What to do when it all goes pear shaped. Why our plans go awry and what we can do about it.

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

We’ve all been there, everything has been going really well with our new diet, healthy eating plan, exercise program, or just resolution to be less grumpy with the kids. Maybe you’re a couple of weeks in and you're proud of yourself, and then boom! Real life gets in the way..

I’m going to talk about this in terms of eating and other lifestyle changes because that’s my field. How you think, feel and react when things go wrong really affects your chance of success. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the difference between a making successful changes to your diet and lifestyle and failing is not the absence of things going wrong, something always does with depressing regularity, but what you do when things do go wrong.

You’ve probably seen a version of this picture it shared on social media. It certainly has a point but does rather imply that if only we were determined and resourceful our goals would all be ours (I’d like to credit the person who originally drew this picture so please let me know if you know who it was).

Terms such as willpower and motivation are frequently thrown around. The American Psychological Society regularly due surveys where people cite lack of willpower as the number one reason for the failure of their plans to change . But willpower is hard work and notorious for being a bit rubbish as a way to succeed. According to the British Psychological Society the key might be to avoid temptation in the first place

There are plenty of techniques that you can use to help stretch that small reserve of willpower you have and avoid temptation. I’ve already talked a bit about this in my previous blogs about why we eat and how our environment and emotions affect this.

But at some point, we all fail, so in this blog, I’m going to look at how we behave when failure happens, and we end up metaphorically at the bottom of the lake wet and cold and thinking we’d rather just go home.

It’s always easier to explain things with an example so I’m going to use Mike. Mike has had a busy year; he’s moved jobs and house and as a result hasn’t managed to get much exercise and has had rather too many takeaways with his wife. He now realises that all of his clothes are rather too tight and decided that his expanding waistline needs to go. He’s decided that the keto diet is the way to go and sets about enthusiastically removing all carbohydrates from his diet. He is doing well for the first couple of weeks, cooking the recipes he finds online for his meals and snacks and taking lunch to work with him. He also gets a copy of couch to 5k and starts the walk-run program building up his exercise slowly. He does have a few days of feeling quite hungry, a bit lightheaded and a couple of cracking headaches, but he is determined to make a go of it and carries on flexing his willpower. Then one Wednesday life gets in the way. He has an important client meeting at work and in his rush to leave the house he leaves his lunch on the side. Lunchtime comes and a buffet lunch is provided, and what a buffet lunch of brown food it is, all of it full of high fat and carb sausage rolls, sandwiches, pies, mini pizzas, samosas the lot. Mike gamely pulls the pastry of a few items but it’s not a good look picking at your food that our important clients have provided for you. And once he starts, he discovers just how much money the food industry has invested in developing food scientifically proven that once you start eating it you can’t stop. And his body is dead keen to replace all of that carefully stored fat that it’s been forced to burn the last couple of weeks. Mike heads for home that evening feeling dejected and demoralised, all of his hard work has gone to waste and he’s failed again, just like he fails at everything he tells himself. On the way home he spots his favourite pizza takeaway, comfort food that always makes him feel better, decides since he’s blown it, it doesn’t really matter anymore and picks up a jumbo pizza and tub of ice cream. His wife is somewhat surprised to get home and find him stuffing his face and isn’t best impressed. “Why on earth are you eating that?” she says. Already low Mike snaps at his wife and they end up having an argument about all the trivial things that generally annoy spouses about each other. He ends the day feeling quite down despite the successful sales meeting. As a result, he goes back to his old eating habits, stops exercising and the few pound he lost go back on plus a couple more.

So many of us have been in this situation more than once, and I’m also sure that you’re already spotted some of what went wrong and what Mike might have done differently. But it’s often a whole lot harder when you are in the situation yourself. So, we’re going to look at some questions that you could ask yourself when something like this happens to you and then we will try this for Mike.


1. First ask yourself what actually happened?

Write down what actually happened. Don’t try to analyse why it happened at this point and try to take any thoughts or emotions you might have had about what happened.

2. What were your thoughts when you were doing this?

Next try to write down what you were thinking at the time. This might be before the problem happened or about what happened. Your thoughts can be really useful to help you to understand why something happened.

3. How did things not going to plan make you feel?

Not everyone is comfortable with analysing their emotions, so you can leave this step out if it makes you uncomfortable. But emotions are very involved with what we eat and so they can be useful to understand why something happened and how you reacted when it did.

4. What do you think caused things not to go to plan?

If we understand a bit more about why something happens, it can help up avoid it happening again. Some people describe these things as triggers. So, go back to your answers to question one about what happened, and try to understand what triggered these things.

5. Look again at the thoughts involved – are they actually true?

Our thoughts often lead to our actions. So, look back at your thoughts from question 2 and ask yourself if they are these true? If they are true, are they reasonable and helpful? Is there another way of looking at things?

You can’t change what happened, but you can change the way you look at it. You can also question your thoughts and beliefs about why something happens. Challenging the way you think about things is the basis of a type of therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy which can be very effective at changing eating behaviour.

6. Ask yourself about your feelings on the matter – are they actually true?

When we are in the midst of something, we tend to think that our feelings are the truth and that they are permanent. You feel failure or anger and so believe you are a failure or that there is good reason to be angry with yourself or someone else.

But our feelings aren’t actually the truth and they tend to come and go. This doesn’t mean you should dismiss how you feel or try not to feel, just question whether how we are feeling is true and understand that we have a choice about whether to act on how you feel.

So, if you felt able to identify how you were feeling, distance yourself from your feelings and ask yourself if they are real? Is there another way you could have reacted to those feelings?

This isn’t the easiest thing to do and can make you feel uncomfortable. Thinking as if you were your friend or even getting a trusted friend to help can be useful.

7. Having looked at all of these things, is there another way to deal with a situation in the future?

Having looked at what happened, your thoughts and feelings about it, have a think about whether what happened was actually a problem, if you’d like to avoid it happening again what you could do to avoid it, and what you might do if it still happened again.

8. Do you need some support to make plans for the future?

You may have found this exercise helpful and come up with a great plan to use in the future. Or you might feel you need a bit more support. At the end of this article, I talk about sources of support.


So, let’s go back to Mike and ask these questions.

1. What actually happened?

Mike forgot his lunch, ate more than he wanted to of foods he didn’t want to eat at lunchtime, picked up pizza on the way home and had an argument with his wife when she queried his food choices.

2. What were your thoughts when you were doing this?

I can’t look ungrateful to the client for this food.

I have failed now I have eaten too much of this food.

I am a failure; I might as well give up.

My wife is being unreasonable for pointing out that I am eating unhealthy food.

3. How did this make you feel?

Mike feels dejected and demoralised, like a failure, irritated with his wife and angry with himself.

4. What caused this to happen?

Forgetting his lunch: Being in a rush in the morning.

Overeating at lunch: Not having a choice of foods that he wanted to eat. Not wanting to appear ungrateful to the client. Being very hungry.

Picking up a pizza: The thought that not sticking to eating plan at lunchtime meant it had failed and so wasn’t worth continuing with.

Being grumpy with his wife: Not liking being reminded of his perceived failure.

5. Look again at the thoughts involved – are they actually true?

I can’t look ungrateful to the client for this food.

This is what we would call a food belief – the belief that if someone provides you with food that it would appear ungrateful if you were to turn it down. And asking whether this is true and reasonable is quite complicated. Food is an important social facilitator and so Mike might decide that for him this is at least partially true or reasonable.

Mike has already prepared for this situation by planning to provide himself with an alternative lunch where he could simply tell the truth that the food looks wonderful, but he is trying to lose a little weight. But in this case, unfortunately he was in a rush and left that lunch at home.

He might also want to challenge his belief that this was the only reason for eating the food. It probably looked and smelt pretty good and trying to continue with the meeting on an empty stomach would have been a big challenge.

I have failed now I have eaten too much of this food

Here is something that is easier to challenge. Has Mike failed because he has eaten too much of the food? Well in a very limited sense he has, but it is only at one meal. So, this thought while true isn’t that reasonable or helpful and leads to a more problematic thought.

I am a failure; I might as well give up.

This thought takes a small, temporary and understandable failure and makes it into something very personal, that applies permanently to all situations; being a failure as a person and therefore there being no point in trying.

This is the sort of thought or belief that really benefits from being challenged. Try thinking about what advice you would give to that friend in this situation? A more accurate assessment of this situation might be to say: I have failed at this one meal, but I’ve stuck to my plan it so far. My sales meeting was a success so clearly, I don’t fail at everything I do. I will try again.

There are also a couple of unhelpful beliefs here: one that to be successful a healthy eating plan needs to be really strict, and another that you should never fail. Challenging these beliefs could also be really useful.

My wife is being unreasonable for pointing out that I am eating unhealthy food.

Possibly she was a bit untactful, but maybe she’s had a crappy day and would have quite liked pizza herself. Thankfully this didn’t lead to Mike thinking his wife is always unreasonable and looking at this thought he might decide that actually she’s been very supportive of his efforts to lose weight and so this comment might have come from her desire to support him to succeed.

6. Ask yourself about your feelings on the matter – are they actually true?

Mike feels dejected and demoralised, angry with himself and irritated with his wife

Just because Mike feels dejected and demoralised should he give up? Will that help him feel better or would making his mind up to try again help with that feeling?

Just because he is angry does it mean that Mike has done something that he should be angry with himself about? Would it be more helpful to accept we’re all human and move on?

Does being irritated with his wife should he react by snapping at her? Perhaps it might be an idea to apologise.

7. Having looked at all of these things, is there another way to deal with a situation in the future?

Being in a rush in the morning.

It would have been good for Mike to remember his lunch so he could think about ways to allowing more time and be better organised. But sometimes you have to accepting that sometimes things don’t quite go to plan.

Not wanting to appear ungrateful to the client.

This may just one of those things you can’t change and have to plan round.

Being very hungry.

We’ve picked this one up as an issue while asking earlier questions. Mike could consider whether the very strict eating plan is ideal for his busy life, or he may just want to adapt it to allow for times when he might prefer not to be hungry such as important meetings.

Large amounts of food being available.

Mike has already planned for this with an alternative lunch, but if he finds himself in this situation again perhaps, he might be able to distract himself from the food. For example, by taking the food he wants to eat and moving away from the buffet, finding something to do or someone to talk to and taking time to see if he’s really hungry before going back. The best way to deal with a situation might vary from person to person so Mike needs to think about what will work for him.

Things not going to plan.

Hopefully Mike now recognises that this is not to end of the world. Being a bit more forgiving of himself and accepting that no one’s perfect, will help to pick up and carry on when things go wrong. He might want to apologise to his wife mind.

8. Do you need some support to make plans for the future?

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a quick fix, it’s actually quite hard work and not everybody is comfortable with this sort of questioning of themselves. It can help to get a good friend to give you a hand with this

A dietitian can also help support you to make changes to your diet and lifestyle. Your GP can refer you to an NHS dietitian or there is more information about the private services I provide here.

However, it should be interesting and informative, if you find it is stressful and making you anxious it might not be the approach for you. There are more sources of support below if you find that you are depressed or very anxious.


Sources of help

For more information about how to change the way you think about situations and how to avoid simply giving up when things go wrong try Learned Optimism: How to change your mind by Martin Seligman

This is the NHS page on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is a very practical therapy with good evidence for it, that helps you to challenge the way that you think and behave when things go wrong

Challenging our emotions is a new concept to many people, but it’s a really old idea dating at least back to the Buddhists describing our feelings as illusions. In modern times there is the practice of Mindfulness, which is a type of meditation in which you focus on what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. There is good evidence for this practice helping with stress, and there is a whole field of Mindful eating that I will get round to blogging about in the future. If you would like to learn more about Mindfulness, then I highly recommend the book Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic life by Prof Mark Williams

Support for eating disorders or mental health.

If you have concerns about your mental health of feel you may have an eating disorder you can talk to your GP.

You may also have a local healthy minds (IAPT) service locally – the NHS has a website where you can search to see what is available locally.

There are also sources of support online:

More support on eating disorders can be found at the Beat website.

NHS support for mental health.

Calm – the campaign against living miserably

I love Charlie Mackesy. One of his drawings, very similar to this went viral and he turned it into a wonderful book full of kindness and positive thinking. His website is here.

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