One of the most important things to realise when you are implementing healthy lifestyle changes is that it’s ok to experience a slip-up occasionally.
Instead of feeling like you’ve ‘fallen off the bandwagon’ completely if you revert to old habits, try to see a slip-up as a small diversion on your road to a healthier lifestyle. You’ve not overturned your wagon or stopped it, you’ve simply taken a longer route, and you will find your way back to the main road in time.
You can also use a setback as an important learning opportunity. You can find out what situations cause you to fall back into your old habits, and then come up with strategies to prevent this from happening next time.
The most important thing about a slip-up is not what the slip-up was, but rather how we respond to it.
Avoid the ‘all or nothing’ mindset
This kind of thinking is one of the main drivers causing a small set-back to result in people giving up hope and quitting. ‘All or nothing’ thinking is when we see things purely in ‘black or white’. These types of thoughts are characterised by terms such as ‘every’, ‘always’, or ‘never’. Everything is good or bad, a success or failure. You might be thinking “If I eat one ‘bad’ food, I might as well go all the way”.
Not too many things in life are purely black and white. Try thinking in shades of grey, which means thinking somewhere in between, for example, “I ate too much this morning, but the whole day doesn’t have to be perfect. I can eat a healthy lunch and dinner and make the rest of the day OK”.
When you do experience a slip-up, take a moment to reflect on some positive behavioural changes you’ve made on your journey to a healthier you. Focus on these positive changes so that your mind moves on from the setback you’ve experienced. We can easily get caught up in the negatives, and only think about everything we have done ‘wrong’. However, giving yourself credit for any good changes you have made will help to rebuild your motivation to get back on track.
Most importantly, don’t punish yourself. Studies have shown that when people acknowledge and forgive themselves for a setback, they’re better able to resist later on. Punishing yourself leads to feelings of guilt, which is one of the main reasons people get stuck in a cycle of binge behaviours.
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Often a slip-up can be the result of us being too strict on ourselves. It’s important to allow flexibility within your lifestyle choices so you don’t feel deprived and can still enjoy the things you love. For example, instead of saying “I’m never going to eat cake again”, perhaps say “I’m going to avoid eating cake every day, and instead enjoy a piece when I truly feel like it, or to celebrate a special occasion”. Living a healthy lifestyle is all about balance and moderation, rather than restriction.
Try to learn from what has happened. Even if you weren’t very mindful about what and why you were eating at the time, reflecting on it afterwards can help you prepare for these challenges in the future. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Did you eat for an emotional reason? (feeling upset, stressed, lonely, overwhelmed?)
- Have you been overly restricting yourself?
- Did you eat just because the foods were readily available? (offered for free, brought into work by a colleague, something your child had and didn’t finish?)
- Did you eat because the food isn’t included in the program? (“It’s my last chance to have a chocolate bar”)
- Did you eat as a reward? (“have been doing so well I am going to treat myself to a biscuit”)
Once you have found the reason why you may have experienced a slip-up, think about some strategies to put in place for next time. This could be finding non-food related techniques to manage your stress levels better or practising mindful eating.
Make a plan
If you’re struggling to get back on track after a setback, think about some small steps you can take in the short term. It might be helpful to set two mini goals each day for the next week. For example, “today I will drink eight glasses of water and go for a 30-minute walk after work”. Small goals can prevent you from becoming overwhelmed and de-motivated by bigger, long term targets.
Take home message
- It is how we respond to slip-ups, rather than the slip-up itself, that matters.
- Avoid the ‘all or nothing’ mindset.
- When you do experience a setback, acknowledge it and forgive yourself so that you can move on.
- Don’t be too strict with yourself when you make lifestyle choices. Harsh restriction usually just leads to more slip-ups!
- Reflect on what pushed you to slip-up to prepare for similar challenges in the future.
- Setting mini goals for yourself can be an encouraging way to get back on track.