Perfection is Overrated

by Michael Plank

When I was in school I always hated the time of the year when we would do fitness testing. I think we only had 4 tests: the mile run, how many sit-ups you could do in a minute, the sit-and-reach test, and either pull-ups (for the boys) or the flexed arm hang (for the girls). Fitness testing was a great opportunity for me to show all my classmates how I spent a lot more time with books than in the gym. I was in the bottom 10% in everything.

In my sophomore year of high school, I decided I was done with that. I wanted to be able to run a faster mile. I wanted abs like the superheroes had. I wanted to be able to do pull-ups. (Full disclosure: I didn’t care about the sit-and-reach test). That year I got a small weight bench for Christmas. We ended up moving early in my junior year and I never did gym class fitness testing again. But I’ve been working out in some form or another ever since.

And in the last 25 years, here’s what I’ve learned: the most important thing in fitness training isn’t strength, it’s not cardio, it’s not free weights or machines, it’s not functional movement. It’s not intervals or intensity, it’s not periodization or variance.

The most important thing in fitness training, above anything else, is CONSISTENCY.

If you want to lose fat, gain muscle, improve heart health, or endurance, or coordination, or anything else that exercise can do for you, the best thing you can possibly do is find a training program and just. keep. doing it.

So, if it’s that easy, why isn’t everyone lean and strong?

Because consistency is boring and we’re impatient. We like novelty. We like the promise of quick results. And because of that, we jump around. We try this program for a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months, and then we get bored and switch to another one. Or we start to take our program for granted and get bored and sidetracked and only do it sporadically.

Or – and this is maybe the biggest offender – we obsess about doing it perfectly. And we start to think that if we can’t do it perfectly, it’s not worth doing at all.

This is all-or-nothing thinking. In Cognitive Behavior Therapy, it’s a classic example of what’s called a “cognitive distortion;” there’s another therapist I like who calls it a “thinking mistake.” There are a bunch of these. Therapists have a collection of ways of thinking that are super common but are not logical or rational.

You see this all-or-nothing thinking a ton in nutrition. People give up all grains, sugars, alcohol, and processed food. And then at the office summer party they have one oreo and think: “I RUINED MY PROGRESS! TODAY IS A TOTAL LOSS! WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS EFFORT EVEN MATTER?” And then they eat 40 oreos, 7 slices of pizza, a pint of ice cream, and drink a whole bottle of wine.

Rationally, if our friend who had spent a week eating fruits and vegetables and lean meats came to a party and we saw them eat one oreo, we would know and understand that that single, small cookie is utterly incapable of ruining anything. But when it happens to us we start making those thinking mistakes and everything goes haywire.

How this manifests most often in the gym is when people miss a workout. Let’s say they regularly come on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. But then things come up and they miss Monday and Wednesday. We see people skip Friday too because the week “has been a waste,” so what’s the point? They’ll just start back up next week.

Thinking mistakes.

Next time you get frustrated, keep an ear out and see if you catch yourself saying any of the following phrases…

* “This whole day/week is ruined”

* “The whole point is…”

* “What does it even matter if I…”

* “Today is a total loss”

* “At this point, it doesn’t even matter”

* “Tomorrow/next week, I’ll get back on the wagon”

* “I just need to get my act together”

These are textbook signs of all-or-nothing thinking. If you catch yourself saying one of those, be sure you follow it with this phrase…

* “That’s not true”

The week is not ruined. The whole point is not perfection. It does matter, even if you don’t do it perfectly. Today is not a total loss. At this point, even a small effort still matters. There are more options than “on the wagon” and “off the wagon.” You do not need to try to be perfect.

Perfection in training or nutrition or sleep or stress management is impossible. Unless you’re a professional athlete and your job is fitness, other things in life are going to come up that make you miss a workout or eat the oreo or sleep late or skip a meditation session.

But remember what the most important thing is? It’s not perfection. It’s consistency.

I had a mentor once tell me that consistent mediocrity beats inconsistent excellence every single time.

Can’t get to the gym today? No problem. Do a workout at home. Don’t have a full hour? No problem. Do half an hour. Don’t have half an hour? No problem. Do 10 minutes. Do 4 minutes. Do 10 push-ups. Anything is better than nothing. BUT EVEN “NOTHING” DOES NOT RUIN YOUR PROGRESS.

It takes more than a day or a week to build your fitness. It takes more than a day or a week to lose it.

So dust yourself off, stop chasing perfection, and start chasing consistent mediocrity. Because a little bit, done all the time, is always better than a lot, done once in a while.