The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good
Have you heard the quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good”?
The idea has been attributed to several philosophers over the years, notably (via Entrepreneur magazine):
- Voltaire: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
- Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
- Shakespeare: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”
This is incredibly relevant to health and fitness goals, because the number one obstacle that I see holding back many of my clients from making lasting progress is perfectionism.
Just last week, one of my clients asked me again, “What should I do to get stricter with my diet? Do you think that will help?”
And again, my reply was: “NO.”
This is what I told her, and I’m going to share it with you now:
It’s not about being perfect.
It’s not about being 100% adherent to a diet or exercise plan.
It’s not about working harder, feeling worse, or beating yourself up more.
As I’ve written many times (including in my Amazon e-book, Fit Smart Fast), getting stricter and coming down harder on yourself is not progress away from failure or slip-ups – it is simply the other side of the same coin.
In other words, if you don’t like how you’re feeling or how you’re performing, being harder on yourself is only going to perpetuate the cycle of spinning your wheels – not get you out of the rut.
Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
The problem with identifying perfectionism is that it’s sneaky. Most people equate perfectionism fastidious personalities and overachievers (i.e. the A+ student who beats herself up for an A-). But the reality is that perfectionism and self-criticism are often correlated with worse performance. In the world of weight loss, health, and fitness, “performance” could mean:
- Being able to stick to an eating plan or intention
- Being able to stick with an exercise plan
- Being able to handle life’s curve balls
The ultimate outcome of perfectionism, leading to poor performance, is that people don’t see the results they want to see, and they don’t feel good about themselves.
Perfectionism isn’t about beating yourself up for a 99 instead of a 100. It’s more likely to manifest itself as:
- “Falling off the wagon” on Thursday night and having trouble getting re-started until Monday morning
- Never exercising at all because the perfect time to do the “right” workout never presents itself
- Not changing eating habits because of uncertainty over the “right” diet
So if perfectionism isn’t the answer… what is?
The Magic of Good Enough, Most of the Time
Instead, let’s just work toward good. To see real progress, your exercise or nutrition plan needs to be executed pretty well, most of the time, with “good enough” accuracy and consistency.
I promise, as hard as it may be to believe, that this is the path to success.
So instead of focusing on doing things perfectly – and thus instigating the up-and-down cycle of short periods of perfect adherence followed by long, counterproductive periods of giving up – let’s build the three following skills:
Consistency is the most important quality of building long-term habits and results that you feel really good about.
In real-life terms, consistency means:
- Hitting your nutrition, exercise, and activity goals (or close to them) 5-6 days out of the week
- Choosing to do something instead of nothing, even if the “something” isn’t what you planned
- Bouncing back quickly from perceived slip-ups (i.e. you planned to cook dinner at home on Friday but got takeout instead)
Consistency is essential because you are better off making a B+ in your health and fitness goals every day than you are making two A+’s and five F’s each week. Your overall “average” will be higher with lots of pretty good days strung together than a few excellent days punctuating long periods of inaction.
It’s hard to say which is more important – preparation or consistency – because preparation tends to make consistency possible.
In reality, preparation means:
- Using the clarity of advance planning to decide on many routines and decisions in advance
- Regularly going through the motions of setting yourself up for success (i.e. grocery shopping at least once per week)
- Putting workouts or other behaviors in your calendar and planning time and space to achieve them
Preparation makes follow-through possible.
Finally, a huge part of making preparation and consistency work is having a realistic agenda that fits your lifestyle and personality.
- Using convenient services that make your life easier (i.e. if you have a busy full-time job, complementing your own cooking with a subscription meal delivery service)
- Using accountability (i.e. if you know you have trouble sticking with things, enlisting a buddy or hiring professional help)
- Planning for life’s curve balls (i.e. if you have small children, planning short workouts that can be inserted quickly into any part of the day instead of needing lots of dedicated time and space)
- Choosing small wins to accomplish in the short-term, instead of setting huge goals in the long-term
Consistency, preparation, and realism allow you to achieve the magic of “good enough,” which will lead to amazing results over time.
Moreover, this mindset is more self-compassionate. The goal is to get out of the “beat-yourself-up” and “buckle-down” downward spiral, and into a successful, achieving upward cycle. Build success on success on success, and your standards will naturally rise as you achieve one goal after another.
Don’t fall for the trap of thinking that getting stricter is the path to success. Instead, take a step back and assess your lifestyle for weak points, to figure out where you could become:
- More consistent in your execution
- More prepared and forward-thinking in your approach
- More realistic in your goal-setting, planning, and assessment of yourself
Most of all, think about how you could be kinder to yourself in the process!