Why Trying to Be Perfect Won’t Help You Achieve Your Goals (And What Will)

We all have goals that are important to us. But is it our drive to achieve a certain outcome that makes us better? Or something else entirely?

In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland share a surprising story about a ceramics teacher. This story just might reframe the way you think about setting goals, making progress, and becoming better at the things that are important to you.

Here’s what happened…

The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, grading time came and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat around theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Start With Repetitions, Not Goals

It’s not just art studios where repetitions matter. Whenever you put in consistent work and learn from your mistakes, incredible progress is the result.

This is why I force myself to write a new article every Monday and Thursday. I can’t predict which articles will be useful, but I know that if I write two per week, then sometimes I’ll hit the bullseye.

And it works the same way with almost any goal you could have…

Art. If you want to be a great photographer, you could go on a quest to take one perfect photo each day. Or you could take 100 photos per day, learn from your mistakes, and hone your craft.

Strength. If you want to be stronger, you could analyze every movement and phase of your technique until you’re blue in the face. Or, you could get under the bar, learn from your mistakes, and focus on doing more reps.

Writing. If you want to write a best-selling book, then you could spend 10 years trying to write one perfect book. Or, you could write one book each year, learn from your mistakes, and trust that your books will get better each time.

Business. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you could scheme and think and try to plan out the perfect business idea. Or, you could try to get one customer, learn from your mistakes, and experiment with new ideas until something comes easily.

It’s not the quest to achieve one perfect goal that makes you better, it’s the skills you develop from doing a volume of work.

In other words, when you think about your goals, don’t just consider the outcome you want. Focus on the repetitions that lead to that place. Focus on the piles of work that come before the success. Focus on the hundreds of ceramic pots that come before the masterpiece.

Put in Your Reps

When you look at goals this way, you start to realize that setting up a system for putting your reps in is more important than choosing a goal.

Everyone wants to make progress. And there is only one way to do it: put in your reps.

The goal is just an event — something that you can’t totally control or predict. But the reps are what can make the event happen. If you ignore the outcomes and focus only on the repetitions, you’ll still get results. If you ignore the goals and build habits instead, the outcomes will be there anyway.

Forget about the goals this year. What is your plan for getting in the reps you need? What is your schedule for putting in a volume of work on the things that are important to you?

Click here to leave a comment.

Sources
  1. Thanks to Dan John for inspiring this post.

56 Comments

  1. I have been following your blog for few months now. I loved this article. I have been trying to get out of analysis paralysis syndrome and waiting for the ‘perfect’ time to start which never seems to happen.

    Thanks for your articles. They help a lot. You are doing great job here.

    • I was doing the same thing as you Romanch, for the longest time and I didn’t know what I was doing wrong but the results would never meet my expectations. I’m glad it makes sense now. So instead of waiting for the perfect inspiration, I now feel more inclined to try a couple drafts :)

    • Analysis Paralaysis eventually leads to self sabotage. I later on realized it was one among the key underlying reasons for procrastination. Thanks James for pointing out the simple yet very powerful message — “You want to beat Analysis Paralaysis ? Do the Reps!”

  2. Thank you!
    Your articles are always new, helpful and give me hope about myself. Most of the content is something I already know. Like it was right under my nose, so simple but I’m glad I got to know these simple life tips. I can put my worrying to an end. Thank you again! :D

    I will use this new perspective well ^_^

  3. Outstanding and oh so true coming from a man who tends to get stuck on quality in the debilitating ways you named. Thanks for the awesome article I can relate with!

  4. This is exactly where I am with my thought process on getting to where I want to be. I am developing and executing the tasks I want to be doing on a daily basis because I know that is the way I’ll get what I want out of life. Thank you for putting these beliefs amd thoughts into words! Great article James!

  5. For over 30 years I have served as a financial advisor to the owners of successful small businesses and I am convinced that good habits are one of the most important factors to success. I do believe in the importance of clear goals, no matter what the objective; however, when you have a goal you need a process (a plan) to achieve it`s desired outcome…..and that process is strengthened with the formation of, or the change to, a new habit.

    Thank you James. I am looking forward to your workshop.

  6. How to really get this idea in the head that repetitions alone are secret to any kind of success. I am not counting extraordinary lucky breaks like winning a jackpot or inherited wealth. I am trying to make myself understand and unhook myself from popular notions of success like having a mentor guide you, a smooth sailing where everything falls together and you have a textbook life. I am trying to really drill down this idea in my head that secret to success couldn’t be more basic and unglamorous but I have just day in and day out work on the process without getting distracted by the results. Its because our brain thrives on feedback, I think any kind of it. I don’t know but as soon as I am trying to really understand this I start to crave a more exciting and interesting secret or answer as if on autopilot and feel helpless when I try to change that.

    • This is a good insight and worth looking into further. Something I’m noticing too.

      How can we keep ourselves “jazzed” about an exciting prospect while slogging through the day to day system of repetition that we now understand is what’s needed? I’ve discovered that maintaining a sort of dogged “slogging” attitude really does help me to stick with the same thing every day even when I “don’t feel like” doing that same thing one more time. but there must be a way to keep it feeling fun or inspiring, or just plain some way to keep oneself STIMULATED in a good way. at least for me — I seem to crave constant stimulation and that makes sticking with the day to day repetition very challenging. Thoughts?

  7. Great piece for the new year. I decided not to make a new year resolution this year! Too stressful. I did however decide to continue on the path that I started. I’m studying to become a Pilates instructor. The course was only supposed to take 6 months, but with a full time job a husband, two kids, and three pets, I’m looking at finishing in 2 years. I got so upset with myself because I dropped the ball and lost my determination to complete the course. My instructor told me to take my time! So, back to square one and complete what I started is the promise to myself, no matter how long it takes. In this case, the reps are very important, not the rush to the outcome. Thanks!

    • What you learn from getting yourself through the course will also help you to pass on to your students how to stay the course. Pilates is very hard to stick with, it is a demanding discipline, but the rewards are tremendous! I have infinite gratitude to my Pilates teacher for showing me how to keep my body healthier than I dreamed possible. Don’t give up!

    • Happy New Year and may it be one in which you realize change, consistent, life-changing actions, take time and lots of effort. There are few instantaneous “courses” that whip us into what we desire. It takes patience and determination with ourselves to achieve what we are working toward.

      There are lots of things to learn in any given situation: how much do I really want this, can I share it with others, will I benefit as well as them, do I know what I’m doing and why? sharing skill sets is a marvelous thing, and it will ask us to step up or back down to find something else more suited to us.

      Good luck and much success!

    • Kelley, I resisted the urge to do resolutions this year, also. Instead, I did a review of 2013, per James’ outline, and found it was much more helpful. I discovered I made a lot of progress in many areas last year and it is more obvious what I need to work on this year to attain the success and wholeness I’m aiming for.

      The review really opened my eyes. I’m very detail-oriented and resolutions, in the past, became a nightmare of planning and tracking which took so much time on a daily basis that I gave up. Looking at my systems and incorporating the idea of reps has me really excited about what I can accomplish this year.

      Keep going with your Pilates. You can do it.
      “It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.” Confucius
      “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Lao-Tzu

  8. Great ! James is back ! Wish you one of the Happiest Year, 2014!

    James, your articles have become so much part of life that I was missing them like Newspaper in December when you took the break! I am going to write this sentence on the wall of my bedroom “Forget about the goals this year. What is your plan for getting in the reps you need? What is your schedule for putting in a volume of work on the things that are important to you?” and will execute the same! Bravo! Keep it up! :)

  9. Love love love this info! I have read Art & Fear some years back but you nailed it when you say: “Focus on Repetition”.

    I have been challenged with the Black Dog for a few years and you give me hope that there is a way forward towards the light! Thank you James.

    I want to join your Habits Workshop, but can only pay on PayPal. Is there a way you can organise this? Thanks again and Happy New Year to you and yours!

    Jax

  10. Thanks James you hit the bullseye on this article. :)

    It resonated with me because as a “perfectionist”; it reminds me to let go of my beliefs around what failure and mistakes means.

  11. As to compare with “famous elephant theory”, the author only looks one element and comment that efforts to better quantity won against quality.

    I have seen number of times that practicing without keeping QUALITY at the center of evolution does not result in better outcomes.

    So “Practice makes you perfect”. working for quality does make you “Stop-and-Think-before-you-ACT”. But you cannot stop here, you still have to work with Plan-Do-Check-Act in a cycle to continuously improve QUALITY.

    Very good article.

  12. James – I really enjoy and look forward to your weekly articles. Felt like I was in withdrawal over the holidays without your shot of encouragement! You really hit home with, “It’s not the quest to achieve one perfect goal that makes you better, it’s the skills you develop from doing a volume of work.” This carries over to many fields and industries, and also to things we all live for and strive to accomplish. Entrepreneurs don’t have to have a brilliant idea the first go-round, but they do have to have their first customer. The hardest things for some folks is relinquishing perfection for the process of learning. This article also piggy backs on a recent previous one about creating a system, not necessarily planned dates of goals; emphasizing that the process is more important. What a perfect accompaniment!

    Work like hell and enjoy life’s adventures.

  13. James, yet another winner in my book! It must be all of those other articles you’ve written in the meantime – you got in your reps! ;-) Seriously, you illustrate here that it just takes time for patterns to get settled in your brain, and the more often you do something, the more you practice it, the better you will get at it. This assumes, of course that you also include the practice of thinking about and evaluating your progress along the way. Just doing the same thing over and over without making an attempt at getting better doesn’t help you make a lot of progress (though you would likely make some despite yourself!). Incremental steps with each repetition are the key. And that comes back to creating the habit of regular repetition. Thanks! :-)

  14. If there is a lost lesson… it is the need for repetitions. I have this little free book on my site “The Contrarian Approach to the Discus Throw” and I often get questions about “why so many reps?”

    Great blog here… great. It’s really the secret to success here.

  15. I subscribed to your email list a few days ago, and this first message exceeded my expectations! I figured this idea out when writing my book (published last year!) but have had a tough time applying the systems/reps/habits approach to other areas of my life that I want to change. I look forward to turning that around.

  16. I really wish more of my writer friends would read this. A few weeks ago I commented on the blog of another writer whose resolution is to “finish the book I’ve been working on for ten years.” I told her to scrap it and start writing another.

    Being me, of course, I had to learn this the hard way. Now my goal is to write every single day. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but at the end of the year I’ll be grading myself on quantity, not quality, because quality is subjective anyhow.

  17. If I always focus on the outcome, then the end result than I miss the opportunity to learn and grow from all that happens in the process. Growth, I think, is in the process. It’s the unfolding…

  18. James

    You talk a lot about systems and processes.

    What books/articles inform your thoughts on this?

    Do you have any books that you would recommend?

    Robert James Collier

  19. Great advice and very insightful for building habits and putting in the efforts. But one benefit with having goals is that we can examine our results and measure up where we are going. We could be doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. That’s called “insanity” according to Albert Einstein. But if we do have a goal, at least we can stop for a while and check whatever feedback we get from our “reps” or “system”, and if it’s not getting the kind of results we want, there is no point in continuing with it blindly as it will just lead us nowhere.

  20. The same is true of parenting. There is no quality time unless there is quantity time. To be a good parent you have to put in the time.

  21. On January 1st I decided that I am going to take a walk and take a photo every day for a year. I was playing around with the idea of taking a single picture during the walk, thinking that focusing on making one shot count would make me a better photographer. All that went by the wayside after reading this blog. Thanks for pointing out that sometimes not worrying about quality leads to better quality overall.

  22. James,

    You can often judge the quality of an author by the audience. Reading the comments of your followers, how intelligent and concise they are, is a breath of fresh air after reading comments following political articles. It’s truly a testament to your work. Great job!

  23. Hey James, I think I’ve reached your website in the past, but I really can’t remember when. I know that I did for sure.

    Anyway, so far I haven’t come to think about goals and repetitions this way. It’s different than all the conventional motivational speaking advices. I’d like to suggest that reps involve constant and persistent work. To succeed, you have to progress and do smart work. It’s not only the load of the work, but also the way you do it.

    Cheers!

  24. James, an excellent article! Thank you! Nike’s phrase, “Just Do It!” seems to summarize your point.

    Similar to “analysis paralysis” are the phrases, “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.” and “Sometimes you have to shoot the engineer to get the project done.”

  25. Great post, James! It reminded me of a saying — keep doing your karma without expecting anything in return. What has worked for me in the past is to set goals every quarter, then focus on doing the work and forgetting the goals till the end of the quarter when it’s time for me to review them again. I think the more important thing for me is have some momentum every week and a way to keep track of my progress. As the late Peter Drucker used to say, what gets measured gets managed. As long as I know that I’m making some progress (and not moving backward) no matter how small, I’m golden.

  26. I believe you. 100%. The only problem I have is: how? How do you switch off your desire for perfection? Yes, of course, you can rationally accept that perfection doesn’t exist and it’s much better to just get on with something and finish it and produce a lot of work than to strive for perfection but, when it comes down to it, who wants to create something…substandard? How do you let go of your inner perfectionist?

  27. Brilliant article and so true. It gently touches also on the point of procrastination – we like to think about the work we will do and how we’ll do it, instead of just parking our bottoms and doing it.

    Thanks!

  28. It all comes down to what perfection means to each of us. Before anything else, it’s an idea. For some, it’s a way to push yourself further yet for others it’s something debilitating, something that prevents us from moving towards our goals. For the latter, it makes sense to accept that it’s ok not to meet our own definition of perfect, but work on small steps towards our goals.

  29. Great point. So funny that you chose the ceramics example, because I LIVED it.

    I took a ceramics class, and while I have a strong leaning toward perfectionism, I quickly found that if I were a perfectionist in that class, I’d have nothing but disappointment and nothing to take home. So I started being very flexible and accepting of the mutations of the product and had TONS of things to take home. Sometimes I’d start out with a goal to make a very big vase, and it would then morph into a medium bowl, and down to a small bowl, and eventually I’d go home with a tiny dish for olive pits… but I had SOMETHING! And a friend of mine was ruthless in destroying anything she produced that didn’t meet her exacting perfectionist standards. Now, she did produce some amazing things, but her volume was very very low in comparison. I think I emerged from the classes much happier than she.

    Anyway, I need to apply that same grace and acceptance in other endeavors. Thanks for the reminder and for all your great work! Love your blog!

  30. Hi James,

    I’ve just discovered your articles and they are a great read. This particular one is no exception. It applies to pretty much everything we do. Just today I was trying to explain to my teenage son that he will never get better at anything unless he spends some time and effort on doing it. Coming across this article couldn’t have been more timely – I think I’m going to print it out and put it up on his wall. Many thanks!

  31. I found this article by accident on a Google Search. But I will say that this has been one of the simplest and among the most life-changing perspectives I have ever read. I want to thank you because I have decided to change my life to mirror what you said in this article and end all the stress, worry, and depression and the constant sense of failure, procrastination that comes with being a perfectionist.

    Thank you so much.

  32. I started learning French in February 2014. This article helped me to realize a missing piece to the progress that I want to make. “Put in the reps”.

    Thanks for this refreshing article James.

Leave a comment Share your knowledge and experience.

Close