A Practical Solution for Perfectionism

“I need to fit my workout in, but I don’t have time for a full 45 minutes right now. Oh well, I’ll just do it later.”

“Nothing at this restaurant looks healthy. What am I going to do?”

“I have good days and I have total cheat days. There is no in between.”

Do any of these sound familiar? 

One of the most common and disruptive obstacles to achieving one’s wellness goals is “all or nothing thinking,” more commonly called “perfectionism.” We believe that we need to do something perfectly, or else it’s not worth doing at all. Chronic procrastinators often struggle with this kind of thinking. “I can’t do it perfectly right now, so I’ll just wait for another time when I can.” 

If you struggle with perfectionism, it’s likely that this thinking has served you or protected you in some areas, and it’s important to acknowledge that. If this thinking didn’t benefit you at all, you wouldn’t hold on to it. However, perfectionism eventually tends toward sabotage due to the way it pushes you to become trapped in indecisiveness between two extremes.

One of my favorite ways to combat this mindset is to set a spectrum of standards for one’s choices rather than simply “the best” and “the worst.” 

This works especially well for exercise goals, where so many life circumstances can get in the way of our “ideal” workout (the kid didn’t nap, we didn’t sleep well, can’t get to the gym, etc.).

To implement the spectrum, first come up with an option that is “Good Enough.” This is the bare minimum that you know you can fit in or do, no matter what.  (Disclaimer here that, in cases of exercise, there may really be unique moments to completely drop even the “good enough” for the day, or the week. This is especially true if you are sick with a fever or digestive issues, you’re injured, or your provider has recommended something different). As an example, my good enough tends to be 10 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on my workout days (usually five days out of the week). Is that small? Sure.  Is it enough? Well it sure as heck is better than nothing, and because exercise is dose dependent, I know this amount will still afford me some benefit. 

Next, pick an absolute “Ideal” option. This should still be realistic, but challenging depending on the circumstances. In my world, that’s a 45 minute formal exercise class. Your Ideal could look very different. You may be in recovery from an injury or childbirth and have an Ideal option of 20 minutes of low to moderate intensity movement, including any physical therapy exercises. You may be training for a triathalon and looking to fulfill very specific and intense strength and cardio standards in your Ideal option, with training that lasts two to three hours on some days. There are manifold options here, and it’s completely up to you and your needs. (If you’re struggling to define this ideal, a certified personal trainer, physical therapist, or health coach may be able to help). 

Now you’re going to set up your “Second Best”, which sits somewhere in between your “Ideal” and “Good Enough” options.  This is what you’ll do when you predict your Ideal option isn’t going to happen, but you can do more than the Good Enough. For me, this is 15-20 minutes of that formal exercise class. (I use videos, so it’s cool if I leave halfway through).

Now you have three realistic options to implement your desired health behaviors, as opposed to simply “perfect” or “nothing.” As you continue to practice this, you’ll find your place of stability and consistency, but these options allow you to be nimble and accomplish progress in the meantime.

Additionally, you’ll probably find that the more practice you have finding multiple middle-road options, the more confident you’ll become in decision-making. There will be less moments of that paralysis between two extremes and feeling stuck in perfectionism’s trap!

Questions? Feel free to drop them in the comments. If you’d like specific coaching help, information on that is available through our contact page.

This information is educational only and not medical or psychotherapeutic advice. Only a qualified medical or psychotherapy professional who has seen and evaluated you can offer such advice. Please consult with your provider or a qualified exercise professional prior to beginning any new exercise program.

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