Give up on ‘all or nothing’ thinking

When it comes to developing a new habit, what’s a better, 100% or 80%?

You probably immediately went with 100%. We all want to stick to the plan 100%, we want to hit the gym 100% of the time we are meant to and we want to see 100% of the results. In fact we are often conditioned to see 100% as success and anything less as failure. We call this “all or nothing” thinking.

But aiming for 100% may be just as damaging as deciding to give up and settle for 0%.

When we get trapped in all or nothing thinking we miss the benefits of hitting your targets 80% of the time, or 50% of the time. Lets face it, 10% is better than 0%, and one of the best things you can do for your health is learning to stick to your behaviors (because behaviors, the things you do every day, are what we use to achieve our goals) as much as is possible. Forget perfect, focus on what you can actually do right now.

This kind of perfectionist thinking leads to the concept of “cheat meals”, the idea that some foods are “good” and some foods are “bad”, the idea that certain foods must be “earned” and in the long run this type of thinking can potentially contribute to serious mental health problems like orthorexia or severe anxiety around food choices. We shouldn’t focus on cultivating iron clad willpower that means that we never stray from our diet, but instead focus on developing a healthy relationship with food that allows us to enjoy ourselves and navigate everyday food choices healthily.


Unless you are a professional athlete, sticking to a healthy diet 80% of the time will likely get you where you need to go in terms of health, and when I say healthy diet I mean a diet provides the necessary nutrients to support your lifestyle and allows you to be the happiest and healthiest you can be. If you set a goal and you can only manage it 50% of the time, set an easier goal and start from there. Set yourself up to succeed from the start, and everything will fall into place. 

Learn to love 80% and do away with all or nothing thinking, not only will it make you more likely to achieve your goals, it will probably make you happier too.

Homework: 

Take a look at your goals (they don’t need to be nutrition related) and break them down into small steps. Try to phrase each step as a specific behavior, for example “I want to eat less sugar” could become “I won’t drink soda on weekdays”.  Keep breaking them down until they are so simple you are 90% sure you will stick to them. Then pick one and do it. Start tomorrow (or today) and aim to stick to it 90% of the time. In a week revisit it. Once you hit 90% consistently (for an entire week), introduce a new behavior or make the existing one more difficult (but still one you can stick to 90% of the time). If you only hit 80%, try it again. If you hit less than 80% revisit the behavior and make it simpler.

Repeat until you run out of goals, then make new goals.

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