Why ‘Perfection’ Could be your Biggest Enemy
Last Friday, I was driving one of the girls I coach home from practice when I momentarily lost my vision on the road. We had just finished a hard session on some Bloomington back roads, it was cold, completely dark, and spitting rain, and as I got in the car, my stomach felt hollow, as if my belly button was suctioned against my spine. I was hungrier than I had ever been in my life. As I drove my athlete to her dorm, I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, racking my brain for what I could get my hands on as soon as I got home. A quarter mile from her dorm, my vision went out and everything was black. In what was probably less than a second, I could see the road again, and for the rest of the drive I concentrated very intently on the yellow line in the middle.
Once I made it home safely, I flung open the door and started eating everything I could find: the remainders of a venison roast, rice, pretzels, raw vegetables, even handfuls of raw quick oats. I couldn’t seem to eat fast enough to match the desperation I felt. And at the end of all of that, I still felt a deeply unsatisfied pit in my stomach. I needed something rich, salty, greasy, or all of the above. I rarely ever eat or crave those foods – and the degree of desperation I felt alarmed me. When my boyfriend walked in the door to have dinner with me (oops…it was nearly gone), I grabbed him, mumbled something about needing fries or cake, and dragged him back out the door to Kroger. I headed right for the cake section, and in minutes, we were chowing down on a thick, rich German chocolate cake right there in the Kroger cafe, plastic forks and napkins in hand. I ate until I was content, forcing out every threatening thought of calories, sugar, how uncharacteristic this was for me, and potential damage being done to my body by this cake. All I could think was, I need this.
And the next morning, instead of feeling bad, I felt revived. I felt so much better. However, it was such an alarming experience – feeling so desperate and out of control – that I spent most of the weekend trying to figure out why that had happened, because it’s something I never want to experience again. After much musing (because I knew I was going to make it into a blog post to share with all of you), I can sum it up with this phrase:
Perfect is the enemy of good.
I look back on the week leading up to that incident and recognize I had restricted myself from absolutely everything processed, greasy, or filled with sugar. I had exclusively eaten fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and quinoa, with the occasional spoonful of home-made dark chocolate (cocoa powder + coconut oil) for dessert – exactly the way I was telling myself I was supposed to eat in the final weeks of preparation for a big race. Each time I had the urge to grab a cookie, I had swatted my own hand back, reminding myself I would toe the line of a big race in two weeks. I had felt fine and fairly proud until things hit the fan on that Friday night drive, when I then consumed more sugar and processed stuff in one sitting than I would have if I had eaten normally that week, allowing myself to have the dessert that makes me happy daily.
As if we needed more proof that restriction doesn’t work to add to the accumulating experimental, anecdotal and psychological evidence. Perfect is the enemy of good largely explains its faults.
One of my clients, this summer, set a goal to get in more movement in his daily life. He works from home at a job that requires him to sit all day and for many months expressed the numerous setbacks that prevent him from moving outside the gym. To get in the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity per day seemed out of reach in the context of one 30-minute walk per day. Impossible, he said. Recently, of his own accord, he started setting a timer for every hour that would remind him to get up and walk for five minutes before the next hour begins. Now, he gets in his 30 minutes of walking every single day, even though he never walks for more than 5 minutes at a time. He noted that keeping it simple is his key to his success: “I don’t record my time or frequency or speed or distance or calories or any of that stuff. That’s counterproductive for my goal. Just walk. That’s the only requirement.”
If you’re pursuing a big goal – such as an upcoming competition or getting in 30 minutes of daily activity – and you’ve set steps to take in reaching it but you find yourself frequently falling short, it’s likely because they are too far outside the margins of your daily life and are therefore unattainable. Successful goal chasing is all about hacking habits that are detrimental to your goal and building sustainable, healthier habits in their places. Eating a couple cookies every day is a whole lot healthier mentally and physically than continually eyeing the cookie jar all week and binging on the weekends. You’ll lose that bet every time, so save yourself the trouble. Similarly, walking 5 minutes every hour is healthier than taking a forced 30 minute hiatus from a diligent task if it makes daily activity attainable.
You’ll be happier and more successful telling yourself ‘yes’ in smaller doses than telling yourself ‘no’ entirely.
If you’re finding yourself frustrated, self-criticizing, disappointed, or uncomfortable a lot of the time, that isn’t healthy. If you’re grading yourself on a self-devised scale and constantly giving yourself an ‘F,’ it’s time to evaluate and re-create the grading scale, or ditch it entirely. There are many possible routes to your goal, and you get to be the creator. Don’t create and follow a route that makes you miserable.
Equally importantly, when you take a step toward your goal or hack a habit, acknowledge yourself for that victory, and use that gratitude to propel you further forward.
If you want help creating a sustainable path to success in any pursuit, our coaches are always ready and willing to come alongside you. As you just read, we also go through the highs and the lows, and we’re constantly learning, too.