Why you should plan to fail

I love January.

A new year ripe with new opportunities, and with just enough rest from the holiday break to set fire under my heels.

(Artwork originally by Hyperbole and a Half)

We all know how this story goes though, right?  The things we resolve to accomplish or change in January are long since abandoned by February.  In fact, Forbes Magazine reports that only 8% of people who make resolutions actually achieve them.

Never fear though, that’s why I’m writing this post for you today. I am here as the (dun-da-na-na!!!!) RESOLUTION RESCUER!

(It’s okay if you’re imaging me with a cape on right now.)

Back in the early 90’s three psychologists developed a model based on thirty years of research. Their model addresses how humans change and modify behavior over time.
The psychologists observed that change takes time (which we all know) and that over the course of time people pass through five different “Stages of Change” as they seek to modify habits and behaviors.

The stages of change are:

  • Precontemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Maintenance


Here’s where our struggling New Years resolutions come in.

Most of us, around December 27th or so, think of something we’d like to change about our lives. The holiday’s are over, our lives have slowed down a bit, and so we reflect on our lives and discover the areas we think are lacking.

  • I would like to lose X number of pounds.
  • I should eat healthier.
  • I need to have people over and entertain more often. 
  • I’m going to read Scripture/meditate/pray every day! 

The clock strikes midnight on January 1 and with a burst of confetti we’re ready to launch into our new and self-improved lives…for about a week. Then the excitement wears off, and reality sets in. We get sick. We get busy. We miss a workout…or five. We lose our cool. We fall off whatever wagon we had so enthusiastically jumped on at the start of the New Year.

Sound familiar?

Here’s what I want you to know, if you’re one of the literal thousands of people who find yourself at the end of January feeling very hopeless about the changes you’d hoped to make this year:

It’s okay. This is all part of it. 

Yep. You aren’t failing. You are fine.

It doesn’t matter that you fell off the wagon, what matters is if you choose to climb back on it.

I’m going to walk you through the Stages of Change step by step. Each stage is important and should not be rushed. Changing attitudes and behaviors is hard work. Cultivate a sense of non-judgement toward yourself and wherever you fall in the stages today.


  • Precontemplation
    In this stage you aren’t aware of the change you want to make. Maybe you know that there’s “something” about your life that isn’t exactly the way you’d like it to be, but you’re not sure what that is, and you certainly don’t intend to do anything about it anytime soon. Everything is just “fine.”
  • Contemplation
    In this stage you’re beginning to think about the changes you’d like to make. You start thinking about the benefits of the change.

    • For example: If I ate healthier I might feel more energetic during the day. 

You aren’t ready to make any changes yet at this stage. It’s all theoretical. Think
about the advantages of making changes in your life, but also think about the
challenges and drawbacks.

  • Preparation
    Now that you’ve uncovered a change you’d like to make, and weighed out the pros and cons of changing, now it’s time to make like a Boy Scout and be prepared!
    Most people skip this step! When you’re in the preparation stage you’re planning to take action in about a month.

    • I want to eat healthier, so I will stop buying snack food and soda now so that the packages I have now will be finished in a few weeks. I will look up recipes, or look into a meal planning service. I will make a plan for when I will pack my lunches, and who will cook dinner. Will I have cheat days? When will they be?  What will I do when someone brings doughnuts to work?
  • Action
    Lace up your shoes – here we go! Now it’s time to put observable behaviors into effect. All those thoughts you were thinking during your Contemplation stage? Start acting on them. All of the plans you set in place during Preparation? Start working through them. Lindsay’s post on taking baby steps toward your goals is perfect for this stage!

    This is the stage most of us think of when we think about making changes in our lives, but without the previous steps it’s hard to break through this fourth stage and get to…

  • Maintenance
    Once you’ve worked your plan and changed your behavior for six months, you enter the maintenance stage. Maintenance lasts from six months to five years. After five years of maintaining a habit or behavior, it’s highly unlikely you’ll deviate dramatically from it.


    Relapse is common for people in both the Action and Maintenance stages.



Which why, when it comes to creating change, I say:
“Plan to fail.” 


The fact of the matter is that just over 40% of us won’t be successful in creating change in our lives on the first try, or even the second try. This doesn’t speak to our lack of resolve or a misplaced value, it just illustrates how difficult it is to change.

So plan to fail. When you’re contemplating and preparing, ask yourself:
“What will I do when I get off track?”
“How will I know when I get off track?”

When you find yourself back in the middle of the behavior your trying to change, it helps to have a plan of how to get back to where you want to be. It also helps to ease the self-judgement that can so easily creep in when we get off track.

Instead of feeling like:
“I am a failure. I’ll never get this thing under control. I’m hopeless.” 

Planning to fail can invite a feeling like:
“Okay, I knew this could happen. I am not happy with where I am. I know how I got here. I know how to get back to where I want to be.” 

You’ve probably heard the saying “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” So why not plan your failure? We can expect relapse when we’re trying to change behaviors; whether it’s eating healthy, watching less TV, or not arguing with strangers on the internet.

We will fall off the wagon.

What matters is, how will you get back on?

Megan Westra is on the pastoral staff at Transformation City Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She also blogs regularly at http://www.crazylovemke.com. Megan lives with her husband Ben, and her daughter, Cadence Grace in the inner city of Milwaukee as part of an intentional relocation movement within her church.  Megan recently began studying at Northern Seminary, pursuing a Master of Divinity.  She loves to read, run, practice yoga and she’s an unapologetic coffee snob.     





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