Your perfectionism is derailing your exercise (and what to do about it)

If you’re a perfectionist who’s struggling to build a long term exercise habit, you may have found you struggle with consistency.

And often this disruption comes either from people’s desire to make their exercise sessions perfect, or their belief that more is better.

At some point we’ve been brainwashed into believing that there’s a trade-off between quality and quantity – where the more we have of one, the less we can have of the other.

That if the quality of our exercise is high, we don’t need to do as much. Or that more exercise equals more results.

But here’s an alternate view. Optimising for quality OR quantity may be damaging your long term habits.

We shouldn’t prioritise either of these things. We should optimise for consistency.

And both quality and quantity are enemies of consistency.

We build long term habits by continually showing up and creating repeated ‘chains’ of behaviour. Here’s what happens if we try to be perfect, or we try to do too much.

Perfection is the father of procrastination, and the first enemy of progress. If we believe that exercise is not worth doing unless it’s done well, we’ll spend half our time either procrastinating (until the time is ‘right’), or, even worse, avoiding exercise all together. All stemming from the belief that it needs to be perfect. Of course, the result of this is that we fail to accumulate the chains of behaviour that turn exercise into a habit.

We can counter our drive for perfection by looking at exercise in binary terms – in black and white. Have you done some exercise? That’s a tick in the box. But if you missed a session you planned to do… no tick. Was it a great session? Tick the box! Was it a terrible session? Still tick the box! Don’t judge the success of a session by how much weight you lifted, how many reps you did or how fast you went… judge success by whether or not you turned up.

And just like an obsession with excessive quality can damage our ability to set long term habits, so can too much quantity. The enemy here, again is a drive for perfection.

In rare moments of motivation, we too often set ourselves lofty training goals. Exercising five times a week without fail. Waking up every morning for a run. Hitting our 10,000 steps every day.

The problem, again, is this ‘all or nothing’ mentality. Because the goals we’ve set are so extreme, there’s a very good chance we won’t reach them. Instead of hitting our target of exercising five days a week, we only manage to hit four days. So, in our minds, we’ve failed. And since we’ve already failed, what’s the point continuing? Our drive for too much ‘quantity’ results in us throwing in the towel because (again)… ‘all or nothing’. If I’m not sticking perfectly to my goals, there’s no point. And so we go from a target of five sessions a week, to one (or maybe two if we’re feeling uncharacteristically motivated).

And this is dangerous, because we begin to condition our minds to believe that ‘we are the sort of person who breaks the promises they set themselves’. It’s a slippery slope – one that ends in a pool of broken promises and a future of worthless, unpursued goals.

If this is you, the antidote is to lower your target. Reduce the expectations you’re placing on yourself. Commit to a training volume that you could do on a bad week. A week where the kids are sick, you have an aggressive work deadline, and you’re arguing with your partner. Then sure, feel free to do more exercise if you want – but that’s a bonus, not an expectation.

If you aim for an over-optimistic five sessions a week, and you achieve four, a perfectionist might consider themselves a failure – derailing your exercise habit. However if you aim for three and achieve (the same) four, suddenly you’re an overachiever! It’s all about framing and context. Reframe to make easy wins a certainty.

Of course, neither reducing a drive for quality or quantity works particularly well with the, ’12 week challenge’, ‘rapid weight loss’, ‘health kick’, ‘beach season’ society we find ourselves surrounded by. And sure, these approaches may not make you super fit next week. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re exercising for the end game – to optimise health not on timescales of days and weeks, but over years and decades.

So if your long term health is what’s important to you, judge the success of your session on whether you turned up, and set a frequency goal you can achieve on even the toughest of weeks.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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