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Health goals: how to recover from a setback

Headshot image of Lauren Gordon, Bupa UK Behaviour Change Adviser
Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK
03 February 2022
Next review due February 2025

If you’ve been working towards a health goal and things aren’t going to plan, don’t worry. You’re not alone and it’s completely normal for this to happen. What’s important is what you do next.

Here I’ll give you some tips and advice from behavioural science on how to get back on track towards meeting your goal.

Is it bad to break a New Year’s resolution?

Even with the best of intentions, changing a behaviour is hard. If you’re struggling to keep up new healthy behaviours, this might be because:

  • you’ve found it hard to break your habits and you’ve gone back to how things were before
  • you’ve lost your motivation towards your original goal

 

Or, it might be because of circumstances that are completely outside of your control. You might be feeling disappointed but don’t despair. Slip-ups are a completely normal part of the process of changing behaviour.

What you need to do now is pick up from where you left off, rather than giving up completely. Here’s how.

Revisit your original reason why

Go back to where your goal came from in the first place. What inspired or motivated you to make that change in your life? Perhaps it was a specific event like a conversation with a health professional. Or maybe you had the drive to set yourself a challenge or learn something new. Reminding yourself of those intentions can help you feel more connected again to your goal.

Recommit to your goal

Research shows that you’re more likely to follow through with something if you commit to it publicly, or if you make a pledge and put something at stake. This is because you’re more accountable to your actions, and there are consequences if you don’t achieve your goal. Share your goal and ask those that you tell to check in with your progress. This will help to keep you on track.

Be kind to yourself

It’s important to be gentle with yourself – changing behaviour takes time. It’s natural to feel discouraged after a setback. But studies have shown that if you can accept that slip-ups may happen, you can get back on track quicker. Your mindset and response to the setback is important too. Try to view it as an opportunity to learn and grow and that it will help you to be more successful going forwards.

Identify the cause

If you’ve not been able to keep going with your health goal, take a moment to understand what caused it. If you can see where things went wrong, you’ll be much better placed to address the specific trigger when it arises next time. You’ll also be more able to come up with strategies to prevent it happening again.

If your goal becomes impossible due to circumstances outside of your control, reflect on what you’ve learned during the process so far. You might have gained skills that would benefit another goal instead. Rather than giving up altogether, look at how far you’ve come and where you could go to next.

Give yourself more flexibility

It’s important to stay flexible with your goal to make it work for you. Your circumstances might have changed, or your goal might have been too ambitious. One way to do this is to set what’s called a high-low range. Here’s an example in action.

  • Goal: To eat healthier, by having five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • High-low method: Eat four to six pieces of fruit and vegetables a day. This still averages out at five, but it gives you more flexibility for when life gets in the way.

 

Find your mojo

If you’re finding that you’ve lost your motivation, you might want to think about ways to alter or amend your goal slightly. Remember that motivation will come and go. But if you’re really struggling to find a reason for making the change in the first place then you might want to try something different.

Choose a goal that is challenging but possible. Identify the small, specific steps you can take to make progress towards it. Achieving something small will build your confidence. It will motivate you to keep working towards that bigger goal.

Design your environment for success

Rather than rely on your willpower alone, a much more reliable way to stick with a new habit is to make some changes to your environment. Focus on changes that make it easier to do your new behaviour, and harder to do the thing you don’t want to do anymore.

For example, the best thing to do to stop yourself from snacking on unhealthy foods is not to have them in your house at all. But, if that’s too restrictive for you, try moving them to a place that is difficult to get to. This disrupts the habit loop.

Check your toolbox

There are other tools like keeping a log of your progress and rewarding yourself as you go. Maybe you need to have a think about an 'If Then' plan to help you succeed with your goal. Remember, to have gotten this far, you’ve already learned lots of new tips and tricks to help you succeed.

To help you on your way, why not listen to our podcast about setting goals and what to do when things don’t go to plan.


Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Headshot image of Lauren Gordon, Bupa UK Behaviour Change Adviser
Lauren Gordon
Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK

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