learning what works and what sets me up for failure will help me define the clear path to my goal. Do this, don’t do that.

My rules help me make good decisions in advance so that I’m not tempted by immediate gratification. If I decide that I’m not going to buy peanut butter anymore, then I won’t head towards that aisle in the grocery store and hem and haw over whether I really want it or not. I need less willpower to resist the peanut butter in the moment if I decide in advance that I won’t buy it. Since willpower is limited and we have less of it when we’re dealing with other stressors, it’s really helpful to have a routine in place that can pick up some of the slack.

Health gurus are often quick to prescribe their own routine and pretend like their personal rules will work for everyone. We’ve all read the articles about the necessity of eating breakfast or taking cold showers in the morning. But the truth is, their rules and my rules may not work for you. Super inconvenient, I know. That’s because everyone is different and you have to learn what works for you. There’s no right way to do things, just the way that helps you succeed. I can’t have peanut butter in the house but I have no problem eating well when I’m out with friends. You might be the exact opposite. Lifestyle change will continue to get easier when you refuse to feel guilty about mistakes and instead use the information to make a plan for next time. Two steps forward and one step back is still moving in the right direction.

It’s common to respond to a setback with lots of guilt and vows to only eat lettuce for weeks on end. But success won’t come into being through one monumental burst of effort. Overly restrictive redemption plans just lead to more setbacks. Progress requires continually taking small, manageable steps that put you just outside your comfort zone, pushing yourself a little bit each and every day. The more gradually you move forward, the less likely you are to fall back into your old ways.

So how do we recover from mistakes and feel empowered to reach our goals?

Start by being kind to yourself. Change takes time and relapses are normal. You might feel like you can’t afford forgiveness, but self-criticism just makes it harder to believe in your capacity for greatness. Practice encouraging yourself from the point of view of a close friend. Over time, that positive voice can become your natural inner monologue.

Try new and improved strategies. For the challenges you haven’t solved, brainstorm ideas about what you can do right now to move you towards your desired outcome. Try new things and make new mistakes.

Take note of what works and what doesn’t. Figuring out what doesn’t work is just as useful as learning what does. Think of mistakes as feedback to help optimize your routine and make helpful rules for yourself like, “The sofa is a food-free zone,” or “I always take a healthy snack with me when I leave the house.”

Never give up. You can’t fail if you don’t quit. Sticking with behaviors long enough to make them your new normal takes patience and eternal optimism in the face of setbacks.

So let’s get started with a healthy dose of reality! Not tomorrow or next week or after the donuts are gone. Get rid of the danger foods now– you know that keeping them around isn’t working for you. Let’s not do the same things and expect different results. Take a good look at the lessons you’ve been ignoring, and figure out how successes and failures can help you reach your goal.


Diana is a Health Coach and Content Designer for Omada Health’s Prevent program. She explores the silly side of weight loss maintenance on her blog, This Is My Brain On Sandwiches. She loves tea, weight lifting, color palettes, and puffins.