The first job I ever had was at a local fast-food joint. It was pretty charming, as far as fast-food restaurants go. The whole building was decked out in a woodland theme, complete with log-cabin-style walls, a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, and—last but certainly not least—a life-size stuffed black bear near the counter.
Before every shift, I’d pull on a pair of itchy black nylons, one leg at a time, praying they didn’t snag. Next came the polyester black skirt and very bulky, very unflattering forest green polo. The thick fabric would bunch around my middle, creating a really unique silhouette. Finally, I’d wrap the strings of my black apron around my waist, pull my dark brunette ponytail through the back of my hat and slip on the plainest black flats ever made.
By the end of most shifts, my hair would smell like fry grease, and the apron I wore would be splattered with the shake mix that inevitably flung off the wand of the soft serve machine, no matter how graceful I tried to be.
It was not a glamorous gig, but it was fun. I learned a lot during my time behind the register. Counting change, for example. Or being nice to customers who insisted on being crotchety curmudgeons, showing up on time, organizing a walk-in refrigerator, washing dishes, mopping floors, and a bunch of other things I’m forgetting since this was 20 years ago.
But I learned one lesson I never expected to learn from that drive-thru: the perils of all-or-nothing thinking.
All or nothing (go big or go home)
There was one thing customers did at this restaurant that made everyone snicker. Actually, I’m sure customers are still doing this and will continue to do it until the end of time. But anyway…
Night after night, we’d see folks pull into the drive-thru lane and order the most fat-laden, high-calorie things on the menu. Double bacon cheeseburgers. Large fries with cheese sauce on the side for dipping. Cookies. Onion rings. Loaded baked potatoes.
And then? Diet pop. DIET. POP. (Or soda or coke or whatever the hell you people who are NOT from the Midwest call it.)
The consensus among the staff was that if someone was planning to indulge in such a fattening meal, why wash it all down with diet pop? Why not go for the regular version? Go big, or go home, right? If you plan on taking in 1,400 calories at lunch, what’s another 300 or so?
Something is better than nothing
16-year-old me laughed smugly along with the rest of the crew over this phenomenon. Mid-thirties me would like to slap her. Because maybe the customer just preferred the taste of diet pop. (My mom is this way—what a weirdo.)
Or maybe the customer is moving toward a healthier lifestyle one step at a time, and switching to diet pop is one of those steps.
Then again, maybe it was none of my damn business.
Let’s assume, for the sake of this story, that the customer chose diet pop to cut unnecessary calories out of their diet. Realistically, making small, sustainable changes is the right choice for many people. James Clear, who is one of the world’s leading experts on habit formation, wrote a whole book about it.
In Atomic Habits, Clear writes, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
For me, what Clear is saying is that we don’t need to choose between doing nothing and doing everything. That’s a false binary. If we just choose to make small changes, those shifts will add up over time to something worthwhile.
The concept of taking baby steps toward a goal is old news—and is not what this piece is about.
Rather, I want to apply this concept to every kind of “all or nothing” thought trap we fall into.
Binary thinking is poison
Binary thinking makes us miserable because it only deals in extremes. For example, if you tend to view things in a black-and-white way, you might think you’re either a success or a failure, depending on how you define those. Chances are, you’ll only need to make one mistake to label yourself a failure.
If you’re trying to eat healthier but you slip up and eat a cupcake, you’ll think you’ve failed. If you’re in a job interview and everything went well except for one question, you’ll consider that flub as evidence that the whole meeting was a waste.
When you’re stuck in all-or-nothing thought patterns, you’re either at 100% or 0% – there is no in-between. It’s time to break the pattern.
I teach my clients something called “The Model.” I didn’t come up with it (Brooke Castillo did), but I do use it every day to coach myself.
The Model is pretty simple:
– something happens (a circumstance)
– we have thoughts about it
– the thoughts make us feel some kinda way
– our feelings make us behave a certain way
– our behaviors bring us a certain result
So you can see how our thoughts will either make or break us. We can use them to move forward—or keep us stuck. And I have to tell you, black-and-white thoughts are POISON in The Model. Polarizing thoughts saturate The Model, destroying every opportunity we have to make real progress.
Let’s use the cupcake-on-a-diet scenario as an example:
– you eat a cupcake
– you think it was a mistake because cupcakes weren’t on your plan
– because it was a mistake, you feel like a failure (because you’re stuck in this success/failure paradigm)
– because you feel like you’ve failed, you decide to give up entirely
– because you give up, you get the result of not losing weight
The solution? Embrace the grey area.
If all-or-nothing thoughts are tripping you up, try this 3-step method to turn things around next time you find yourself stuck in one of these no-good thought patterns.
First, notice the thought. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken, amirite??? (I am right.) There’s no need to beat yourself up; you’re simply on a fact-finding mission.
Side note: How ironic would it be if you turned the act of noticing your toxic thought patterns into another excuse to label yourself a failure for having such thoughts in the first place!? Don’t do that.
Then, consider the evidence. Is it true that eating one cupcake will ruin a week of on-track eating? Mathematically, does that make sense? No, it doesn’t. So now we know that—objectively speaking—this thought was not true. Once we find the evidence that disproves our brain’s “theory” about the situation, we can open up to the possibility of creating a different thought.
Finally, choose a new, intentional thought. Once you expose your toxic thoughts for the hot garbage they are, the world is your oyster. You can pick any new thought to think in its place, as long as your brain will accept this new thought. This is why I don’t recommend trying to go from thinking “I’m a lousy failure” to thinking “I’m a raving success” in one leap. Your brain will call B.S. on that one.
But what might your brain accept? How about “I am making progress,” “I will figure this out,” or “I will keep trying until I get there.” Do any of those feel reasonable?
When we plug these intentional thoughts into The Model, it’s easy to see how we might feel hopeful, motivated, and energized instead of sad, stuck, or angry.
And since our feelings cause our behavior, we can see how positive or productive feelings spur healthy behavior, whereas negative thoughts create unhealthy behaviors.
And since our behaviors drive our results, it becomes obvious that healthy behavior gives us the results we want, but unhealthy behavior gives us the results we don’t want.
And since all of this started with a thought, that’s where the change needs to occur.
If you try this, I’d love to know how it worked for you! Leave a comment or shoot me a message and let me know!