I know, I know: Mantras sound woo-woo, but used well, they can be very effective for helping us think with our long-term, rational minds, as opposed to our short-term, irrational minds.
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Since 2007, I’ve been the force behind MyBodyTutor.com, which simplifies the weight-loss process into practical, sustainable behaviors that help you lose weight—and actually keep it off. I’ve made a career out of working with clients who have “tried everything.” One of the reasons our program works is that we’re able to identify negative behaviors and patterns and help people change them. After all, if weight loss were just about knowing what to do, you would’ve done it already.
There’s one especially destructive thought that our clients come to us with over and over: “If I can’t be perfect, why bother?” You know what people who say that do—nothing. They let one misstep turn into a whole day, week, weekend, or even a month of indulgences.
Let’s talk about why dieters are notorious perfectionists.
If we understand why we are perfectionists, it’s easier to curb (and then stop) that behavior. The obvious answer is that we simply don’t like to fail. By creating unreasonable expectations for ourselves, we create an easy way out. We allow ourselves to quit the program du jour—before we can fail.
But most dieters do this because change is uncomfortable; that’s also why most people never change. This is why I’m such a believer in accountability, support, and having a system to monitor and track progress. Because it makes the discomfort a lot more tolerable. Yes, I’m biased, but I’ve seen what it can do firsthand.
This is why so many people hop from one diet to the next. As soon as it gets uncomfortable, they quit and move on to the next diet—only to repeat the vicious cycle over and over. It’s easy when we start out. It’s fun when we’re on point. But the real work begins when we’re uncomfortable because we’re less than perfect (which we all are).
If you tend to approach dieting as a perfectionist, see if any of these reasons to stop dieting strike a chord with you:
- Ate more than you wanted to
- Skipped a workout
- Slept late
- Started to feel the initial excitement of the diet wearing off
- Caught yourself mindlessly eating
- Just don’t feel like exercising
- Don’t lose weight even though you expected to
- Are not in the mood to eat healthfully
Yeah, at least one of these is you, right?
Hi. My name is Adam Gilbert, and I am a recovering perfectionist.
I still have perfectionist tendencies, but I’m getting better. I’m progressing. I used to be guilty of playing what I like to call The All or Nothing Game. This is when you eat really well all day, but then you eat something you don’t feel great about, which sets off a chain of eating unhealthily for the rest of the night, saying you’ll just start fresh tomorrow. You’ve played this before, right? It’s not fun. When we play The All or Nothing Game, we always end up with nothing. Every single time.
It’s why I try to never make absolute statements like, “Ugh, I’ll never eat snacks after 10 p.m. again!” Instead, it’s better to focus on eating late-night snacks… less. It’s unrealistic to expect rainbows and butterflies from yourself all the time, but dealing with the lows is the hardest part of any diet. This is why staying consistent is so challenging. However, even in a low moment, there can be progress.
For instance, if you’re an emotional eater, you might typically polish off a pint of ice cream in one sitting. Let’s say you’re trying to curb this habit, and your ultimate goal is to never eat more than a cup of ice cream at a time. At first, leaving just a few bites in the bottom of the pint is a win worth celebrating.
If you’re in a mood and you just don’t feel like exercising—and most days you feel that way you’d just be inactive all day—do just 20 jumping jacks before you shower. That’s progress.
Something is always better than nothing.
Often, we feel that if we can’t exercise for an hour, then it’s not worth doing anything. Rationally, we know this is silly. Done is better than “perfect.” The perfect day or workout doesn’t exist. The short workout we do is better than the “perfect” workout we don’t do, and the good day we finish with pride is better than the “perfect” day we give up on.
One strategy: Stop breaking up your idea of living a healthy life into whole days. This is a meal-by-meal journey, not a day-by-day one; getting the body we want is about the accrued power of thousands of meals. Each one counts just as much as the next one.
And that’s what life’s about: moving forward, growing, and evolving. We are more powerful than we think. (Yes, I know I sound like a cheesy motivational speaker, but it’s the truth.) Being a perfectionist and having the “If I can’t be perfect, why bother?” attitude suggests that the only position worth having in life is always being the winner. No one likes playing games with a sore loser. So do we want to have the attitude that if we can’t always be the winner, we shouldn’t bother playing the game?
We wouldn’t teach our children to think like that. Any small improvements in our health, weight, shape, mobility, focus, energy, and breathing are important. Changes in the way we think, react, and act around food all count. Any changes in the way we think about exercise matter.
The mantra to adopt for weight loss this year: progress not perfection.
Chasing perfection is futile. Instead, we’re better off chasing progress. Let’s make a U-turn and focus on recovering right away, as opposed to dwelling on our misstep. Let’s practice self-compassion instead of self-hatred. Let’s choose to make our next eating choice healthful even though our last meal was less than “perfect.” Let’s reach out for expert help and support for our goals instead of rationalizing them away. If we only have ten minutes, let’s exercise for those ten minutes—it’s always better than not exercising at all.
Progress, not perfection. I repeat: progress, not perfekshin.
Adam Gilbert is the founder of MyBodyTutor.com, an online program that solves the lack of consistency faced by chronic dieters. Sign up for his free mini-course on weight loss, and follow Adam on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.