Tips to Conquer All-or-Nothing Thinking and Achieve Your Goals

Everyone has goals, including you. You want to achieve something that will improve at least one area in your life — whether it’s in your diet, exercise, sleep, finance, career, talents or relationships.

You start off great, but life and slip-ups happen. An office donut interrupts your new no-sugar diet, and instead of shrugging it off, you dive into a carton of ice cream and package of cookies that evening. Or, maybe you’ll restart your P90X routine in a few weeks after your tropical vacation.

This is all-or-nothing thinking, which can severely inhibit success — and your confidence.

What Causes All-or-Nothing Thinking?

“All-or-nothing thinking is when someone tends to be either 100% on or off when it comes to working toward their goals,” said Jeremy Butterfield, Avera Health Plans health coach. “They’re either fully engaged and following their plan 100%, or they’re way off and acting on old habits.”

No specific personality engages in all-or-nothing thinking. However, it’s oftentimes people who are high achievers and hard on themselves when they don’t succeed.

When these aggressively goal-oriented people fall off the wagon, it’s because they:

  • Force themselves into rigid, strict rules that lack flexibility
  • Regard situations and behaviors as good or bad, black or white
  • Engage in negative perfectionism, which is judging anything less than 100% adherence as total failure

Reasonable vs. Unreasonable Expectations

A pattern of failure and self-sabotage can take its toll. Negative feelings and self-criticism creep in, creating hopelessness. It’s like a desperate reach toward a better future that gets further and further away.

“Perhaps one of the first steps you need to address is that your expectations are unreasonable,” said Butterfield.

Observe the language around your goals. Words like “never,” “always,” “everyday” or “every time” are a sign your expectations might be too high and too strenuous to maintain long term.

Maybe there’s a person who can work out two hours every single day for the rest of their life, who will never spend one more dollar on a frivolous item, or who will never ingest another gram of sugar.

It’s OK if you’re not this person.

How to Change All-or-Nothing Thinking

However, you can still meet your goal. And perhaps it’s not just “meeting a goal.”

“It’s about changing your life,” said Butterfield. “Focus on adding good things to create a lifestyle — rather than straining toward a self-inflicted number or impossible goals that say you’ll ‘never or always do’ something.”

Since you want effective, good habits your whole life, realize all-or-nothing thinking and behaviors won’t be sustainable long term.

So here are some tips to retrain your mind:

  • Strive for 80/20. This means staying on your goal 80% of the time, and allowing 20% of life to happen, explained Butterfield. “Not every day will go 100% as planned.” With this mindset, an unplanned cookie is actually part of the plan.
  • Set small, doable goals. Challenge yourself just a bit, so the task isn’t overwhelming. So if you ate that one cookie, challenge yourself to not eat another sweet for the rest of the day. “Remember, when you set a goal, you need to embrace some discomfort,” said Butterfield.
  • Doing something is better than doing nothing. Keep your new goal or habit a priority, even if you have to modify it on occasion. For example, if you missed the gym, a 10-minute workout of squats, sit-ups and pushups still says, “I showed up for my goal.”
  • Identify areas of overly strict rules. Too much rigidity will make succeeding difficult. You may even look forward to a slip-up just so you can breathe! If this is your experience, reinvent how you approach your goal so it’s more moderate. A common example is binging on “forbidden foods” if your diet is too strict; a sustainable diet incorporates those foods.
  • Be kind to yourself. Many times our inner dialogue doesn’t match what we would say to a friend, child or coworker. What gives you the right to speak to yourself so cruelly? Try gentle, encouraging language when you’re struggling — you may bounce back faster.

Similar to managing your health with a primary care provider, goals are personal. Just because one approach to success works for someone doesn’t mean it will work for you. This isn’t failure, but an opportunity to discover what tools YOU need for success.

“Your life is a journey, not a two-week crash diet or 30-day exercise program,” said Butterfield. “Become your biggest ally and embrace life with intentionality.”




This article was originally published on Behavioral Health.

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