December 8, 2015 - Written by:

The Fear of Failure and How to Use it to Motivate You

Lying side by side in the darkness one evening, at that time of night when we know we should be sleeping but have our most honest conversations, he asked me something he had yet to learn about me: ‘What are you most afraid of? Is it Spiders? Snakes?’

No, I’m not scared of spiders or snakes, although perhaps I ought to be. I used to say I was most scared of nothingness, the white space around the edge of the universe, the gap created by the page margins if you were to print it on a piece of paper. But I grew out of that idea.

My biggest fear is failure.

This is the kind of anxiety that permeates everything, runs soul-deep and will affect me on every level. I cannot stand the idea of going through life without achieving anything. While I know, on a conscious level, that I’m victim to my own ambition, it is much harder to dismiss on the emotional level. My fear is sometimes so overwhelming that it stops me getting things done.

Day to day, failure in the little things makes me nervous. Things like whether or not I make time to post that letter, whether I am on time for my lectures, whether I get any writing done, whether I remembered to check my emails or call my family.

With the fear comes that disappointment at the end of a less-than-perfect day, when at 10pm I have only managed number one on the to-do list scribbled in the dark the night before. I have been known to break down in tears halfway through a day like this, when an attempt to visit the bank on my cycle home was greeted with a blank look from a security guard as he motioned for me to leave. The fear of failing can be so impenetrable that it seem to work against me in every effort I make.


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Long-term goals, though, are harder to pin down, harder to plan for, and therefore harder to achieve. I find myself oscillating from one extreme to the other regarding my mid- and long-term goals. There are Friday evenings when I think to myself: ‘I did a lot of writing this week’ or, ‘wow, I used so many new Chinese words in conversation this week.’ But then there are those weeks when I have scheduled 13 days of solid work-work-work and all I want to do is crawl up and hibernate before work starts again. On those days, I can’t see the wood for the trees.

But those days are few and far between now. Why? Because there are ways to flip this fear on its head and turn it into a motivation tool!

While it’s been a steep learning curve, often struggling over how best to balance things, the past few months have taught me a lot about using my time productively whilst staying happy and healthy, and I feel like I am really achieving something tangible.

Want to improve your productivity and turn the fear of failure into a vehicle of success? Here are six things that have worked for me:

1. Organise your time.

Build a schedule that allows you to plan your day / week / month / year (circle as appropriate) and make enough time to reach your goal for that day. If you can see, at a glance, that work tomorrow is far busier than today, or next week is going to be a mad rush, then it is easier to plan, ready yourself, and make sure you’re not neglecting your personal aims. 

2. Create reachable goals. 

Dreaming big is great, but long-term goals can be elusive. It can be hard to know where to start. But, as an ancient Chinese idiom teaches: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Even when you’re not sure exactly where your current path will lead, making baby steps on a daily basis will steadily take you miles in the right direction. Break down ‘Learn French’ into studying 10 new words per day, and you’ll be fluent before you know it!

3. Monitor success.

There are few things more satisfying than completing your goals, but that feeling of accomplishment is amplified when you tick off the task written your to do list. Whether you’re crossing things out, rubbing things off the surface of a whiteboard or adding a note to your online schedule (or all three), it’s a great idea to measure your progress so that you can be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Make it public, if that’s the way you work – create a graphic that you can update, or post something online so that your friends and family can share in your success and encourage you further.

4. Reinforce good habits.

It is said that doing something daily for 100 days makes something habitual. The brain begins to bypass decision-making at the conscious level and you start doing things automatically. If you build a good habit into your daily routine (eg. cycling to work or studying French for ten minutes), in time it will become as automatic to you as brushing your teeth before bed.

If you reward yourself every time you successfully complete the task, you will be happier to do it daily and soon it will become a reward in itself

5. Build in down-time.

Nobody can work 24/7 without a break. Staying healthy is one thing many people find difficult during times of additional stress. Whether or not you’re closing in on a deadline, make time to eat well, sleep and exercise regularly. Try not to let your schedule compel you to become a total hermit – make time to let your hair down and relax, however you like to do it best.

6. Do something you love, everyday. 

Whether it is running or reading or watching movies or drinking tea (or a combination of all four), make time to do these things. Things like this will help you maintain a healthy balance, so that you can keep calm under pressure when it arises.

One thing that really inspired me was watching this TedX Talk by Reggie Rivers: If you want to achieve your goals, don’t focus on them. 

If you enjoyed this post, why not check out ‘Are You Successful? 4 Things You Need to Ask Yourself’?




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