When All-or-Nothing Thinking Doesn’t Work, Do This Instead
In this episode of The Feel Good Effect, we’re talking about all-or-nothing thinking (and why it doesn’t work for long-term, joyful, sustainable behavior change). We’ll dive into some examples of what it looks like and how to interrupt it using simple science-backed practices.
If you’re ready to learn a different way to achieve your wellness goals – this episode is for you! Listen in to the episode or keep reading for all my made-for-real-life tips.
when all-or-nothing thinking doesn’t work, do this instead
All-or-nothing thinking doesn’t work, especially in the long term or for joyful, sustainable results. The good news is there’s another way.
My partner, spouse, business partner, and research partner, Andrew, is a PhD clinical psychologist with an emphasis on health behavior (what behavior leads to health and how health impacts our behavior). A few years ago, I got really serious about how we sustain health and make it joyful. The natural question to ask is, “what are the barriers?”.
We know so much about healthy behaviors, but sometimes we still don’t do them.
That was fully me (see chapter one in my book). After lots of reading, I decided to team up with Andrew to do an actual survey to learn more about barriers to health, which thousands of people responded to. We came up with three ways of thinking that are really the reason many of us are unable to maintain and sustain change.
“all-or-nothing thinking is a natural part of the way that we think.”
understanding what actually gets in the way of your wellness habits
There are three main barriers – perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking, and comparison – that make up the striving mindset. And these are the things that most often get in the way of you making your wellness habits (or any habits) happen.
It’s research-based, science-backed, and life-tested. Even in my own life, learning about the striving mindset felt like a key that unlocked the secret to my own thinking.
It’s not about shame, blame, or judgment; in fact, we learned that this is actually a natural part of how our brain is wired, a natural part of cognition.
Our brains are naturally more oriented toward all-or-nothing thinking, and there are small shifts you can make in your mindset for massive change. For the most part, all-or-nothing thinking is the most common barrier from the striving mindset. Again, it’s a totally natural part of cognition (meaning the way we think).
Evolutionarily, framing something as black or white, safe or dangerous, all-in or all-out, or some sort of dichotomy was beneficial & safe. But, when you add the marketing machine that we live in these days, that uses all-or-nothing thinking against us – whether it’s wellness, relationships, housekeeping, career, etc – it causes a detrimental effect. Hurting rather than helping us.
how to get out of the striving mindset
I have two suggestions to get out of the striving mindset and all or nothing thinking: (1) recognize it and (2) take action.
“when you can make these changes, everything else changes. these are the small shifts that create massive change.”
Step 1: Recognize all-or-nothing thinking
Noticing your thinking is a practice. Start paying attention on purpose with non-judgmental awareness. It might feel uncomfortable if you’ve never done it before, but it’ll get easier. Start to notice what all or nothing thinking sounds like for you (e.g. maybe around what you eat, exercise or movement in your life, housekeeping, life management, relationships, parents, etc.). You’ll start to notice your own version of it.
Some examples of all or nothing thinking:
- “That weekend pizza and binge means that I’ve fallen off the wagon. Might as well have pizza again tonight and stick breakfast and lunch tomorrow to make up for it”
- “I don’t have time for an hour workout and 10-minutes doesn’t count. Someday I’ll find time to work out, but now is not the time”
- “I’m so burned out on social media. I’m going to delete all my apps and be fully present in my life all of the time”
- “I really don’t like my job, but I can’t afford to quit, so I guess I’ll just stay and be miserable”
- “I’ve been drinking way too much diet soda lately. From now on, only herbal tea”
There’s a ton of science behind why all-or-nothing thinking doesn’t work
see sources linked on the site under the book
Let’s go through a really common example that you may already be familiar with.
One of the most disastrous, damaging consequences of all-or-nothing thinking is the binge mentality. The science behind the binge mentality shows that when you deprive yourself of something, there is eventually a rebound effect.
When you, for example, have pizza one night and your response is to not eat breakfast the following day, it becomes all-or-nothing. On the other side of things, if you eat pizza one night and your response is that you already blew it so why bother trying, it still becomes all-or-nothing.
The first step is to recognize when all-or-nothing thinking comes up without judgment. It looks different depending on the area of your life it comes up in, but when you start to recognize all or nothing thinking in your life, you can start thinking about the power middle.
The power middle, or flexible thinking, is just finding something in-between the two extremes posed in all or nothing. You can call it whatever you want, but the idea is to find the grey area, the middle ground. There is so much more freedom and agency in the middle. When you take the power away from those two options, you get so much power back.
“When you notice an all-or-nothing thought pattern, use a cue, mantra, or something you can say to yourself to interrupt it and create a different option for yourself.”
Step 2: Interrupt the pattern to take action against all-or-nothing thinking
When you notice an all-or-nothing thought pattern, use a cue, mantra, or something you can say to yourself to interrupt it and create a different option for yourself.
The five-minute rule.
When you notice your all-or-nothing thinking coming up around thoughts like, “I don’t have enough time” or “I need an hour for it to count”, try using the 5-minute rule practice. It’s exactly like it sounds: if you don’t feel like you have time to do something that is important to you, you know it’s a good for you, do that thing for five minutes. More often than not, you’ll end up doing it for five minutes and realize that the biggest barrier is starting. You might even keep going. Or, sometimes you really don’t have an hour, and five minutes it is. Either way, you’re building behavioral momentum, breaking the cycle of all or nothing thinking.
A great example of this is related to movement. Dr. Kelly McGonigal refers to ‘the joy gap’, which describes the few minutes of exercising that it takes to remember how good it makes you feel. Use the five-minute rule to remember why it feels good, or even reflect afterward on how the time you spent moving your body made you feel better. Five minutes of anything is usually better than nothing.
“The amazing thing about our brains is that they can change. When we change our brains, we change our lives. And it’s actually really simple.”
Look for a third way (flexible thinking)
Ask yourself if there is a third way; usually, there is at least one (if not more). Challenge your thinking. If you are feeling stuck in your job, are the only two options to quit or stay? So often, there are options in-between, from communicating your displeasure to your team or boss to keeping your job to working on something you job outside of that.
Listen for ‘always’, ‘never’, and ‘ruined’.
For example, “I always give up when things are hard”, “I never stick with anything”, or “I missed a day this week so now I’ve ruined it”. Can you interrupt that by reframing it, asking yourself if that’s true. Asking, “is this true?”, is so powerful.
The amazing thing about our brains is that they can change. When we change our brains, we change our lives. And it’s actually really simple.
All-or-nothing thinking doesn’t work, despite being a natural part of how we think. It’s heavily reinforced through marketing and culture, but not particularly effective in our modern lives. There’s another way, though, and it’s pretty simple. Using the Feel Good Mindset and flexible thinking, you can get out of all-or-nothing thinking. When you practice these, your brain will start to change and you’ll actually engage in all or nothing thinking less.
Note: If you’re a coach, instructor, therapist, teacher, etc. and you’re using my work with your clients, please remember that it’s copyrighted and I’m happy to work with you on how to use it.
The Feel Good Effect book sources
Feel Good Now: Exclusive Excerpt from the Feel Good Effect Audio Book
other feel good effect episodes you’ll love
The Joy Equation: How to Use Exercise for More Happiness, Hope, Connection, & Courage with Kelly McGonigal, PhD
Why You Need to Be Exercise Snacking
How to Rethink & Reclaim Goal Setting This Year
The Secret to Consistency & Joy with Healthy Eating with Michelle Smith