When it comes to striving for a health, fitness or lifestyle goal, there’s one type of mindset that consistently stops people from achieving what they want: the all or nothing mindset. As the name suggests, you have two options: 1) you go all out and do everything you’re supposed to do, or 2) you don’t do any of it. There’s no grey area. Before I continue I want to say that sometimes, an all or nothing mindset can be beneficial. For example, if you’re an athlete or fitness competitor preparing for a competition you may need to go all out for a short period of time. Or, you may have an event (e.g. reunion, wedding, Stereosonic) and being stricter on your goals is necessary. But for the person looking for long term, sustainable health, and being happy with their body, then all or nothing thinking can keep you stuck where you don’t want to be.
All or nothing thinkers tend to pile on their to-do list and go 100% all out and remain 100% perfect for the entire duration. They will overhaul their entire diets, their routine, hit the gym X number of days a week, and make sure that this plan is executed to a T.
But what happens if an all or nothing thinker slips up? Well, for an all or nothing thinker, one slip up usually means game over. For the next few meals, day, or even days, it’s a free for all of pizza, chocolate, crisps, cake and some beverage that’s pretty good at cleaning coins. The thinking behind it is generally “well, I already messed up, so what’s the point?”
For some the thinking gets a little more extreme. I’ve come across individuals who refused to make ANY lifestyle changes (no matter how small) until their life circumstances (work, home life, etc.) allowed them to go all out. Of course, this never happens.
As you can probably imagine, all or nothing thinking has a pretty high failure rate, but only because it sets you up for failure from the start. Firstly, by tackling too many changes, it opens up a lot of room for error. If there’s one thing we know about habits, it’s that they can be extremely difficult to change. One habit alone can be a monumental task that requires long term diligence to break or recreate. Secondly, because all or nothing thinking demands perfection, and because no one can be perfect all the time, eventually you will slip up somewhere. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and when it happens it’s usually wrought with feelings of guilt, stress and self-criticism.
In my experience, the people who succeed in the long term are people who understand that it’s not about doing everything perfectly, it’s about doing better. Better doesn’t mean better in a big way (at least not right away); it can mean being better by even the smallest step. For some people, the first step might be ‘get to the gym X number of times a week’. Forget about nutrition at this stage, it’s too much to handle right now. Once they achieve getting to the gym regularly then they can focus on something new. Maybe preparing home cooked dinners 3 times a week, instead of having takeaway. Once they master that, they could step it up to 5 or more nights a week. The point here is that the changes can be small and happen one at a time. There is no change that is too small as long the change is for the better. It is also much easier to succeed with a habit change when the change is small and easily achievable… and it’s empowering when you master the change and move on to a new one.
Probably the most important thing to remember for anyone looking to form healthy nutrition and lifestyle habits is that if you stray from the path once in a while, it’s okay! Focus on getting back on track as quickly as possible. However, if you do find yourself going off track too frequently, then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the change. Perhaps choose another change or dumb down the current one (e.g. instead of “I will stretch every day” change it to “I will stretch 3 times a week). You’d be surprised, some changes will require other changes along the way. For example, doing more meal prepping may mean having to plan more grocery runs. That’s TWO changes in one!
If you think you’re an all or nothing thinker, it’s important to catch yourself out when you’re doing it. Changing a mindset is not always easy but being aware of how you think and the steps your mind takes can be half the battle won. At the end of the day, the main thing to remember is that perfection doesn’t exist, and trying to strive for it only breeds stress, anxiety and, in some cases, depression. As long as you are striving to do better—step by step—you will always know that you are heading in the right direction.
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