If you’re like most people, you’ve probably fallen victim to this type of thinking:

“I promised myself I wouldn’t eat any junk food, but I ate a cookie so I might as well eat the rest of these cookies. I’ll start my diet all over again tomorrow.”

“I want to quit smoking, but I caved and had a cigarette. Maybe I’ll try to quit some other time.”

“I don’t have time to go to the gym every day, so I can’t start an exercise program right now.”

This kind of all-or-nothing thinking will destroy your health and kill your motivation to lose weight, get in shape, or become healthier. The all-or-nothing mentality basically says that if you can’t be perfect, then you can’t make ANY improvements or smart decisions. Clearly, this is nonsense.

You will not eat perfectly 100% of the time. Even if you could, who would want to?

Sometimes you will miss a workout. Some weeks, you may miss all of them. This does not mean that you can never exercise.

Every aspect of your life – your health, your attitude, your career, your relationships – is the result of the sum of the decisions that you make on an ongoing basis. Whatever you do most of the time, that’s what you get.

Improving yourself – whether it’s losing weight, living healthier, exercising more, managing your stress levels, or whatever is important to you – requires making smart decisions most of the time. When you screw up, let it go and focus on the next decision.

Let’s examine the folly of the all-or-nothing thinking. Taking the cookie example:

You’re trying to lose weight, so you intend to stay away from junk food. You eat a cookie. The all-or-nothing thinking tells you, “Well, I didn’t stay away from junk food, so I have failed. Therefore, nothing I do for the rest of the day matters, so I might as well pile on more foolish decisions for the rest of the day, and then try to get back on track tomorrow.”

Can you see how ridiculous this line of thinking is? OF COURSE what you do for the rest of the day matters. You made a bad choice, so what? Get the next 12 choices right. Don’t sabotage yourself by abdicating sensibility for the rest of the day. Every decision matters, so make a good one next time.

Let’s take another example: In the context of rehabilitation for substance use, the all-or-nothing mindset can be particularly detrimental. Imagine someone in rehab who relapses and thinks, “I’ve failed completely, so there’s no point in continuing.” This is a classic case of all-or-nothing thinking. Successful recovery programs, however, emphasize learning from relapses rather than viewing them as total failures. They encourage individuals to understand the triggers, learn from the experience, and continue their journey toward recovery. This approach mirrors the idea of making smart decisions most of the time, recognizing that progress is about consistency and resilience, not perfection.

Expecting yourself to be perfect will always fail you. If you’re banking on perfection in order to make any progress, you will never succeed!

Something else to consider is how all-or-nothing behavior makes you feel. Strict deprivation leads to a willpower struggle that will always fail you eventually. Then all-or-nothing thinking leads to overindulgence and sabotage. Follow that up with the inevitable guilt and shame of failure and foolish behavior. No wonder it’s hard to stay motivated!

The most important tools to get away from all-or-nothing thinking

1. If you make a decision that you regret, give yourself a reality check right away.

What did you do? I ate a cookie.
Why did you do it? I was hungry, and I didn’t have any healthy food handy, so I grabbed a cookie instead.
What will you do next time? I will get the junk food out of the pantry, and I will have a healthy snack ready in the fridge.
Why do you want to do that? Because I want to lose weight and be healthier.
What’s next? Dinner of chicken and asparagus in two hours.

2. Planning your food and your exercise is essential. Without mentally planning out the day’s meals or preparing your food for the day, you’ll leave yourself at the mercy of whatever you can grab quickly. Don’t ask your starving brain to choose between ice cream and spinach. Success requires eating purposefully. Reactive eating is a recipe for nutrition disaster.

3. Get the word “diet” out of your head. A “diet” mentality means that you follow a strict protocol for awhile, then you go back to “normal.” So the end result is that you haven’t changed anything.

Instead of dieting, start implementing some simple changes and improvements to your eating. Start with one or two of these:

  1. Remove all the obvious junk food from your house, purse, car, and workstation.
  2. Add just one veggie serving to a meal. Get comfortable with that, then add an additional serving somewhere, until you’re up to 8 or 10 servings a day.
  3. Make sure you have protein at breakfast.
  4. Add a glass of water in between each flavored beverage.
  5. Pre-cut some veggies to keep in the fridge for quick snacks.
  6. Substitute dark chocolate (70% cacao) for other sweets.
  7. Put a sign on the pantry that says “Closed After Dinner.”

Gaining or losing weight, or being healthy or unhealthy, is the result of a series of ongoing decisions. No single decision makes or breaks your success. You become whatever you do most of the time. Don’t allow one poor choice to ruin your progress or shatter your ambitions. Don’t strive for perfection – strive for consistency. When you make good choices most of the time, your health and your waistline will both improve!