Action Intention

Where Are the All or Nothing Barriers in Your Life?

Do you remember the last time a person told you they were a vegetarian? Think back to it briefly. The chances are that someone, maybe even yourself, reacted with one of the classic all or nothing barriers: “I could never go without eating meat.”

The vegetarian shrugs off this comment, they get it all the time. To them it seems simple to avoid dishes that don’t have meat in them, some have been vegetarians for the majority of their life.

Similar things happen when runners explain their exercise routine, or successful authors sheepishly explain that they do in fact write on both their birthday and Christmas along with every other day of the year. Some listeners hear these statements and balk at them, announcing that they could never practice that often.

Often, when faced with a challenge, we build all or nothing barriers. We announce that it’s nearly impossible to run three times a week, so we don’t exercise at all. We think we can’t finish a book a month, so we rarely pick up a book at all. Not only do we fail to reach these goals, but we also fail even to get started. These barriers keep us from taking any simple actions. Unfortunately, a lack of action means a lack of reaching any of our goals.

Do These All or Nothing Barriers Sound Familiar?

  • I can’t go without meat; therefore I eat meat with every meal
  • Running three times a week is a lot so I won’t exercise at all
  • I can’t write every day for an hour, so I will write my book next year when I have more time
  • Learning about investing money takes a lot of work, so I’ll just avoid saving money
  • I’d rather sleep in than meditate every morning, so I won’t even try meditation

Take a moment to think of an area of your life that you find far too overwhelming to take action. Write down this all or nothing barrier. Soon, you will know how to tear it down to rubble and be better off for it.

The Tragedy of an All or Nothing Mindset

An all or nothing mindset is where we think that we need to do something all the way because anything less is a failure. The mentality is based on the philosophy that sometimes anything less than the best is a failure. Usually in school or work, perfection or at least your best effort is required. However, in tasks outside of these areas, it is always beneficial to take a whack at it and do something instead of nothing at all.

The Happiness of Failed Attempts

Imagine that you want to cook a meal for your significant other, maybe it’s a special occasion, or it’s just a night you got off work before them. The issue is, you don’t know how to cook. Sure you can make macaroni and cheese or a PB&J, but your significant other is typically the kitchen master. Usually, you whisk things together while they roast the meal to perfection.

Some would wait until their better half came home and then eat their average dinner. If it’s a special occasion, you might decide to go out to eat all together. But what if you tried to cook dinner in the kitchen that night. I bet, even if it wasn’t perfect, your significant other would be deeply appreciative.

It might be a colossal failure. However, even if you burn the food and need to aerate the kitchen for a week, it will be a fantastic story!  You will talk about what trying the experience was like. Maybe your partner will even teach you how to cook better. There are cases like this are where doing something, even if it’s not perfect, is far greater than doing nothing at all. Perfection isn’t necessary. The magic is in the lack of the perfection.

The all or nothing monster is scarier than the all or nothing barrier!
The all or nothing monster is scarier than the all or nothing barrier!

Slaying the All or Nothing Mindset

We can defeat this beast by doing something. Taking any action towards our goal will help us defeat the all or nothing monster. Regardless of how small it is doing something to work towards your goal is far better than not doing something at all.

Taking a little action, over an extended period will set us apart from the majority of paralyzed people who are afraid of the all or nothing monster. Think about the person who consistently runs just once a week. Compared to those who tell themselves they don’t have time to run three times a week the one who runs only once a week will be far more fit. Thus they beat out ones who fail to run at all because of their all or nothing mindset. We can dream of working towards a goal for weeks on end, but if we never get out and do it, then we will never make progress.

Power of Long-Term Small Action Over Big Dreams

Humans are notoriously awful at picking up and maintaining life-altering habits. We can’t change our habits on a dime. Attempts to do this look like New Year’s resolutions of significant diet changes. Those resolutions fail however small incremental changes to our diet will improve us over time.

If someone wanted to become a vegetarian, going from 0-60 and entirely cutting out meat would be a painful process. They would most likely fail for any number of reasons. They may not know enough vegetarian recipes, or they might not have the resolve to stick to a strict dieting plan.

A more practical way to adopt vegetarianism is to eat one more vegetarian meal a week than you already are. Maybe you start with a vegetarian breakfast on Monday. This act might be as easy as removing the bacon from your plate that morning. Then the next week have a vegetarian breakfast and lunch. Slowly after the course of a few months, you will adopt vegetarianism full time. And even if you don’t embrace it fully, the decrease of meat in your diet will be more beneficial than not reducing meat at all.

Slow adoption can get you over all or nothing barriers.
Slow adoption can get you over all or nothing barriers.

Get Where You Want to be With Slow Adoption

Changing your habits over time will help you get to where you want to be. Improving slowly on weekly iterations helps trick your brain into thinking that it’s easy.

Perhaps you want to meditate every day, but you find it hard to make it a habit. If you meditate one day a week, and then two days a week, so on and so forth after seven weeks you will be meditating full time. Sure you might hit some snags, but slow adoption over the long term will get you where your desired habit or close to it. For things outside of work and school “close to it” is magnificent!

Make Yourself Want to do the Action

The power of gradually adopting rigorous habits is that you will eventually find that you want to do the action more. You start to see the benefits of eating healthier or running more. When you are at the point where you desire to run that extra time a week, you are being fueled by a passion for the progress, instead of beating yourself into submission to follow an austere and dreaded regiment.

Unfortunately with all or nothing barriers we are afraid of being incomplete
The puzzle might not be complete but we can see the picture, and I bet they had fun up and past this point.

Give Yourself Permission to be Incomplete

Accept that in some cases an incomplete day’s work is better than a wasted day in bed. Sure, we need days where everything gets crossed off our to-do list, but there are also days where it is advantageous to let ourselves do the necessary bit of work and then leave the minor stuff for the future.

What Does Close Enough Look Like?

“Close enough” might look like not meditating every day and finding yourself skipping weekends because of a hectic weekend schedule. Missing weekends is fine because you will still have more meditation hours under your belt than someone staying in bed the extra 10 minutes telling themselves it’s too hard to meditate every day. After all, you’re not trying to compete against monks. You’re trying to improve yourself. Anyone with meditation experience can agree that five days of meditation will improve you. After you work towards breaking down your all or nothing barrier with small steps, try to figure out what it looks like to be close enough for you.

Why Aren’t You Getting Something Done?

Earlier I asked you to think of an instance that you used an all or nothing barrier to avoid a problem. Now that you know what you are missing out on by doing nothing at all think of a way you can take a small action towards your goal.

Seen here micro steps in the snow!

There’s No Reason to Avoid Micro-Actions

The idea is for the action to be so small that you shouldn’t have any reason not to do it. However, it should also be big enough that it is something outside of your daily routine. If you want to adopt meditation a small action might be, sitting down for ten minutes to practice a guided meditation. There’s not a lot keeping you back from doing that, but it is probably not something you’re already doing.

Additionally, it should be something you already understand how to do. I suggest a guided meditation above because going from not meditating at all to learning to meditate on your own is a huge leap. Huge leaps, in the beginning, are not conducive to breaking down all or nothing barriers. I’m not familiar with how to effectively lift weights, so I’m not going to make my small action be “lift weight for 20 minutes once a week.” This action sounds simple, after all, it’s only 20 minutes of work, but it is a deceptively large goal for me because there are a lot of unknowns.

Examine Your Failures

If you do set out to take action but don’t achieve it, you should reflect and try to recognize what went wrong. With the weight lifting example above I had to examine what stopped me from doing this.

If you want to run more often but find that going out once a week is still not happening then be brutally honest with yourself and admit that maybe running is too boring for you. Then look into something that you might enjoy more. Constant examination and improvement of our failures, even if they are wrong, is a powerful way to improve over time slowly. I want us to be the kind of people who examine what we do wrong and improve on it, not just wish that we had a better life.

Action steps

  1. 1) Keep your ears open for when others and, more importantly, you make all or nothing statements. Write down what action you might not be doing right now that is because of an all or nothing barrier.
  2. 2) Next, think of a small step to take towards breaking down that barrier. Schedule it on a to-do list or calendar.
  3. 3) Finally, when you succeed at implementing the small step above increase the amount of action, you take. Then, challenge yourself to take the next step.
  4. 4) Remember, if you don’t succeed at first, examine the situation and try to figure out why you failed. Change something up to make it easier for you to reach your desired habit. Perhaps you will need, to be honest with yourself and recognize that it isn’t a priority in your life. That’s perfectly fine, and it’s the power of priorities.

Parting Words

Let me know below what you have heard others say that sounds like an all or nothing barrier. What’s something that you might have said with an all or nothing mentality? If you want to get over this barrier, let me know what habit you might build in the future.

Photo Credit: Jonas Bengtsson, ToadLickr, Birdies100, Jenni C, moonjazz

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