All-or-Nothing Thinking2 min read

An excuse is something you tell yourself to justify making an exception to your commitment, skipping your habit, or doing something you know will take you away from your goals. It is rationalizing your emotional impulses so that you don’t feel bad about acting on them.

One of the most common excuses I hear from coaching clients is what is known as all-or-nothing thinking. This is when you break your rule once, then justify breaking it further by concluding that your case is already lost. This is a very common, and very limiting, thought pattern.

It can go like this… You commit to running 20 minutes on the treadmill every day. You do 20 minutes each on Monday and Tuesday. You skip Wednesday because you are busy. Thursday you feel tired, and tell yourself, “Oh well, I’ve already skipped yesterday, so this week is wasted, and I’ll start afresh next week.”

Or … You commit to 30 days without junk food or sugar. On the fifth day you go to a birthday party and everyone is drinking soda, so you join in. You then think, “Oh well, I’ve already drunk soda today so I might as well eat some hot dogs and the cheesecake too.” 

Or… “I’ve already cheated on my partner by kissing this person, so I might as well go forward with the whole thing…” 

All-or-nothing thinking is like slashing three good tires because one of them is flat, and you can’t drive anyway.

There are two elements to reversing this tendency. 

First, consider every choice individually. Don’t bundle them all together as part of one day/week/month, then count the whole as a +1 or a -1. Every choice by itself is either a +1 or a -1. Doing your treadmill on Monday and Tuesday, then Friday and Saturday, is much better than giving up—you get +4 that week! Likewise with the junk food: just having some soda is -1, but adding the hot dog and cheesecake means -3.

The second element is letting go of unrealistic expectations. Perhaps perfectionism tells you that one “failure” spoils the whole thing, so you need to start over. Or you conclude that one failure at a desired habit means you’ll never succeed, so you might as well give up right now. “My case is lost”, you think.

To counter this, expect that there will be failures, setbacks, and challenges. As soon as you become aware that you’ve gone astray, cut your losses and move on. Make your best effort from that moment onward. That is enough.

This skill is developed in meditation: as soon as you notice that your attention has been distracted, you bring it back to focus. You don’t say to yourself, “Oh well, I had a thought, so this meditation is wasted. I may as well stop now.” Instead, you just bring your attention back. The same applies to all other habits and goals in life.

As long as you don’t give up, your case is not lost. Reset and start again with every “failure”. Now that you understand the all-or-nothing thinking, you know how to not fall into this trap.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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