The Back-Up Plan

I have a set of simple daily practices that I do every day. They are things like run, floss, write, read, kiss Ryan, meditate, take my vitamins.  Some of these things, I have done my entire life. Some are new. But they all have the same thing in common: the back-up plan.

There seems to be a lot of shame around the back-up plan. Like, you didn’t get your first choice, so you have to be resigned to the runner-up. You have to settle.  But when I build a new habit, or put a new goal out in the Universe, I always think about the back-up plan.

Here’s how it starts. I take myself down the road of anxiety. If I fail, what would happen? If I couldn’t live up to expectations and everyone hated me, if I embarrassed myself, if I bankrupted the organization, if my entire life tumbled down in flames, if I ruined my reputation and only squirrels – and I hate squirrels – would approach me, I would be okay. Right? Yeah, that would be okay. I could start over. In fact, I know exactly what I would do.

These descriptions sound outlandish, but as someone that deals with a lot of anxiety, it’s often not. I have been paralyzed from doing simple and so-called normal activities as the result of what can only be described as sheer panic. My head and heart and mouth fill up with “shoulds” and I’m not sure what I “should” be doing at all. The pressure of how something ought to go overwhelms me. If it doesn’t go the way it should, I need to know everything will (still) be okay.

The research agrees with me. Instead of visioning how great something is going to be, it’s surprisingly healthy to vision what could go wrong. A researcher asked one set of women enrolled in a weight-reduction program to imagine that they had successfully completed the program; she asked another set to imagine situations in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. “The results were striking,” the researcher reports. “The more positively women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, the fewer pounds they had lost.” Ouch.

It’s okay to set up ambitious goals, but you need to have a back-up plan. We get excited about what success could look like, and that leads to an initial boost of willpower. But then “positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.”

On the flip side, so-called negative thinking – or the back-up plan, to be less, well, negative – allows you to think through, prepare and plan for what might go wrong.

In another study, a scientist gave rehab patients booklets in which to detail their rehab schedule, and found a striking difference between those who had written plans and those who had not. Those who had completed the exercise were able to get in and out of their chairs, unassisted, almost three times as fast.

The scientist “examined the booklets, and discovered that most of the blank pages had been filled in with specific, detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery,” describes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit. “One patient, for example, had written, ‘I will walk to the bus stop tomorrow to meet my wife from work,’ and then noted what time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear, which coat he would bring if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain became too much.”

The patient had a plan (timing, route, clothes), and a back-up plan (what coat he would wear if it was raining, pills if the pain were too much). In other words, he had a plan for success, a plan for failure, and a plan for recovery.

I don’t always feel like running. I give myself a choice. I can either run or do strength training. I always choose the lesser of two evils on any given day. If I don’t run or do strength training, I walk to the grocery or to my meetings. That is, I have a back-up plan to my back-up plan.

But exercise hasn’t been too difficult lately. So let’s talk about meditation – that’s been hard. My goal is to meditate for ten to fifteen minutes per day, but I rarely do that. Instead, I do five minutes. Or if I’m busy and can’t even find five minutes, I’ll take a moment out of my day to take two or three intentional, deep, slow breaths. That’s it. That’s my meditation practice.

When I talk about this approach in my Accountability Friend program, many students are resistant to the idea. For example, one client was a lawyer who wanted to start a 30-minute per day writing habit. She was a high-performer who had idealized what she should be doing. She, like many others, wanted to take an all or nothing approach: “Well, I didn’t get my thirty minutes done today, so I suck at this and am horrible.” Or worse, try to play catch-up and punish themselves: “I didn’t write yesterday, so I’ll write for sixty minutes today.”

Thirty minutes per day is a lot. So I worked with the lawyer to lower the barrier to entry, create a plan and a back-up plan. We forget that doing a little bit every day – or every two weeks, or whatever your schedule – adds up. Moderation is always the answer. The goal can be thirty minutes per day, but if you only do five minutes per day, that’s okay. 

We act as if we have complete control over our day – or that we “should.” But you know that’s not true. Shit happens. You have to work late. You sleep in early. It’s too cold to go out and get a salad for lunch. What then? Will you continue to set yourself up for failure, believing you’re not cut out to be a runner or a writer or a finisher? Or will you pull out Plan B or C or Z from your pocket and carry on? What will your back-up plan be?

Share your process on how you get things done in the comments below. Do you have a plan you follow? What about a back-up plan? If you have a goal that’s been giving you trouble, how can you approach it differently? 

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