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How To Always Take Action: Ditch The All Or Nothing Mindset

All or nothing.

Go big or go home.

There is something appealing about these ideas; going all out for something. It’s inspiring because deep down, we all want to give life our best shot. But there is a dark side to this, and it has nothing to do with Star Wars this time.

All or nothing is associated with bravery, courage, and guts. But let’s not forget that one of the possibilities in all or nothing is nothing. Getting it “all” is great, but getting nothing is the worst! This effect is exacerbated when it comes to personal growth.

The Flaw In All Or Nothing Thinking

Have you ever decided to do something productive, only to cancel it later? I ran into this scenario recently. I was going to go to the gym, until I realized I had no clean gym shorts, so I decided that I would go tomorrow. This seemed fine, but it wasn’t, and here’s why…

I thought that because I couldn’t go to the gym, I couldn’t exercise. I wanted to exercise, but the all or nothing mindset made me think I had to choose nothing. At this realization, I dropped and did some push-ups, and then pull-ups. I did something. The next day, I went to the gym too.

The all or nothing mindset causes us to do nothing sometimes, which hurts our progress in life. We do it because it’s easy to underestimate the double benefit impact of doing a little bit instead of nothing. The error in calculation is thinking that because the full amount is great, that anything less than that isn’t. That’s a lie. Consider these two benefits of doing just a little bit…

Benefit #1 – Small quantities are insignificant alone, but when added up over time, they can have a dramatic positive impact on your life. Writing 100 words a day is enough to write a book in one year. Four push-ups a day is more than 1,000 push-ups in a year, and you WILL feel a difference from even this small amount.

Benefit #2 – Once you start something, you might continue it.

Why All Or Nothing Thinking Is A Failing Strategy

Going all-in in poker. Putting all of your money on red in roulette. Trying for a 2-point conversion to win the game instead of tying it with an extra point.

What do these have in common? Pressure. When you assume an all or nothing mindset, you drastically increase the pressure on yourself to perform. Let’s dissect pressure – is it helpful or hurtful?

Consideration #1: What does pressure do to us?

Pressure is a form of stress, which has been shown to increase habitual behavior (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Volume 36, 499-511). When we feel pressure, the brain resorts to what it knows best – habits. Habits are proven behaviors, and anything else would seem too risky in a high stress situation. This is why high-pressure situations are so difficult – we’ll want to do something bold, but our brain will want to do the same old. That was an awkward sentence, but it rhymed.

Habits may work fine in some cases, like when an NBA player needs to make a free throw, he should rely on muscle memory. But in cases of personal growth, it’s bad news every time. The idea of personal growth is to change yourself for the better, and if you’re relying on old habits, you obviously aren’t changing. So when the time comes to go to the gym, for example, you’ll think in all or nothing terms, and that pressure will coerce your mind into a habitual way of thinking. And just like that, you’re back in a rut!

Consideration #2: Are big accomplishments really better than small ones?

I realize it’s bold to make a comparison between a big accomplishment and a small one. I mean, one is bigger! But when it comes to personal growth, bigger isn’t king, consistency is. Consistency forms habits, which are the framework of every human life.

If one of these would allow us to have greater consistency, then it would technically be better. When you think about it this way, consistent smaller accomplishments are better than sporadic big ones. This is a moot point if you’re able to perform bigger accomplishments with regularity, but that’s easier said than done.

All or nothing thinking holds you back. I hope you can see how ineffective it is for lasting change. Here is a fantastic alternative.

Change Your Strategy To “A Little Bit Or Nothing”

This is my strategy, but I also remove the nothing part, by forcing myself to do small behaviors every day. I call it Mini Habits. I started with one push-up a day, and later, added writing 50 words and reading two pages in a book every day.

My results? I’m in the best shape of my life. (I can now do 16 pull-ups in a row, which is one way I measure that.) I’ve written approximately 3-6 times as much as I did before, which is how I wrote a book while writing 4,000 word guides for my blog and frequent guest posts. I’ve also read 6 books in the last three months, which is 8-10 times as many as I used to read. It’s not me and I’m not boasting – I had tried and failed to do this for the last decade! It’s the Mini Habits strategy that works so well. It keeps you moving forward.

When I removed the pressure to perform and forced myself to take these small steps, I ended up doing quite a bit more. Before this, I tried to do everything, and ended up doing nothing. When I was blown away by my results, I sought to understand why. “Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results” is where I documented the science, theories, and reasons behind why this works so well. It’s also a guide to help you create your own Mini Habits.

Others are reporting early success using this strategy, and I’m not surprised, because it’s based on overcoming the key limitations we have (willpower, among others). As I wrote in the book, “when you never lose, you tend to win.” For a comprehensive look at what makes this strategy work and how to do it, pick up Mini Habits on Amazon. It will be 50% off until January 2nd.

20 Responses to How To Always Take Action: Ditch The All Or Nothing Mindset

  1. Another variation of this theme would be “small tweaks lead to big changes.” I think what contributes to a more successful outcome when taking such an approach is that we now break down a seemingly tantamount goal into a series of smaller, more manageable steps. When we do this, we realize that what we want is actually achievable. We now have a process that we can follow that will ultimately lead to a successful outcome. To paint another analogy, we have to lay our foundation before we can build a skyscraper.

  2. Well said ManSpirational! I concur.

    Especially important is this line: “When we do this, we realize that what we want is actually achievable.”

    I call it internal inspiration—the knowledge that you can do something, which inspires you more than anything else can (and lasts longer). It is best achieved by seeing yourself taking action. Because up until you’re actually living it, your ability to meet your goals and dreams is just theory.

    We really do require ourselves to “prove it” on some level before we completely believe we can. That’s one reason why Mini Habits are so powerful—they have you moving forward every day, and at some point, you’ll see what you’re doing consistently and believe. Then there’s a habit aspect, which is icing on the cake.

    Just so you know, tantamount means “equal to.” It was a great comment though. Cheers!

  3. Hi Stephen,

    Excellent! I like engaging in small, successful acts. Example; how I write comments can build up into small successful acts. If I make an impact here by mindfully sharing my take and expounding on your post I can quickly draw in readers through your blog.

    Each extra reader boosts my blogging audience and improves my blog ranking across multiple scoring systems. Completing a little bit at a time leads to massive, eye-popping accomplishments down the road. Develop the habit of engaging in small, successful acts to adopt the mindset of a winner.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. That’s a good example Ryan. Most people would think, “one comment might bring one or two visitors.” But when you consider what a thousand comments could do, posted one at a time, over time, it can make a meaningful difference in traffic and exposure.


  5. Ragnar says:

    How is it that you can be so spot on all the time Stephen? Really boggles my mind. This is so true. When you go all or nothing, it is so so easy to give up when you end up giving less than all. Even when you make actual progress, you get LESS motivated. Since when does that make sense. When you sit down to really think about it, you realize how little sense it makes. Thanks for writing this, great reminder to rethink my approach and value every inch of progress made.

  6. Ron says:

    great article, the shorts thing actually happened yesterday after 3 months. this is called chunking.

  7. Ankit yadav says:

    Great post Stephen…..

    I believe that “All or Nothing” does get us stuck due to our need to be perfect. But I also believe that this is only in case of taking actions towards our goals.

    I think the “All or Nothing” approach is very essential in SETTING OUR GOALS. One can either have a goal to become a full-time blogger or not. To be a fiction writer or not. Its “All or Nothing”. Else we would keep setting one goal after another, never really achieving any of those because we may do little of this and a little of that, but never making any real progress in respect to our goal.

    Having said this, I totally agree with you that we need the “little bit or nothing” approach in taking the actions to achieve our goals, so that we are no longer stopped by failures along the way.

    So, to sum it up all, I’d say, it should be “All or nothing” in deciding our goals but “A little bit or nothing” to ensure we achieve those goals….

  8. Thanks Ragnar! I say we all have a choice—either have impressive goals or impressive results.

  9. “But I also believe that this is only in case of taking actions towards our goals.”

    I absolutely agree with that (it’s what I meant in the article, though I could have clarified better). Great distinction, as goals can’t be half-hearted, or we’ll flip flop and make poor progress overall.

    “Else we would keep setting one goal after another, never really achieving any of those because we may do little of this and a little of that, but never making any real progress in respect to our goal.”

    Regarding that, mini habits are about doing the same small behavior every day. So it’s a big goal in terms of consistency and duration, but each day represents a very small portion of it. There’s more to it than that (such as “bonus reps”), but that is the basic premise. If though, you just did little bits of random goals, then you’re right, the payoff would be limited (though not insignificant by any means!).

    Thanks for that—it was a great comment and an important distinction.

  10. Thank you Ron. Cheers!

  11. Ankit yadav says:

    Thank you. Your article was of great value.

  12. Ashley C. says:

    Thank you for this motivational story!

  13. I love notion that the aggregate result of numerous small steps can produce much larger results. It is something I have utilized for years as I am a naturally lazy person. However, I have found that whenever I just do small steps here and there, the end result is always what I wanted to accomplish, just over a longer period of time. I find it very hard to get started and take action, but whenever I finally do get to the “actioning” part it is because I initially started by just taking a couple small steps and going from there. Great post, I appreciate the new insights!

  14. My experience is the same. Thanks!

  15. sim says:

    It’s been 3 years now. I had to prepare for this college entrance exam. I am Indian. India = High competition, tough exams. God knows I am a genius and I could easily beat it. But I’ve always been of this mentality – either everything or nothing. Every concept that I studied, I did it with so much interest that I became an expert. Soon my teachers were marching ahead so fast and I was lagging. I was always so motivated to get everything done but something used to stop me. I started to dislike studying. I could not devote enough time to a concept, so I rather wont do it. I avoided studying. It used to stress me. I figured out ways to deviate my attention from studying. I wasted my time like anything. I could have done so much! But there was a feeling somewhere in the deep that I had lost the war already.
    Today I am in college. 1st semester is gonna end tomorrow. At the start of college I planned to start gym and exercising, dance classes, robotix workshop, top all the exams. I had extensive plans and Boy! nobody were or could be as motivated as I was. Because I had to prove myself now and I had the opportunity. I worked my ass off but guess how it ended again. I could not gym or dance regularly, studies suffered too. My first maths semester exam was shit. I falied. The following exams suffred similar fate as “all or nothing” mentality dominated me. I was so depressed and stressed for last few days. I work the hardest yet I failed over and over. I was so very down until I read this article. I am gonna buy this book today. Thanks to the author. You’ve made my life, I know this.

  16. Glad to hear it! The book should really help!

  17. Marília DM says:

    First step: “When I removed the pressure to perform”…how?

  18. perfect, srsly, thank you so much

  19. Tellerr says:

    that has to be the one thing I needed to read right now. I set out on a personal goal and lately I have been failing and getting up and failing and getting up . I need to make my mantra when you never lose you tend to win. thanks a bunch!

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