Focus on progress, not perfection

Trying to be perfect can get in the way of healthy changes you're trying to make. Learn how focusing on progress — not perfection — can put you on a path to success.

By Amy M. Charland

When you set out to accomplish a new goal, you might start off with gusto and determination. You may be highly motivated, ready to make a change and confident it will go perfectly!

But as time goes by, reality sets in, and your goal starts to feel harder and harder to reach. You struggle as you try to recapture the energy and excitement that started you on this path. When you can't, you resign yourself to the idea that the battle has been lost. The glory you wanted to achieve is but a glimmer — a faint reminder of what could have been.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common. As a wellness coach, I hear different versions of it again and again. The good news is I know it doesn't have to be this way. I know there is an easier path to take toward achieving your goals.

The first step is changing your mindset. When attempting to reach goals, many people take on a perfectionist attitude, thinking it will lead to success. However, the opposite is often true. Perfectionism can, in fact, get in the way of achieving your goals.

How perfectionism gets in your way

Here are some ways that I've seen perfectionism stop people from realizing their wellness goals:

  • It slows you down. Trying to achieve perfection requires extra energy, focus and time. When you hyperfocus your attention on details, things take more time, which can sap your energy and wear you down. This makes it much more difficult to make meaningful change. It's like trying to drive a car with the parking brake on.
  • It hinders new ideas and ways of doing things. When your concentration is directed toward flawlessness, you lose the ability to be aware and open to other possibilities. Imagine perfectionism as a castle surrounded by a moat and armed guards — it may feel safe inside the castle, but it also stops fresh ideas and creative solutions from coming in the door. Perfectionism can keep you stuck doing the same thing over and over again with the same result.
  • It leads to self-criticism. When you fall short of a goal, your judgmental inner voice can start throwing barbs your way, creating a never-ending battle in your own mind. This self-imposed mental assault may lead you to abandon your goal. Worse yet, you may be left with an underlying sense that you'll never have the resources or the ability to realize your goals.
  • It makes your motivation inconsistent. By focusing on perfection, you tend to think in terms of black or white. Win or lose. Fail or succeed. There is no gray or middle ground. This type of thinking can make your motivation go up and down like a roller coaster. For instance, when things are going well, you might feel confident, accomplished and capable. These positive emotions can encourage you to keep moving forward. But as soon as things turn south, you start feeling discouraged and uninspired. These negative emotions tend to sour your enthusiasm, which makes it tough to stay the course.

Why focusing on progress is key

Focusing on progress, instead of perfection, can make it much easier and enjoyable to reach your goals. Here are some benefits of focusing on progress:

  • It motivates you to keep going. It can be empowering to look back and see the progress you've made in spite of challenges you've faced. When the going gets tough, you can draw on your past successes to propel you forward. Reflecting on your progress can also reinforce the belief that you have the ability to change — that your goals are within your reach. This belief in yourself fuels your motivation and can sustain you during challenging times.
  • It encourages a mindset of learning, not failure. In the business world, there is a term used to describe the concept of viewing each mistake as an opportunity to learn from what went wrong, rather than as a win-or-lose proposition. It's called failing forward. Try applying this concept to your daily life. The word "failure" becomes obsolete because there are only learning experiences on the path to achieving your goals. When you focus on what you've learned, it takes the pressure off and gives you space to experiment with new approaches to see what works and what doesn't. The path to obtaining your goal becomes a playful adventure.
  • It gives you more reasons to celebrate. By focusing on progress, your eyes are open to each accomplishment and success, no matter how small. With this awareness, it becomes possible to celebrate each milestone. You relish the next step because you're excited about what the future holds.
  • It's sustainable. Perfectionism isn't sustainable because life is ever changing. There will always be new trials and tribulations that will sway you from your target. You need to be nimble and flexible to manage all of the challenges life hands you. By focusing on progress, you can more easily overcome obstacles, because you know there will be ups and downs. You know that you don't have to be perfect. You know that the path to success isn't a straight line. This knowing keeps you on the path to success.
Nov. 29, 2016 See more In-depth