When Do Athletes Fail? By FitDeck Founder, Phil Black

Mental Edge Monday Topic #14: When do people fail?
By Phil Black, FitDeck Cards Founder

No, that is not a typo in the headline. I want to explore the “when” versus the “why” people fail in reaching their goals.

We are all too familiar with the conventional reasons why most people fail to follow-through on goals – laziness, lack of willpower, unrealistic goals, lack of knowledge on how to reach their goal, etc.

I’ve become fascinated not by the “why”, but the “when.” Of course, these two notions are interrelated, but the “when” gives us a much more granular level of insight into the psychology behind failure.

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Let me propose a fictitious person/scenario to explore this concept further. Here are some assumptions:

Name: John (married, 1.5 kids, 38 yrs old)

Occupation: web developer (8am-6pm, 5 days a week)

Exercise: occasionally (when he can squeeze it in)

Eating habits: mediocre

Goal: lose 15-20 lbs before his H.S. Reunion in 4 months

Motivation level: 7 out of 10

Method: eat “clean” for 30 days

Let’s assume I have given John very clear instructions on how to eat “clean” for 30 days. I’ve given him a list of foods he can eat, a plate to eat the food on, and a basic eating schedule. He just has to follow the prescribed plan. In other words, it’s not lack of understanding that would derail his efforts.

Now, let’s assume I’m a hummingbird hovering around John’s head all day long, observing his behavior. Here’s what I see:

Day 1: Perfect. He eats all the right foods in the proper quantities.

Day 2: Perfect. He eats all the right foods in the proper quantities.

Day 3: Problem. John’s 3-yr old daughter wakes up at 6am with a terrible cough. His wife now needs his help with the kids so John’s morning schedule is thrown off. John ends up running out the door in a hurry to catch his morning commuter train.

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This unexpected event throws John’s morning routine into a tailspin. He normally prepares a brown bag lunch the night before and eats a “clean” breakfast at home before leaving for work. John was busy and tired the night before and decided that he would prepare his lunch the next morning. Unfortunately, he ran out of time.

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John is now stressed out, disheveled from the morning activities, and getting hungrier by the second. Instead of his “clean” breakfast (egg whites, fruit, and oatmeal), John opts for a scone at the train station deli cart (DP #1, 8:32am). What choice did he have?

[Before we continue, I’d like to introduce the term Deviation Point or DP. I define Deviation Point as the precise point (down to the second) that one’s behavior runs counter to their stated goal.]

DP #1 The instant that John opted for the scone at the train station (8:32am), he deviated from his goal. We will call this exact moment in time, Deviation Point #1 (DP #1).

John’s not happy. He knows he already messed up his goal of 3 clean meals a day for 30 days. How will he respond to this mistake?

John shows up to work a few minutes late and is visibly stressed. His phone is ringing and his emails are piling up. By the time he comes up for air, it’s already 12:50pm. He forgot to pack a snack, and his morning scone left him feeling hungry 30 minutes after he ate it. He’s famished.

His co-workers walk by his office and invite him out to the all-you-can-eat pasta bar across the street. Uh, oh! Pasta bar is not on the “clean eating” program, but he figures he’ll be able to find something on his list of approved foods.

By the time John and his friends shuffle up to the buffet, John is so hungry he can barely see straight. Everyone in front of him loads up on focaccia pizza bread, calzones, and corn muffins. John decides that since he didn’t have a big breakfast that a slight deviation from the approved lunch plan isn’t too big a deal. “Two focaccia breads and a calzone, please,” John says to the server (DP #2, 1:14pm).

DP #2 The instant John opted for the focaccia bread, he was done. He’d thrown in the towel. He was no more than 3 days into his 30-day plan and he was already two DPs deep.

How many DPs do you think it will take before John gives up on his plan completely? Probably not too many more. Once the first DP is perpetrated, subsequent DPs come quickly.

When exactly did John fail? This is an interesting philosophical question. Well, here are a few options:

1.Before he even started: Some people might argue that John failed before he even started because the goal itself was flawed. Losing weight in order to look better for a high school reunion is not the most compelling reason in the world. Maybe John’s fear (pain) of looking overweight at his reunion was not strong enough to overcome the daily behavior change required of the program?

2.The night before: Maybe John gave up the night before, when he made the decision that he was too tired and busy to prepare for the next day. This was a crucial point in time where John failed himself. Had John pushed through his fatigue and prepared his lunch and snacks the night before, he may not have fallen so quickly so fast.

3.”SconeGate”: Some might argue that the instant John decided to buy the scone from the street vendor, he was done. If his goal was to eat clean for 30 days, why go scone so fast. Even though his clean breakfast routine was interrupted, he could have figured out a way to find a better breakfast option than a scone.
No one will ever know for sure which DP did John in. In a perfect world, the instant a DP occurs, we would send in an Intervention Team to discuss the situation with John. It might sound something like this:

Intervention Team to John: “John, do you realize that by skipping your next day preparation, that you are setting yourself up for failure? You have very little margin of error in the morning. Prepare your lunch and snacks now so that tomorrow morning there is virtually no risk of failure.”


Intervention Team to John (DP #1): “John, I know it may sound like a harmless decision right now to buy a scone, but don’t do it. It will throw off your goal and lead you to make further poor decisions that will compound your problems. Come up with another alternative.”


Intervention Team to John (DP #2): “John, as good as that pasta bar sounds, don’t do it. You’ve already had a miscue this morning. Don’t make matters worse. Get a grip on yourself and get back on track. I know you’re starving and all your friends are doing it, but you’re not like them for the next 30 days.”

The most successful people have their own internal Intervention Team working 24/7. Some people call it discipline. Others call it their conscience. Whatever the term, this internal Intervention Team engages in fierce debates every second of the day. The more times the good guys win, the better.

The next time you set a goal, be conscious of your conscience. Whether you’re trying to finish that novel, learn a new language, or lose some weight. Be aware of the internal debates going on in your own mind. Manage your Deviation Points. When you feel a DP coming on, and you’re reaching for that scone, have an intervention with yourself. Turn a Deviation Point into an Inflection Point – the point at which you decided to turn back the demons, and move on with the mission.

Next time you set a goal and fail to follow-through on it, please email me. I want to know the exact time, date, and circumstances surrounding the DP. I’m building a list of the Top 100 DPs that prevent people from reaching their goals. With this list in hand, we can start building our list of pre-emptive strikes.

Until next week, Keep the Edge.

Phil Black (FitDeck Founder)
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