Tuesday, March 11, 2008

All Or Nothing

One of the biggest obstacles I see in athletes (and myself) is the All or Nothing personality.

I bet you know this personality. Because if you are reading this you are a probably one of them; the All or Nothing personality.

All or Nothing people do things full force. If they cannot put all of themselves into it, they will not put anything in at all. And because giving up and not doing something is not usually an option, they will often keep putting themselves into something over and over again no matter the cost. So they attack everything in their life with this same fervor. Whether it is work, family, sports, hobbies, house cleaning, food. It is all or nothing all the time.

Likely these were perfectionists growing up. They strived for straight A’s, they found pleasure in being the best, setting the example, heck, setting the curve. They learned over time that perfection and hard work resulted in rewards – promotions, attention, self-satisfaction, achievement. Simply put, perfectionism got them ahead.

But for as much as this personality type gets them ahead – it can set them behind. It often leads to them getting in their own way. If they can’t do it full steam they don’t want to do it at all. If they can be the best at it each day they don't even want to try. They keep putting in hard work and measuring their worth by day to day results. They think more is more. They want to do it all, now, every detail, think about every minute, split, number because it proves who they are - if they do it all, all the right way - they are good. If they don't then they are nothing and shouldn't do it at all.


This type of thinking becomes a slippery slope.

I think at times it is an organizational thing. We like things neatly organized, compartmentalized in our lives. When we are in control of everything (and you are totally in control when you are putting all of yourself into something because you are probably taking up space from anyone else touching that project or doing every detail of your workouts every single day or eating exactly 2000 calories because you measure and count, you are in control…..know what I mean?); we feel good. We feel like we are orderly and on top of what can sometimes be a disorderly world.

When something deviates from the order, we quickly dishevel in our minds. When this happens, I see a million things scatter in my mind and wonder how I will ever pick them up. Sometimes it is easier to just abandon a messy project than to try to clean it up. Which makes me want to hold tighter control on things because to scatter is like a complete explosion. When the pieces scatter you start to see a bit of fatalism come through – I’ll never get better, I’ll never improve. I didn't hit that interval so I might as well blow off the others. I feel like crap at 10 minutes into it there is no way I'll make it to 45. You start to perseverate on the negative because again – you are all or nothing. There is no in between. You are either the best or the worst.

Or at least in your mind that’s how it is.

All or nothing thinking often plays out with many people with food. I’ve been off the wagon for one day might as well make it one week. I either eat none of the chocolate or all of it. The entire gallon of ice cream or I don’t even bring it in the house. I’ve eaten one so I might as well eat 100. I screwed up at lunch so I might as well screw the whole day.

You could go on for weeks like this – justifying your fall off the wagon and not seeing any way to pick yourself back up. Because we start to think that being entirely perfect is too much at the time. Can’t do it all so do none of it. As such, I see a lot of successful people get stuck in themselves. This all or nothing thinking, they screw up one day then think that the rest of the week is shot.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can start again right now. Don’t wait until tomorrow – do it today. Maybe you slipped with your nutrition or maybe you mentally gave up on the last set of 100’s in the pool. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean much unless you let it take over your mind. Just file it away into “mistakes I’ve made”. Which by now for most of us is a pretty big file. But you’ve got lots of other files too, things I want to achieve, successes I’ve had, unforgettably good days. Don’t forget to open those up and browse through them from time to time.

I was talking the other day with an all or nothing person. She admitted that she was an all or nothing person with everything – work, training, food. We talked honestly about how hard it was to change after that. After years of being rewarded for perfectionism it is hard to let a little bit go. It’s hard to accept anything less than the best from yourself.

But when you have this attitude, you set yourself up for the slippery slope. And since we with this personality are so hard on ourselves, this often leads to a lot of self-hate. How many days have you hated yourself because you ate a chocolate peanut butter ball. Or didn’t finish all 55 minutes of your 55 minute run (I will run circles in my neighborhood until that watch says 55!). Or have to end each swim on an even number, 3000 yards is best because…..

….. because…..

You get a prize? I don’t know. I’m not sure why we do this to ourselves. Why we beat ourselves up like this.


It helps to abandon the all or nothing approach. It doesn’t serve you good. Not in sports. If you want to get ahead as an athlete, you have to let some of the all or nothing approach go. You have to go a little easier on yourself. It is not realistic to feel good all of the time, to feel fast, successful, strong and fit. Some days are just bad days. Some days you don’t feel like doing it. Or finishing it. Or being with yourself.

That’s ok.

Those are the days you just file away. Move along and look forward to something else. This means that sometimes you get through a workout and you don’t hit your intervals. You feel slow. You don’t win.


Last week I reminded my athletes that you can’t win every workout. Mentally you can employ winning strategies to press through them but you cannot physically win. You can’t always have a personal best every time you set foot on a run. You can’t always swim your best your pace. You can’t always win and some days you don’t even get close.

Again, that is ok.

Perfectionism is rewarded in so many other areas in life – but in endurance sports it tends to set people back. You have to keep in mind that you are not a task. Nor a job. You are a living thing and you are subject to change. You cannot be perfect nor can you expect perfection from yourself. You cannot be either all or nothing - there has to be an acceptable middle ground.

Everyday will not be a success. Every workout will not be a win. And it doesn’t mean that you are either all good or all bad. It just means you are normal, adapting to stress, adjusting to the workload and you are a living, breathing thing. With good days and bad days. Ups and downs. Embrace the ups and move on from the downs. Don’t get caught up in either because tomorrow is another day. With new challenges that you will either beat or get broken by. Either way is ok. Because it’s consistency and patterns over time that count. Not all or nothing. Not measuring good day vs. bad day. If you were consistent, committed, and strong for most of the time – you’ve got yourself a win and it will probably happen where and when it counts.

I would sacrifice 100 less than perfect training days for just one day where it all came together because I was consistent and committed over time. Because I didn’t get stuck in measuring the all or nothing of everyday. A long time ago I learned to let the perfectionist inside of me go – it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Since then I have enjoyed accepting myself and my daily performances from a middle ground. This is not complacency, this is just realistic expectations that we can't be a perfect all or nothing all of the time.


And that's ok.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes! If I have 1 good day admist some bad days, I am HAPPY...and yes, you do find out pretty darn quickly that you can not "WIN" each workout...or you will fry yourself. :) Jen H.

Ashley said...

Thank you for this post. I needed to hear that - and today, for work more than anything (although it will carry over into training, eating, etc...). Thanks for putting it out there for us. Sometimes it's hard to think of things other than black/white. I'm learning to live with shades of gray.

Michele said...

Great post. A lot of things hit home, some embarassingly so. Thanks for introducing reality to a perfectionist.

Jen said...

Great thoughts. Completely agree. Congrat's on the age group rankings that came out today.