Skip to content

What to do when things go wrong

Setbacks are inevitable.  The key is to get back on track as quickly as possible.  Shift away from dwelling on the problem.  Instead, focus on recovering.  Use this four-step method:

  1. Ground yourself
  2. Get in the right mindset
  3. Develop a plan
  4. Make progress

Step 1: Ground yourself

When we get really stressed, our brain flips into emergency mode. This mode was designed primarily to help us manage physical threats. It’s not always very good at helping us think calmly and logically. Therefore, the first step in coping with a setback is to get grounded so you can think clearly about your options. It can be hard to prioritize grounding when you’re worried about what needs to get done. But it only takes a couple minutes and will help you be more efficient and effective.

Different grounding strategies work for different people. We recommend experimenting to figure out what works for you.

Cue-controlled Breathing

Taking a few deep, slow breaths can help calm you down. Try this breathing technique:

  1. Breath in
  2. Say the word “calm” or “relax” silently in your own mind
  3. Breath out, focusing on relaxing your muscles as much as possible

Repeat these steps 4 times. Try to relax a little bit more with each repetition.

Finger tracing

Many people find it more calming to combine finger tracing with breathing. As you trace up a finger, breathe in. As you trace down, breathe out. Repeat as needed.

hand grounding technique

Using your senses

If breathing doesn’t help, then use your senses to help you shift focus. Please modify as needed if your disability impacts your senses. In general, it’s best to choose stimuli that are neutral to positive.


5 things you can see
4 things you can feel
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste

Step 2: Get in the right mindset

Mistakes and failures are unavoidable parts of learning. You can experience setbacks and still achieve success. 

Setbacks become larger problems when they completely derail you. To keep setbacks from escalating, you need to move forward. We are more likely to get stuck in a setback when we view it as a sign of incompetence or failure.


Angela Duckworth, a researcher who studies successful people, has identified gift as a crucial ingredient to achieving success. Grit is caring deeply about a goal and continuing to work toward that goal even when you face difficulties or make mistakes or find it painful to keep going. Talent and luck are also factors that contribute to success but Dr. Duckworth believes that grit matters at least as much.

Growth mindset

One effective way of working through setbacks is to adopt a growth mindset. The concept of a growth mindset comes out of research done by Carol Dweck. She differentiates between two mindsets: fixed mindset and growth mindset.

Fixed Mindset 

You view your abilities and intelligence as static, meaning that you don’t think you can improve them with effort.


  • Failure viewed as a sign of incompetence
  • Less likely to take risks
  • Avoid or react strongly to constructive criticism
  • Overwhelmed by setbacks
  • Leads to stagnation

Growth Mindset 

You believe intelligence and abilities can be developed.


  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist when things don’t go as planned
  • Focus on effort rather than outcome
  • Greater likelihood that you’ll be able to push yourself to grow and change in significant ways

Using a growth mindset to deal with setbacks

With a growth mindset, successful people focus on learning from mistakes and setbacks. Try re-framing defeating thoughts into something more encouraging.

Step 3: Develop a plan

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 


When you encounter a setback, you need to figure out what to do next. In most cases, doing the same thing you were doing before will likely yield the same outcome, so you’ll need to figure out a new strategy.

#1 Determine priorities

How do you tend to react to setbacks? Do you get overly focused on solving the problem at the expense of finishing other work? Or do you tend to jump off tasks prematurely when you encounter difficulties? Knowing yourself will help you assess whether you need to work through the setback or shift gears to complete other work.

Ask yourself, “is there something else I need to work on right now?” It can be hard to leave a problem unsolved but you need to take a step back and take stock of all the things you need to do in the next 24 hours. Make sure that experiencing a setback does not cause you to neglect other work you need to complete that could have a bigger effect on your performance. Create a list of all the things you need to complete and then prioritize them.

#2 Create your action plan

Your action plan will have two parts. The first part should map out what you hope to accomplish in the next 1-2 days based on your priorities. The second part is how you will tackle the specific setback.

When creating your plan for addressing the setback, consider the following questions:

Who needs to know about this setback (professor? DRS coordinator? Academic advisor? Classmate?)?

What are one or two things I can do to address the setback?

Is there a skill or knowledge base I need to learn?

Where or from whom can I get help?

Do not spend more than 30 minutes creating your new plan. Your time and energy is limited. Save most of it for actually doing the work. Your plan does not need to be perfect. It just needs to be good enough.

Step 4: Make progress

This is the most important step in the whole process. Whether you are going to work on solving the problem you’re facing or you are planning to get other work completed, accept that it will feel unpleasant. Do not wait until you feel resolved about the setback to take the next step. Moving forward will be hard but the sooner you start making progress, the better you’ll be able to recover from the setback.

Try this simple trick:

  1. Break down the first step in making progress to the smallest achievable task.  It doesn’t matter how small the task is.  What matters is that you’re able to complete it.  For example, if you need to start working on something else, the smallest achievable task may be opening up the assignment or reading a single paragraph.

  2. Once you’ve completed that smallest achievable task, take a moment to notice that you achieved your goal. DO NOT skip this step. It is very important.

  3. Then repeat the process with the next step. As much as possible, keep your focus on what you need to do in the next five minutes. Any time you start to worry about the setback or feel overwhelmed by what you need to do, bring your attention back to the process of identifying an achievable task and then doing it.