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The All or Nothing Mindset – How to Change Going from One Extreme to Another

April 26, 2020 - Anci - 12 min read

“If I can’t be perfect, then why should I try anyway?”

What goes on in the mind of someone with all or nothing mindset? Well, as someone with the all or nothing thinking, I can say it usually looks something like this:

  • success or failure
  • doing everything or doing nothing at all 
  • finishing something or not even starting
  • sprint pace or slacking on a coach
  • aiming for an A grade or not trying at all
  • winning or not trying
  • perfection or failure

That’s just a few examples of the thinking pattern that plenty of us have acquired. For people with this mindset, there’s nothing like a good day – our day was either perfect, or it totally sucked. We either have to reach the state of perfection (which is impossible), or we feel like we failed.

As someone with terrible, terrible procrastination issues, the all or nothing mindset was a firm rule, I live(d) by. Most of the time, my mind was like: “Why would I start working on my semester project three months earlier, if I know I’ll fail at it anyway? If I can’t be perfect, it’s not worth trying.” 

I’m guilty of seeing the world in black and white sometimes. A whole day could go well, and then one thing doesn’t turn as good as I planned, or I do worse than I expected, and I’m like “F**k it, I’m a loser, I can never do anything right, why am I acting like I can achieve something, there’s no point of trying.”

Pink boxing gloves

My experience with the all-or-nothing mindset

If you’re anything like me, you either do (or try to do) everything, or you don’t bother trying. 

Just recently, I’ve found myself circling back into the all or nothing thinking pattern. During the Easter holidays, I’ve scheduled so many things I wanted to accomplish. I’ve prepared an imaginary to-do list (mistake #1) of things I needed to manage during those four days. 

To my (not so) surprise, I’ve spent all four of them procrastinating, depressed, and eating way too much junk food (mistake #2). 

Why? Because one thing, just ONE THING in the morning on Day 1 didn’t go as planned. And I let it affect the course of the remaining days (mistake #3). I’ve turned into the all or nothing mindset and thought “F**k it. Why am I even trying?” (apparently, this article is going to be full of swearing for some reason).

The next week, I’ve tried to make up for all the time wasted, and I turned into the “crazy” mode. I’ve tried to finish things that required more time and energy than one could possibly ever have for 48 hours (mistake #4). So, I failed again. 

The dangerous extreme 

A girl on a swing in the air

I believe procrastination and the all or nothing thinking are connected more than it may appear. A lot of us have a tendency to do, perform, and be nothing but perfect. When we can’t reach those standards (which is obviously impossible 99.9% of the time), we are more prone to putting things off, so we don’t have to face the disappointment of “failing” (meaning not doing perfectly). 

Not only is the all or nothing mentality one of the worst habits, because it’s painfully unsustainable in the long term, but it’s also extremely demotivating, exhaustive, and unbeneficial. 

The all or nothing thinking makes us feel miserable and like constant losers chasing their tails. We put ourselves under pressure by expecting nothing but perfect from ourselves, yet we score our own goal by setting ourselves up for failure from the very beginning.

If you fail at performing some task, let’s say running one mile, you’d probably get angry with yourself, blaming yourself, and calling yourself worthless, lazy, dumb, or maybe even worse. 

If, on the other, it was your friend or family member who failed to run that one mile, you’d be supportive, and you’d pat them on their shoulder for trying. “That’s okay, you’ll do better next time,” you’d say. 

Do you see the difference in how we treat ourselves compared to others when it comes to expectations? 

When we want nothing but perfect, we will most likely end up with nothing at all. The more we overthink and overanalyze every step we need to take, chances are we will take none because we can’t come up with a perfect plan. 

I hate cheesy examples (because I’m vegan, hahaha), but imagine you want to build a house. 

The thing is, you can’t build a house in a single day. Nor in a week, or even a month. 

First, you need plans. Solid foundations to build your house on. And resources. And tools. And most importantly, you need time and the work you’ll put in. 

Building a house is just like “building” and working towards your dreams – you start with nothing, and you move on, brick by brick. 

At first, it seems it’s going to take forever to have your dream house up and habitable. Maybe it even feels like you’re going nowhere. But every brick you lay contributes to the foundation, and give you space to build something amazing. 

If we would all keep giving in to the all-or-nothing mindset, we would have no houses to live in.

Here are six common reasons that contribute to the all or nothing extremes: 

1. My performance defines my self-worth

The all or nothing mindset have been creeping on me here and there during my teenage years, but it got worse as my binge eating habit was becoming more serious. 

I was either binging (meaning giving in and eating tons of food all day every day) or trying to gain back some sort of self-control by restricting and eating very few to none.

For me, as it is for many people with eating disorders, there wasn’t anything in between. It was either eating 100% clean and exercising or binge eating and procrastinating. 

If the day was going well, and I “gave in” to my cravings and ate, let’s say a piece of chocolate, my mind turned 360, and I was like “I screwed it up, there’s no point in trying anymore, it all lost, I can just eat whatever.

Another, maybe more relatable example, are my university years. I’ve had the all or nothing thinking pattern every exam. I either had to pass it the first time, or my life would end. Nothing else was acceptable. 

It wasn’t just that I’d beat myself for failing and call myself stupid, but I’d actually believe that my whole life would be over if I fail an exam. I thought that if I don’t pass an exam from harmony, Latin, or music history, my life will end.

Yes, I literally believed that eating an extra freaking piece of chocolate, failing one task, or failing one exam meant I was a loser because my life (= me) wasn’t perfect. Therefore, it defined my self-worth.

It sounds stupid, but we all do it (in different ways) – we let our performance define our self-worth.

A person planning

A failed exam doesn’t mean you’re stupid, that you’re a loser, or that you shouldn’t be studying at this school. What it means is that you failed an exam since you probably:

  • didn’t spend enough time studying, so what you can do is spend more time studying and implement new studying techniques (flashcards, writing things down, highlighting the critical information, repeating things out loud, joining a study group…)
  • didn’t learn from the correct books or resource material, so want you can do is search for the accurate sources, and study from them the next time
  • you didn’t understand the subject matter enough, so you can spend more time studying, ask a classmate for help, or consult the subject with the professor
  • or some other reason    

None of those above defines your self-worth. They simply reflect the things you did and didn’t. Learn from them, try again, and don’t let them discourage you.

2. Things are absolute

Actually, they aren’t. Everything in life is a constant change. If we expect everything to go exactly as we planned, of course, we’ll end up disappointed in the end.

As a marketer, I know that creating a strategic marketing plan doesn’t mean “Okay, we’re done, now let’s unquestioningly follow every step of this plan and see how it goes.” No, it’s about constantly tweaking it, paying attention to the market that’s changing all the time, and reacting to it accordingly.  

None of us knew that 2020 would turn out the way it did. Yet, we all had to react to it – change our plans, change our habits, change our lives.

Don’t think in absolute, but rather in alternatives. If you weren’t able to finish a book in one year, as you’ve been planning to, rather than giving up altogether, think about the alternative you have. Maybe you can dedicate an hour every day to writing. Maybe you need a point of view from someone else to help you keep going. Maybe you need to rethink your time capabilities and expand the one-year plan into a three-year plan.  

Change is the only absolute quote

I’m not a fan of changes either, and I love my little rituals. But I’m slowly learning to accept that there are things I can’t affect, and there are the things I can only react to.

3. I need to make up for my “slacking”

If you have problems with both procrastination and the all or nothing behavior, chances are you felt an urge to make up for all the time you “wasted.”

It happened to all of us – we turn on the “beast mode” and we attempt to catch up on everything we’ve been putting off for weeks in a short span of time. 

You know, writing a 10-page essay on a topic you’ve never heard about before, seems impossible unless you have only 12 hours left for submission.

Cleaning your house also seems like an unnecessary thing unless your friends tell you they’re coming over in an hour for a surprise visit.

The only positive outcome from this madness is that by doing so, you accepted the fact (at least for that one time) that done is better than perfect.

However, this “beast mode” is exhaustive, tiring, unproductive, and completely unsustainable in the long term.

They say you cannot outrun a bad diet. I’d say that you honestly cannot make up for time spent procrastinating and for the time wasted.

The time we’ve spent procrastinated is gone, period. We’re never getting it back. It’s scary, I know. We’ve screwed up.

But what we can get back is the control over our decisions. Yes, we will feel the desire to be perfect, and yes, we’ll feel live giving up when we can’t reach those insane standards.

Practice the mindset that done is better than perfect with every task. If you try, there’s a high possibility that you’ll do great. If you give in the perfection tendencies and don’t try at all, there’s only one possible outcome.

4. I want it to be perfect 

Perfection is the mother of procrastination quote

Don’t we all want to be just the most beautiful, most charming, most successful, most likable person in the world? Sure, we do. But there’s no such thing as perfection, and there’s no such person in the world that’s perfect.

Perfection is the enemy of…EVERYTHING. We’ve all tried it; we’ve all failed. Perfection doesn’t exist. Perfection is in the imperfections, and in the uniqueness of everything, and everyone (that did sound cheesy again, I admit).

I’ll speak for myself and say that I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with perfectionism. On the one hand, perfectionism is partially responsible for my eating disorder past, procrastination, and the self-deprecative relationship. 

On the other hand, on rare occasions, not being satisfied with the outcome, the urge for perfection pushed me to do better. Still, there’s a very thin line between postponing something to make it better and postponing something to do it never, because you’ll never be satisfied.

5. Being productive and setting unrealistic goals

If you’re not half-dead by the end of the day, you feel like a loser who wasn’t productive enough. 

Planning your time realistically is a hard reality check. Not only it reminds us we’re human, and we need to eat, sleep, socialize, and rest. But because we also see there’s still only that much time in a day that we have. 

Putting more on your plate than you can handle won’t make you more productive.

Paradoxically, the more we try to do, the less productive we usually become. We live in a world where people constantly brag about how busy they are (like if sucking at time management would be something praiseworthy). 

Being busy doesn’t mean being productive. I’m often busy with binge-watching YouTubers or scrolling through Instagram. Does that mean I’m productive? No.

To be productive (not busy) doesn’t mean you have to have your schedule full every minute of the day. It means you are aware of things that need to be done and of the free time you have and can allocate to each of those tasks.

It also means admitting that you don’t have time to do XYZ and asking/hiring someone to do that for you.

It’s okay not to do everything. It’s okay to take time off and just be. Don’t aim for being busy, but rather for managing your time effectively. 

6. It’s all about the outcome

A girl in a boxing gloves

When we dream of something, we usually imagine the person we want to become, the thing we want to have, the goal we want to achieve, the situation we want to be in.

Hardly ever do we imagine the amount of hard work, sleepless nights, loneliness, and patience it takes to reach them. 

If your goal is to be fit, you won’t dream about waking up an hour earlier every morning to go to the gym, being super tired, and spending an extra hour every day to prep your meals for the next day.

When we’re too focused on the final target, the outcome, we imagine everything will go smoothly, and everything will be perfect. 

Later in the process, we’ll get demotivated, depressed, and mad as things don’t go as well as planned. You’ll sleep in and miss the gym. You won’t be in a mood for cooking for the next day. You won’t see the results as quickly as you expected. You won’t feel motivated.

Rather than focusing on the goal, the outcome, try focusing on the progress. The journey is the destination (the last cheesy statement, I swear).

If you woke up tomorrow and someone gave you a million dollars, just like that, of course, you’d be happy that your dream came true. 

But that excitement would fade away pretty quickly because once you’d spent them, you wouldn’t know how to get another million dollars. You didn’t have to put any effort into making that money, so you don’t know how to do that again and earn another million.

If, on the other hand, you earned that money by, for example, starting and running a successful business, it would have much more value to you. Why? Because you put in the hard work, and the time, and the investment, and so many other things. You know the journey that leads to earning that million dollars because you walked the journey yourself. And one thing’s for sure – it wasn’t perfect.

Therefore, don’t be so attached to the outcome, but rather focus on the journey itself. For example, whenever I go for a run, I’ve learned to appreciate every little progress (even a few-second faster pace) because I know all the work that preceded it.

So…what’s the outcome?

As tempting as it is to give up trying when things do according to the plan, the only thing you can really do is to keep going, keep moving forward.

You can’t undo what’s been done, take back what you’ve said, and you can’t get back the time you’ve wasted or spent doing things you regret. 

Life isn’t perfect, and most certainly won’t be perfect. There are certain things we can’t affect, and the only thing we can affect is how we react to them. 

Don’t wait for tomorrow (unless necessary), don’t wait for another Monday, another month, or another year to do what you want to do. There will never be a perfect moment, and the process won’t be perfect as well. But that’s completely fine, that’s how it should be, so don’t let it discourage you.

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About Binge on Self-Love

Binge on Self-Love initially started as a blog aiming to help people struggling with binge eating and no self-love. It's a project supporting all people who want to learn to accept, to encourage, and to love themselves. Self-love, being a phrase talked about so often that you're probably sick of hearing it, is one of the hardest abilities we all should adopt.

xo Anci

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