I couldn’t resist having a cookie at lunch today…the diet’s blown, so I might as well have pizza for dinner.
I woke up too late to do my usual two-mile morning walk…so I’ll skip the workout completely and stop for coffee on my way to work.
I had to take my cat to the vet Saturday morning, and now there’s only had half an hour of writing time left before I’m supposed to pick up the kids from soccer…so I’ll check email rather than work on my novel.
Can you name the cognitive distortion behind all three of these excuses?
It’s called “all-or-nothing” thinking–a logical fallacy that involves the creation of a false dichotomy. All-or-nothing thinking is based on the assumption that you only have two options to choose between.
When we think this way, we’re pretending that everything is either black or white, when in fact the universe contains not only many shades of gray, but a whole spectrum of other colors.
Either I stick to my diet perfectly, or it doesn’t matter what I eat. Diets are abandoned and eating binges are begun on the basis of this faulty reasoning all the time. Yes, eating that cookie may very well have been a mistake. But even if one cookie puts me over my calorie count, it does matter what I eat next. Eating sensibly for the rest of the day minimizes the amount of damage done to my weight loss efforts. Maybe I won’t lose weight today, but at least I won’t gain any that I’ll then have to lose tomorrow.
Either I get up in time to do the full workout, or I don’t exercise at all. Deciding that I’m not going to try if I can’t be sure I’ll hit my goal is a form of self-sabotage. Even a quick half-mile walk (a brisk ten minutes) gets my blood circulating, oxygenates my brain, stimulates the production of mood-improving neurotransmitters, and elevates my metabolism for at least an hour afterward.
Either I have a big block of time to work on my novel, or I don’t bother to write. It’s so satisfying to sit down for several hours and pound out a whole chapter. It feels fabulous to get 2500 words closer to a completed manuscript. But even 250 words–one double-spaced page–moves the story forward. If I write 250 words every day, I’ll finish my 90,000-word novel in just under a year.
All-or-nothing thinking is so obviously flawed, but we give into the temptation to reason this way because it makes things easier. Studies have shown that the more choices we’re presented with, the more stressful it is to make a decision and the more willpower we use when choosing. Narrowing the available options to two makes the choice so much simpler.
Worse, we seldom narrow the options to two reasonable choices: a false dichotomy is almost always framed as a choice between extremes. Either conditions are perfect and we are 100% successful, or conditions are abysmal and we fail completely.
Why do we prefer these extremes?
Insisting on an all-or-nothing choice gives us an easy out when it comes to things we didn’t want to do anyway.
If my dieting rule is that a small deviation means the entire diet is blown, then it only takes a moment of weakness and I’ve got permission to eat whatever I want.
If my exercise rule is that I have to walk two miles before work or I don’t exercise, then all I have to do is “forget” to set the alarm clock and I don’t have to exercise.
If my writing rule is that I only do it when I have at least three hours to myself, who’s going to blame me for being so busy that I didn’t get around to working on the novel all week?
Often the kind of self-sabotage that results from seeing life as a series of false dichotomies isn’t even conscious. Even worse, every time I choose “nothing,” I’m training myself to believe that the only way to achieve my goals is to be perfect, and that anything less than perfection is failure.
So how do I keep myself from engaging in this pervasive form of self-sabotage?
First, I can identify the types of situations where I’ve limited myself to two extremes. (Hint: they’re all the things I “should” be doing but don’t want to.)
Second, I can introduce a third option, in the form of a contingency plan.
If I deviate from my diet at breakfast or lunch, then for dinner I will have a low-calorie, high-fiber meal, like soup and salad.
If I wake up too late to do my usual workout, I still have to do whatever workout I can in the time I have, and I’ll commit to finding ten minutes later in the day to go for a short but brisk walk.
If I don’t have three hours to write today, I’ll find a way to squeeze in at least fifteen minutes and write a few paragraphs.
Third, I can set the bar lower.
A 1200-calorie/day, sugar-free diet might be too strict for me. I’d lose weight more slowly on a 1500-calorie/day plan that includes a few treats, but at least I’d be able to stick to it.
My ideal might be a daily two-mile walk, but life isn’t ideal. So maybe I’ll be happy if I can manage a long walk 3 times each week, and settle for squeezing in shorter walks the other days.
Sure I’d love to lose myself for hours in the creative rush of writing. But if I’ve got other things to do today, I can meet my 250-word minimum by writing while I eat lunch. Any other writing I manage to squeeze in on a busy day is bonus.
And fourth, I need to keep reminding myself that any progress is better than no progress at all.
Are there any areas of your life where you tend to get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking?
What do you do when you realize you’ve been grappling with a false dichotomy?
Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to my survey about where you’d like to see this blog go! I’m touched by your encouragement, and I appreciate your thoughts on how I can make this site more helpful to you. I’ll be using your comments as a foundation for expanding into 2 posts per week and adding more resources.