Progress, Not Perfection

Progress1We are well into the New Year now, and we’re either slogging through our resolutions and changes, or they’ve been tossed aside as old habits come creeping back. Whichever side of the coin you fall on, inspiration and motivation for better health isn’t hard to find. It seems everyone around you is on your side — there’s a mass exodus to the local gym, the break room at work is stocked with healthy snacks, and there are about 400 nutrition and exercise blog posts popping up on your news feed.

While this support can be helpful, it also has the potential to be harmful. Often encouragement from well-meaning loved ones or online health resources can make us feel inferior. This may cause us to compare ourselves to others or inspire us to strive for perfection. While it’s important to seek betterment, perfectionism evokes an all-or-nothing attitude. This sets us up for feelings of failure or disappointment.

Strengthening your health and wellness routine is a necessity for everyone and it is part of a larger wellness journey. Our individual goals, concerns, interests and skills play into our health needs.

For those in recovery, improving wellness is uniquely important as it will help you to maintain sobriety, balance, and positive self-esteem. Our wellness routine needs to be well-tailored to exactly where each of is us today. It’s important to come up with strategies and habits that can aid in your recovery and general wellbeing. This is a journey, so we are striving for progress, not perfection.

Outlined below are ideas to create or improve your own personal health and wellness routine, setting yourself up for success. I draw from my experience as a dietitian and health coach as well as incorporate personal stories of wellness journeys from two people in different stages of recovery. Sophia, 31 with six years sober, and David, 65 with 12 years sober, share their stories.

Decide your motivation

Before setting new goals for your wellness journey, you need to check in with yourself. Why do you want to make changes?

Are you embarking on new practices to help you maintain sobriety? Are you upping your exercise to qualify for a race? Perhaps you just had a health scare which triggered the desire for change.

Think about your motivation before changing your habits. Research shows that people who have a clear picture of their internal motivation are more successful in long-term change than those who strive for only external motivation. Examples of internal motivators include a desire for health, personal fulfillment and autonomy. External motivators are drawn from outside of ourselves, like physical appearance, financial reward and peer pressure. Decide your motivation, write it down, and revisit it often for inspiration. Remember that this is about you, don’t let someone else’s priorities become your own.

What should a health and wellness routine include?

Components of a routine will be slightly different for everyone, however there are basics that are crucial for a healthy life. The essentials are sleep, exercise, healthy eating, and positive stress coping mechanisms. These are fundamental wellness practices. They are not “extras” or things to consider if you have free time. In fact, they are the very foundation of your health to achieve physical, spiritual and mental wellbeing.

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The specifics of how these self-care practices work in your life are what you need to determine yourself, both by listening to your body and through trial and error. Remember, our goal isn’t perfection. The journey toward better health is a work in progress with many moving parts. You are always able to tweak your routine as you go, based on the changes in your own life.

GoodHealth3This is definitely a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” situation. When you neglect one aspect of your health, the other parts are kicked out of whack too. For example, most of us have experienced the unhealthy food cravings that result from lack of adequate sleep. Another familiar situation is the irritability and anxiousness that accompanies a sedentary lifestyle or lack of exercise.

Taking on a complete routine may seem daunting, “I need to do ALL of this?” Yet, you’ll find that once you achieve success in one area of wellness, the rest will get easier. Sophia shared that when she eats a “clean” diet of wholesome, unprocessed foods, she has more energy and feels better about herself. This enables her to be strong in other areas of self-care like exercise and spirituality. Similarly, when David quit smoking, it improved the quality of his life exponentially. He reported becoming less irritable, more active and happier.

Decide your non-negotiables.

While we want to depart from our perfectionist tendencies, there are some self-care practices that are non-negotiable. No matter how busy or stressed we are, we each have habits we must commit to in order to stay balanced. Non-negotiables will differ for everyone and it’s up to you to figure out what is most important.

Setting non-negotiables will help you to put your health first while also ensuring that you are able to stay in control on even the craziest of days. Think about practices that make you feel your best and set a positive tone for the day or week. Ideas include: eating breakfast each morning, walking for 30 minutes each day, sleeping eight hours, or eating one serving of green vegetables daily.

Sophia has two non-negotiables. First, she reads AA daily meditations literature for ten minutes each morning. Second, Sophia stays hydrated and drinks water throughout the day. David makes sure he schedules at least one AA meeting and three workouts each week. Without this, he says he becomes anxious and less productive at work and home.

Start slow and set mini-goals.

Resolutions can be daunting, because often we make all or nothing deals with ourselves. While we’re striving for an all-encompassing routine, we need to start slow and take gradual steps toward our long-term goals. One way to do this is to replace the word resolution with lifestyle change. This reminds us that we’re in it for the long haul.

GoodHealth6Start with small goals that you plan to achieve (or make progress on) in one week or one month. When you set the goals, use the motivation we discussed earlier to guide you. Also, be realistic about where you are now and what you can expect from yourself. For example, David began swimming in early sobriety to help him manage stress. When he started, he could swim just two laps at a time. Over the course of a year, he worked up to 36 laps. Starting slow will enable you to achieve your goals and continue progressing over time.

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Another avenue to lifestyle change success is to create specific and measurable goals. Instead of, “I will go to meetings more,” try, “This week, I will go to three meetings, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday after work”. Measurable goals (three meetings) keeps you accountable and enables you to evaluate your progress. Thinking about specifics beforehand (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) allows you to create realistic goals.

Find resources that serve you.

We certainly live in the information world. There is an abundance of health advice and science in the form of websites, blogs, books and apps. Take full advantage of the resources, however, learn how to choose the sources that fit your lifestyle change model. These are sources that are positive, comprehensible, and factual.

Before you search, you need to know what you’re looking for. If you are seeking information on benefits and risks of specific foods, exercises or medicines, you need a reliable scientific source.

How do you know if it’s legit? Check that the information comes from a credible institution like a university or government entity and that the specific article is written by an expert (PhD, MD) or a licensed professional (doctor, physical therapist, dietitian, etc.) Still, use your common sense, there are plenty of “experts” who give extreme, misleading or ill-informed advice. If something sounds fishy, it probably is.

Alternatively, if you are looking less for science and more for lifestyle advice or personal stories, a blog may be perfect for you. Surf around the blogosphere and find sites that resonate best with you. There are great blogs about recovery, exercise, cooking, mediation, you name it. Make sure the blogs are positive and empowering. If a resource makes you feel inferior or makes severe sounding claims, those are red-flags that it’s time to look somewhere else for your information

Progress, not perfection. Accept where you are today.

We go full circle here, back to the beginning of this article: Remember that your health and wellness journey lasts forever, so make sure to celebrate your progress, no matter how small it may seem. You are working to improve your health and staying positive automatically makes you healthier.

It’s easy to feel frustrated when we don’t meet our goals, health-related or otherwise. With high expectations from inside and outside, it’s hard to be okay with where we are right now. This is all about acceptance. The Big Book from AA says, “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” If we’re not okay with ourselves today, we won’t have the space to become better tomorrow.

Raina Goldstein Bunnag is a Registered Dietitian with a Master of Public Health degree. Through her writing she teaches people simple, approachable methods to lead healthier lives.

Last Updated on February 1, 2022