Overcome “All or Nothing” mental sabotage

January 8, 2015

Louis Sachar said, “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”

In a world plagued by impatience and the desire for FAST and EASY results, the idea of taking small steps to achievement seems like a futile process.  Do you train yourself to believe that small things do not make a difference?  Have you ever justified eating an extra cookie because it is only 100 calories?

This type of rationalization helps you to convince yourself that one measly treat isn’t going to change anything.  However, that one cookie can translate to a 10-pound weight gain, at the end of the year, if consumed on a daily basis.  Conversely, making small changes in the other direction, like choosing to take the stairs for a total of 10 minutes during the day, will burn 100 calories and over time, people would unsuspectingly lose weight.  Therefore, small changes do make a difference, and like Louis Sachar emphasized, we need to focus on small steps forward.

After five years of counselling as a dietitian, I am noticing a tendency towards “all or nothing thinking” which inevitably leads to mental sabotage along with feelings of frustration and defeat.  “All or nothing thinking” also known as “black and white thinking” is the most common type of thought distortion or irrational thinking.  “All or nothing thinking” refers to a tendency to think only in extremes.  This type of thinking occurs when you are motivated to make change but believe that you have to change many things all at once.  For instance, you decide to start exercising and instead of choosing an action plan that is realistic, you believe the only way to achieve results is to aim for perfection.  So you plan to exercise every single day.  How long does this last?  Maybe a few days or a week or two, but inevitably something comes up and you are not able to achieve your (unattainable) goal.  You may then feel like a failure when you are not!

“All or nothing thinking” is like a pendulum that swings from one extreme to the next.  Therefore, if we are not succeeding at one extreme, we quickly swing to the other extreme which is often giving up or choosing to skip the gym all together.

Today, I will share my top three ways to avoid the “all or nothing” thinking trap.  Remember, if you feel like you are trying too hard, your efforts are likely too difficult to sustain in the long-term.

So how can you over come the tendency to be an “all or nothing” thinker?

1. Make it realistic:

When you want to make health behaviour changes, acknowledge that you will need to revise your goals along the way.  Start with a goal that is manageable and do it for about three weeks until it becomes a habit.  Then, when you are comfortable with this goal, add a new goal or strategy.  Keeping your goals realistic and incremental allows you to achieve small victories along the way!   This also makes it a fun and rewarding process.

2. Watch for signs of improvement!

When you set goals in “black and white” this makes it very overwhelming because you fail to see your progress.  For example, if your goal is to lose 20 pounds in one month, and you do not achieve this amount, you are likely to overlook the five pound weight loss or the increase in muscle mass from your new workout plan.  Instead of noticing and appreciating these signs of improvement, you may be hard on yourself for not being “good enough”.  So instead of beating yourself up, have love and appreciation for your efforts and look for signs of improvement along the way.  I assure you, there will be improvement!

3. You do not have to be perfect:

Last, remember that you are only human (therefore imperfect) and that life is a journey.  Your goals are most likely to be achieved when they are implemented with kindness.  I advise clients to think of making changes using the “80/20 rule”.  This means that you try your best to stick to your goals and strategies 80 percent of the time and then 20 percent of the time give yourself grace or “wiggle room” for not sticking to your regular healthy strategies.  Having this type of balanced thinking helps you to not feel deprived and lose motivation during inevitable times of imperfection.

Bottom Line:

Be weary of the “all or nothing” thinking trap which makes you feel defeated and inadequate. There is no benefit to being self-critical.  Louis Sachar says, “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”  In summary, when changing behaviour, remember to make your goals realistic, watch for small signs of improvements and keep in mind that you do not have to be perfect.  Maintaining a healthy perspective is sure to help you on your journey to your best health.



Andrea D'Ambrosio
Andrea is a Registered Dietitian and owner of Dietetic Directions, a nutritional counselling and education company. Andrea's mission is to inspire clients through motivation and guidance to achieve life-long health behaviour changes. She has taken continuing education in the areas of Food Allergy and Food Hypersensitivity, Health Research Literacy, Motivational Interviewing & Coaching for Behaviour Change.

One comment to “Overcome “All or Nothing” mental sabotage”

January 15, 2015 Stacey Jean said:

This is a fantastic piece! It really hit home to me because I often think in extremes and now I realize that it is ONLY to my own detriment. I will now focus on this and ask myself if I’m thinking in “all or nothing” way and if I am I’ll remember the importance of a more balanced way of thinking.

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