March Motivation – Perfection: The Enemy of Success

Detail of "Ancient Coral Reefs" by Heinrich Harder via Wikimedia CommonsIt’s that time of year again.  The time of year when the after holiday rush at the gym peters out.  The time of the year when the best laid plans in January get crowded out by all the urgent, important and unexpected details of life.  The time of the year when most people start to feel bad about not adhering to their goals, or are discouraged that their lifestyle changes are not working out as they had planned.

Instead of getting down on yourself about not being executing your lifestyle changes the way you had hoped, I’d like you to think about how both nature, and people, succeed in the real world.

Consider the coral reef.  If you’ve ever tuned in to the Discovery channel, you know how they form.  Billions of little animals, coral polyps, secrete calcium, and over thousands upon thousands of years, they build huge reefs.  Now, did any of those little polyps contribute to the reef perfectly? No.  They just slapped down some calcium while going about the business of living.  It’s all those little additions, accumulating over time, that gets the job done.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Abigail, I don’t have a geologic timeframe for my self-improvement project.  I was really hoping to get it done this year.  How is this even remotely relevant?”  To which I say: “Consider your dental hygiene.”

You probably brush your teeth.  Let’s say you brush your teeth once a day.  You talk to your dentist, and she recommends that you brush at least twice daily and floss at least once daily.  Now, you have to make some changes.  So, you stop by the store on the way home for some floss and resolve to start brushing after breakfast and flossing after you brush at night.

What happens on the first day of your new lifestyle change?  You probably remembered that you were supposed to brush your teeth after breakfast around lunchtime.  Oops.  Now, here’s my question for you: now that you’ve failed to adhere to your new regime of tooth brushing, will you give up and never change how you brush your teeth?  Do you plan to tell your dentist, at the next visit, that you gave up on improving your brushing routine because you missed a day?

Of course not, if we all did that we would have rotten teeth.  Instead we just try again.  That’s because, like so much of life, it’s the aggregate over time that matters, not executing perfectly every time.  It matters that we brush and floss every day, not that we perfectly brush and floss every day.

Yet, for some reason, we expect to make major lifestyle changes – like improving our finances or changing our diet – perfectly every time.  In reality, it’s the accretion of little changes over a long period of time that pay off.

So, skip the perfection.  Instead, concentrate on trying to fulfill your goals by making a consistent, habitual effort toward your goal.  It’s how goals get achieved.

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