I read something in my studies recently that leaped off the page and smacked me right between the eyes. It was like it was written especially for me. It was screaming, ‘Andrea, get this through your thick head!’ But clearly, if it was included in the study material, it’s a bigger issue than just something I experience alone. It's actually a super common thing.
I recently turned 60 and I’ve had a mental approach to physical activity my whole life which has been less than ideal. Worse than that, it’s probably been counterproductive. I took up serious sport at the age of 10 so there’s 50 years of a mindset that hasn’t served me too well. And I know that I’m not alone because I’ve had conversations with loads of others about this very thing.
What is this thing? What was this huge epiphany I had? Well, it’s that I’m an All-or-Nothing gal and I don't have to be! That’s right. I’m either out there fully flat out into loads of activity or, unexpectedly, I’ll fall into a hole and do zilch for weeks or months on end. I can default to sloth mode out of the blue and once that happens, I can pretty much stop doing everything. Because once I stop, I've always felt that doing anything less than heaps of training just isn’t going to cut the mustard. So why bother huh? To be clear, intellectually I know this to be untrue. And I never want others to think this way. So why have I always imposed this notion on myself? Do you do this to yourself too?
It’s super hard to get out the door to do your training if your head isn’t feeling it. Sure, there are strategies that we use when our motivation has gone MIA which was the topic of another blog I wrote recently which you can read here: https://www.summitstrength.com.au/blog/andreas-adventures-help-ive-lost-my-motivation Or those strategies you use yourself that you know will generally get you out of that slump.
But what about those who struggle with the concept of balance and moderation? Are you someone who is like a bull at a gate when you’re in the zone but then do absolutely nothing when you’re not?
We are all perfectly imperfect human beings. We are not robots. As a coach, I will never pretend to you that I'm perfect when it comes to my own training. We don't all approach our training (or life, for that matter) the same way. What works for one might not work for another. But I think we can all agree that there are certain approaches that can hinder the promotion of a growth mindset. The all-or-nothing approach can be one of them.
Those who don’t have an All-or-Nothing mindset might read this article and not understand it at all! But for those that do, it’s definitely a 'thing' and it's a thought process that’s really hard to shift. So I hope this article will help you consider things from a different perspective. In the time since I read about it, it’s had a major impact on how I approach my training psychologically. No mean feat after 50 years! But, my friends, it can be done!
The Middle Ground
Having rigid thinking about our training, our nutrition or other things can lead to feelings of failure when we don’t live up to those rigid expectations we set for ourselves. How often have you heard yourself or someone else lament, “I was going so well with my training but then I went away for a week and didn’t do anything. I’ve undone all the good I’d done!” Or, “I trained for months but then I got sick for two weeks; now I’ll have to start all over again." Or, I was eating such a nutritious diet but I had a night out with the girls and ate ‘rubbish’; now I’ve ruined everything." “I was exercising every day but I was tired one day and didn’t do anything. That led to two days off and now I feel like I’ve lost all the benefits I’d gained. So now there's no point." This is the danger zone! If we have an all or nothing mindset and any of these things happen, we'll often throw in the towel. We weren't 'perfect' so that means we failed, right?
Any of that sound familiar? These are some examples of all-or-nothing (AoN) thinking. Do you see how this affects our self-talk? Being hard on ourselves, feeling like a failure, all negative stuff. This can actually lead us further away from our goals. Often we’ll overcompensate by going all out which is rarely sustainable in the long term or we chuck it all in.
But, what if there was an easier way? A way to reach your goals where you feel in control. Well, there is! It can take some work to change your way of thinking if you’ve been an AoN person your whole life. But, it can be done! Here’s how.
I want you to draw or picture a straight line. On the left end is the word Nothing (black). On the right end is the word All (white). Our black and white thinking. Where do you currently sit? If you’re hardcore at one extreme or the other, have you ever thought about all that grey area in between? What sits along that line that connects the two ends? Is that area something worth exploring? What do you think might happen in that grey area? Let me tell you! (see, I'm feeling pretty excited about this). That grey area is where you’ll finally feel liberated from the constraints from AoN thinking. That grey area is where you can operate on a daily basis that makes you feel empowered and in control. That grey area is about consistency rather than ‘perfection’ or ‘failure’. It’s where you’ll learn to be kind to yourself, to recognise that life happens and you will do the best you can in your current circumstances. And you’ll accept that this is part of your roller coaster journey towards your goals. In the grey area, you won't feel like a failure and beat yourself up when you miss a workout or eat a donut.
In the grey area, you might not be able to fit in a session at the gym but you might be able to go for a walk on your lunch break. Or give yourself the day off. You might be sick and can’t exercise but, in the grey area, you can nurture your body and keep hydrated so it heals and gets strong again quickly. In that grey area, you’ve been mostly consistent with your training and nutrition over an extended period of time. That grey area is where the magic happens. It’s where you’re flexible whilst still being consistent. It’s what you do here that matters, not what you do in the black or white zones where you chastise yourself over perceived failures or flog yourself into oblivion. Success in reaching your goals is about operating in that grey area. In that grey area, you can set yourself some mini-goals. The little goals that help you feel good about what you’re achieving despite the challenges of life. Getting up early a couple of times a week to go for a walk. Drinking an extra litre of water each day. Doing your squats and calf raises at your desk. Those mini goals are more achievable and will make you feel chuffed with yourself as opposed to how you will feel at the All or Nothing ends of the continuum.
To be clear, I'm not saying that your workouts shouldn't challenge you. Your training should always progressively challenge you; if not, there'll be no growth. But you don't need to go from zero to hero in five seconds flat. Thinking that you have to ‘go hard or go home’ is not productive. That can lead to injury along with an unrealistic expectation you've set up for yourself that's pretty hard to maintain. However, all those little things, done consistently, are productive. The grey zone is where you can sustain a certain way of being whether that's around fitness, nutrition or something else. And not just sustain it for a week, a month, or 6 months. Sustain it long term.
The Covid Lesson
Covid has felled many of us over the past couple of years. I'm seeing so many who escaped it in the early days now finally getting it. My doctor told me some months ago, "It's not really a matter of if you get it now, it's when". I thought that was a little dramatic and, if I'm honest, I thought it wouldn't get it's grimy mitts on me. But, as we're seeing, it doesn't discriminate and like so many, the rotten thing finally caught up with me. And I have to say, I was lucky in those early days as I didn't get sick with fever, chills and all that lovely stuff. However, it was after coming out of iso that something else happened. The fatigue! Not the, 'I'll-just-go-have-a-nap-and-I'll-be-fine' kinda fatigue. No amount of napping or big sleeps makes an iota of difference with Covid fatigue. It's the 'brain fog, wanna-lay-down-right-where-I'm-standing' fatigue. I'm not special here. I'm seeing friends and many of our clients describing this phenomenon. And here's the thing. If there’s something that I’ve learned from experiencing the ongoing effects of Covid fatigue, it’s that the All or Nothing approach to training is not going to work. It’s sat me down on my bum in a big way. You think you’re finally over it and ready to launch yourself back into your training only to do one session and fall in a heap for the next three days. It sure is a hard way to learn a valuable lesson. But it’s also taught me to be kind to myself and just do the small bits I can without being critical of myself. It's forced me to operate in the grey zone. And, surprise, surprise, I actually like it here! I don’t feel guilt or failure. I just feel ‘normal’. And each day that I'm ticking off a small goal feels great! How did I not know about this grey zone before!
So, for me, who has been an AoN gal my whole life, learning about how to think along the continuum has been a game-changer. Beating myself up over a missed session or feeling like I have to work twice as hard to ‘make up for it’ is not a good headspace to be in. Being consistent for most of the time is the key. I like to think of it as the 80/20 rule. Do the training consistently for 80% of the time and you’ll be good to go. Yeah, this is something you can definitely keep up long term.
So, how about you? My fellow All or Nothing peeps? Maybe this has resonated with some of you and given you something to ponder. It’s not an easy thought process to change but, let's face it, being an all-or-nothing person is way harder! Now that is exhausting!
I'd love to hear your thoughts!
About the Author
Andrea is a coach with Summit Strength, who specialise in helping hikers get strong and pain-free for their adventures.
At the age of 54, she discovered a real passion for hiking. But she also discovered just how limiting physical fitness and pain can be on the trail.
After signing up to one of the Summit Strength signature programs, she discovered just how much of a difference the right training can make to a hiker's enjoyment and comfort on their adventures. She knows that the journey isn't always easy and 'life' can sometimes impact on our training goals. She shares her insights and experiences with us in her blog articles.
These days, as an Online Adventure Coach with Summit Strength, she helps hikers all around the world get fit, strong and resilient for their adventures.
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Rowan is a personal trainer who specialises in training for hiking, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures.
Summit Strength is a personal training for hiking service created specifically to help hikers have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful adventure.