How All-or-Nothing Thinking is Holding You Back (and how to Overcome it)

Photo: Vlad Bagacian

Have you ever considered undertaking a feat so daunting that you arrived at the ultimate conclusion “why bother”?

Let’s say, for instance, you decide you want to train for a marathon. Wouldn’t that be incredible! Your friends and family would be amazed at your athleticism and dedication. It really would require a lot of dedication, wouldn’t it… How many months would you have to train for? Think of all the time you’d have to make for it, and you’d have to buy new trainers because your’s are worn through, and mum always told you running was hard on the knees, and actually you know what? You really suck at running anyway. You’ll never be able to work up to that. What’s the point in trying?

Sound at all familiar?

(I hope it does, because then I won’t be alone in this)

If this rings at all true, you might have a tendency towards all-or-nothing thinking. It can manifest as “this task is too hard, so why try at all?”, “I didn’t do the best I’m capable of, therefore I did terribly” and other delightful experiences. When we daydream, we sometimes project an unrealistic and all-too-glossy version of ourselves into the future and decide that if we fall short of that projection, we have failed.

But when we give up or beat ourselves up for arriving anywhere but at 100%, we miss out on everything between ‘here’ and ‘there’. Even if you really did have no hope of ever completing that marathon (debatable), that doesn’t mean there is no benefit in that venture at all. You could, instead, aim for 70% of that goal and see if you can simply build up your endurance over time with daily running practice. You could decide running isn’t for you, but you love walking and decide to take a half hour walk every day. Even if you consider that only 20% of your original hopes, it’s still a net gain. Even deciding that you want none of these things but instead opt for a nutritious home-cooked dinner rather than a takeaway that evening, that’s still a net gain.

Those numbers are completely arbitrary, but they illustrate a point: by deciding that only 100% is good enough, we are missing out on the small and incremental changes that add up to make a lasting difference. When we berate ourselves for not having performed our best, we are overlooking the progress that we have made and hurting our chances of progress in the future. We are robbing ourselves of much deserved praise and joy.

Next time you fall victim to all-or-nothing thinking, try to see those incremental steps you’re overlooking. Most of life happens in shades of grey. Learn to see them for the net gain they are, rather than their shortchange on your loftiest goals.

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