By Tanya Cole-Lesnick, LCSW, PLLC

In my work with people on making change I hear a lot about guilt—guilt about having good intentions but not following through, guilt about making promises again and again with minimal results.

This is what I want to say to any of you feeling guilty about your lack of follow-through. Give yourself a break. Cut yourself some slack. Failure is part of the process. Really.

Yes, I get it, for many of us the lack of follow-through has been going on for a while, sometimes for years. And every time it happens we get disgusted with ourselves, or at least discouraged. We get afraid of not being hard enough on ourselves, thinking we’ll end up complacent and not doing many of the things we want to be doing. But beating up on ourselves doesn’t help with anything. It’s more likely to inhibit action than to inspire it.

And I’m not suggesting we just loosen up on ourselves and stop there. A lack-of-follow-through pattern that goes on for too long is definitely something we want to change. But as long as we stay in the vicious cycle of failing, feeling guilty, getting angry with ourselves, and putting more pressure on ourselves to do it just right the next time without really understanding what wasn’t working for us the last time, we are setting ourselves up for going round and round indefinitely. Possibly even for the rest of our lives if we let it, I’ve seen it happen.

My suggestion to you all is to make friends with the lack of follow-through. Notice it happening, and try to understand what isn’t working for you. Are you overwhelmed by the size of what you think the next step should be? Does that next step not match up with your rhythms or the structure of your day? Are you trying to accomplish something purely because you think you “should”?  We need to figure out what isn’t working for us before we can start to find some steps that are a better fit.

It ultimately comes down to two questions when we notice a lack of follow-through: Do we need to stop making this particular promise to ourselves altogether? Or do we need to keep adjusting until it works?

Simple, right? But knowing the answer can be tricky. As we struggle to follow through with things we thought we wanted to do, we need to keep asking questions (Do I really want this? Is this worth the effort? Is there a way to do this that fits better with my life? Do I need to just force myself to take this step? Etc.) until we figure it out—always paying attention to the “pudding” since that’s where the proof is.

In these efforts, failure can be our friend. It’s a powerful teacher when we use it that way. Pay attention to every failure—they’re okay—just learn from them. Let’s not beat ourselves up, it makes us cloudy, distracting us from the ability to learn what ultimately leads to action and successful promise-keeping—which is what allows us to accomplish the things we want to accomplish.

We need to give ourselves a chance to learn what our needs are. What brings us joy? What feels manageable? What gets us excited? What makes our hearts sink… or sing?

So instead of See, I’m useless, I didn’t workout like I said I was going to… again, why not something like Hmmmm, why is that plan not working for me? What should I try next?

And keep going until you stop making promises that you really don’t want to be keeping, and keep the promises that you really do.