Perfection and Plan B: 9 Tips for Mastering Life When Things Go Wrong

By Andy Petranek

We talk about it all the time: “Perfection as the enemy of progress.” And while each of us understands the logic of this statement, we’re still drawn to perfection like a fish to a shiny lure.
We we want to do things perfectly. We feel great about ourselves when things around us are orderly — when everything is in its place, stuff put away, piles picked up, nothing left out. We are drawn to the way life looks in the magazines.

And what feels better than a day that goes perfectly according to schedule? When the kids are ready to go on time. When there is no traffic on the way to the airport. When there’s no detour, construction zone, or gas tank that needs to be filled.

As human beings, we prefer when our work, schedule, routine, and even play go perfectly. We prefer to make no mistakes and earn a perfect score. When things fall into place, we feel in control, and we feel good about ourselves.

But there’s a problem. In real life (not the magazines), perfection isn’t possible.

When was the last time your schedule survived a day unscathed? How long do the counters and rooms in your home stay clean? When was the last time you remembered everything on your grocery list, to-do list, or project list?

The real challenge in life is not to be perfect. Perfection as a goal is unattainable and not terribly useful in the long run, either.

The real challenge is to maintain positive momentum, flow, and happiness in the face of the imperfection. Whether you’re trying to adhere to a new exercise or nutrition plan, preparing a presentation for your job, contemplating life between Whole Life Challenges, or just trying to be the best parent you can be, you will have days that go better than others. But all of them can be approached with grace and mined for a nugget of knowledge.

Here are nine actionable and practical tips to help you make it through the times when your desire for perfection is getting the better of you.

9 Tips for Mastering Life When Things Go Wrong
1. Expect Imperfection
Know that life is never going to go perfectly: your workouts, schedule, time, spouse, children, you name it. Know that you’re going to have days when you’re not excited about your performance, when your progress is slow, when things in your life get in the way of doing everything you want to do.
Recognize this, accept it, and keep moving. Don’t let one imperfection stop you.

2. See the Opportunity in Difficulty
As an example, say you’re participating in the Whole Life Challenge and you’ve been able to maintain a perfect score for the first six days. Then, something happens on day seven and you completely forget to record your score. Now there’s a big empty space in your chart, and you’re suddenly behind in points compared to the other people on your team. Even worse, you’ve just eliminated yourself from ever having the chance at a perfect score.

It’s upsetting, right? But how do you deal with the difficulty? Do you lash out, blame others, and make it all about your busy schedule? Or maybe you say to yourself, “It was just a silly challenge. It doesn’t matter anyway.” And then quit? Those would be the easy ways “out” — focusing on the difficulty of the situation.

But what if you took a moment to find the opportunity in the difficulty? A moment where you could stop to analyze what got you to this place and what you could do differently in the future.
This scenario could be the Challenge or your exercise plan or your promise to keep up on the laundry. Wherever you find yourself “falling down,” pick yourself up and look for the different steps you can take to avoid future missteps.

3. Think Long Term
I’m not talking about a day, week, month, or year. While the Whole Life Challenge is a set number of weeks, the “game” we’re really playing is far longer. For most of us, we have an entire lifetime to learn, grow, and develop.

Little bumps in the road (or even ones that appear to be massive pot holes) cease to really matter when you remember to take the long view. When you’re stuck in the moment, lift up your head, and remember your ultimate destination.

Will this thing you’re currently facing even be a problem in ten years?

4. Never, Ever, Ever Quit
Winston Churchill said this best: “Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” If you decide that nothing is going to stop you, nothing can or will.

If and when you don’t meet the high expectations you have set for yourself, still show up the next day, ready to start again. When you always come back, you’re always in the game, and that’s where there is always another chance to improve.

Whether you’re in Challenge, between Challenges, or have never done a Challenge, you can choose to keep yourself working toward your goals.

5. Be Willing to Be Flexible
You know what happens to big, strong oak trees in a major wind storm? Because their trunks are rigid, they are unable to flex and bend and this puts a massive strain on their roots. Often this leads to them getting uprooted and tipping over.

Young saplings, on the other hand, are flexible. They allow the wind do what it will (because it’s going to anyway).  They bend, and they live to tell the tale. They thrive because they are flexible.
Consider where you are the oak in your life, and where you could choose to be the sapling.

6. Focus on the Journey
A results-based focus can get you in trouble. When you take action day after day, overly focused on a result that hasn’t yet occurred, it can become depressing, demotivating, and uninspiring.

Instead, focus on the process. Are you doing the things each day that you know will ultimately pay off? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track. Remember that this is a long-term journey and the small steps you take each day are already adding up.

7. Be Water, My Friend
I love those wise words from Bruce Lee: “Be water, my friend.” Just as a stone thrown into the water causes a ripple in the surface, an unexpected meeting, call from an old friend, or an argument with your spouse may cause a ripple in your schedule.

In the case of water, it responds to the stone in exactly the right amount, returning to calm appropriately, based on the size of the stone thrown. Can you respond to upset in your life with the appropriateness of water?

8. Keep Your Expectations High
Just because it’s good to expect imperfection doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your expectations high. In describing the “state of flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi posited that happiness in work exists when you are competent at the skills required to do the work, but nonetheless challenged by the task.

In other words, we have to challenge ourselves to be happy. There’s no better way to do this than recognizing that our high expectations and our acceptance of the inevitability of imperfection can exist side-by-side.

9. Practice Self-forgiveness
You’re going to blow it. You’re going to forget something. You’re going to run out of time. You’re going to oversleep.

Something’s not going to go as planned. The question is, how quickly can you recover? Are you willing to let yourself off the hook? Try saying these words, “I forgive myself for judging myself as [lazy, stupid, not good enough, unworthy, fat, stubborn, etc.].”

The truth is, you’re doing the best you can given your experience and place in life. Would you ever consider purposely judging your best friend this way? If not, when you inevitably judge yourself as these things, try to find self-compassion and move into forgiveness. The great thing about life is that it’s going to give you plenty of opportunity to practice your response to imperfection.

The Truth About Perfection and Plan B
While in our minds we may have a perfect idea of what life should look like, the truth is that life more often looks like Plan B. And that’s a good thing. Because Plan B is where we learn and grow, where we forgive ourselves and others, and where we find joy in the reality of life, not the ideal.

So whether you are setting out on a new lifestyle or working to maintain your current one, be kind to yourself and remember these nine tips for mastering your life when things go wrong. Because they will, and that’s actually the good part.