How to overcome the fitness perfectionism that kills progress

Most people treat weight loss like a light switch.

They’re either on a diet or off a diet. They’re either on plan or off plan.

They’re either sticking to their diet perfectly or “My diet is ruined because I caved and ate a cookie. Screw it, might as well eat the whole bag”.

Today, I’m offering you an alternative to this stressful way of thinking. Because the all-or-nothing mentality doesn’t serve you. It won’t help you reach your goals no matter how hard you try.

I’m going to show you the mindset I encourage my online 1:1 coaching clients to adopt. This mindset shift will fundamentally change your relationship with food, health, and your body.

On and off thinking is illogical

We’re conditioned to think of things in black and white, good and evil, yanny or laurel. However, when it comes down to it, any attempts to defend the merits of all-or-nothing fall flat.

The archetypal example of on/off thinking is the person who starts following a diet and sticks with it perfectly for 2 weeks. No mistakes. No breaking the rules.

Then, at the first slip up, maybe a slice of pizza at a company party, they view their mission as a failure -- 1 slice of pizza might as well be 9. After all, they’re already off the diet. Might as well make the most of being “off” and try again on Monday.

But this isn’t rational. If that person would have stopped after 1 slice, and moved on with their life, the caloric hit would’ve been pretty minimal.

But after using that 1 slice as an excuse to eat 9, the caloric impact is pretty high.

Weight loss comes down to the simple addition and subtraction of calories:

  • Eat more than you expend, you gain weight.
  • Eat less than you expend, you lose weight.

Yes, the science can get more complicated than that, but at its root, that’s what’s going on.

If I told you:

(Calories per slice) x 1 = (calories per slice) x 9

You’d say I was awful at math.

But if you act like the body burns fat only if it’s not tainted by any amount of unhealthy food, this is how you’ll justify eating 9 slices of pizza.

Perfection doesn’t exist. And even if it did, it wouldn’t be necessary.

Let go of this idea that your diet needs to be perfect to be successful. Making mistakes when working on something isn’t failure. It’s human. It’s normal. It’s a necessary part of the process.

It’s unrealistic to think you’ll be able to snap your fingers and immediately overturn 20+ year old habits.

Because of the nature of being on or off, you never have enough consistency to build proficiency.

You never give yourself the opportunity to get good at nutrition and fitness because you don’t stick with it for long enough.

If I were trying to learn French, but I only practiced in 2 week bursts, I probably wouldn’t get past “omelet du fromage”.

Consistency always wins over intensity. Consistently show up in some capacity and amazing results follow.

Now, if you fall into these perfectionist pitfalls, don’t beat yourself up for it. It’s ok. Don’t take it personally.

That said, if you want to stop struggling with your weight, you need to get rid of the light switch mentality.

The path to weight loss is nuanced, messy, and complicated. Because life is nuanced, messy, and complicated. Not to mention unpredictable.

You need to learn to adjust your effort/energy to life’s demands instead of turning off entirely.

Swap out your light switch for a dimmer switch.

Beyond the improved ambiance, you’ll lose fat quicker and more sustainably.

We’ve already talked about what on/off thinking looks like for weight loss: trying really hard, inevitably making a mistake, then using that single mistake as a reason to not try at all. As a result of the inconsistency and bouncing from extremes to extreme, zero net progress is made over the long term.

But what about a dimmer switch?

A dimmer switch lets you to adjust the brightness if you need to.

Sometimes you’ll want it on full brightness, sometimes you’ll want it pretty dim, and then sometimes you’ll want it shut off. The best part? There’s loads of levels of brightness in between depending on what you need.

What does this look like in practice?

It looks like meeting yourself where you’re at.

Something is always better than nothing. If that means doing half your workout or skipping the exercises you don’t like, so be it.

You don’t need to follow your program perfectly to get in shape.

You just need to be active and eat well in some capacity. You simply need to keep doing anything that maintains momentum so you don’t quit when things get tough.

More importantly, life will continue to challenge you. So learning how to adapt to those challenges is often what distinguishes success from failure.

My online 1:1 coaching client John provides a stellar example of using a dimmer switch strategy. Earlier this year, he experienced an unrelenting sequence of family emergencies that required not only his energy but tons of travel.

How did he handle this to stay fit?

He constantly adapted his plan to circumstances and his own mental state. He adjusted.

If he couldn’t follow plan A, he followed plan B. And if he couldn’t follow plan B, he followed plan C or D etc.

Point is, he looked at the situation and decided what action he could realistically take while still handling his obligations. This tactic meant he took consistent action no matter what.

Focus on constantly moving forward. Don't be afraid to slow down when you need to. In other words, turn down the dimmer a bit when necessary so the light stays on.

For John, turning down the dimmer switch when he didn’t have enough time or energy to turn up the dimmer switch meant he could constantly contribute to a foundation of healthy habits.

His success no longer depended on external circumstances.

This also meant when life mellowed out a bit, it was easier to turn up the dimmer switch. Because he wasn’t starting over again from “off”.

Because of his consistency and resourcefulness he built a relationship with fitness he wanted from the beginning.

The gym is now something he looks forward to, something that builds him up, gives him energy, and makes him feel confident. Oh yeah, and he lost a bunch of weight.

By consistently adjusting his plan to whatever was going on in his personal and work life, he successfully integrated fitness into his lifestyle long term. No more 2 week bursts of exercise in between long hiatuses.

Sometimes this meant, doing a few push-ups in the morning, sometimes this meant doing half the reps from his workout, sometimes this meant trying to walk more, sometimes this meant doing really well with portion control because that was literally the only thing he had control of.

The point is: don’t let perfect be the enemy of better.

You might be saying “Well, great for John, but I’m a perfectionist! I can’t help it!”

So is John. By his own admission.

Before working with me he often fell into the trap of all or nothing when trying to lose weight.

You may consider yourself a perfectionist, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adapt a dimmer switch philosophy and achieve amazing, lasting results.

It all comes down to this:

Consistently act in whatever capacity you can. Pick something that doesn’t feel at all daunting and crush it.

The more you implement this tactic, the more your perfectionist inclinations will melt away.

Showing up for yourself on a daily basis is all that matters. Often this means toning your effort down a bit. But as long as there’s any effort at all, you’re on the right path. You’re building a momentum that will soon snowball into changes you were never fully convinced were possible.

For example, maybe the thought of a full workout makes the couch seem like a great option, but what if you just had to do 1 set of everything with half the weight you normally use? Would that make it mentally easier to exercise?

Scale down your workout, or whatever healthy habit your working on, so it becomes realistic for what is happening now.

Maybe in the best of times, working out 3 times a week for an hour is realistic. But what about in the worst of times? Maybe you’ll need to trim it down to 2 times a week for half an hour if anything more seems daunting to the point where it discourages you from going.

Assess your mental state and pick something realistic for you RIGHT NOW to stick to. Something that seems so easy there’s no reason NOT to do it.

The goal is to continue moving forward. The speed doesn’t matter.

Because this is what progress looks like. It doesn’t look like building Rome in a day. It’s small changes and a slow, constant, pressure over time.

Accrue small wins on a daily basis. Eventually these wins compound. Beyond that, habits and skills are built through repetition over time.

I’m going to say that again because it’s important:

Habits and skills are built through repetition over time.

If you want to build healthy habits that lead to easily maintainable fat loss, you need to put in the necessary repetitions.

The point is to keep moving. None of this “stop and go” stuff. Always be moving.

Not only will this yield better results, but your diet will feel more stable and controlled. You won’t feel like you’re all over the place, on a strict diet one moment and binging on Oreos the next.

You won’t be bouncing from one extreme to the next -- doing a lot, but going nowhere. Instead you’ll be steadily building momentum in the direction you want to go.

Sure some days you’ll do better than other, but the fluctuations will be less dramatic and more manageable.

Fitness, health, and fat loss isn’t a short term project to tick off your to do list and move on from.

It’s an ongoing pursuit. Stop trying to rush it. Because the more you try and rush it, the slower progress will be.

Instead, get comfortable with the idea that this is a lifelong practice and learn to adjust your effort as needed. You’ll see better results and enjoy the process more.

Which is pretty cool compared to spinning your wheels trying to be perfect.

Screw perfection. You don’t need it.

Posted on Jan 30, 2019