The foundation around “all or nothing” is an unrealistic and unattainable goal combined with toxic perfectionism.

Okay, you’re ready to make a change. You’re excited and prepared to commit. You created a game plan, bought a bike, filled your cupboards with healthy food, and bought workout clothes. On day three, you had your first slip, threw in the towel, and gave up. I see this all too often in patients who are embarking on significant changes in their lives. I call this the all-or-nothing spiral.

The foundation around “all or nothing” is an unrealistic and unattainable goal combined with toxic perfectionism. We slip into the belief that if we miss one day at the gym or eat a cookie, all of our progress goes out the window, and we might as well give up and go back to our old habits. Then once we slip back into the old routine, we feel awful, have difficulty enjoying life, and quickly remember why we wanted to change those habits in the first place. So we get hyped once more and start over. The spiral gets us nowhere, defeats us mentally and physically, and causes a lot of stress.

Tips on how to avoid the all-or-nothing spiral

Be Realistic

When we desire a change, especially a huge one, we often set immediate goals, such as working out every day, eating better, and beelining toward our desired result, without thinking about the long game. Winning the long game takes patience, fortitude, and most of all, kindness to ourselves, with the intent to always strive for a better outcome one day at a time.

Setting goals is easy, but it is more important to set small milestones we can achieve than to set ourselves up for failure. When we set realistic goals that help us thrive on reward and “win” more often, we are more likely to stay the course! The joy is in life’s journey, so why not give ourselves grace, celebrate small wins, and be happy. Plus, healthy living is about balance. Let me repeat: healthy living is about balance.

Being healthy doesn’t mean you’re never going to eat an ice cream cone or french fries, or that you can never skip a workout. Healthy living is about constantly moving toward a goal every day without beating yourself up when you indulge or need a break. The key to winning is getting started again. You will arrive at your end game content and happy. Happiness is an essential part of being healthy.

Have as much compassion for yourself as you do for others

Compassion is a big one that many of us struggle with. An excellent way to look at any setback is to check how you would react if a good friend did the same thing you did. Would you tell them they’re a failure, they’ll never be healthy, or advise them to give up? No, you’re going to say to them that setbacks are okay, to stay positive, and try again the next day. You would also tell them that they did a great job, and acknowledge the hard work they’ve done so far.

Every day is a new day

Don’t wait for Monday or the first day of a new month or year to start again. You have the power to choose something new each and every moment. Every day is a new day to begin again. Try to stay in touch with your deepest desire. You don’t need to attach your “starting time” to anything other than your power to choose each moment.

Focus on your health, not perfection

Create doable markers that allow you to track your progress, so you can see how far you’ve come. If you find yourself entering a spiral because you didn’t do everything “perfectly,” keep looking forward to your goals and don’t lose sight of why you started. Give yourself something special at month one, three, or five, or at the end of a year. Each reward can be a treat: maybe a massage, a night out with a friend, a visit or drive to see relatives, or a picnic. Make it something you don’t usually indulge in because you’re too busy.

Seek professional support

Cycles of self-sabotage, like the all-or-nothing spiral, can indicate more profound issues. Sometimes we resist change and the things we deeply desire because, on some level, we feel unworthy of them. We then punish ourselves by deliberately “failing” at reaching our goals so that part of us feels validated. It’s like saying an “I told you so” to our wounded inner child. If you often find yourself hitting up against cycles like this, a trusted professional such as a coach, counsellor, or therapist can support you in breaking the pattern and reaching your goals.

I sincerely hope that, whatever your goals are, this article helps you identify issues that will help you be gentler with yourself. The world is hard enough. Feel each moment, breathe in life, see yourself moving toward your dreams, embrace your inner strength, and celebrate your wins no matter how small, and I will see you on the upward spiral!