“All or Nothing” is Usually Just an Excuse to do Nothing

“I miss dance, but I quit once I realized I wasn’t going to do it professionally. I’m not the type to do anything halfway.” 

“What’s the point of eating a a salad with a burger? It’s already unhealthy anyway.” 

“I would donate to your Kickstarter, but I can’t donate to all the Kickstarters.”

“Why are you spending so much effort on [activist cause] when there are bigger unsolved issues in the world?” 

Whatever the context, you’ll probably hear statements like these coming from self-proclaimed “all or nothing people,” or people who otherwise hold a binary view of success or progress.

In itself, this type of thinking is easy to fall into, especially for the perfectionistic-ly inclined. Under a logic of toxic perfectionism–with such high standards that any realistic effort seems pointlessly trivial in comparison–if you’re not going to do something perfectly, you might as well give up. 

But what’s especially concerning about this mindset is the way it’s glorified, as if being an “all or nothing person” is somehow heroically intense or extreme. In it’s worst form, the phrase “I’m an all or nothing person” is used to imply a superiority in standards over people who are merely doing something.

In reality, however, is doing something incompletely or imperfectly really the worst outcome? There are a few exceptions here: cakes don’t taste good half-baked, and  if you’re wondering “should I buy that pair of pants,” I don’t recommend half-assing it. In most other cases, though something is better than nothing. And lets face it: when you treat progress as a binary decision, you usually end up choosing nothing.

Maybe there are some people whose declarations that they “don’t do anything halfway” are immediately followed by them running a marathon, writing a novel, becoming fluent in Italian, obtaining a PhD in physics, and starting a charity which decisively ends global poverty. (If you’re one of those people, stop reading this blog and go back to doing you.)

But for most people, most days, in most areas, the realization that you can’t or don’t want to do it “all the way” ends up with you giving up and watching Netflix instead of going on a jog, writing a blog post, keeping up with your online beginner Italian practice, signing up for Physics 101, or making a donation to a food bank–any of which would have been way more impressive and productive than nothing.

In theory, an “all or nothing person” is an intense, extreme person who settles for nothing but the best. In practice, it’s more often someone currently sitting around in their bedroom, who also has a catchy self-description. (And there’s nothing wrong with sitting around in your bedroom whenever you need or want to–but please don’t feel obligated to justify it as a of sign of badassery.)

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Aside from the rarely attained “all,” “all or nothing” is basically just an excuse to do nothing. My preferred replacement catchphrase: “Just do something.*”

*(Unless you really truly want to do nothing, and in that case, go for it–no excuses needed.) 


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