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Facing setbacks on the path to achieving our goals is part of the process, but how can we  get back on track and learn from our challenges?

In this episode, we're diving into the art of returning to our goals when we've faced obstacles. We'll explore the significance of embracing the growth process, the resilience that fuels our progress, and how setbacks can be the catalysts for personal development.

Topics Covered

  • The nature of setbacks in the growth process and embracing uncertainty
  • Overcoming self-judgment, feelings of inadequacy, and self-compassion
  • The impact of our thoughts and narratives on self-trust
  • Recognizing and working with emotions that hinder progress
  • Strategies for bouncing back after setbacks and the importance of setting smaller goals
  • The role of resistance and the ongoing practice of creating effective structures
  • The journey of coming back as a learning cycle in personal development
  • The power of external accountability and public commitments
  • Identifying and learning from challenges and the significance of iterating strategies


Welcome to the Zen Habits podcast, where we dive into how to work with uncertainty, resistance, and fear around our meaningful work. This is for anyone who wants to create an impact in the world and cares deeply enough to do the work. I'm your host, Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog.

Hello, and how are you? I wonder how your day's going. Mine is going great, actually. I am having a beautiful day. I've had some good long walks, hour long calls, where I'm out for a walk out in nature. And it's just beautiful this time of year. So just really happy today to be out walking and out with nature, and then now here back in my studio and office here to record with you. 

In this episode, I'm going to be talking about coming back. Coming back to getting on track with a habit or your purpose project and why that can be difficult, you know, how to come back and then also how to work with that. So there's stuff that we can learn from falling off track.

So we'll talk about that and hopefully you can see why this is a really important topic is that it's a part of the growth process, a part of the learning process. 

A lot of times people think, 'Oh, I'm going to form a new habit and I'm going to do great. Like I'm going to sit down and meditate or journal or write or read or whatever it is that I want to do. And I'm going to do it every single day and it's going to be amazing and I'm going to be awesome at it.' 

And in a way it's like I'm proving how good I am at something. But what if you're not good at it yet? What if it's still an area of growth for you? And so the way that it usually goes then is like, 'Ah, I did it for a little while, and then I kind of took my eye off the ball or something came up that got in the way, or I just didn't feel like it, so I put it off for a couple of days'. And it's not what you were hoping it would be. 

So what I wanted to say is that, that's how it is. It goes that way sometimes, and the growth process includes stopping. It includes falling off for a little while. This is how growth looks, and part of that growth process is also coming back, falling off, coming back, but it's also learning from these cycles. 

So we're going to talk more about that, but I just wanted to say that this is really important because If you are actually playing along with this podcast season, as I've invited you to do, you've taken on a purpose project or something that's really meaningful to you. There's a good chance, but by now, as you're listening to this, you've fallen off. In some way, and so have I, so I'm going to talk a little bit about my own experience with my grandmother's book, the project that I chose to do, and and then let's talk about what we can learn from that. 

So with my grandmother's book it was, you know, I would say it was like 75 percent written already, cause I've been working on it in spurts for the last few years, but I wanted to get it to done and hand it to her. So I started. Working on it every weekday, 30 minutes a day. And what I did was I made some accountability. So to you all, but also some daily accountability to my mom and I would email her when I'm done with it with what I had done. 

So I did great at that actually move forward. And I'd say it's like 90 percent done now. Then I found that there were some gaps, like towards the end of the book, there's some material that I didn't have yet. So I asked her to get some of that for me. So she went and interviewed my grandmother and sent me the audio. So really big, thanks to my mom for everything she's done. You know, I talked about this being my book, but actually it's our book, me and her, we've both been working on this together.

She's really supporting me, but then it came back and then I just kind of put off transcribing it and then starting to get back into the writing for like almost two weeks. So I'll really like, I'm happy to just own that I've fallen off. So I was looking at that last week and I'm like, okay, I just need to get back into it. 

This is actually a great topic for me to talk about in the podcast itself. So on Monday, what I did was I committed publicly. To writing every day and I was going to post about it on social media every weekday for 20 minutes. I've only had two days of that. So today's Wednesday as I record this. So I've done that Monday and I did Tuesday and I posted each day. And I have a little reminder set up for myself to post at the end of each day. So this is really calling me forward. 

Yesterday we had a family gathering for a family member who was having a birthday and I would have just skipped the writing if it weren't for this challenge. But I actually sat down and did it, even though I was pressed for time a bit. Then I I got it done and posted and I'm pretty confident that I will be doing that the rest of this week as well, including a day when I'm traveling and speaking at a conference. I'm actually going to be writing on the train while I travel there.

So what can we see in this example? Well, we could see the act of coming back. So first of all, I got off track and that's to be expected. If there's going to be any resistance, any kind of stuff that we're facing, we're going to get off of it for a little bit. And then coming back is really important. If I just let that be the end of the story, I fell off and it's done. It'd be another story that's the same as some past attempts. But I wanted the story to go different this time. So coming back was a part of it and learning to come back is really incredible, important learning in this process.

What I modeled for you is some, I wanted to highlight a couple of the things that I did. First thing is I just recognize I'm off. I haven't been, I committed to it. I haven't been texting my mom about it. I haven't been telling any of you about it. I have been telling you about the successes and then I didn't tell you about the failure.

So this is me just not being in integrity. and just not doing what I said I was going to do and not telling anybody about it. Nothing to beat myself up about. We're all out of integrity in some place in our lives most of the time. You know, we might be in integrity in 90 percent of the areas, but there's always going to be a five to ten percent where we're not in integrity, and that's just something to notice and then come back into integrity about.

There's no wrongness to any of that. I want you to notice that. There's me noticing that I was out of integrity, me noticing that I was off track, but not adding on like, oh, I suck and I need to like beat myself up and I'm so embarrassed. Maybe a little bit of embarrassment, but not, not too much. 

So that was the first thing is noticing all of that and really just holding myself accountable and just saying, hey, I haven't been doing it. Is there something getting in the way? And it was just some resistance because, you know, transcribing it was going to take some time and I was going to have to listen to it and find a space where I wasn't bothered and the audio was really tough to hear. And so there was just like some friction and some resistance, nothing too big, but enough that is easy for me to put off when I had a lot of other stuff going on. 

Let's look at how I came back. So first of all, I committed myself publicly. I said, I am going to do this every day for the next 10, 10 days, 10 weekdays, and I'm going to do it for 20 minutes. So I committed and I said, afterward, I'm going to post. So I, I made a commitment, a public declaration that this is what I'm doing. 

The second thing to notice is that I shrank it down from 30 minutes to 20, because I knew that that would make it easier for me to come back. This is what I often will do if I have been off of exercise for a while. I haven't been exercising much for the last few weeks. I just start small. I'm like, 'Okay, I'm just going to do the smallest workout possible or go out for a little run walk', you know, for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, something like that. Something easy. Whatever would feel like too easy is probably the way to do it. 

What people usually want to do is commit themselves too big. So I'm going to, I'm going to be the most dedicated, devoted person and most committed possible. That's where we want that to be true. But that's the opposite of what we want to do when we're coming back. Even when we're starting. But when we're coming back, start even smaller. Super simple. 

I do this when I'm meditating as well. If I haven't been meditating for a while, instead of saying, I'm going to meditate for 45 minutes or 30 minutes, I say, I'm going to meditate, meditate for two minutes one minute. And then I just do that for a few days. And then it's easy to get to five minutes and then I can progress from there. It's not so much the size of the start. It's the fact that you're just coming back and you're making it easy and super simple to come back. 

Another thing to note is that because of this commitment, I was going to be holding myself accountable every single day, every weekday. And that's important because it calls me forward in those days. Like I said, when I am busy, we have a family gathering, it's easy just to wave it off and say, it's not a problem. But I wanted to actually. And same thing, I'm traveling, I'm doing a talk. So I could easily say that's not the right day to do it. But I've committed to posting publicly. It doesn't matter if anyone is looking at those posts. It doesn't matter if they're responding or not. What matters is that I've made this commitment and that I'm going to hold myself to it. 

So these are some elements that I think you might consider. You don't have to do all of them. You don't have to post publicly to social media or anything like that. But something, something like that might be helpful.

Another thing to note about coming back is that we might find a structure that is sufficient to meet our resistance. And so if previous structure wasn't sufficient, we might just find what's the next iteration of my structure that will help. And I just modeled it right here, but yours could look different.

You're like, 'Oh, maybe I just need to set an actual time. Maybe I need to set a timer. Maybe I need to have a reward afterwards. Something that's a nice treat. That might be really nice for me. Take a bubble bath or have a hot cup of tea afterward.' Maybe that would help maybe doing it with someone else, you know, getting on a call and, and working on it with someone or having them work on their thing while I work on mine, maybe that'll help.

So there isn't, it isn't like we set up a structure at the beginning and then we're done. Structure is actually a practice. Structure is a practice, and the part of the practice is creating the structure in the first place. Part of the practice also is showing up for that structure and really trusting it. 

Another part of the practice is iterating, creating a new version of it as we go, as we see where it falls short and it's insufficient, at least to the resistance that I have right now. iterating on that. And structure then helps us to be with a uncertainty. 

Okay, so that's a little bit about coming back and some of the things that we might practice. I want to talk about one other opportunity when we fall off track and we're coming back. A lot of times people say, 'Well, you know, it's, it's really simple. I'm just going to do it. I'm just going to say like, I didn't do it. Now I'm going to say, all you got to do is do it. I just have to do it.' 

It's usually not that simple. Sometimes it is. It's like, 'well, I wasn't doing it. Now I'm going to do it. Right. That's all I need to do. It's just tell myself to do it. Just do it, Leo.' But actually, there's usually something else that's there that's getting in the way. It can be really helpful just to pause before you start again and take a look. 

What, what can I notice about how it went? Is there something that I'm resisting? Is there something, is there an emotion that's coming up for me that I I don't want to feel and some avoiding even thinking about it. Is there some kind of judgment that I have for myself that makes me not really want to turn toward it? Is there a feeling of pointlessness that I'm feeling? 

It's hard to distinguish that. But what I'll say is most people don't want to look at that at all. Just like, 'Oh, that's a bunch of messiness and I suck. And it just makes me want to like bury my face in a, you know, in a pillow or bury myself, my head under the ground and not think about it.'

But if you're willing to take a look, be really honest with yourself and take a look at like, what, what did get in the way there? Is there anything I can learn from that? With a sense of compassion and gentleness, but also a really beautiful honesty. You will learn something from that. And so that this doesn't have to be just like, 'Oh, I sucked and now I need to suck less,' but more like, 'Oh yeah, there's something there that's getting in the way. 

There's something I could learn. I can bring curiosity to it. And then I can actually start to work with whatever got in the way'. 

Not as it, it's a problem to be solved or something that sucks about me, but more that it's something for me to continue to work with and learn to get better and better at working with, but maybe it's uncertainty and fear and resistance. Maybe it's self judgment and feeling that you're not doing good at doing, doing a good job. You're not worthy in some way you're inadequate. Maybe there's just some emotion of sadness that you don't want to feel about all of this. 

So, as you take a look at this, just take a little bit of an honest inventory with gentleness and compassion, and see if you can really spend, you know, just a little bit of time taking a look at what got in the way so that you might then be able to spot it the next time and work with it better.

As you do this through these cycles of falling off and coming back, falling off and coming back, these will actually be learning cycles. As opposed to, 'Ah, just like beating myself up cycles', or like I suck cycles. These are learning cycles where we can let ourselves fall and learn from that. 

What I can also say is that it can really help to get support. So if you'd like some, if you'd like a coaching session with me, and you'd like to take a look at what's been getting in the way so that it might serve you, I'm offering a single coaching session as part of this podcast. I've already done a couple of them with people. They're recorded. I haven't put them out yet as of this recording, but I will soon.

And if you'd like to work with me deeper, then you can also reach out. So [email protected], I get every single email there. I don't respond to them all right away, but I will respond to every single one. And that's if you want to work with me in a single session, or if you would like to look into a longer term coaching relationship, 

I'll let you know. It doesn't have to be working with me as a coach, but having some kind of person who could reflect things to you that you can't see, who could spend a little bit of time with you when you've fallen off, and are struggling to come back. It's not about them like pushing you to get started again, it's about them being willing to look with you at what got in the way and are you willing to have something reflected to you that you can't see.

It's really hard to see stuff for ourselves when we are in it, when it's just the air that we breathe. The water that we swim in. So someone who's outside of us who can say, 'Oh, it looks like this.' That can be really, really helpful because we can't see what we can't see. So having someone outside of us really helps. 

A therapist would be another kind of modality. Coaching and therapy are separate, but that's another example of talking with someone and having them take a look at it. Working with a teacher. I work with a Zen teacher also really helps me. 

Working with a group also helps. If you'd like some of that in my Fearless Living Academy, come check that out as well. But working with a coach can be a really helpful. So if you're struggling and you feel like I can't see what I can't see, Find a way to, like, get something reflected to you so that it can really help you to be able to see what you can't see and then start to work with that. 

Okay, believe that's all I have for you today. I'm gonna go do another coaching session right after this, so I'm gonna leave you here. If you are struggling to come back, please work with some of this stuff. Don't just give up. Work with it, and you'll find that you'll enrich your learning and... You'll get better and better at this. So I want to send you all love and I will talk to you all later.

Thanks for listening and watching my podcast.

If you haven't already, please subscribe to this podcast and your favorite podcast app. If you found this episode useful, please share this podcast with someone, you know, who cares deeply. That would be really meaningful to me. And if you'd like to dive deeper with me into this work, please check out the blog at or get in touch at [email protected].

Thanks for listening. I hope you'll join me every Wednesday for more episodes of the Zen Habits podcast.

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Music composition: Salem Beladonna & Robrecht Dumarey

Editor: Justin Cruz