Everyone encounters stumbling blocks as they work towards a goal. We resolve to eat healthier, but the grocery store is out of the veggies we want. Or we commit to an exercise program, then come down with a cold or get busy at work and miss a few workouts.

Frustration and setbacks tell people something important; they just need to figure out what the message is.

Setbacks are bound to happen when we set a goal. It's what you do when setbacks occur that can make a difference between reaching your goal and giving up.

These setbacks, or action crises, are circumstances that make us question whether the pursuit of a goal is still important. Researchers looked at what happens when people encounter obstacles to their goals. Their work gives us a better understanding of how people react to action crises and ways to head them off. Since so many of the goals we set for ourselves involve improving our health, getting better at moving past the obstacles we encounter is a public health bonus.

Setbacks can present a significant challenge to the pursuit of a goal, Richard Vann, lead author of the study, told TheDoctor. He added, “When goals are blocked by obstacles, we often feel bad about ourselves and stop pursuing these goals.”

To learn more about what multiple setbacks, or action crises, looked like, the researchers studied how they operated in the pursuit of three different goals — becoming a more environmentally-conscious shopper, having a better doctor-patient relationship and losing weight. They conducted five studies using a series of online questionnaires designed to simulate the sorts of setbacks a person might face in pursuit of a goal.

The trick is to learn to spot an upcoming action crisis before giving up or giving in.

Setbacks tend to lead people to disengage from, or abandon, their goal, rather than reaffirm their commitment to it, the researchers found. So the idea is to help people recognize an action crisis before it takes hold and derails their pursuit of their goal. For example, a person may start having negative thoughts, thinking “It's so hard to remember to take my medications.” If the person can recognize that this is an action crisis, they are less likely to abandon their goal.

Other responses are possible, too, Vann says, “They can either tweak their approach towards reaching their goal, or they can seek an alternative goal better suited to their current circumstances.” The person who realized he or she was having trouble sticking to the medications their doctor had prescribed might look for a time of day when they were more likely to remember to take them, or a place to store pills where they couldn't be forgotten.

Getting Past Setbacks and Helping Others

The trick is to learn to spot an upcoming action crisis before giving up or giving in. This makes it be more likely you will stick to your goal, perhaps with the help of others familiar with the process of struggling with their goals.

It helps to be a good listener, said Vann, an assistant professor of marketing at Penn State University. If you know someone who is trying to change his or her habits, listen to how they talk about it. People should be talking about what they are doing and plans they are making to reach their goal. If they start saying things like, “I don't know. I am just not sure this is worth it,” they are probably facing an action crisis.

Instead of just facing mounting frustration, people should seek out alternative goals.

At that point, if you want to help someone reach their goal, ask them what they think their setback might mean. Frustration and an action crisis tell people something important, Vann said. And they need to figure out what the message is.

It could be they need to try a different approach, instead of continuing to do the same things that are not working. So it can be an opportunity to make a few changes to their goal or their plan for reaching it.

If a person cannot come up with possible changes they could make to reach their goal, it might be time to acknowledge their goal doesn’t really work for them. At that stage, Vann suggests that, instead of just facing mounting frustration, people should seek out alternative goals. “You don’t want the action crisis to continue. Evidence exists this can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. Fix your approach to achieving the goal, or change the goal.”

The team hopes to apply their work on action crises to how people deal with setbacks in medication adherence and health behavior adherence and who is particularly vulnerable to setbacks. Knowing what action crises look like for those trying to make healthier lifestyle choices or stick with a medication regimen could help people stay the course to a healthier life.

The study was published in Psychology & Marketing.