Motivation Articles

9 Ways to Ditch the All-or-Nothing Approach

Find Your Happy, Healthy Medium

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You've been so good all week…until a moment of weakness during Thursday happy hour, when you get a little too chummy with a tower of nachos and queso dip. After that caloric catastrophe, Friday's planned salad lunch seems pointless, so you indulge on a burger and fries—and why not splurge on a slice of birthday cake in the break room back at work?
 
Or maybe you oversleep and miss your Wednesday morning boot camp, which then leads to skipping the rest of the week's workouts—because it just makes sense to start fresh on Monday, right?
 
Sound familiar? Known as the “all-or-nothing approach,” this self-defeating mindset usually leaves a trail of broken resolutions in its wake. You might start off oozing motivation to stick to a strict diet, find time to exercise everyday and steel yourself against every passing temptation—but imposing extreme limitations can quickly lead to burnout, injury and frustration.
 
Why do we think this way? Personal trainer Dani Singer believes that people tend to categorize things into binary systems. "We’re either Republicans or Democrats. We’re winners or losers. We’re in shape or out of shape," he says. "But that’s not how life works. Most people don’t agree with every position of their political parties, no one is born as an inherent winner or loser and fitness isn’t an all-or-nothing concept."
 
Alexander McBrairty, personal trainer with A-Team Fitness, refers to the all-or-nothing approach as a tendency to “fail hard,” a belief that if you’re not perfect, you should stop trying. “This mindset can lead down a disastrous road. You can get back on track after one bad choice without too much damage, but it’s much harder to get back on track after numerous bad choices. If you make a mistake, do your best to get back on track without being too hard on yourself.”
 
With New Year's motivation at its highest, trainer and nutritionist Kristy Stabler sees many clients who want to adopt radical diet and exercise plans to quickly drop pounds. "The problem with these extreme measures is that the motivation rarely lasts beyond a few weeks," she says.

The good news is, with a few smart strategies, you can reprogram your brain to abandon the all-or-nothing way of thinking—and start to see the real results that have been eluding you.
 

1. Stop rationalizing your choices.

 
You might decide to eat dessert while out to dinner on a Saturday night, telling yourself you deserve a reward for eating healthy all week and working out that morning. “We are all phenomenal at rationalizing our behavior,” says McBrairty. “This is an extremely powerful psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, a tendency to match our thoughts with our actions. If we eat junk food on the weekend, even when we know we shouldn’t, we will convince ourselves that our behavior was justified.”
 
If you do decide to eat dessert or go out for drinks on the weekend, McBrairty says to take ownership of that choice. “Don’t disguise your choice as being owed to you for doing good earlier in the week. There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, but rationalizing your choices allows you to do it over and over again without taking responsibility.”
 

2. Realize that less is sometimes more.

 
Remind yourself that anything is always better than nothing. If a late meeting derails your plans to attend a one-hour group fitness class after work, you can still head to the gym and do 20 minutes of treadmill intervals, which will benefit you more than skipping your workout altogether. Can't make it to the gym at all? Do 10 to 15 minutes of bodyweight exercises at home, such as push-ups, high-knee runs, stairs and jumping jacks.
 
"The sum of all movement is what's important, so even if you have to split your sweat session into two 15-minute workouts throughout the day, that's better than nothing at all," says Ashley Pitt, personal trainer and fitness blogger. Pitt points out that you don't have to complete an "official" workout every day to be healthy. Instead, focus on incorporating more organic movement into your day, like taking the stairs, parking far away from the entrance or taking your dog on an extra walk.
 

3. Start with slow, simple workouts.

 
Rather than trying to crush it in the gym every day, Exercise.com trainer Tyler Spraul recommends keeping your initial workouts simple. "What's better?" he asks. "Working out consistently for 45 minutes or less three or four days per week over several months, or going all-out on your first day, only to end up being too sore and tired to work out again that week? If you try to take on more than you can handle, you could end up getting injured and be sidelined for several weeks."
 
When it comes to specific workouts, Spraul tells beginners to focus on total-body movements—such as squats, deadlifts, lunges and pull-ups—and learn to do them with the best possible form. "These total-body moves will give you the best return on investment for your workout time," he says. "And you can always find an easier variation, even if it means using just bodyweight for your first month. Taking it slow is the right way to build up your support structures and connective tissues so they can handle tougher challenges down the road."
 

4. Try to make the better choice MOST of the time.

 
Liza Baker, health coach with Simply: Health Coaching, advises her clients to stop separating choices into "bad" or "good," and to instead think in terms of a spectrum. "Aim for making the better choice 50 percent of the time, then aim for making it 60, 70, 80 percent of the time—and stop there," Baker recommends. "Total deprivation will only set you up for a binge and disappointment. The world won't end if you occasionally choose 'worse' food. The key is to eat it in moderation."
 

5. Think in terms of "better" or "worse," not "good" or "bad."


Are you trying to eat more healthfully but love chocolate cake? Instead of putting the cake in the "bad" category and shunning it completely, Baker recommends keeping it as an option, but also making room for healthier choices.
 
"If you've decided that chocolate cake is not as good of a choice as a bowl of berries, then try to choose the berries most of the time, and celebrate yourself for making the better choice," she suggests. "If you choose berries once, eat a piece of cake next time—and enjoy it. After a while, try to choose the berries twice before eating cake. Knowing that cake is an option can actually make the choice to eat berries easier—there's always a next time, and it won't disappear forever."
 

6. Change one thing at a time.


In his book "The Power of Less," Leo Babatu says that to create a sustainable habit, you should adopt one habit at a time. According to his research, you're likely to have an 85 percent success rate by focusing on a single habit—and it drops to 33 percent when trying to change two at once.
 
"People armed with their New Year's resolutions often try to make too many changes all at once and then not follow through on all (or any) of them," says Shane McLean with Balance Guy Training. "Instead, make one change at a time and then make it a habit. When you have that nailed down, move on to crush the next habit." For example, rather than changing your dietary and exercise habits all at once, first make it a habit to go to the gym three times a week before making any drastic diet changes.
 

7. Add foods instead of taking them away.

 
Many overzealous dieters swear off all unhealthy foods, even their favorites. While this may seem smart, it can result in feelings of self-deprivation and frustration, ultimately leading to setbacks.
 
Instead of struggling to remove foods from your diet, health coach Lorraine Miano recommends focusing on adding one healthy item per week. For example, on the first week you might drink a daily green smoothie, during week two you might have a salad for one meal a day and during the third week you might focus on drinking more water. "We call this 'crowding out,'" says Miano. "Over time, your body will start to crave the healthy stuff, and you'll feel less of a deprivation effect. As you experience the effect these good foods have on your overall well-being, it will become easier to eat healthier meals."
 

8. Stop starting over.

 
Can you relate to SparkPeople member JESSSPARKLE's struggle?
 
"I swear I start a new diet every day. I can't even get through 24 hours without having a slip-up. I've been trying to lose weight for over five years and I just keep gaining more and more. I just can't stay motivated or stick to any program."
 
With the all-or-nothing mentality, every dietary mistake translates to failure. Instead, look at setbacks as bumps in the road that may slow you down, but won't send you spiraling back to square one.
 
We love this analogy from member LOVE4KITTIES: "Once you start off on a journey, if you get a flat tire, you fix the flat and continue on. You don't have the car towed home and start over, at least not if you want to get anywhere. You aren't going to be perfect and that's okay. When that happens, just get back up and dust yourself off and continue. Don't start over and over and over. There's always that temptation to just eat whatever and start fresh tomorrow—but that becomes a lifestyle, and it's not the healthy lifestyle you want."
 

9. Consider working with an expert.

 
If you've tried implementing these tips but are still seeing things in black and white, consider working with a health coach or nutritionist who can help bring the gray areas into focus. SparkCoach Jen offers her expert suggestions for choosing the health expert who best matches your specific needs and goals.
 
The all-or-nothing mentality is just that—a mentality. Only you can control how you think about your diet and exercise plan. With a few subtle adjustments, you can train your brain to celebrate the small victories, forgive yourself for missteps and view setbacks as manageable bumps along the path to success.

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Member Comments

  • 97MONTY
  • Excellent article! Many good points, Right in line with the "all or nothing approach" from a previous Spark coach session. One that I look at frequently!
  • good ideas to find the happy medium
  • These are very helpful suggestions. I agree that trying to change too much at once usually leads to failure, at least do me.
  • BRIARGAL
  • AMYROSEC
  • Stop starting over is a good thing for me to remrmber.
  • So hard not to be black and white... I am trying to go one day at a time. (to steal a mantra from another organization!!)
  • Being flexible and determined are great tools.
  • For me some foods need to be nothing at all--no tastes because they are trigger foods and will lead to big trouble. Sad but true--maybe one day it won't be that way--but for now--some things are strictly taboo.
  • ETHELMERZ
    This is so true! Always whining about how "good" or "bad" you were, how you were "naughty" and overate, just so silly and stupid, yet magazine articles still use these expressions! Same thing with recipes with titles of "Skinny" this or that, whomever thought of "skinny" as a good choice of words should have their underarm hairs removed with hot wax!
  • AMYROSEC
    Thank you for this article
  • LOVE the analogy in #8 !! If your tire gets a flat you don't have them tow you back where you started from.

    It's all a learning progress. Like with ANYTHING new,,,, we all began at the start of it,,,, for instance reading. I don't know of any ( am sure they ARE out there)who picked up a book at age 3 and POOF knew how to read. It starts with the day we form actual words, learn sounds, learn each eat letter has a different sound. We start of one or 2 words and slowly as we increase our vocabulary and then start to sound out the letters. Soon enough the one or 2 letter words will before you know it,, TA DA you can read !!

  • This is the second time I have read this article and now I see the reason why it is a good idea to revisit articles and videos. Simply I forget some of the good advice in the rush to complete challenges and journal food and drink water! Thank you for this article, and know that it hits home. For me.... I have to quit starting over! I have always said "more good days than bad. that is my goal". Great way to start my morning!

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.