The 80:20 rule is an oft repeated and much loved mantra in health and wellness circles. The principle (and I think it a quite sound one) is that if you can get your diet and exercise 80% right then you will get most of the benefits that you would otherwise get if you did it 100% right. There are of course some obvious exceptions to this, for example people with a gluten intolerance are will usually go far, far better eliminating gluten entirely than merely eliminating it 80% of the time and of course full blown allergies are the same. But the basic idea of not being too hard on yourself, of not expecting perfection makes a lot of sense.

So here’s what I don’t like about the 80:20 rule. It doesn’t allow for your individual circumstances, it doesn’t take into account where you are starting from and depending on where you currently are on the scale it can either be an unachievable goal or a cop out.

Let me explain. If you are someone who eats processed food for every meal and doesn’t eat vegetables then a sudden and immediate change to eating a healthy diet comprising of fruits, vegetables, healthy meats and water 80% of the time is going to be a massive leap. In fact for most people it is going to be very hard to stick to and the majority won’t make it to the end of the first week, let alone the first month. Even if you eat the right thing 50% of the time suddenly making the leap to 80% is for many people a bridge too far. And in the grand scheme of things (unless you are going through some sort of immediate health crisis) what is the rush? The goal should be to get healthy for the rest of your life and do it in a sustainable way not to be 80% healthy by next week (even if it jeopardises your chances of making the plan stick).

The Japanese have a principle they love called kaizen. It stands for small steps of continual and never ending improvement and for most people it is a much more sensible and sustainable way to make lifestyle changes. Because at the end of the day and in the long run what matters more than where you are at is what direction you are heading and whether you are doing it in a sustainable way. Trying to change everything at once is a bit like the rabbit in the rabbit and the hare (and we all know how that one turned out). Going faster isn’t always better. This is really the guiding principle of my book How To Eat An Elephant (one bite at a time of course) where there are 97 different challenges in all aspects of your lifestyle to take on an implement.

So if you are eating 0% healthy vegetables then perhaps aiming for say 5-10% (or one extra vegetable a day) is a more realistic and achievable target. By setting smaller, easier, more realistic targets you are more likely to start, more likely to succeed and therefore more likely to create some momentum (and feel good) in a way that will make it easier for you to take on another challenge and another and maybe, just maybe eventually get yourself to 80%.

And perhaps even beyond! Because let’s face it once you get to 80% why stop there? You can’t eat too much good food, you can’t be too perfect with your exercise regime (though you can overdo it), you can’t be too happy (those who matter won’t mind and those who mind won’t matter) and you can’t get too much quality sleep. So if you are doing things 80% right why not do as the Japanese do and go for another step of continual and never ending improvement. Why wouldn’t you try and get to 81% right? Some people will say, ‘well you still need to have some enjoyment in life’ and I agree. But why not see if you can find enjoyment in doing healthy things. I know I now enjoy many healthy things I would never have previously thought of as enjoyable. Like green smoothies, eggs without toast and drinking plain water.

So don’t compare yourself to an arbitrary 80% target. The only person worth comparing yourself too is the person you were yesterday. See if you can improve slightly on that person (and be kind with yourself if you cannot). Remember that there is no such thing as failure (unless you quit) merely lessons learnt along the way and always remember How To Eat An Elephant.

One bite at a time!