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7 Steps To Crush All-Or-Nothing Thinking

all or nothing thinking

Do these thoughts ever cross your mind?

  • If I can’t give this 100% of my time and attention, then it’s not going to work.
  • I am completely overwhelmed, I need to stop until I have more time. 
  • If I can’t be perfect, why bother?

When you start a plan to get fit, do you feel like you are either all-in or all-out? That there’s no middle ground?

If so, you’ve fallen into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking. And the single biggest roadblock in your way is…your mindset.

But what if you could change that? What would be possible if your health wasn’t dependent on your job, life, or you being perfect?

That’s what we’re going to talk about today!

I am going to give you a step-by-step strategy to challenge and change your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes.

In fact, these are the exact same steps I use to challenge my thoughts and escape the self-sabotaging grip of all-or-nothing thinking.

But:

Before we dive into the strategy, let’s start from the beginning. 

What Is All-Or-Nothing Thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking is when you see things in absolutes. It’s either black or white, right or wrong, on or off. There is no in-between and no shades of gray. 

A client once told me, “I have a work trip coming up, and I always eat terrible away from home. I need to put this program on pause until I get back and can focus.”

This is a perfect example of thinking in absolutes. Notice they said they “always” eat terrible.

Imagine you head into a trip thinking your meals are going to be a train wreck. How well will you eat? 

If you believe you will eat terrible, then you will. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will prove yourself right.

Another client said, “If I can’t devote 100% of my time and attention to getting fit, then I just can’t stick to it.”

This is another example of the all-or-nothing snare.

But:

Is it true that the sun and stars have to align for you to stick to a diet? That if everything isn’t perfect, what’s the point of trying? Of course not.

Unless…you believe things must be perfect.

The fact is there’s no such thing as the ideal time, and things will never be “just right.” 

But when you’re in the grips of all-or-nothing thinking, it feels like you’re trapped in a dark room with no way out.

So what is all-or-nothing thinking?

Technically speaking, it is a cognitive distortion

  • Cognitive meaning the way you understand, think, and perceive. And,
  • Distortion meaning misleading or irrational.

Put another way, all-or-nothing thinking is a false or inaccurate view of the situation and the world around you. 

The Dangers Of All-Or-Nothing Thinking

When getting fit is what you’re shooting for, black and white thinking will derail even the best effort to stay on track. One minute you’re on fire and nothing can stop you. It’s all salads, chicken, and hour-long sweat sessions.

But then, you sleep through the alarm and miss breakfast. You’re starving, so you pull into the drive-through and grab a couple of fried chicken biscuits.

Not a big deal, right?

But, if you’re either all-in or all-out, your whole diet is shot!

“Well, today is over. Heck, this whole week is a wash! I’ll start again Monday.”

So what are the dangers of all-or-nothing thinking?

1.) You’re Setting Yourself Up For Failure.

There are no perfect days, meals, or workouts. So when your expectation is a flawless day, anything less is a failure.

2.) The Pressure Is Absolutely Crushing.

Unrealistic expectations are the chains you place on yourself. Sure, we all want to be great and successful. But, the weight you’re carrying is enough to make the best of us fold and walk away. 

3.) It’s A Vicious Cycle Of Stalling, Starting, And Stopping.

All-or-nothing thinking has many different faces, but at it’s core it is a self-sabotaging mindset.

If you’re waiting for the right time and motivation, one of two things happen:

  1. You never cross the starting line. You keep waiting for the right time to show up, but it never does.
  2. You get caught in the start and stop loop. You finally get a boost of motivation. BUT, the minute things get hectic or don’t feel perfect any more, you slam on the brakes.

The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is that it is a trap. One that research shows us has strong ties to:

  • Anxiety, 
  • Depression,
  • Low self-esteem, 
  • Self-criticism,
  • A negative body image, and 
  • Eating disorders, such as obesity and anorexia. 

But to be fair, there ARE advantages to all-or-nothing thinking. And that’s why it is so hard to let go! (We’ll get to that soon.)

7 Steps To Beat All-Or-Nothing Thinking

To break free from of the all-or-nothing mindset, it’s key to understand the connection between Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions. 

  1. Thoughts have an impact on the emotions you feel and the actions you take,
  2. Emotions affect your thoughts and actions, and 
  3. Actions influence your thoughts and emotions.
thoughts emotions actions cbt

(The relationship between thoughts, emotions, and actions is at the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)

Let’s look at how the relationship between these three play out in a common scenario.

Here’s the situation….

It’s Monday morning, and today is the first day of your new diet. Your expectations are high, but so is motivation. You are fired up and ready to charge into this!

Day 1 is a breeze. You wake up before the sun to crack eggs, pack lunch, and tie your laces before jogging a few miles. At the end of the day, you think, “Wow, today actually felt pretty easy!”

As Day 2 comes to a close you realize that today was even better than yesterday. At lunch, your friends ordered burgers and fries, but you stuck to leafy greens and protein. There are no two ways about it. You are on fire!

Two weeks in and you are still going strong. In fact, we could describe things up to this point as, well…perfect!

But that’s when you hit a snag. Your job was going smooth, then two new projects land in your lap. 

Any time you had to focus on your health is gone! Now, there’s no time to eat lunch, let alone go to the gym. 

And the thought running through your mind is, “It is impossible to keep this diet going. I’ll start again when I can give it my full attention.”

This is the scenario we’ll use to walk through the 7 steps to change all-or-nothing thinking. 

  1. Learn to spot all-or-nothing thinking.
  2. Describe the situation. 
  3. Capture the stories you tell.
  4. Pinpoint the emotions your story triggers.
  5. Describe the result of your thoughts and emotions.
  6. Challenge your initial thought.
  7. Choose a new thought.

(Download the worksheet to practice changing your mindset.)

all or nothing thinking worksheet

Are you ready? Let’s jump in!

Step 1: Learn to spot All-Or-Nothing thinking

Before you can change self-sabotaging thoughts, you must first learn to spot them. 

How do you do that? Research shows one way to shine a spotlight on negative thoughts is to be aware of the language you use. 

Whether you’re talking to others or yourself, pay attention to keywords like: always, never, impossible, perfect, or ruined.

Here are examples of all-or-nothing language in action:

  • I eat great during the day, but “always” binge at night. 
  • I “never” make it more than three weeks into a diet before it all comes crashing down.
  • Now is not a good time. There’s too much happening. I’m waiting for the “perfect” time to start. 
  • I just downed a row of Oreos. Well, I guess my diet is “ruined.” 

And, going back to the scenario above, the all-or-nothing language was:

“It is impossible to keep this diet going now. I’ll start again when I can give it my full attention.”

Catching yourself using all-or-nothing keywords takes practice. 

If you’re looking to get fit, becoming aware and changing this type of thinking is exactly what our program can help you with. 

Step 2: Describe the situation.

In this step, we’ll briefly describe the situation or circumstance that led to your thought. 

You don’t have to write down everything that happened, just the facts.

This step is critical in learning more about the patterns or events that trigger negative thinking. Triggers like:

  • The pressure at work or school is mounting,
  • You put off a project until the last minute,
  • You woke up late,
  • You had an argument at home, 

Or, like in our example, the situation was: you took on two new projects.

Step 3: Capture the stories you tell.

In this step, you will capture the thought you had immediately after the triggering event. This thought was likely subconscious or automatic.

Keep in mind, you likely have more than one thought to write down.

In addition to, “It is impossible to keep this diet going now. I’ll start again when I can give it my full attention.”

You might also think, “This always happens! That’s why I’ve never been able to stick to a diet.”

Notice the all-or-nothing keywords “always” and “never” in the second thought.

Step 4: Pinpoint the emotions your story triggers.

In this step, describe the feelings or emotions your thought created.

Maybe you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, or despair.

  • Overwhelmed – from the amount of work on your plate.
  • Frustrated – that this diet is turning out to be another failed attempt.
  • Angry – at yourself that you can’t manage to conjure the willpower to keep it going.
  • Despair – that something always seems to get in the way.

And maybe you even felt a sense of relief. 

  • Relief – that you can finally come up for air and avoid the discomfort of change. (I point this out because I have felt that exact same relief from calling it quits.)

What ever emotion you are feeling, write it down!

Step 5: Describe the result of your thoughts and emotions.

Let’s pause to recap where we are.

You finished two solid weeks on your diet, and everything was amazing until you were handed two new projects. You had time to focus on you and your health, but now that time is gone. 

Your thought was, “It is impossible to keep this diet going. I’ll start again when I have time to give it my full attention.” And that thought triggered feelings of being overwhelmed, frustrated, and angry, along with despair.

Now, when you look at the action you take as a result of your Thoughts and Emotions, it’s easy to see what will happen next: You quit your diet.

And once we see how the actions we take are a result of our Thoughts + Emotions, the question becomes, How do you change your Thoughts?

Changing your Thoughts creates different Emotions. Emotions that will drive the results you actually want. 

To change your initial thoughts you must challenge and replace them with an alternate thought.

6.) Challenge your initial thoughts.

To challenge your thought, ask questions like:

  • Is this thought a true statement? 
  • Is it really impossible to stick to your diet?
  • Does success really mean you have to dedicate 100% of your time and attention?
  • Is there anyone in a position like mine that has been able to keep their diet going?
  • If your brother, mother, or daughter asked how they can stick to a diet when things get busy, would your advice to them be that it is impossible?

By asking the right questions, you start to see your actions (and results) are based on a skewed rationale. One that feels right in the moment, but isn’t true.

But realizing your initial thoughts aren’t true isn’t always enough reason to change them. 

Why?

Because your thoughts are actually serving you in some way.

There ARE advantages in holding onto all-or-nothing thinking, like:

  1. You don’t have to face the discomfort of sticking to a meal plan.
  2. You don’t have to worry about finding a recipe to cook.
  3. You don’t need to plan your meals ahead of time. You can just grab what you want.
  4. You don’t have to tell your friends you’re not going out to grab a drink.
  5. You don’t have to find time to exercise. 

Those were five reasons, but we can keep going! It’s easy to list 10, 20, or even 30 reasons why you might want to hold onto all-or-nothing thinking.

In fact, if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, is it even helpful to change them? 

  • Maybe it’s worth keeping.
  • Maybe you should stop at this step.

To help you decide whether you should keep going, answer this:

Is changing your belief really worth it, or are there simply too many advantages that you’ll give up?

If it’s truly worth it, let’s continue. 

Step 7: Choose a new thought.

The goal of this step is to find a replacement Thought. One that will help you create the emotions you need to drive you to your goal. 

One way to do that is to start with the action you want to take and work backwards to the thought that will get you there. 

Say your desired action is to stick to your diet. Which emotions would you need to feel in order to accomplish that?

Maybe you would need to feel optimistic, eager, confident, or interested. 

  • Optimistic – that you are hopeful that you can keep your diet going even with so much on your plate.
  • Eager – to prove to yourself you can make this happen.
  • Confident – in the plan you created to make improving you health manageable.
  • Interested – to see how the upcoming week will go.

Next, brainstorm a list of thoughts you need to think to trigger those emotions? 

Thoughts like:

  • The goal is progress, not perfection.
  • If I fail, at least I’m failing forward.
  • Mistakes are proof of progress.
  • I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge.
  • I don’t look back and I don’t look forward. Right now, the only thing that matters is focusing on this one choice.

Write down thoughts that you can actually believe and get behind. 

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Actions

When you change your thoughts, you change how you feel. And when you change how you feel, you change how you act. 

Are you ready to put in the work to change your thoughts?

If there were an easy button, I would give it to you. But the truth is: moving away from self-sabotaging thoughts to those that drive action isn’t an overnight process. It takes daily, consistent action. And if you’re ready to take that challenge, we can give you the daily support and accountability you need to put all-or-nothing thinking behind you.


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