Progress Looks Like Failure When Starting New Daily Habits
Most people approach habit building from a perfectionist perspective.
They feel like they have to do some new behavior every single day for 14-21 days in a row because they heard that some scientific study proved that you should do it that way. Or they want to do it for 30 days straight, or 90 days (or whatever).
But the emphasis is almost always on doing this new habit every single day without missing a day.
That’s the rule. If you miss a day – you failed. It was all for nothing.
You didn’t try hard enough.
You didn’t want it bad enough.
You didn’t care enough to stick with your commitment.
So now you have to go back to Day 1 and start all over again.
Either do it perfectly or don’t bother.
Does Perfectionism Work for You?
It’s a great approach – if it works for you.
If you have already developed a high level of self-discipline, then you can make great progress very quickly with that approach.
But it has never worked for me.
Sure, it would get me excited and pumped and “feeling motivated AF” for a little bit. But then…nothing. I just didn’t have the discipline and consistency to keep it going long enough for those new behaviors to lock in.
And apparently going the perfection route doesn’t work very well for lots of other people either.
They do fine for a couple days or maybe a week. But then they miss a day – then two…then three – and soon they feel like total failures. So they give up completely and spiral into self-hate.
Worst of all, they often end up going in the opposite direction for a while by indulging in destructive habits with a vengeance.
I have experienced that emotional roller coaster more times than I can count. Maybe you have too.
Someday I’ll have the self-discipline to benefit from the perfectionist approach. But I am nowhere near that point in my life. Perfectionism just doesn’t work for me right now.
Progress vs Perfection
But what has been working for me in recent years is replacing perfection with progress. I don’t even attempt perfection anymore because I already know how that story ends.
Instead, I just try to make a little progress over time. Not even every day, really. Insisting that I do the new thing every single day would just be setting myself up for failure.
But over a period of several weeks or maybe even a year, if I can look back and see that I’m making some progress, then that’s cool.
The only real progress I’ve made in recent years happens when I take baby steps. I just try to push a little.
And I don’t put any pressure on myself.
In fact, I actually expect myself to mess up here and there. I’ll even do it on purpose. To me, it’s a given. It’s nothing bad or negative. It is literally just part of the process.
So I just try to push a little on the days that I feel like pushing. And on the days that I’m not feeling it, I give myself permission to pull back.
Progress Often Looks Like Failure
Progress often looks like failure when you’re zoomed in and focused on the day-to-day of life.
So zoom out and try to look at the bigger picture.
Compare your results over a period of months and years – not just days. You might be surprised to see that you’re actually doing pretty good.
But that can’t happen if you give up and quit every time you fail to measure up to someone else’s standard.
That’s the real danger with the perfectionist approach to habit building. You can feel like you’re failing, even though you’re actually making progress, because your progress is happening so gradually.
But then if you quit, you lose your momentum.
A Personal Example
That’s exactly what happened to me in 2019. That year, I set the goal to lose a bunch of weight. I forget what it was, maybe 50 lbs or 100 lbs. Something that lots of people on Youtube have already done, so I figured I could do it too. I just had to want it bad enough.
So I gave it my best shot and lost 15 lbs in about 6 weeks (late January to early March).
Then I gradually gained it all back and ended the year the same weight I was when I started.
I felt like a total failure.
But were my feelings accurate?
Did I really fail at weight loss in 2019?
Here’s my average daily weight for each month of that year…
In the short term, and especially in the day to day, when I was blowing my diet and skipping workouts regularly, I felt like I was failing. My weight was up and down like crazy from day to day.
And then when I thought about the entire year, yeah. I felt like I was failing hard.
But when I compared 2019 to most of the past 20 years, I realized that I actually made real, measurable progress. I had been gaining 10-12 pounds a year prior to 2019. But that year I leveled off. Instead of gaining a pound a month, like I had been doing previously, I stopped that weight gain trend.
So on my bad days, I felt like a failure. But in reality, that was the first year in probably a decade where I did not gain weight and managed to just hold it steady.
When you’re gaining weight every year for over a decade, and then you have a year where you level off – that is progress.
But I needed to look at my weight loss journey from a non-perfectionist perspective in order to appreciate the progress that I had made.
Do You Have to Be Perfectly Consistent to Build New Habits?
Well, there is no question that perfect consistency definitely helps speed up the process of forming good habits. Yet many of us make slow but steady progress toward our goals without doing it perfectly.
That’s still real.
It still counts, even if it takes longer.
So if you suck at being perfect, it’s okay. You can still start new habits. Just accept that it won’t happen super fast.
Building new habits doesn’t require perfection.
But it does require patience.
And it requires persistence.
Lots of repetition.
But it doesn’t require perfection.
So don’t feel like you have to measure up to some influencer on Youtube or some badass Navy Seal who never sleeps or your favorite self-help blogger who has been crushing it with 30-day challenges for years and years.
Just allow yourself to inch your way toward your goals. Take those baby steps – maybe even take a step backwards once in a while. It’s okay. You’ll regain that ground soon enough if you keep trying. I’ll even have a “cheat meal” on purpose sometimes – mostly to keep my sanity but also to remind myself that I don’t have to be perfect to make positive changes in my life.
Aim for Progress
So let’s aim for progress, not perfection.
If the “every-single-day-no-matter-what” approach just makes you feel like a loser, try taking a more relaxed approach to your personal development for a while.
Over time, you might even find this approach actually helps you reach your goals faster.