All-or-nothing thinking is a common mindset that I encounter when working with folks at the clinic. I've heard it so many times, in so many different contexts. "I really want to lose weight, but I have to start after the holidays so I won't be tempted; I know that I should start eating better, but I just can't give up sugar; I want to get stronger, but just can't commit to going to the gym right now." All of these statements are based on the assumption that our goals are only achievable with whole-scale changes in our lifestyles. Not only is this assumption false, it is a threat to actually getting anything done. I would argue that larger lifestyle habits (good sleep, exercise, healthy diet, positive mindset, etc.) all piggy-back on smaller habits that we can change right now. Hear me out.
The process of lifestyle and habit change is essentially the process of shifting one's narrative, or the story that we tell ourselves about our lives. Our narratives begin when we are children through a combination of outside developmental forces and internal personality traits, but they are not set in stone. Becoming a healthy, mature adult includes increasing our conscious control of our internal story. Easier said than done. This is where taking small steps comes in. To paraphrase research done in the field of behavioral psychology, "it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting." By consciously choosing to make small steps in our lives (eating more vegetables over the holidays, going sugar-free one day a week, adding in a short walk after dinner, etc.) we increase our internal leverage over the bigger narrative of our lives.
When you find yourself resistant to change, ask yourself if you are adopting all-or-nothing thinking and honestly answer. Are you actually unable to move closer to your goals, or are you using your narrative as an excuse not to act? Is there a third option? What is the smallest thing you can focus on that will move the project forward?
Self-improvement will be a life-long endeavor, but the more you practice the easier it will become. Eventually, healthy habits will form in the places where you struggled before. Eating better and exercising will become no-brainers, and you can use your energy to focus on other problems and goals. When in doubt consider the third option between the extremes.