Plan For Failure: Being Consistent Is Not the Same as Being Perfect

You probably realize that consistency is important for making progress, doing better work, getting in shape, and achieving some level of success in most areas of life.

I write about the power of consistency often: why repetition is more important than perfection (here), how small gains add up to big results (here), and why falling in love with boredom is essential for mastery (here).

But once you realize the power of consistency, there is a danger that comes with this knowledge. And that danger is falling into an all-or-nothing mindset.

As usual, I don’t have this all figured out, but let’s talk about how to be consistent and how we can use science and research to avoid common mistakes and pitfalls.

The All or Nothing Mindset

Once you realize that consistency is essential for success it can be easy to obsess over becoming flawlessly consistent.

For example…

  • Trying to lose weight? It’s easy to convince yourself that if you don’t follow your diet perfectly, then you’ve failed.
  • Want to meditate each day? Beware of focusing so much on never missing a day that you stress over sticking to your meditation schedule.
  • Looking to become a successful writer? You can quickly brainwash yourself into thinking that successful authors write every single day without fail. (The same goes for artists and athletes of all kinds.)

In other words, 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. (More on that here.)

In other words, it is all about average speed, not maximum speed. Daily failures are like red lights during a road trip. When you’re driving a car, you’ll come to a red light every now and then. But if you maintain a good average speed, you’ll always make it to your destination despite the stops and delays along the way.

The Idea in Practice

My friend Josh Hillis is a fat loss coach.

When working with clients, Josh doesn’t even bother tracking their daily calories. He only looks at the calorie total at the end of each week and makes adjustments based on that.

Consider how different this strategy is from the typical nutritional approach. Josh doesn’t care what you eat for any individual meal. He is not concerned if you make a mistake or binge eat once or twice. He realizes that individual meals don’t matter if you maintain the right “average speed” over the course of the week.

I find this to be an empowering way to think about consistency and progress in nearly any area. It’s never my intention to make a mistake, but if I do, I have given myself permission to view my progress over a longer timeline than a single day or an individual event.

How to be Consistent: Plan For Failure

Consistency is essential for success in any area. There is no way to get around the fact that mastery requires a volume of work.

But if you want to maintain your sanity, reduce stress, and increase your odds of long-term success, then you need to plan for failure as well as focus on consistency. As I mentioned in my Habits Workshop, research from Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal has shown that the number one reason why willpower fades and people fail to remain consistent with their habits and goals is that they don’t have a plan for dealing with failure.

Planning to fail doesn’t mean that you expect to fail, but rather than you know what you will do and how you will get back on track when things don’t work out. If you’re focused on being perfect, then you’re caught in an all-or-nothing trap.

Meanwhile, if you realize that individual failures have little impact on your long-term success, then you can more easily rebound from failures and setbacks. Being consistent is not the same as being perfect.

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82 Comments

  1. Hi James,

    Fantastic article and it gave me a ‘light bulb’ moment. My usual state concerning most things is all or nothing and I’m quite the model perfectionist. I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about my routine and how I’m going to do something, rather than just getting in there and getting it done. The concept of the average speed throughout the week feels like a massive relief off my shoulders. I’ll play with this idea this week and get my tasks done no matter how ‘perfect’ my approach. I can see that there will be times I may not be able to give it my all, and others where I will be able to give it my all. What matters is that I was consistent and ‘overall’, the sum of my effort is the assessment I need to make of myself, not each and every session. I love this. Thank you.

    • This post is like Manna to me! I’m at the end of a month of those challenges like “a post a day” that, if you take it as all-or-nothing can rapidly become a huge failure! I tried to post with consistency (and I had been able to do 21 posts in a row before giving up), then I thought it was better stop and spend a whole evening playing with my daughter… then another and one more!

      Surprisingly (to me), I’ve re-started writing after this failure planned, enjoying it even more!

      Thanks James for your great suggestion and Matt for sharing his “perfectionism” state of mind (I’m quite like that me too, with a side of procrastination). You two guys made me feel less perfect and more person.

      My average speed is going to increase, I’ll stop smelling the morning air more frequently. :D

    • Hi Matt — glad you enjoyed the article.

      I enjoy thinking about things in this way for the same reasons. If we can make progress while reducing stress in our lives, then why not do it that way? I’m always searching for that balance of stretching myself enough to grow while giving myself enough leeway to live stress-free.

      Good luck with your routine this week!

  2. So timely. After one day off from my week-old weekday exercise routine, I was afraid of my tendency to throw in the towel over the “all-or-nothing” trap. This was the little boost I needed to increase my confidence that it’s not the end, and I’ll get back to it tomorrow morning. Thanks!

    • Happy to provide a little nudge, Courtney. Thanks for reading and good luck getting back into the routine!

    • I was in the exact same position when I decided to read this. But now I realize taking a day off will just encourage more effort when I start up again.

  3. I enjoyed your commentary on planning for what you will do when things go wrong. The ability to think about what can disrupt your business and to make contingency plans has shown in research to be a key trait in excellent leaders. You are right, it is not about viewing setbacks as failures. Rather success is your ability to roll with life’s disruption/business issues and flexibility in how to keep moving in a positive manner. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • Glad you found that part useful, Nancy.

      And you’re right, the research pretty clearly shows that if you want to succeed, you need to have a plan for dealing with failure. One reason for this is that if you plan for failure, then you’re forced to consider the challenges that may drive you off course. And simply by considering these potential setbacks we often come up with solutions for avoiding them or handling them (thus making us more likely to succeed).

      It’s critical in business and in life in general. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Good information! I know I’m NOT going to be perfect, but making a mistake doesn’t have to derail me completely. Thanks for the post.

  5. I really loved the article. I had read your previous articles too but this article still brought that all-or-nothing mindset in a number of things I do back to consciousness.

    The only problem I had with the article is that it felt too short, like you cut it before it was done. At the end I asked myself “No! It can’t already be over.”

    Thank you for that fascinating and inspiring article, though, and I hope to put it into practice. :D

    • Ha! Thanks Jeff. I hope every article feels too short. It’s always nice to have someone wanting more.

      Glad you found this one useful! Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  6. Hi James,

    You hit the nail right on the head. It seems like we live in an entire world that at every turn focuses on perfection (the most beautiful, the most athletic, the richest, the most brilliant, blah, blah, blah). While at the same time, never have we seen such failure.

    Think, grade inflation in schools, failure in relationships because of neglect of responsibility to self and others because of booze, drugs, overeating, or in general selfishness (too much television or computer time, etc.). What you are describing is good old fashioned INTEGRITY.

    Integrity wins the day because it creates the only doable perfection this side of heaven, by its general striving–one day the striving is very vigorous, the next day it may be less gut wrenching — but it never allows creeping failure. Integrity knows where and when to draw down a little, without losing the game. If only integrity were taught as it used to be when a promise was a promise.

    I bring this up because my own eyes have been opened to the slippage of my own ability to keep a promise to myself and others, and how it happened. The answer to my problem comes with embracing integrity and not the lauded idea of perfection (that never happens).

    • Wow. I love this comment, Jolita. (If you haven’t read my Integrity Report yet, you might enjoy it.)

      I love the idea that planning for failure, but focusing on continual growth and average speed can be a form of integrity. And it makes sense because often lapses in integrity happen when people try at all costs to maintain the impression of perfection. (“I don’t want anybody to know I made a mistake!”)

      Also, from my own failures, I’ve noticed that when I own up to my mistakes, share the with honesty, and ask for help, people are far more willing to support you than criticize you.

      Thanks for reading!
      James

  7. Hey James,

    I have only recently started reading your work and I just wanted to say a HUGE thank you. I really enjoy the simplicity and clarity of your writing and your articles have already helped me change my perspective considerably (for the better).

    You are a generous man. Thank you.

    • Thanks Matt! I really appreciate that. I’ll do my best to keep delivering a high standard of work.

  8. Such a great article. As someone hellbent on teaching themselves a craft, in my case art, reminding myself that failing at succeeding is a normal thing helps me get back on track. Although, trying to find a middle-ground between picking myself up and using failure’s frequency as an excuse to be lazy is still hard.

    • Great point, Ridell. This is something I considered mentioning in the article.

      You can’t let the idea of “everyone fails, so it’s not a big deal if I get off track” become an excuse for not doing anything. Yes, it is true that your performance on any one day will not matter over the long run, but that is only true if you show up each day and get to work.

      Basically, this is a strategy that helps people who are doing the work get over the inevitable speed bumps that come along the journey. But it’s not an excuse for avoiding the work altogether.

      Good luck with your art!

  9. The highlight of the article and the cruel truth that everyone does not realize is “… people fail to remain consistent with their habits and goals is that they don’t have a plan for dealing with failure.”

    Such a practical article. :)

    • Glad you spotted that insight, Ashish.

      According to the research, planning for failure and developing ideas for overcoming the specific things that may hold you back is one of the most powerful ways to maintain long-term momentum and progress.

      Good luck coming up with your strategies for dealing with setbacks and failures. And thanks for reading.

  10. I agree with you James, as a human being we are bound to make mistakes and so we require some flexibility in whatever we do, but too much of it can lead to procrastination and at the end of the day stress. So, consistency is sine qua non for success at the same time we should remember that we are flexible only if it is UNAVOIDABLE or if SITUATION DEMANDS (i.e. we should be aware of it).

    • Good point, Shubham. The intention is never to avoid doing the work, but rather to understand that occasional setbacks are part of the process and give ourselves permission to rebound from those mistakes rather than seeing them as a failure that destroys all of our hard work.

  11. Remember the bell and the dog? When training animals with Pavlov’s strategy, a certain level of failure is proved to be even more reinforcing than full perfect consistency in rewarding or punishment after a stimulus. This small level of uncertainty seems to help maintain attention and gives more impact to the next satisfaction moment after the consistency.

    • Interesting! I didn’t know that about Pavlov’s strategy. It seems reasonable. If we did things with perfect consistency every time, then we could easily become bored. It’s almost as if the possibility of failure forces us to focus more on the task at hand because we are never fully certain that we will have the chance to do it again the next time.

      Thanks for sharing!

  12. One of your best articles in recent months. Using weight as an explanation makes so much sense. Well done.

  13. James, great article. I have read that when are trying to create a new habit, the average number of times we fail before sticking is between seven and twelve times. Just knowing this has made a huge difference to how I view the times I don’t meditate each day or get to the gym.

    • Sounds like you have a good outlook, Rob.

      Also, if you can remember where you read about the number of times we fail on a habit before it sticks, I’d love to read that piece. (I’m always looking to expand my knowledge on the topic.)

      Thanks for sharing — and good luck with those meditation and exercise habits!

  14. Thanks James, like your other articles, something to read again. This one makes me think about a boxer. You may get a bad round where you get beat up and lose it on points. You may even have a couple of rounds where you struggle to survive, but as long as you win the fight you are OK. It also may happens that you lose a fight or two but still manage to stay the champion in your weight division. Consistency is indeed what is important!

    • Good analogy, Cobus. I like the idea of losing the round, but winning the fight. You don’t have to be perfect to come out on top.

      Thanks for reading!

  15. Excellent post. I would like to add that although getting back on track is most important, there is another important part and that is to figure out what made you slip up. So: 1. Get back on track. 2. Analyze why you slipped up in order not to repeat the mistake.

    And if you make the mistake again ? Well then start at point 1 above again.

    • Great point, Afzal. Taking time to analyze why you failed is an important part of developing better strategies and avoiding the same mistake next time.

      In fact, I think this is something I could do a better job of myself: setting aside time each week to think about my mistakes and consider options for preventing them in the future.

  16. Great post, as usual! And timely. I just wrote a post comparing healthy eating to setting your marathon pace — something you should be able to sustain for life (so to speak), rather than sprinting out of the gates (crash dieting for your best friend’s wedding). Very similar concept to this one. Here’s the link if anyone is interested.

    Keep up the very inspiring posts, James!
    Carolyn Coffin

  17. So encouraging. Throwing in the towel always feels so awful, and its so hard to come back from. If we take a slightly longer term view then we are equipped to keep going, and also don’t go into that dip of self-loathing. Thanks James.

  18. Thanks James,

    This concept never occurred to me. Quite frankly learning to be compassionate with myself is empowering.

    • I agree — learning that an individual setback is meaningless over the span of long-term progress is very empowering.

      Thanks for reading!

  19. You are always on target with what I need to hear. I always like what you make me stop to think about and you give me a new perspective on my action steps. Thank you.

    • Thanks Crissy! It’s great to have you reading. I’ll try to keep a fresh perspective and helpful ideas coming to you each week.

  20. So true. Don’t let being perfect get in the way of just being better. This is where friends or a support group can really help. I just finished up a popular 90 day exercise routine and I was beating myself up because the last 2 weeks I only worked out 5 days/week instead of the 6-7 I had been doing and my eating habits had slipped a bit. My friends pointed out I was being ridiculous as I was still exercising more and eating much better than I had been. They were right, I realized after I stepped on the scale and saw that I still lost 2 more lbs those last 2 weeks.

    You don’t always have to be perfect, you just have to keep trying to be better.

    • So true. Community can be incredibly powerful. Sometimes shockingly so.

      And great work on your exercise routine, KC! It sounds like you have made a lot of progress and that you have a wonderful group of friends surrounding you.

      Keep rocking.

  21. James — great perspective on the complications and pressures we put upon ourselves in life to be successful.

    The average speed is key. Being surrounded by the right people and being spiritually grounded certainly helps the daily grind to success. Moreover, if you integrate the mindset you mentioned in past articles of striving to be only 1% better, you will certainly continue to stay on the right path regardless of the challenges that occur daily in all of our lives.

    Keep up the good work.
    Bob

    • True. That’s why I like the 1 percent motto.

      Thanks for reading, Bob. I’m glad you enjoyed this article.

  22. Fabulous metaphor: “Daily failures are like red lights during a road trip … But if you maintain a good average speed, you’ll always make it to your destination….”

    Excellent article! Thanks James!

  23. Great article. You need to come live in my house so I can be reminded of this every day lol.

    Thank you.

  24. Outstanding James! I know the pipe dream of perfectionism… this is right on the mark in my experience.

  25. Last weekend I ran a 5K that I had been training for, consistently, since January. My goal was to run the course in under 30 minutes.

    I didn’t make that goal, and I did not fail. I ran 31:38, a personal record, and I’m very happy with all my training efforts, and the person I have become in part through consistent training. The discipline of training for the 5K has directly impacted other areas of my life, and that’s pretty cool!

    Thank you for messages, James!

  26. Excellent article, James! I have been developing greater consistency with daily running, meditating and writing but there are still “those days” when it doesn’t happen. It was great reminder, and very encouraging, that “individual failures have little impact on your long-term success habits”. Thanks! Steve

  27. It’s 3:00 am.

    I took yesterday off. I needed a fresh mind to break the loop of continues work and study. I spent the day yesterday beating myself up over things I should get back to doing, and tasks that needed to be done.

    This article reminded me that it’s okay to have rest (even if it was planned and not for an emergency), it’s not the end of the world, and yeah I will be right on track.

    Thanks!

  28. This is exactly what I’m going through, I manage to be consistent now following my exercise and diet plan, but now it’s a matter of understanding that it’s never going to be perfect and don’t fall in the all-or-nothing trap, sometimes I beat myself up over this! I love the idea of thinking of mistakes as the red lights in the road, this will help me think of success in general as overall results and not specific events. Thank you so much! Greeting from Costa Rica! :)

  29. James, I have read all your posts for a while now and I am inspired by what you write on a personal level. I am a registered psychiatric nurse who is taking some time out at the moment to raise my two sons by myself, with little or no support, so posts like yours keep me mentally/emotionally engaged along with the literature I read (when I’ve got the energy!). I appreciate your work and I am letting you know that it is valued in a small suburban corner of south Glasgow. Thank You.

  30. Being consistent is building a habit. In the end it’s the tortoise that wins the race and not the hare.

  31. “When working with clients, Josh doesn’t even bother tracking their daily calories. He only looks at the calorie total at the end of each week and makes adjustments based on that.”

    Yeah, tracking calories daily is a pain.

    Great post, James. And the sentence – “Being consistent is not the same as being perfect.” will be a reminder for me when I try out new habits.

  32. Great article.

    I personally have always had to struggle with the idea of allowing oneself to fail. Yes, it all gets down to developing and ensuring longevity of a habit. How long does that habit take to become entrenched. Some say 20 days and others 39. I would argue 100 days.

    By nature we are not perfect, and so many life gurus and society in general has encourage us to cheat. Live on this starvation diet for 6 days and then cheat on the seventh day. There is some scientific sense to do this from a dieting perspective, but it seems that we use the cheat concept for everything – in our relationships, in our health, in our careers, and etc. We live our lives just like our society has evolved in that we have evolved into a nation of cheaters. Always looking for the easy route.

    I would thus make a big distinction between failure and cheating. If you are going to fail, fail falling hard and not by taking an easy route. It is only an excuse.

    Alcoholics anonymous advocates zero tolerance for failure, because they know a cheat drink here and there would not work curing the addiction. I tested this out by doing a GONG where 100 days I would not eat bread (my favorite food), not drink any alcohol or caffeine and run up a mountain every day. With a GONG, when you fail you have to start back from the beginning. So you go 98 days and fail, you have to go back to day 1. This is so powerful, but it works. Failure is a NO NO. Best habit builder ever. You don’t want to fail and so you push yourself. It is like being in the marine corps.

    I have not tried a GONG for writing yet, as I feel that it will be a very difficult task. I will let you know when I do and how often I failed.

    James — good thing you opened the comments again. :)

  33. I needed to read this today. I am working on building habits in a few areas of my life (fitness, diet, and writing). I so often view a miss or slip as failure. But everyday/week I keep working towards the ultimate goal is a success, it’s all progress. What a life-changing idea! Thanks.

  34. Hi James, thanks for this article. It has helped me move forward and smash a mental barrier I had built for myself. Will share this around. :)

  35. Thank you for this post – I really needed a plan to overcome the thought of having to do everything perfectly. For those who are perfectionists, the thought of having to do every little detail absolutely correctly is a daunting task. The story of the nutritionist looking at calorie at the end of the week (“average speed”) it so helpful in visualizing this approach in action.

  36. I have had success with your insight into identity habits and how habits in general work. There have been many occasions where I have failed to start a habit or continue a habit, which made me feel *gasp* like a failure. Now I can stop beating myself up over failure because I now know that it is not about perfection, but it is all about showing up and to plan for the days I do not show up so that I can rebound from setbacks to continue showing up.

    Thank you James! You have helped me so much.