Don’t Let Your 2024 Goals Drift Into Failure Here we go again
No, not another year ticking over - though that is happening. More on that in a bit. I mean, I am late with my home. Again. This was supposed to be an article for October, but here I am, on December 29th, in Austria, having my own drift into failure moment.
Lucky for me, Oska is so easy going. I love frameworks. Having done my time down the bunny hole of specific physiologic pathways and mechanistic understandings of how we work, these days I am much more inclined to loves me a good framework for understanding how us funny monkeys operate, physiologically and psychologically.
One framework I stumbled upon this year was that of a concept known as “Drifting into Failure.”
"Drift into Failure" is a book by Sidney Dekker that examines the ways in which complex systems (which you and your body/brain are certainly one) can drift into failure, and how these failures can often be traced back to small, seemingly insignificant events or decisions.
Dekker argues that many large-scale failures, such as plane crashes or nuclear accidents, are not the result of a single catastrophic event, but rather the accumulation of a series of small failures or errors that ultimately lead to disaster. These failures can occur in any complex system, whether it be an aeroplane, a nuclear power plant, a hospital, or human beings (think physiology, psychology, relationships, and so on).
Spend enough time on this rock circling a star seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and I am sure you can quickly think of a few of your own Chernobyl moments - those small, seemingly insignificant events or decisions which accumulated over weeks, months, and years, resulting in “catastrophic failure”.
Dekker argues that in order to prevent drift into failure, it is important to focus on the root causes of these small deviations and address them before they become larger problems.
Let’s start with an oil tanker-sized example and then we can move closer to talking about you.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on March 24, 1989 when it ran aground on a reef in Alaska, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. According to Dekker’s “Drifting into Failure” framework, the disaster was not the result of a single event, but rather the accumulation of a series of small failures and errors.
For instance, the captain of the tanker was drunk at the time of the accident. However, this was not the root cause of the disaster. Rather, it was the result of a culture within the company that did not prioritise safety and allowed the captain to continue working despite his apparent alcohol abuse. Additionally, there were problems with the ship's navigation equipment and the crew's training, which also contributed to the accident. Oil tankers are one thing. But what about something a bit closer to home?
You are out for a run and you catch an edge on your shoe, rolling your ankle and rotating your knee, giving your ligaments in both structures a catastrophic stretch.
Or perhaps not.
What if that catastrophic accident was the accumulation of a series of decisions made over time, creating a situation whereby if something was going to go wrong, it was going to go really very badly wrong?
Could it be that the trip happened late in an extended run when you were fatigued? You went out at a faster pace than your coach had been telling you to keep and it was more important to keep up with your friends and/or set a cracking pace on Strava. You went out with little to no fuel in the morning because fasting = fat burning. Nor did you take on any fuel during your run despite being out over 90 minutes.
The fatigue created from the above scenario made you a bit more careless and clumsy, and more prone to dragging your feet.
In the weeks prior to your trip above, you had been, let’s say, a little bit lacklustre in your enthusiasm for getting into the gym and doing that programme your coach tells you is there to help resist fatigue and to minimise injury in such a scenario. Your lack of consistency - through those small decisions where you tell yourself you’ll just skip this workout and make it up later - helped create a catastrophic scenario.
Maybe that fight you had with your partner just a few days before also contributed? You did what you always do - shutdown - and not address the underlying issues in your relationship. Your coping strategy, as always, is to go for a run. But running when emotionally upset and having your brain replay the whole thing over and again, meant that you were watching where you put your feet.
Now of course, accidents do happen. But more often than not, when I put my own coaching clients through the Spanish Inquisition post-catastrophic injury-causing event, there are a series of small decisions and contributing factors - proximate and distal to the event - which certainly didn’t help an individual’s cause.
In outlining and creating some understanding around this concept and framework, the goal is to recognise how small, seemingly insignificant choices, behaviours, or habits can accumulate over time, leading to negative consequences or a decline in personal wellbeing. And in creating that recognition, we can, hopefully, be less flippant toward or dismissive of the broader, more holistic parts of our wellbeing simply because we’d rather spend more time running.
This framework, like so many, runs deep. When you start to think about it more and apply to yourself, you very quickly get lost in the Multiverse of your own life. To unpack how it might apply to each and every dimension of wellbeing in our lives (physical, emotional, social, intellectual, occupational, financial, environmental, and existential), would see me writing a tome of an essay that nobody would read (though it might put me in article credit with Oska for a couple of years…).
To keep things short and knowing that everyone loves a good listicle, here are some specific examples of how we might drift into failure in pursuit of our athletic endeavours: -
If an individual gradually becomes inconsistent in their training routine, skipping key workouts (*cough* strength training *cough*) or neglecting proper recovery, it can lead to a decline in performance. Small deviations from the training plan may seem insignificant in the short term but can accumulate over time, resulting in decreased fitness levels. -
Nutrition and Hydration
Neglecting proper nutrition and hydration may seem like it will have an immediate impact, but over the course of training, it can contribute to fatigue, decreased energy levels, and compromised performance. And as per my earlier example, decreased energy and increased fatigue are the perfect starting ingredients for an injury. Small lapses (or not so small, as is sadly so often the case) in maintaining adequate food intake and hydration can lead to a drift into suboptimal energy levels with consequences, one way or another. -
Ignoring early signs of discomfort, failing to address minor injuries, or neglecting proper strength and mobility training can contribute to an insidious decline in our physical wellbeing. This can eventually lead to more severe injuries, hindering the ability to train effectively. We may say we haven’t the time to factor in these important training strategies, but if you aren’t prepared to take a couple of hours a week for injury reduction work, then you best be prepared to make time for several weeks and months of reduced training when a significant injury does occur.
Goal Setting and Progress
Tracking Losing sight of initial goals or failing to regularly assess and adjust one’s training plan, may see an individual drift into a state of stagnation. Regular goal setting and progress tracking are essential for maintaining motivation and ensuring continuous improvement. Having someone that is not yourself to check in with and who is more objective about you than you ever will be is a good idea (aka, a coach - preferably one you don’t sleep with because objectivity fails at that point). -
Emotional Regulation and Mental Resilience
Over time, external factors or life stressors may impact an individual's mental resilience and motivation for running. If not addressed, these issues can lead to a gradual decline in the enjoyment and psychological benefits of our physical endeavours.
By the time this gets published, I am probably going to be late to the new year’s resolution setting party. But given that Monday’s, the first of the month, or a new year, are all opportunities to hit the reset button (with the new year beginning Monday, 1st, 2024, even the most OCD of us should be happy, IYKYK), now is a good opportunity avoid slapping some fresh makeup on our mistakes of the past, and especially avoid making the common decisions (train longer, harder, faster, more whilst eating less than is recommended for a small child) that can see us drift into failure.
Rather than resolving to make some sort of unsustainable drastic change, I would encourage people to slow the f*&k down and take a more gradual approach to 2024.
Take this framework and try to identify a previous failure that you “drifted” into. It doesn’t have to be fitness-related. Personal finances, personal relationships, anything - it is all up for grabs. And the thing that really bakes most people’s noodle - it is all interconnected. Pull on a thread and see what unravels.
What were the causes of the failure? Not the superficial, easy to reach failures. If “old shoes” were the in-reach failure, dig deeper. Why didn’t you replace them? Get uncomfortable.
These root causes become the real areas to dig into and set some goals and strategies around. Underfuelling yourself? Why? Want to lose some weight when you probably really don’t need to? Why?
If you arrive at an answer like “my mother teased me for having bigger legs when I was 16”, there is your root cause to address.
But if you twisted your knee because you didn’t eat enough before your run, and your superficial reason is that “being lighter will make me run faster”, but your REAL reason is that your mother taunted you as a teenager, be prepared to keep on drifting into failure until you are prepared to address that deeper complexity.
As they say here in Austria, Guten Rutsch (Happy New Year)