If there’s one time of year where it’s extra hard to be disciplined when it comes to, well, pretty much everything, it’s the holiday season. With colder temperatures keeping us huddled up indoors, holiday parties tempting us with indulgent food and beverages and large-scale family dinners that end in a lineup of delicious desserts, it can feel almost impossible to stay on top of your health and fitness goals.
In an effort to cope with the temptations brought on by the holiday season, many of us adopt an “all or nothing” mentality, meaning we tend to think in black or white, or this or that. This type of thought process is common in individuals with anxiety and depression, notes Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University and author of What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant.
Unfortunately, this mindset can be quite harmful, especially when it pertains to eating and working out. “Either someone decides to eat junk food and avoid working out in total or they decide to eat healthy and workout everyday, which leaves little room for compromise and alternatives that can be less restrictive and more flexible,” Dr. Avena explains.
This all-or-nothing mentality can also make it nearly impossible to recover should we find ourselves “off track” with our goals. “With exercise or diet, for example, missing one day at the gym or having a few cookies suddenly negates the weeks of exercise or healthy eating you’ve done, making you want to quit even though you’ve actually been quite successful,” explains Lianna Nielsen, a London-based integrative nutrition health coach. “When applied to improving our health, the ‘all or nothing’ mentality can lead to over-exercising, injuries, restrictive eating, obsessive thoughts about food and it can also encourage self-punishing behaviors such as binge eating or drinking, avoiding activities we enjoy, etc.”
The good news: It is possible to bust out of an “all or nothing” rut. Here, experts share their best tips for ditching this mentality over the holidays.
Look for the silver lining in situations
When a certain situation arises, especially when it’s unexpected, it can be easy to start looking at the negatives that it brings; however, Nielsen suggests flipping that mentality on its head and instead trying to look at the positives that the situation brings. “Look for ways you might have improved, for small wins or lessons you could take away from the experience,” she says. “Assume there isn’t ever a perfect outcome, but just opportunities for learning and growth instead.”
Try something new
One simple way Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness, suggests avoiding the “all or nothing” or binary thinking is to try something new. “Change up your routine by adding a new part to it—i.e. if you always go to the gym, consider doing yoga, running outside, or going for a bike ride,” he says. “Switch up your daily or weekly routine and you will see a new way of thinking emerge.”
Listen with the intent to learn
This one may be hard for many, but Dr. Adams says it’s worth the try. “Too often we don’t hear others as we are just waiting for them to stop talking so we can make our point or say what we want to say, but this doesn’t help with our ‘all or nothing; thinking, as it just reinforces our ideals and thoughts,” he says. “If we listen to learn what others are saying, we may learn something new or see things from a different perspective.”
Modify your goals to be more attainable
When you’re tempted to quit or give up, Nielsen challenges you to instead task yourself with one small thing you can do to work towards your goal instead. “It’s impossible to give 100 percent all of the time—life is far too complicated for that—so on days when you can’t, look for small ways to give even 10 percent,” she says. “For example, with diet, if you are in a situation where you are unable to eat ‘perfectly,’ just look for ways to add more veggies or drink more water.”
Don’t define yourself by mistakes
When a mistake happens, it’s tempting to use the “all or nothing” approach to create an image of yourself that is only shaped by the mistake you made, notes Dr. Avena. She recommends avoiding this mentality altogether. “Instead, if a mistake is made, try to find ways to learn from it and use it as an opportunity for growth,” she adds.