page contents

Calorie Counting: The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement

"The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement."

Instead of starting out this week's newsletter about getting back to reality with work (involving early morning sessions and cycling through the rain) or talking about the improbability that my 49ers have not lost a game yet, I thought we would just get straight into this week's newsletter with this quote!

And it's a quote that contradicts a lot of other quotes on perfections such as Vince Lombardi's "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence" (ok, ok, I'll stop with the football references. Or 

"Looking for perfection is the only way to motivate yourself." - Ronnie O'Sullivan.

In my world, the health and fitness industry, a goal for a lot of us is to lose weight. Fat loss in particular. And the way a lot of us do this is by following a specific diet. And we try to be 100% strict on this diet. The first few days can be tough, but dammit, we are motivated. So the motivation in a new challenge drives us to continue. 

But that motivation is always short-lived. It can only drive us so far. And soon, life gets in the way. We have a terrible day at work, we are unprepared due to 'x' and 'y'. There's a dinner event or a work lunch that you have to go to. Or somebody keeps bringing biscuits into the office. It gets harder and harder to stay on track. Temptation grows. It's not like training. In training, you are building on consistency. When you are trying to keep on track with your nutrition, after every successful meal, you are at 100%. And the focus to avoid that growing temptation to stay at 100% starts to drain you mentally. Eventually, you have that slip-up. Perfection evaporates. The motivation is gone, and you start down a slippery slope.

When written down on paper, it may seem illogical that one slip up can derail your progress. And physically, it has little to no effect on your progress. But mentally, you have failed. You're no longer at 100% success rate. And no matter how many meals you have after, you will never get back to 100%. 

This is why perfection impedes improvement. Every time.  

But aiming for progress. That's different.

Don't get me wrong. I feel you should aim to give everything you do 100%. If you half-ass something, you should expect half-ass results. But changing your mentality, even just a little bit will make a world of difference! 

Let me give you an example.

As I have talked about before in this newsletter, going with an 80-20 approach is a much more sustainable option long term. 80% sticking to the diet and 20% for events and slip-ups. It is more realistic that accounts for life getting in the way. To go out and enjoy that evening dinner or that work lunch (and it sure avoids the questions of "why can't you eat this?" and "so and so said that the only way to lose weight was to eat this" etc.) And dammit Susan, get those cookies out of the workplace! 

When we do have a slip-up. Viewing the challenge as an 80% 'clean eating' means that we have not entirely failed. It's an opportunity to learn. It's failing forward. And this gives us a much more powerful mindset going forward. We can work around these slip-ups. We can plan for them. Considering the majority of my wardrobe, it's no surprise that I don't need google to quote this:

"I have failed over and over again, that's why I succeed" - Michael Jordan

By not striving for perfection, we can either gain motivation from how we overcame challenging situations or see what we learned from them. It helps us focus on our progress. And following an 80-20 protocol is a very sustainable approach long term.

Hang on, how are you not undoing your progress if you eat whatever you want 20% of the time you may ask. 

We are going to use calories for this explanation. Let's say your baseline is 2500 calories a day. Your baseline is how many calories you need to maintain your current week. Let's also assume that you want to drop your calories down to 2000 a day so that you have a net loss of 500 calories, leading to losing weight. All these figures are hypothetical by the way. Now let's look at the table below:

calories in perfection clean eating calorie counting pitfalls

With the 80-20%, you started off the week well. Ole Susan and her cookies got the best of you on Wednesday. A few cookies lead you to go out for lunch and to get a little peckish. This lead to you overeating 500 calories. But you avoided Susan for the rest of the week and stayed on track. You felt excellent overall, and on Saturday, you had some carbs with your dinner and managed only to have the one glass of wine. On Sunday you finished that bottle. But it's all ok because you know that Monday is the time to get back on track. And look, overall, while not perfect, you had a net loss in calories. 

Now let's look at the main reason people don't lose weight. The staying strict till the weekend. You ate exactly what you intended to eat right up until you clocked out of work on Friday evening. Ole Johnny rings ya up looking for a drinking buddy. "Just one", he says. A few pints and a chipper later and you've gone and eaten nearly 2 days amount. And with over 200 calories in a pint of the black stuff, going over your calorie allowance happens very quickly. You're feeling a bit rough the next morning. Good thing ole Johnny has a fry up going. You'll take it. Anything to clear the head. And sure a pint for the cure in the evening is just what the doctor ordered. And on Sunday? Sure why get back on track now after two days on the sauce. May as well wait one more day and get back on track. Sure what's one more day going to do? 'Mammy, I'm coming home for the roast dinner'. Few beers and Monday, we get it right. 

Except you don't get it right. And the cycle continues. 

And striving for perfection? Oh, you started the week well. You didn't even need a big dinner. But then you had your slip up Thursday. Anniversary dinner with the other half. You had to go. And as much as you didn't want to, the bread was waiting for you on the table. And you can't have soup without bread. And is that chocolate cake on the dessert menu? Yes, please! 100% perfection gone for another week and you know it. You half-ass it on Friday. But you know deep down that the motivation is gone. You slipped up and now all the temptations of the weekend are here. You look down at your phone, Ole Johnny needs a drinking buddy.