When you focus on progress, not perfection, you see the pursuit of your goals as just as meaningful as your ultimate destination. This perspective shift can help you stay motivated and lighthearted as you pursue the mundane daily actions required to achieve big things.
Since we spend most of our lives in pursuit of goals — not at the top of the mountain — this is a liberating mindset that brings more ease and fun into your everyday life.
But if you deal with perfectionism, it’s not something you can just snap your fingers and be done with. Perfectionism might be so ingrained in the way you think and work that you don’t even realize you’re contending with it.
How can you tell if you’re motivated by progress or perfection?
Perfectionism often manifests as an all-or-nothing attitude. You might assume that if you can’t get something right on your first or second tries, you should simply give up.
Perfectionism can also drive you to compare yourself to others. Perfectionists often think, “All the good ideas exist already. If I can't do something totally unique, why do anything?”
If you’re motivated by perfectionism, you might also exaggerate the repercussions of your mistakes, believing if you do something wrong, you’ll never recover.
Conversely, a progress orientation lets you see negative feedback as optimization data that will help you perform better in the future. Rather than frantically avoiding mistakes, you see them as stepping stones. You understand that small steps, when taken consistently, lend themselves to massive progress over time.
The hidden assumption all perfectionists make
The deep-rooted belief perfectionists hold is this: When I’m ready, I’ll feel ready. We assume our fear, indecision, and hesitation are signs we need more preparation. Yet so often, waiting to feel ready becomes a recipe for stagnation.
People who focus on progress, not perfection know that motivation comes as a consequence of taking action, not as a precursor to it. When you learn to emphasize progress over perfection, you’ll let go of the idea that you must feel 100% ready before you take action.
If you’re not attached to perfectionism, you realize that flawed momentum beats perfect stagnation every time.
Don’t worry: we’re not asking you to give up on creating high-quality work. Not at all.
It’s just that self-doubt, fear, and similar emotions are simply part of the territory when you’re expanding your comfort zone. You don’t stop feeling these emotions when you finally master something. Instead, you learn to work with them. Focusing on progress, not perfection is one tool that can help you do that.
Think of “progress-not-perfection” as a muscle you can strengthen over time. The following mindset shifts help you train that muscle.
Perspectives to help you focus on progress, not perfection
See failure as an inevitable part of growth
One root cause of perfectionism is the belief you can avoid failure if you do everything right. Yet this mindset encourages stagnation. It can make you fear taking action unless you’re 100% certain you can do something perfectly.
In the book, The Slight Edge, Jeff Olsen offers a powerful metaphor that can reframe the way you think about failure. When astronauts went to the moon, they were off course for about 97% of the time.
In other words, they didn’t arrive at their destination in a seamless way. They got there by continuously adjusting their course. Cultivating a progress-over-perfection mindset can help you see your growth journey the same way: as a process of constant course correction. This can make it easy to release resistance and self-doubt. It’s a lot easier to take action when you know it’s okay to make mistakes.
Mistakes help you calibrate. Any time you try something new, you WILL occasionally make mistakes. See mistakes and failures as inevitable parts of your growth process, not as anomalies. By discovering what not to do, you learn what to do.
Make a bad first draft of everything
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” -Samuel Beckett
To test the potential of a product, marketers focus on making what they call minimum viable products (MVPs). Their goal is to get feedback as quickly as possible to iterate and make something better.
This mindset can be useful when moving forward with work or creative projects. Instead of assuming you should wait to do something until you feel confident, do it badly. Make a bad first draft of everything. The faster you can do something badly, the faster you can do it right.
This works because it’s usually much easier to notice flaws or shortcomings than to create something perfectly from scratch. Make something flawed, then chip away at it until you like it. Starting something before you feel ready is the fastest way to become ready. Answers come with motion, not stagnation.
Set a laughably low bar & build momentum
If you've ever skipped a habit many days in a row, you know how hard it can be to motivate yourself to get back into it. In these instances, if you expect yourself to run 10 miles or sit on your meditation mat for an hour on your first day back, you might never restart the habit.
When you’re feeling resistance to a healthy habit, the easiest way to get back on track is to set the bar extremely low and build momentum over time.
Run for five minutes. Meditate for one minute. Add a single sentence to your book. Do it every day.
When you commit to taking small daily steps, you’ll build momentum. Then, over time, if you want to ramp up the habit, you can do so without forcing yourself. The desire to do more will come as a natural byproduct of seeing yourself continually show up in small ways.
This is a way of emphasizing progress over perfection because you momentarily suspend your high standards. You shift your focus to whatever feels doable at the moment. Over time, your motivation will build. And boom. You’ve found a path out of the rut.
Congratulate yourself for small wins
When you reach a goal, how quickly are you chasing after the next one? The next day? The next hour? If you relate to this, you’re not alone. From a neuroscientific perspective, there’s a good reason for it.
People mistakenly think they’ll feel the best when they’ve achieved everything they want. But in actuality, most of the rewards come when we’re in pursuit of goals, not after we’ve achieved them. We feel the drive to pursue goals because of dopamine. Dopamine is a molecule of motivation and drive. Our dopamine levels increase when we take steps toward something, not when we finally achieve it.
When we reach the goal, we often feel neutral or even disappointed, because dopamine’s no longer rewarding us.
One way to combat this: adopt the habit of celebrating every time you take a step toward a goal, no matter how small.
If you congratulate yourself for every small win, you’ll learn to associate taking action with getting a reward. This will take the emphasis off the ultimate, final destination, and allow you to enjoy your daily journey.
And when you do meet a goal, experiment with stretching your celebration for longer than usual. If you beat a record at the gym, stay focused on your work for longer than you ever have (or whatever feels exciting for you), don’t just celebrate for an hour. See if you can celebrate for an entire week. Or an entire month.
What would that look like? How would your self-talk change? Even asking this question can shift how you think about pursuing and accomplishing goals.
Build momentum, make steady improvements, and avoid overwhelm
“When you put your goals on a pedestal, they have no choice but to look down on you.” - unknown
By focusing on progress instead of perfection, you give up the idea that life starts when all your circumstances align perfectly.
Yes, you might feel more fulfilled or comfortable when you get everything you’re working for. Yet the more you glorify your goals, the more alienated from the present moment you become.
The irony is this: As you let go of your attachments to your goals and learn to enjoy life as it is, exactly at this moment, the more easily and swiftly you tend to achieve your goals.
No matter where you are now, remember that every small step towards your goals is a step in the right direction, and that each bit of progress you make is worthy of celebration.