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Practice Makes Better: Avoiding All-or-Nothing Thinking When You Have ADHD

Do you ever get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking?

How we think about a challenge we’re experiencing directly relates to the impact it has on our lives. One of the ways of thinking that is common for people having ADHD and exacerbates problems is all-or-nothing thinking.

The good news is that “practice makes better” and you can curb your all-or-nothing thinking habit.

What is all-or-nothing thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking is a way of viewing the world in absolutes without considering that there might be a spectrum of options in the middle. It means you think you should either do something perfectly or not do it at all. It means thinking that something is either bad or good, right or wrong, a failure or success. Also called “black-or-white thinking,” this way of thinking can lead us to forget the full spectrum of gray that can often lead to better outcomes.

What’s the harm of all-or-nothing thinking?

You may think to yourself, “What’s the problem…they’re just thoughts. What’s the big deal?” Unfortunately, they’re not just thoughts. These thoughts establish our expectations and influence our decisions about the challenge.

Especially for adults who have ADHD, all-or-nothing thinking can actually lead to some very serious consequences. One of my clients told me the other day that she “will never be able to follow her morning routine” so she can get to work on time. So, she doesn’t even try. This form of all-or-nothing thinking implies that she has already given up on herself, which could result in her actually losing her job. Her all-or-nothing thinking enacts a story based on her past experiences that leaves no room for the possibility that she can change her behaviors in the morning. Because I have seen people with ADHD struggle with, but then master, their morning routines I know there is a possibility for her, but she is not able to see that today.

Some change is better than no change

Sometimes it is easy to spot all-or-nothing thinking. Looking for words that indicate an extreme state helps. Words like: always, never, forever, impossible, can’t, incapable, perfect. My yoga teacher called me out a couple of months ago in class. When prompted to get myself into a particularly difficult pose, I muttered, “This one is impossible for me.” Being the oh-so-supportive teacher he is, he simply said, “How about: This one feels unmanageable today?” And, he was right. Now, months later, I can handle that pose with less difficulty. Looking for words that indicate an either black or white sense of the spectrum can help us to move toward the gray of possibility.

Sometimes it is a bit more difficult to spot all-or-nothing thinking. Another client I work with is trying to establish an efficient email routine. She found herself checking emails each time one came in because she had her notification alarm turned on. All day long emails were interrupting her workflow and by the end of the day she felt “harassed” and “underwater.” So, she turned off her notifications and crafted a perfect plan for how and when she would process her emails each day.

Trouble was, she wasn’t following her perfect plan. She would still occasionally stop her work and check her email. So, she told herself, “This email plan isn’t working. I can never follow a plan.” The plan got tossed and she went back to randomly checking emails when they caught her attention. During coaching, we discussed the difference between her experience of work when she had no email plan and when she was following her plan somewhat. Turns out there was a vast difference.

Following her plan sometimes worked way better for her than just tossing it in the garbage. Even though she wasn’t following her perfect plan perfectly, it was still enabling her to get through her workday without feeling harassed and underwater. She was replying to emails and clearing out her inbox, and was not interrupted as much when working on other tasks. She told me, “I tend to think I have to do it all this way, or not do it at all.” In other words, all-or-nothing thinking. This helped her learn that some change in her behavior is better than no change in her behavior.

Another client has a lovely morning mindfulness routine. It includes a bit of meditation and some journaling. She plans this for a full hour each day, but there are some days when she can’t do an hour because of other obligations. So, you guessed it, she doesn’t do it at all those days. When I asked her what her morning mindfulness might look like on days with tighter schedules, she said, “It's like I either have to do the full hour or can’t do it – duh – I can do a half hour!” She caught her own all-or-nothing thinking and was able to change her story more toward the gray.

Practice makes better

As you try to fix your all-or-nothing thinking habit, remember that it won’t be perfect all the time (that’s actually its own special form of all-or-nothing thinking!). When I have clients who struggle with this issue, I invite them to practice replacing their all-or-nothing thinking.

Replacing all-or-nothing thinking can be tricky, so it can help to think of replacements for the absolute words. Words like sometimes, occasionally, okay, somewhat, a little, more, less will be better to use than always, never, etc. You can also look for the spectrum, or continuum, of your experience rather than seeing it in black and white. For example, that yoga pose is still tricky for me, but it is a lot easier now than it was six months ago.

Make sure you aren’t throwing away something important – like the possibility of getting to work on time, not letting your email inbox run your workflow, or setting your day off right with your morning mindfulness – because of all-or-nothing thinking. None of those things have to be done always; they could be very effective and important tactics for managing your ADHD traits, even if they are done sometimes, occasionally, or even a little.

And remember, practice doesn’t make perfect… but it makes better!

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