Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible

‘Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible’. People who know me well – and especially those who have done me the honour of coming to me for spiritual guidance – have gotten used to hearing me say this.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about the person who’s never done much running in their life, but suddenly decides they’re going to run a marathon – next month! I’m talking about the person who hasn’t done much praying, hears a sermon about having a daily prayer time that includes a story about Martin Luther saying “I’m so busy I can’t get by on less than four hours’ prayer a day”, and immediately decides “That’s what I’ll do – four hours a day!”  I’m thinking about the person with serious weight issues who decides they’re going to lose fifty pounds in the next two months, running five miles a day, eating a radically reduced diet and so on.

Well, we know what’s going to happen nine times out of ten: they’ll fall far short of their unrealistic goals, and when they fall, instead of revising their goals downward to something more achievable, they’ll be so discouraged that they give up altogether. In this way the perfect has become the enemy of the possible.

Goals should challenge us, yes, but they should be achievable. Baby steps make all the difference. Doctors have been telling us for years that it’s better to lose weight slowly than fast. And when you’re starting a journey of daily prayer for the first time, it’s better to pray for ten minutes and find it meaningful than to shoot for an hour and find it excruciating.

There’s an old saying I heard years ago that goes like this: “How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite”. One step at a time. Easy does it. Gradual change is usually more lasting in the long run. So set goals, yes, but don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible. After all, the change we actually achieve is the important thing, not the change we wish we’d achieved.

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Published by

Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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