Ditch Your All-or-Nothing Attitude: Small Steps to Happiness and SuccessNone By Maile Proctor
Think for a minute: What’s your greatest aspiration? Maybe you want to start your own business, or find a way to make a difference in the world. No matter what your professional or personal goals, many high achievers have certain traits in common. One trait that can drive you to succeed—but can also work against you—is perfectionism.
According to Gordon Flett, a professor of psychology in the Faculty of Health at York University who has done research on perfectionism and health, recent studies continue to suggest that the costs of perfectionism outweigh the benefits. Let’s take a closer look at one aspect of perfectionism that can hinder you from making progress, achieving your goals, and, in many cases, even taking the first step toward something you want—all-or-nothing thinking.
What Is All-or-Nothing Thinking?
All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion—a negative or twisted thought process. You see things in terms of extremes, in black and white. You are either a success or a failure, according to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles: “Your performance was totally good or totally bad. If you are not perfect, then you are a failure. This binary way of thinking does not account for shades of gray, and can be responsible for a great deal of negative evaluations of yourself and others.”
All-or-nothing thinking can hold you back from achieving and/or trying things in your life. If you can’t be the best on the team, you don’t want to play the sport. If you can’t work out for an hour, you may as well skip your workout entirely. The key to moving past this cognitive distortion is to just start. Whatever it is, just get started, gain some momentum (which will make you feel good), reassure yourself with positive self-talk, and keep trudging along. Here are five strategies that will help you overcome your all-or-nothing attitude and find greater happiness and success.
1. Decide What You Want
When you’re clear about your goals, no matter how big or small, you can create an action plan. Decide what you want; it could be a personal goal or a professional goal. Maybe you want to take up a new hobby, or maybe you want to put yourself out there to meet some new people. Whatever your goals, write them down and put them somewhere you can see them every day. Discuss your goals with a friend or family member who will encourage you and hold you accountable (in a loving, nurturing way).
Think big. Don’t put limits on yourself or let negative thinking discourage you from going after your goals. “Everything begins in the heart and mind,” says Chris Widener, a keynote speaker and personal development coach. “Every great achievement began in the mind of one person. They dared to dream, to believe that it was possible.”
2. Take Action
It’s here that the all-or-nothing thinking really comes into play. Goals can be daunting because they require time and hard work. What small steps can you take right now to achieve your goal? For example, if you want to lose weight, you set yourself up for failure if you resolve to go to the gym for an hour five days a week. What if, instead, you set your intention to exercise for 15 minutes a day? Just by taking this little action, you gain momentum toward your goal. The 15 minutes will add up over time, your fitness level will increase, and you may even add some more time or try some different workouts. The point is, you’ve set yourself up for success by taking action and creating consistency.
Research by Pham and Taylor, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that focusing on the process rather than the outcome can help you achieve your goals. In their study, students who visualized themselves studying for a test performed better than students who visualized themselves doing well on the test. Those who visualized the process (i.e., studying) were more likely to study, which ultimately had the largest effect on their test performance.
3. Celebrate the Small Wins
Once you’ve started toward your goal, you need to celebrate the small wins along the way. This can be challenging for an all-or-none thinker, since you consider completing the goal as the win. To avoid getting discouraged, focus on progress, not perfection. Harvard Business Review published a study on the effects of this in the workplace, and calls it the progress principle: “Of all things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
According to the study, everyday progress, even small wins, can influence how you feel and perform. Track your progress and celebrate your accomplishments—don’t discount and filter (another cognitive distortion) small wins as insignificant. After all, they’re a means to an end, and help you get closer to your goals.
4. Learn from Your Mistakes
No matter what your aspirations are, you may experience some setbacks along the way. It’s important to understand that a mistake is a learning opportunity and does not equal failure. “Perfectionists tend to interpret mistakes as equivalent to failure, and believe they will lose the respect of others following failure,” according to Hara Estroff Marano, editor at large for Psychology Today. But according to the Counseling Center at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, by orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.
Mistakes give you an opportunity to change your approach. Instead of berating yourself for not being perfect, figure out what went wrong and what you can do instead. In some cases, nearly winning or getting close to your goal can motivate you to keep working. A study from Psychological Science showed that just failing to obtain a reward (i.e., nearly winning it) in one task leads to broader, positive motivational effects in future endeavors. Each time you fail, you build mental muscle. When you learn from your mistakes, you gain traction instead of losing momentum as the result of a minor setback.
5. Reward Yourself
Along with celebrating your wins, you need to reward yourself, both when you achieve your goal and along the way. Determine what the real reward is for your progress. Just make sure it's big enough to keep you motivated. According to Eric Barker, author of the positive psychology blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree, a 1999 study showed that perceived self-interest is responsible for three-quarters of why you do things. So don't hold back from treating yourself when you accomplish something on your to-do list or take a positive step toward your goal!
No matter where you are in the process, don’t forget that starting and taking small steps are achievements in themselves. These are often overlooked when you have an all-or-none attitude, but recognizing this can boost your confidence and help you continue working toward your goals.
The more you can ditch your all-or-none thinking, the happier you’ll be. Even if you’re hardwired to strive for perfection, try to celebrate your progress, and don’t negate the little accomplishments that are integral to your success and happiness.
Maile earned her Bachelor’s in Broadcast Journalism from Chapman University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking in Southern California.
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