6 Tactics to Help You Aim For Progress—Not Perfection
In my tenure at Nike, I regularly traveled to Europe for training and events. While in London, I appreciated the constant reminders on the Underground to “mind the gap.” Meaning, open your eyes and be aware. Don’t face-plant when crossing the space between the train door and the station platform.
Similarly, we need to mind the gap on our own journeys, particularly as it relates to choosing progress over perfection.
There’s a fine line between striving for excellence and getting sucked into a perfectionism sinkhole.
Perfection sounds like:
●︎ “I have only one shot at this. If I fail/lose/get rejected, it means I suck and I should quit.”
●︎ “It’s either ALL or NOTHING. IF I can’t get everything I want now, what’s the point?”
●︎ “If I fail, I’m done. I can’t go on.”
●︎ “Nothing is ever good enough.”
●︎ “I can’t show this to anyone until it’s perfect.”
Progress, on the other hand, sounds like:
●︎ “I’ll take as many shots as I can. I’ll learn from every attempt. I’ll get stronger and better.”
●︎ “I’ll start small and simple now, then iterate and evolve over time.”
●︎ “Failure is an event, not a characteristic.”
●︎ “Done is better than perfect.”
●︎ “Real-world feedback helps me learn and improve.”
Progress not perfection is the only way to bridge the gap between your ability and your ambition.
I’ve strived to mind the gap in every aspect of my life: from gaining physical strength at the gym, to renovating my home, to building a team, to developing my show MarieTV, which began on my old-school webcam with no editing, lighting, or film crew in sight.
Mind the gap. Bit by bit, piece by piece, day by day. Focus on progress not perfection and you will successfully cross that chasm.
Use the following tactics to stay in the progress zone when the lure of perfectionism has pulled you off course.
1. Take Small Steps and Ignore Big Drama
Perfectionism loves drama. You’ll start to notice that even before you’ve taken any steps toward fulfilling a dream, perfectionism will chime in with endless, berating questions.
Is my business idea even any good? How will I get it going? How am I going to manage dozens of people? What if I fail? What if I SUCCEED? I’ll probably ruin my family. Everyone will be jealous of me. I’ll lose friendships over this. Oh God, I’ll wind up divorced and alone for the rest of my life…
Don’t indulge in this drama-fest. Keep your head down and do the work. Take small steps. Baby steps, even. Do them daily. Show up to the class. Build the prototype. Write your pages. Run your miles. Send the survey. Deposit one dollar. Be clean and sober for one hour. Whatever your dream is, get obsessed with making simple, daily progress. That’s it.
You can scare yourself into stuckness by assuming you have to make radical life changes in order to make progress. You don’t. Real change is practically invisible as it’s happening. No trumpets sound. A marching band will not play at your door. Meaningful progress doesn’t feel particularly exciting. Most days, it feels like work. You show up, grind it out (sometimes joyfully, sometimes not), and repeat.
You can scare yourself into stuckness by assuming you have to make radical life changes in order to make progress. You don’t.
So keep your eye on the prize: Take small steps daily and steer clear of big drama.
2. Plan Ahead For Problems
No matter how organized or motivated you are, things will knock you off track. From illness to technology fails to everyday interruptions, there will be loads of obstacles on your path.
Anticipating and solving for them in advance is the key to steady progress. Here’s how to do it: Think in microterms.
What could derail your workday? Allowing text or email notifications? Taking unnecessary phone calls? Failing to stock the fridge? Then go bigger. What could take your whole project off track? Missed deadlines? Weather delays? Tech headaches?
In our company, we noticed a pattern of delays related to design and development. We began to anticipate and solve those problems in advance by regularly running through worst-case scenarios on any new project and brainstorming ways to handle them. It’s not a foolproof system, but it helps.
Ask yourself, “What potential problems could arise? What can I plan for in advance (even if it’s my own emotional toughness) to mitigate the negative impact of potential problems? What do I need to do now in order to keep making progress?”
3. Expect (and Embrace) Self-Doubt
After the novelty of chasing your big dream has subsided, chances are you’ll be swallowed by a tsunami of self-doubt.
WHY did I say yes to this?! This is all wrong. I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I don’t have what it takes. Maybe I should just quit. Maybe I should change the whole thing and start from scratch. I hate this. I hate everything. I hate myself!
Whether you’re getting in shape, building a product, writing a screenplay, launching a new business or career, healing a relationship, or running for office—expect self-doubt to punch you in the gut.
I cannot emphasize how common this is. It usually happens more than once, especially on big projects. Everyone experiences this surge of self-doubt when moving beyond their comfort zone. This is a hallmark of progress, not a signal to stop.
As repeatedly mentioned (because people so often forget!), setbacks happen. They’re not “signs from the Universe” that you should quit. (Obviously, if you discover you genuinely don’t want to pursue this dream or goal anymore, then yes. Stop. Move on to something else.)
But if you’re feeling disheartened, take a breath. Remember that self-doubt is normal. No matter how successful or experienced you become, self-doubt never fully goes away. Instead of saying, What’s the point? ask yourself, What’s the next right move?
4. Ask: What’s the Next Right Move?
After a setback, ask yourself this question: “What’s the next right move here?” Listen for the answer. It may be as simple as “drink a glass of water.” Or “sleep on it.” Or “you need some chips and hummus. Like, a lot of chips and hummus.”
Sometimes the next right move is taking a break to gain a fresh perspective. Go for a run. Work out. Dance. Meditate. Take some space. Call a trusted, experienced, and supportive friend.
Or maybe when you ask yourself, “What’s the next right move here?” you’ll hear a response like, “That feedback stung, but there’s truth in it. Use that insight to get even better.” Or maybe you’ll hear, “Stop judging yourself and finish this damn paragraph.” Or perhaps, “Yes, we need to push our deadline back again. But we’re not quitting. Let’s refocus and keep going.”
When you ask yourself, “What’s the next right move?” you’re directing your brain and heart to search for a productive answer.
5. Use the Power of Positive Quitting
The old saying that quitters never win and winners never quit isn’t true. Sticking with something only because you’re afraid of looking like a loser is a terrible idea. There are times when you must be brave enough to cancel projects, goals, or relationships that no longer align with who you are or what you value.
Let me introduce you to the power of positive quitting.
Positive quitting is when you realize that you’ve gone as far as you possibly can. You’ve given it your very best effort and now it’s become clear—in your heart and soul—that the wisest and most productive next step is to cut your losses and move on.
Positive quitting is when you realize that you’ve gone as far as you possibly can.
In the early years of my coaching business, I invested months of time and significant money into building a private online membership community. This project was all-consuming and stretched me financially. When I finally launched, I was so excited. Hundreds of folks had registered and paid for access.
As soon as those new members started logging in, the entire thing crashed. I’m talking a totally frozen, tech-mess shitshow. Back then, I didn’t have a support team. I was beyond embarrassed, but as upset as I was, I composed myself enough to step back, evaluate the situation, and take decisive action.
I pulled the plug. Naturally, I took care of my customers. I explained exactly what happened, transitioned them onto a stable, hosted platform, and delivered more than what I promised. But I wasn’t about to sink more money, more time, and more energy into that custom site just to prove I could figure it out.
Sometimes, in the process of pursuing a project, you realize it’s not actually what you want. It’s clear: this is not what you want to keep doing. Even if your project doesn’t crash and burn, you might choose to walk away because you’re done. You’ve learned and experienced all you can and you’re ready for the next chapter. Think about it like a buffet: You don’t quit eating because something went horribly wrong. You stop eating when you’re satisfied.
Whether it’s a relationship, a career, or a project, just because something ends doesn’t mean it failed. Giving up isn’t the same as moving on. Don’t use “progress not perfection” to punish yourself and keep pursuing a dream that no longer serves you.
If, after a certain amount of time, you sense that it’s time to pivot, do it. While there’s no cut-and- dry formula to make these kinds of decisions, the Ten-Year Test can help.
How it works: Imagine yourself ten years into the future and ask, “If I end this right now...will I regret it then?”
When my expensive custom website crashed, I knew that in ten years’ time I’d barely remember it. Yes, it was frustrating and I lost some cash, but it wasn’t a soul goal. It was just one project that taught me many critical lessons.
6. Above All: Cultivate Patience
“But, Marie, I’ve been working on my (business, acting, writing, music, sculptures, recipes, screenplays, research, etc.) for at least (three weeks, three months, or three years, etc.) and I’m going nowhere. What’s wrong with me?! How long is this going to take?”
Answer: As long as it does.
I maintained a small constellation of side jobs for seven years before I was confident enough—emotionally or financially—to rely solely on my business for full-time income.
Throughout those years, I seized every money making opportunity I could to pay the bills. I cleaned toilets. Worked thousands of shifts as a bartender and waitress. My dream of running my own business, on my own terms, doing exactly the kind of work that I do now, was so important that I was willing to do whatever it took, for as long as it took, to see it through.
Don’t believe the myth that if you were a “real” (artist, performer, activist, scientist, entrepreneur, etc.) that you’d make a full-time living from your work. Perhaps it’ll happen someday. But that’s not always true, no matter how hard you work. There are countless creatives who are legitimate and admired who also supplement their income through a variety of unrelated means—teaching, seasonal work, service jobs, or rental income.
More importantly, there’s no shame in doing whatever it takes to keep a roof over your head. Never be embarrassed about doing honest work. To say we live in a culture of instant gratification is a gross understatement. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate technology. But for some, it’s all but destroyed the ability to cultivate patience.
But the ease and speed of tech toys doesn’t map to real life.
To build skills, earn trust, develop a body of work, forge relationships, gain mastery, or solve complicated problems, it takes sustained, relentless effort.
There are no shortcuts.
If you’re not willing to work your ass off over an extended period of time (I’m talking years, not months), then be honest with yourself: that dream isn’t really that important to you. That’s okay. Drop it. Dig deeper. Find something you are willing to stick with and work for, no matter how long it takes.
Life doesn’t demand perfection. Life doesn’t require you to be constantly fearless, confident, or self-assured. Life simply requires that you keep showing up.
Adapted from “Everything is Figureoutable” by Marie Forleo. Reprinted by permission.
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