Embracing imperfect progress

How to get comfy with bumps in the road toward our goals.
Published February 12, 2020

Sometimes when we set goals, whether it’s a goal to lose weight, get a degree, pay off debt or something else entirely, we expect to take a completely linear journey to get there.

It can be disheartening when that linear journey starts veering off to the left and right and not going how we thought it would. But here’s the thing, things don’t have to go perfectly to be successful – in fact, embracing the imperfect might be the key to achieving your goals.

“Imperfect progress can actually be an incredible motivator,” says Samantha Coogan, director of the Didactic Program in Nutrition & Dietetics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the president of the Nevada Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“There will always come a point when we reach a plateau in whatever goal we have set for ourselves because our bodies have this amazing ability to adapt to the changes you make to [them].”

She gives an example: “Think about learning about a topic for the very first time that seemed so foreign, but through rigorous studying and application, you might very well be an expert in the end on that topic.”

So, hitting a plateau, she says, “should actually be seen as a positive, because that means that your body is getting stronger and adapting appropriately.”

She adds that “this is also the perfect indicator that it’s time to mix it up, and that’s exciting! We can get stuck in such a rut by doing the same thing day in and day out.”

She says many of us may feel like our lives are on autopilot. “Wake up, go to work, go to the gym, go home, cook, go to bed – just to repeat it all over again the next day. You may even feel yourself zone out in autopilot mode driving to work since it is an everyday routine.”

Finding new, different and fun ways to reach your goals can help you achieve them, Coogan says.

“I even get bored with certain meals in my meal prepping after a short time,” she adds. Mixing things up can give us something to look forward to.

“There really is no better feeling than accomplishing something that started off so difficult and felt nearly impossible, and then with enough practice, nailing it! What a sense of accomplishment when something felt so out of reach, and now you're doing it!”

If getting comfortable with imperfection is something you find particularly difficult, psychotherapist and author Karen R. Koenig suggests embracing the idea of “failing forward.”

Becoming okay with imperfection begins with seeing it as both a starting point and an ending point, she says. “Whatever we’re attempting, it’s unlikely that the end product will need to be, or be, perfect. … We should expect to have flaws and for that to be okay.”

Koenig suggests examining what bothers us about not being perfect. “Is it our upbringing or the culture in general? It’s helpful to understand how our parents viewed perfection/imperfection and what they taught us about it, then decide which beliefs are rational and keepers and which are irrational and not useful.”

She suggests trying an exercise she does with her clients in which she asks them to think about how effective they need to be at whatever it is they’re doing.

“I ask them to pretend they have baskets consisting of excellent, good, fair and poor effectiveness and make sure that all their endeavours aren’t going into the ‘excellent’ basket. They can be a good friend, an excellent colleague, a fair cook and a poor housekeeper and that’s all okay.”

One strategy for assessing your progress toward a specific goal goes like this:

  • Focus on what you have done well.
  • Don’t focus on what you didn’t do well.
  • Don’t focus on what you have yet to do.

“We need to be patient, [and] especially [avoid] thinking in all-nothing terms. Progress involves thinking in baby steps and using each setback to learn how we could have done better. This process is called ‘failing forward’,” Koenig says.

Coogan shares a few other tips for tackling plateaus and bumps along the road.

Give yourself credit and be kind to yourself.

“If we were able to master everything on the first try, then it wouldn’t be worth doing in the first place. And if we weren’t met with any challenges along the way, it also wouldn’t feel like such a big accomplishment,” Coogan says. “And some days, you may need to give yourself credit for just getting out of bed, choosing to consume one less cocktail or at least driving to the gym even if your workout wasn’t the most intense or productive as you would have liked for it to be. You work hard to get to where you are, and it truly is about the journey, not just the end game. … Health is a continuous journey that requires maintenance and discipline.”

Allow yourself to “fall off the wagon” now and then, but don’t dwell on it.

“Move past it and use it as drive to get back on track. It is okay to indulge on date night or at a party. Why work so hard to reach your goals if you never allow yourself to be rewarded? If we don’t reward ourselves for the small victories along the way, we may never make it to the end.”

Surround yourself with people who support your goals.

Coogan recommends surrounding yourself with people who will support you on your journey but who also won’t criticize you for either sticking to your regimen or for allowing yourself to indulge from time to time. “No one should be allowed to judge you without your permission, and that goes for yourself as well. Stop comparing yourself to other people and judging yourself for not having what they have or not being at the same level. That is your mind taking control without your consent. You should only compare your progression to your own past progressions.”