The Contingency Plan2 min read

If you expect that once you start your habit you will perform it without fail until you reach your goal, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. As a result, at the slightest deviation, you may fall into all-or-nothing thinking or the trap of false hope syndrome, hurting your perseverance.

If you expect that your self-control skills are infallible, you fall into restraint bias and will get a painful correction from reality.

The wise approach is to develop a contingency plan for every challenge that may come up—be it internal or external. If your goal is to exercise 30 minutes every morning and avoid a certain food, ask yourself questions like these:

What will I do if…?Contingency Plan
I don’t wake up on time?Do it in the evening after work
I feel extremely tired?Cut it in half, but do it nevertheless
I don’t feel motivated?I’m not expecting motivation; I’ll do it regardless
I am traveling?Plan accordingly so I make time to exercise
My phone rings?Leave it in airplane mode, or call back later
I forget?Create alarms so I don’t forget
My equipment is broken?Do an alternate set of exercises, but exercise!
It gets really difficult?Remember that this too shall pass, and that the pain of exercising is better than the pain of poor health
I’m offered the food I’m trying to avoid?Say “Thanks, but I don’t eat X anymore” or “Thanks, but tonight I’ll have a salad.”

If you have never addressed these type of questions, then when those challenges come up—and they will—you will be caught by surprise. In the moment, you may not have the clarity, time, and willpower to find and implement a solution. As a result, you break your commitment and get a -1.

Expect bumps, difficulties, obstacles, and resistance. Know your weaknesses, your impulse triggers, or other potential enemies. The usual suspects are: tiredness, busyness, excuses, procrastination, low motivation, distractions, failures, and criticism from others. Ignoring your enemies makes you unable to defend yourself. So here, too, awareness is key.

Know and expect all of this—and plan for it, so it won’t break you.


Conduct an obstacle audit and create your contingency plan. 

  1. Make a list of all the challenges, excuses, and obstacles that may tempt you to skip your habit or break your resolution. (If _____ happens,)
  2. Next to or below each item, write how you will respond. Specify the exact action you will take, or the exact self-talk you will use. (I will ______.)
  3. Review this list at least once a week, until it is all internalized.
  4. If needed, go through the POWER Visualization to program your brain to follow through with the plan.

This process allows you to decide in advance how you will deal with challenges. When they show up, you’ll be more resilient, knowing exactly what to do. It will then take less willpower to remain on track with your goals. In a way, you overcome failure before it happens. 

What if none of these challenges show up? Well, then you will be pleased with that surprise!

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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