The Perfectionism Trap: Why It’s Better to Build Healthy Habits With Consistency
Learn about the power of consistency (and the pitfalls of perfectionism) when building healthy habits, and find ways to make consistency work for you.
Committing to a new habit? Good for you. Whether it’s moving more, staying hydrated, sleeping better, or making time for yourself, building a healthy new habit is a great choice. I’ve helped countless people work toward goals like these. The hard part? When life happens. Maybe your goal is daily exercise and a hectic day means you can’t fit in a full workout. So why bother? If you can’t do it all, it’s not worth it, right?
An all-or-nothing mindset can derail your efforts to build a new habit. A better approach? Consistency. Focusing on consistency lets you keep your goal in mind while leaving room for the inevitable ups and downs that happen when you’re trying to make a change. It also prevents feelings of frustration and failure when life interferes with your best intentions.
Hinge Health members harness the power of exercise therapy to reduce their pain and get back to doing what they love. Our care teams of physical therapists, health coaches, doctors, and nurses know that helping members focus on small but consistent changes is a much better way to make daily movement a habit (along with other lifestyle changes). Here’s what we tell our members about the pitfalls of perfectionism when building new habits and ways you can make consistency work for you.
About Our Author
Rachel Foster, PhD
Clinically Reviewed By:
Valerie Black, MBA, CWC
Valerie Black is a healthcare expert, entrepreneur, and thought leader for mental, emotional and physical well-being, culture change, and leadership skills. She oversees behavior change and habit formation at Hinge Health.
What’s the Problem With Perfectionism?
People striving to build a new habit often feel they’ve “failed” if they fall even slightly short of their goal each day. As a behavioral scientist and clinician, I have extensive experience teaching behavior change strategies to clients with goals like weight management, exercise, and healthy eating. So many of these people held themselves to an impossible standard of seeking perfection in meeting their goals. Whether they were working on diet, exercise, smoking cessation, or other habits, if they didn’t meet their goal for the day, they felt defeated.
Perfectionism is a problem because negative thoughts and feelings of failure get in the way of your efforts and can sap your motivation. Perfectionism isn’t realistic. It leaves no room for the reality and messiness of life. There will always be things that keep you from performing a habit or behavior “perfectly” every single day. If you attach feelings of self-worth and success to perfection, you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment — which don’t help when it comes to building new habits. As speaker, author, and social scientist Brené Brown, PhD, wrote in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection:
“Perfectionism is self destructive simply because there's no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal.”
The impossibly high bar of perfection leads to stress, pressure, and feelings of failure. It also goes hand in hand with procrastination. In fact, psychologists often say that perfectionism and procrastination are twin sisters. You might put things off not because you’re “lazy,” (a word I wish we could banish) but because you’re afraid of failing to meet your own unrealistically high standards.
Consistency: A Better Approach
Instead, let’s talk about one of my favorite words when it comes to habits and behavior change. Consistency is a mindset that leads to better long-term success when building new habits. Consistency means working regularly and reliably toward accomplishing a goal while accepting imperfection. Striving for consistency lets you show up for yourself in a way that is possible each day, recognizing that some days you will accomplish more than others. What might that look like?
Aim for a full daily workout, knowing that you might need to skip a day here and there
Recognize that a partial workout or “movement snacks” are still progress and a success
Strive to eat healthier most days without letting slip-ups derail you
Give yourself credit for stretches at your desk or a five-minute walk during lunch when you can’t squeeze in your 30-minute run
Aim for a consistent sleep schedule while leaving room for an occasional late night
Consistency is about trying to do something (big or small) that’s related to your goal every or most days. It’s also about being realistic and kind to yourself. Choosing consistency over perfectionism is an act of self-love. When you’re kind to yourself, you are better able to reach your goals. Deciding to be consistent — rather than striving for perfection — will bring you closer to reaching your goals because you aren’t letting your fear of meeting unrealistically high standards get in the way of your progress.
Author, speaker, and habit formation expert James Clear sums it up in his article, Plan For Failure: Being Consistent Is Not the Same as Being Perfect:
"It’s really easy to confuse being consistent with being perfect. And that is a problem because there is no safety margin for errors, mistakes, and emergencies. (You know, the type of things that make you a normal human being.) Cutting yourself some slack becomes even more important when we consider the science behind habit formation and continual improvement. Research shows that, regardless of the habit that you are working to build, missing a single day has no measurable impact on your long-term success."
Making Consistency Work for You
There are a lot of proven tools to help you build consistency with habits. Here are a few time-tested tips that our coaches share with members — and a few targeted strategies to help you avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism:
Start small (and realistic). Long-term behavior change takes time. Setting small goals that are measurable and easy to achieve helps build confidence that you can work your way up to more challenging goals. For example, setting a goal of exercising for 20 minutes, three times a week is more achievable than trying to exercise for an hour every day, especially if you do not consistently work out at all.
Schedule it. Build a habit into your routine. Block out sections of your day that are dedicated to engaging in behavior related to your goal. Scheduling a dedicated time decreases the chances that you’ll get too busy, forget, or procrastinate.
Remind yourself. Set reminders on your phone, use sticky notes, and set alarms to help you stay on track. With busy schedules it’s easy to forget to commit to ourselves. Reminders help us re-engage.
But roll with the punches when the (predictable) unpredictability of life disrupts your routine. If you overslept and missed your morning workout or meditation session, try squeezing in a 15-minute walk at lunchtime or do some deep breathing during a break. Or set your alarm a little earlier the next day to fit in a longer session.
Celebrate milestones. Rewarding yourself for taking small steps toward reaching our goals is one of the best ways to improve consistency with your habits. Think of a reward you can use on a regular basis (e.g., a coffee, a bubble bath, watching a favorite show) so you can implement this regularly. And if your goals are small, measurable, and achievable, you’ll have a lot of opportunities to celebrate.
Reframe setbacks as part of the process. No journey is completely linear and your habit journey is no different. Everyone experiences setbacks. Being able to move past them and stay consistent is what helps people successfully stick with a new habit. (Getting back on track afterward can be something to celebrate as a sign of your commitment to consistency.)
Embrace the process instead of just the end goal. It’s okay to have a big end goal (run a marathon, climb a mountain) but remind yourself that the process is where growth happens and is ultimately what will get you there. Focus on staying consistent with regular, deliberate actions that move you forward in the process toward your ultimate goal — instead of striving to reach an impossible standard.
Talk back. Notice your perfectionist self-talk and challenge the narrative. Have a few stock phrases you can keep ready to counter messages of perfectionism with patience, forgiveness, and self-compassion:
“I haven’t lost all my progress just because I missed a workout.”
“2,500 steps is better than none.”
“Missing one day of exercise therapy won’t undo all my progress.”
“I eat healthy most of the time. One slip-up won’t change that.”
“I’m human and we all make mistakes. I’ll do better tomorrow.”
It can be tough to turn off the all-or-nothing thinking that derails healthy habits. Many Hinge Health members struggle with it — and so do I. Focusing on consistency instead of perfection is a mindset and an ongoing process that takes time to develop. But setting small, achievable goals, celebrating your successes, reframing setbacks as part of the process, and practicing positive self-talk lets you be kinder to yourself and achieve your goals at the same time.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.
See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Brené Brown. (2022). The Gifts of Imperfection: 10th anniversary edition. Hazelden.
Clear, J. (2014, April 29). Plan For Failure: Being Consistent Is Not the Same as Being Perfect. James Clear. https://jamesclear.com/plan-failure