5 Solutions to Overcome Perfectionism

The Connection Between Perfectionism and Consistency Issues

If you’re struggling with consistency, the first thing I would like to point out is that consistency issues and perfectionism are closely linked.

For example, my training software calculates that someone has stuck with their workouts and nutrition with “high compliance” if they are at 80%. And I think this is fair! This means if you have five movement goals per week (let’s say three workouts and two runs), you’re nailing all five on many weeks, but on other weeks maybe you’re dropping to four sessions, or even three when needed.

Similarly, if you have 21 meals per week, that means that you’re eating 17 generally healthy, well-planned meals, with four meals that are more relaxed (think: date night with your spouse, or takeout on a busy evening).

The problem is when people miss a workout or two, and then completely stop exercising. This is perfectionism, because they have been taught to reflexively think that 80% isn’t good enough.

So if consistency doesn’t mean perfection, what does it mean?

I think of consistency in three ways:

  • It means if you get a LITTLE thrown off, you can balance yourself out with your behaviors, be flexible in your mindset, and get back to equilibrium quickly.
  • It means you’re getting most of your health-promoting behaviors accomplished on an average weekly basis.
  • It means that, in the words of Adam Bornstein in his wonderful new book, “You Can’t Screw This Up,” you’re having no “zero percent” weeks.

But perfectionism collides with these goals, causing you to experience guilt and shame (“I went off track”) if you fall short.

Here are five solutions for overcoming perfectionism, to help you better set yourself up for success. Do you relate to any of these?

Solution #1: Choose routines that are resilient and “life-proof.”

This is a big one. If you’re struggling with consistency because you’re waiting for life to “calm down” to buckle down and focus on your fitness and health, then the unspoken assumption is that you’re going to fall back off the wagon as soon as you get busy again (or when something stressful happens). This is highly indicative of perfectionism. I strongly encourage clients to start with Plan B, C, or even G – not Plan A. Focusing on the lifestyle habits that can be maintained even when things get rough (or super fun, like a vacation!) is the key to success.

To be honest, even the idea of “getting started” is a problematic construct. It suggests to me that you think of healthy habits as a huge project that will require massive personal resources, requiring you to stay perfectly on track.

Instead, choose routines that are “life-proof” – habits that tend to be resilient to changes in schedule, stress, or family life. This isn’t an ironclad rule, but I find for many people that exercising in the morning is a little more life-proof than exercising later in the day, since the morning tends to be more consistent even when life is busy.

Another example would be choosing shorter workouts. You can always exercise more, but you’re not putting pressure on yourself that you’re “falling short” if you don’t have time for a 90-minute workout four days a week.

Rather than thinking about “getting started” or “buckling down,” envision what are 1-2 small behaviors that you could add into your life that would be easy to maintain even if you had a family crisis, a work deadline, a vacation, or a sick kid.

I compare this approach to folding laundry or unloading the dishwasher, vs. doing a deep clean of the entire house. We can’t (and don’t) do deep cleans every single week – while it might be nice, it’s not necessary and we don’t have time. But what’s reasonable on a daily basis that keeps our house in good working order? Small tasks like laundry, dishes, light straightening, and other habits that keep things from getting out of control.

Client Spotlights

Christine, who is one of the busiest business owners I know, votes for morning workouts to help boost consistency: “I really focus on doing them in the morning so I can’t make any excuses for not having time.”

Ashley, a school counselor, agrees, keeping her schedule basically the same when she’s off for the summer with her kids: “I find it easiest when to stick to a schedule regardless of time of year. So although I may wake up later I still try to move my body as I would during the other times of year.”

Solution #2: Adjust instead of quit.

Do you find that your exercise or nutrition routines are interrupted by extended “breaks” when something about your routine changes? Like when school is out for the summer, or when you travel?

It’s one thing if there is something truly exceptional happens (i.e., a hospital stay). The problem emerges, however, when life is a chain of constant exceptions. This can deep interrupt the ability to form good habits and internalize enjoyment and appreciation for a healthy lifestyle.

If your life has a persistent “up and down” quality, you have a few options to overcome perfectionism. You can either address the irregularity directly (i.e., are you over-committing? Is it something within your control?), or you can become more nimble at rearranging your schedule to fit changes in life.

Look at the big picture in your schedule, and be proactive about adjusting and rearranging. This can really help to weaken the grip of perfectionism, and allow you to be more consistent overall, while embracing life’s challenges.

Client Spotlight

Michelle, a high school administrator, observes that this is particularly relevant for travel. “Pivoting has happened as I’ve had to do a little traveling,” she says. “I’ve had to rearrange my days off to manage flights, driving, etc. I also always try to find the fitness room in the hotels we stay in BEFORE I go work out in them. That way I know what my workout can look like.”

Similarly, Kevin, a finance executive whose kids are off of school for the summer, adds: “In the summer our mornings are actually less hectic, so the time crunch to rush through getting in a workout before school gets much more relaxed and easier to accomplish, especially with an existing routine.”

Solution #3: Plan ahead, rather than hoping that things go perfectly on their own.

If workouts often get derailed as the day goes on, planning ahead and scheduling your workouts (or even your walks) is essential. This can help to overcome perfectionism because you don’t depend on things going perfectly.

Scheduling makes you get more specific and more realistic about the problems you might encounter. Literally put it in your calendar! While habits form best if behaviors are repeated in a similar way each day (i.e., always exercising right after work), you can still get the job done by strategically planning ahead, especially if you have an irregular schedule.

Client Spotlight

Nicole, a hospital administrator, says, “For me it’s about being flexible with the routine. Working out everyday at the exact same time may not be possible – setting time on the calendar each day that works for me and the kids takes off a lot of the ‘I will never have time’ pressure we put on ourselves. I work out in my basement. I’ll tell the kids to come on down and play while mommy exercises. They cheer me on and dance to the music! It’s become a normal part of their routine to see mommy get a workout in.”

Shiva, a physician’s assistant with a constantly-changing hospital schedule, adds: “For a long time I struggled with consistency because I thought of it as doing the same things at the same time. But because my life is so unpredictable and variable I would fail to meet that bar, creating a narrative that I was an undisciplined and inconsistent person (and increasing my sense of hopelessness around fitness). Being consistent with my values instead of specific actions introduced me to adaptability. Things don’t always have to look the same, as long as I’m being conscientious of my greater goals and making some effort toward them.”

Solution #4: Focus more on what to add, rather than on what to limit or avoid.

Are you struggling with consistency because just when you start working on healthier eating habits, you’re almost immediately confronted with a social event that de-rails your plan?

(P.S. here is a blog post with healthy ideas for entertaining)

Just like in #1, when I mentioned that the very construct of “getting started” is problematic, I would argue that the idea of “following a plan” is similarly counterproductive, and indicative of perfectionism.

Instead of shaping your diet around what you avoid, create your new eating habits based on what you emphasize. The fewer “rules” you have, the harder it is to break them. If you swear off sugar, gluten, dairy, and refined carbohydrates, your diet is going to be radically challenged almost every single day and will require an incredibly high level of commitment. Because people tend to be more consistent when they feel more successful, constantly making exceptions to a diet can torpedo it right from the beginning.

But if your changed eating habits are based on eating goals, guidelines, and skills, these behaviors adapt easily to almost any situation, and provide you with a stronger feeling of success. Meaning, you could have a hamburger, chips, and salad at a barbecue and feel like a failure, or you could have a hamburger, chips, and salad and feel like a success. Same food, different feelings.

Plus, when people feel they are winning at their new goals, they often avoid the whiplash that diets often cause: the “I blew it” compensatory overeating when feeling lazy/undisciplined/unsuccessful.

This “I blew it” feeling is also a perfectionism red flag – if this is a common feeling for you, think about reframing your goals to focus on addition rather than subtraction.

Eating goals like having a protein and a fruit/vegetable at every meal, drinking 8 glasses of water per day, or making an effort to stop eating once feeling satisfied are easier to achieve and don’t create a feeling of shame.

Client Spotlight

Marla, an editor, says, “Unlike diets or rigid plans, focusing on ‘guidelines for eating’ like aiming for five fruits/veggies per day and increasing protein intake makes it easy to adapt healthy eating… Focusing on food quality and what I’m adding is much more fun and doable than worrying about whether I also eat some chips and bread at a picnic.”

Solution #5: Make things more fun.

Do you buy a workout program for yourself, follow it for about 10 days, and then start finding reasons why it’s “not a good day” to do the workout? Then the days start adding up, and you find yourself absolutely dreading the whole program? And then when the program (finally) quietly expires, you are even further behind in your goals than you were before?

Or do you commit to yourself that you’re going to cut out sugar and carbs from your diet, and you’re serious this time? But after about four days of watching your family eat bread, pasta, and rice while you eat your chicken breast and vegetables, you’re ready to get Chinese takeout and blow up your diet? Do you find yourself doing this in cycles, without ever maintaining any noticeable weight loss?

Draining workout programs and restrictive diets both have a way of sucking the joy out of life, and this is a sign of perfectionism, as well. When I work with private clients who are struggling with consistency, I focus on two things:

  • Exercise that makes the client feel accomplished, which they enjoy
  • Food habits that don’t make them feel like they’re missing out on life

You have to choose exercise that you enjoy! Attaching exercise to another benefit – like a social outing – can help you if you’re struggling with consistency. For example, joining a tennis league, or a running club, or a yoga studio can improve adherence, simply because you’re enjoying the social element. Or for someone like me, a mom with a small child, just being by myself is a big benefit of exercise – I attach movement to listening to a guilty-pleasure podcast, or just being quiet.

There is a cliche that goes, “The best exercise plan is the one you will stick with, and the best diet is the one you will enjoy.” And when it comes to public health, longevity, and general fitness, you don’t have to be especially dogmatic or specific about movement or nutrition. Small habits like walking more, cooking more, and doing any kind of resistance training that you like will help you to be healthier. Choosing small habits beats perfectionism every time.

Client Spotlight

On returning to a regular routine after a busy period, Christine says: “That’s easy mentally because I truly enjoy my workouts.” (I should add that Christine is one of my home workout clients who is insanely fit and I practically cannot keep up with her in terms of writing her programs because she chews them up and spits them out so quickly)

Robin, a healthcare professional and program manager, points out how to take advantage of the seasons to increase enjoyment: “I do try to do my cardio outdoors more in the summer, and I am trying to add in a weekly beach yoga class on the weekends.”

Marla is a great example of how it is healthy for the joy of movement to supersede a strict plan: “One purpose of increasing my fitness is to enjoy life more, so if there’s an opportunity to go for a walk or hike outside or join in a fun activity, I’m willing to shift a workout or swap it with the summertime activity.”

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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