5 Reasons Why We’re Stuck In All-or-Nothing Thinking With Adult ADHD

Yes or no.

Right or wrong.

Love it or hate it. 

Can or can’t.

This kind of black-and-white thinking is a favorite pastime for so many of our brains.

We find ourselves stuck, convinced that there are only two options available.

And we back ourselves into a corner with an either-or approach thinking:

“Planning doesn’t work for me.”

“If I miss one day, I failed.”

“I have to do everything or nothing at all.”

Today want to take that on-or-off perspective and apply a dimmer switch. 

How can we open ourselves up to the array of options available to us outside of all-or-nothing?

How can we approach our goals and challenges with more flexible thinking? 

In episode 122 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, we’re exploring five key areas where we often get stuck in black and white thinking, and what we can do to expand that perspective.

Check it out now and start applying the concepts today!

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here: 

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In This Episode, You Will Discover… 

  • Five areas we get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking
  • How to challenge this mindset
  • Ways you can expand your perspective and get unstuck

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Episode #122: 5 Reasons Why We’re Stuck In All-Or-Nothing Thinking With Adult ADHD (Transcript)

You are listening to the I’m busy being awesome podcast with Paula Engebretson, episode #122. Hello everybody. Welcome to the podcast. What’s happening? Thank you for tuning in today and for spending some of your precious time with me. I don’t take that lightly. It means a lot. You busy awesome listeners are amazing.

And speaking of amazing, I want to give a quick shout out to a podcast listener, which I realized I haven’t done in a while. So, I want to send out huge props to Chibisuzaku. I certainly don’t think I said that right… usernames on podcast apps are always a guessing game. But this person left a beautiful five star review with the title: manageable simple and life changing. They wrote Paula’s podcasts have helped me so many times when I’ve been overwhelmed and frustrated with my work. Her topics always inspire a “how does she know this was such a huge roadblock for people??” moment. There all the little things I thought no one else but me struggled with, and her calm rational advice always helps with them.

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to leave that feedback. It really does mean the world to me, and I love to hear that these topics are connecting with you. My two main objectives with this podcast are to get tools and strategies and support out there for all of you amazing humans, and also to let you know that if you do you feel overwhelmed, or you have ADHD or are working with a distractible brain, you’re not alone. And what’s more, there are absolutely ways to work with your situation.

And when amazing listeners like you put these strategies into practice and you start seeing results, that’s everything. That is what it’s all about. So, thank you again for listening and your support. And if you have a moment, and you are enjoying the podcast, would you be a Rockstar and go leave me a review as well? Just head to your podcast app leave me some stars and a sentence or two. This helps others discover the podcast more easily and gain access to these tools and strategies, too.

Black and White Thinking

Alright. What are we talking about today? Well, today we are talking all about all or nothing thinking or black or white thinking. Oftentimes our brains act like an on or off switch. We tend to look at the world through two options. We can either do this or that. It’s right or wrong. We can or can’t. You love it or hate it. You’re good or bad at it.  And today I want to talk about the power of being a dimmer switch in an on and off world.

Now, this either/or, black or white thinking is very very common for the human brain generally, and ADHDers specifically. It’s so easy for our brain to want to slip into this binary of a yes or no, good or bad, right or wrong thought process. It is part of the executive function known as cognitive flexibility or mental flexibility.  And basically, the more mentally flexible we are, the more open we are to seeing the gray between the black and white or using a dimmer switch between the on and off.

Today, my goal for this episode is to help point out some common areas where this black and white thinking commonly shows up. And to also explore potential new ways to think about these circumstances that creates a little bit more flexibility in our mind. Because as we will find, while black and white thinking can be useful in some situations. For example, I know for myself, I have some values and beliefs about what I think is morally right and wrong. In most areas of our lives, this kind of black and white thinking is not necessarily serving us. And in fact, it can keep us feeling stuck.

So today we’re going to identify where this thinking might be showing up for you, and we’re going to talk about ways to navigate it. We’re going to talk about ways to think outside the box, see other options, and practice being that dimmer switch between off or on. Because what I’ve found as I practice opening my own mind to more than two options is that I find so many more opportunities for expansive growth, which I think is something many of us are seeking.

And I’m excited to share five different areas where I have noticed the on or off, all or nothing thinking show up recently. And I invite you to consider each one and notice if any of them ring a bell for you.

Using a Schedule

So, one area where I see this mindset show up a lot aligns with following a schedule. Often when clients come to me, I get the combination of either A) people who really want to follow a strictly regimented, clearly time blocked schedule that has each hour of the day accounted for. And they often want to adopt this practice because they think it will really maximize their effectiveness and productivity. And then on the other side of the coin, the off switch, are the people who completely resist scheduling. They say it doesn’t work for them. They’ve never been able to follow it before. They feel too restricted or confined. And so, they avoid it as much as possible.

Perhaps you can resonate with either one of these thought processes. Or maybe you lean toward one side or the other. I definitely lean more toward the time blocked approach, but I also leave some breathing room. And here’s the deal. There is no objectively right or wrong way to schedule. And if either one of the on or off switch options works for you, amazing. Don’t fix what’s not broken if it’s working for you.

But if you’re telling yourself, you must do one or the other, and you’re not getting the results that you want, that’s when it’s time to start exploring the dimmer switch options. Because there is so much room to play. There are so many options available between the strictly time blocked schedule and the total free for all.

Maybe you time block your morning and you leave your afternoon open for more flexibility if and when unexpected demands come up from your boss or your team. Maybe you choose 3 key activities that you are committed to completing each day, but you don’t have to do them in a particular order. Instead, you’re committed to completing them before you do any of the smaller daily stuff.

Or maybe you are in a position where you have regularly repeated tasks. Responding to emails, entering data, writing reports, making sales calls. If these are all activities that you do on a daily basis, you could put these tasks into a hat or a jar and simply pull one out every hour to add some spontaneity in your schedule. There are so many different options out there, and the most important thing is finding one that works best for you. The thing that matters is creating a schedule that provides the level of structure in which your brain thrives and that supports type of work environment or projects you want to complete, etc.

And again, I want to reinforce that when I’m using the analogy of the dimmer switch or seeing those shades of gray, there is no right or wrong approach. In fact, when I think about the analogy of the dimmer switch, it makes me think about my best friend and roommate from college, Megan. She hated dim rooms. Lights had to either be on or off because it freaked out her eyes. She hated the way her eyes felt when the light was dim.

On the other hand, I kind of liked dim lighting in the evenings. During the day I like bright light, but during the night, I preferred more dim lighting. There isn’t one better than the other, it’s just personal preference and knowing what feels best for you. And from what I’ve found, the same is true for most situations. The important thing is staying open so you can find what that is for you.

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I’ll Start Again On Monday

The second area where I see this type of thinking come up builds on this first idea of scheduling. And this is the all or nothing thoughts about sticking to a schedule or a budget or a meal plan. So, in this all or nothing mentality, the thoughts usually sound like, “I have to follow this plan perfectly or it’s over.” “I get it done exactly right, or I don’t do it at all.”

So, more specifically, let’s say you get off schedule. You had an interruption in your workflow and you’re behind in your time blocking and your brain offers the thought, “the day is ruined.” This used to be a huge one for me. And I still notice my brain want to offer that thought every once in a while now, too. I kid you not, if I planned my day to start at 8, and I had a late start and it was 830, I was already convinced that I wasted the entire day. Truly. It was crazy. My brain would think, what’s the point?! The day is completely gone. Meanwhile, it’s 8:37 am.

Similarly, maybe you’re trying to stick to a budget. And you’ve followed it really well, but then you overspent. And your brain offers, well what’s the point in sticking to this anyway. I’m already over budget. I might as well just get these things that I really want right now. And once again, those thoughts can transfer over to things like meal planning as well. I ate different food than I intended to, Oh well. I’ll start again tomorrow.

Create a Reset

And that’s often the follow-up thought. It is some flavor of, “I’ll start again tomorrow. I’ll start again Monday. I will start again next month or next year or after the holidays etc.” If you ever hear your brain offering these thoughts, that is your on or off, all or nothing thinking sneaking back in. So instead of entertaining your brain’s catastrophizing, you could practice something like “Not a problem, the next hour is a fresh start.” Or maybe you think about the morning and the afternoon as fresh starts. So if you get off track in the morning, use the lunchtime as a reset to start fresh.

With budgeting or meal planning or getting distracted with whatever social media app sucks you in, you can use similar thoughts. Every meal is a choice. Every bite is a choice. Similarly, every purchase is a choice. Every minute that I choose to spend on Instagram is a choice. The day is never wasted. Every minute you get to start fresh. Every hour you get to start fresh.

Sometimes if I get off track from my schedule and I notice my brain wanting to slip into all or nothing thoughts like, the day is gone. You’ve wasted the entire day. I like to look at the clock and focus on the next 5 or 10 on the clock. For example, if it’s 3:36, I’d be looking to 3:40. If it’s 4:02, I think ahead to 4:05. And I give myself those couple of minutes to let my brain have a toddler tantrum, and then I start fresh on that five or ten on the clock. I tell myself, let’s start fresh at 3:40. Let’s start fresh at 4:05.

All Or Nothing Habits

The third area where I see this come up has to do with exercise or any other kind of habit based goal. So, if exercise doesn’t resonate with you, it might be some other sort of goal that you want to follow through on regularly. But since exercise is such a familiar one, I’ll use that as our example.

So when we think about the black or white, all or nothing, on or off approach to exercise, it usually looks something like: I need to exercise every day or I need to do an intense workout at least five days a week. Or I don’t do it at all. Or I set a routine for myself, and if I miss one day, then it’s all over.

I notice the latter example happen a lot with people who follow specific programs. Maybe it’s a two week program, a 30 day program, 60 day program, etc. If they miss a day or a handful of days, they tell themselves they must start over from the beginning. And since the brain doesn’t like the idea of starting all the way over, it’s easy to slide into the nothing category. It’s easy to talk ourselves into: I totally messed up, what’s the point in continuing?

And of course, in terms of exercise there may be some safety in regard to not going at as high of an intensity if you did take some time off from a routine. But I would question whether it has to be all or nothing. Do you really have to start back at day 1 and start the whole thing again? Is this actually true? I’m not sure.

One of the thoughts that I practice over and over whenever I’m establishing a new habit whether it’s health related or not was introduced to me by the host of the productivity show Tam pham. And he practices the thought, “don’t skip more than one day.” And I really like this thought because it gives me grace for when things don’t go as planned. For example, it’s my goal to journal or do some writing every day. That’s my objective. But if I miss a day, it’s not the end of the world. I don’t throw in the towel and tell myself I can’t stick to anything, why try. Instead, I remind myself not to skip more than one day.

And you can use this in different ways. Maybe it’s don’t skip more than two days. For example, let’s say rather than the typical black or white, all or nothing, workout-everyday or no days mentality, you instead practice I will move my body for 30 minutes 3 days a week. And I won’t skip more than two days in a row. Or I will workout for 20 minutes five days a week, and I won’t skip more than one day in a row.

Jerry Seinfeld Don’t Break The Chain

Alternatively, I know some of you listeners do thrive on streaks. And in fact, you like the idea of doing something every day because it helps ingrain the habit and it creates a streak you don’t want to break. This is kind of like the Jerry Seinfeld concept of don’t break the chain.

Essentially, he had a goal of writing a new joke every day. And he bought a big wall calendar with the year on it, which he hung up. For each day that he would write a joke, he would put an X on the calendar. And after he had that streak going, not only did he reinforce the habit, but he also felt that desire to not break the chain. You don’t want to miss a day.

So, if that concept resonates with you, maybe the dimmer switch could be on the intensity of exercise. Maybe you do move your body every day, but it doesn’t have to be some crazy long, intense workout every day. In fact, I’m no health expert, but I do know constant intense activity is not great for you. Your body needs rest and recovery. So instead, maybe you have a goal of closing your move rings every day on your Apple Watch or reaching a certain number of steps or something like that.

So, if you notice all or nothing thinking in your habits, start playing around with what your dimmer switch could look like. What is some wiggle room or some gray area to give yourself some grace on the days when you’re human is showing and you need a break.

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Goal Setting

The fourth area where I often notice this all or nothing is with goal setting and a focus on your goals. So maybe you’re a person who is super goal driven and everything else falls to the wayside aside from the goal on your mind. Or on the other side, maybe you’re a person who does not set goals whatsoever.

Now, this is an area that could potentially be a little confusing. In other podcasts I’ve talked about the importance of focusing on one goal and constraining your focus to one thing rather than having lots of goals at once. So, you might be thinking to yourself, Paula. You told me to focus on one. Isn’t that all or nothing?

And I suppose in a way it is. But when I talk about the importance of focusing on one main goal, the brain often wants to jump to the extremes. It wants to think, “so this is all I can do? You mean I can’t focus on anything else? This is the only area where I can spend my time? There’s no way I can do that.” And so, we stop. Or we go all in for about 3 days and realize it’s impossible.  

Now, this kind of intensity is not what I mean by constraining your focus on one goal. That kind of “on or off” thinking is for people who don’t have any other responsibilities or things to think about, which is not the reality for a lot of us. When I recommend constraining your focus to one goal, I mean dedicating your “focus time” each day to that specific goal. In other podcasts I’ve talked about the importance of setting aside focus time – Cal Newport talks about it as deep work. And essentially, this is regular, dedicated time to working on your most important projects and tasks.

For example, if you’re working on a goal for your job, when you have focus time, I recommend focusing intentionally on the specific goal you’ve chosen. That way when you have the time set aside, that’s where you’re putting your focus. You don’t have divided attention amongst 15 different goals. You’re not wasting time spinning out trying to decide what to work on first. Instead, you know exactly what you’re working on because you’ve constrained your focus on one goal, which you work on during your focus time.

The same goes for personal goals. If you want to learn a hobby or you want to gain 5 pounds of muscle, you’d set aside time regularly in your personal hours to that goal so you see continued progress forward.

Beliefs About Ability

And then the 5th and final area where I really notice the all or nothing thoughts come up are our beliefs about ourselves and our abilities. So, this might sound like, “I’m just terrible at… I always do this. I never follow through on… And I can’t ever blah blah blah. I hate it when…” Think about the way you describe yourself ,or your habits, or your abilities. How often do you tell yourself, I never follow through? I’m terrible with time. I never reach my goals. I can’t stay focused. And I never hold myself accountable. I’m always late.

My guess is, it’s pretty often. And if you’ve never stopped to explore this concept, I encourage you to do so. Notice the thoughts you think about yourself. What are you telling yourself over and over?

And if you find you are practicing these all or nothing thoughts about yourself, I encourage you to pause and really question that. Is this thought entirely true? Are you sure? Where is the wiggle room?

Is it true that you always show up late? Is it true that you’ve never reached a goal ever? And is it true that you have never ever followed through or never stayed focused on anything in your life? Of course not. We can disprove each of those beliefs. So, we want to stop telling ourselves those stories.

Not only are they not true, they’re not serving you. So if you notice yourself thinking these all or nothing thoughts about yourself and your abilities, I encourage you to start playing around with some bridge thoughts. If you don’t quite believe thoughts like “I always follow through” “I’m always on time.”  “I’m amazing at scheduling.” Let’s start creating a bridge to get you there. Let’s start practicing thoughts like, “there are times when I stick to my schedule.” “There are times when I follow through.” “I have reached a goal in the past, it’s possible I can do it again.” “I’m learning to better estimate my time.”

I’m telling you, by creating these bridge thoughts that feel a little more believable to you, and practicing them often, you’ll start proving those thoughts true. Not only will you start noticing the shifts in more often because you’re actually looking for them. Meaning, you’ll start noticing yourself on time more often or following through more often because you’re looking for that evidence and what you focus on grows.

And in addition, when you think these newer bridge thoughts, they also feel much different I your body. Remember, our thoughts create our feelings, which create different actions and different results for yourself.

Consider it. If you think to yourself, I can’t stick to a schedule. You probably feel defeated. And when you feel defeated, you probably don’t even create a schedule, which means you have no hope of sticking to a schedule because you don’t even create one in the first place.

But if you think to yourself, I’m learning to stick to a schedule. Maybe you feel open or inquisitive. And when you feel that way, maybe you try a scheduling approach and you follow parts of it. You reflect on where you followed it and where you didn’t and you learn from it and adjust and iterate for the next time. And because you chose a slightly different thought, you created a different result for yourself.


And this is true for all of the examples we’ve looked at today. Whether you are shifting your thoughts about scheduling, habits, your health, working toward goals, or your general beliefs about YOU, it all starts with moving away from the on or off switch and practicing using that dimmer switch. It’s all about finding the beliefs and practices that serve you where you are at and that help you move toward your ultimate goals.

Because when we stay in all or nothing thinking, we close ourselves off to so much. We miss out on opportunities for growth. We miss out on finding the approach that works best for us and our unique circumstances and our unique brains. In fact, one of the most important messages that I stress to my clients is that we want to find the strategies that work best for them. Because we all approach things differently. We all have different brains. We all have different circumstances. And we all work a little bit differently.

By using the dimmer switch approach and reminding ourselves we don’t have to be under one extreme or the other, that’s what allows us to find the solution that works best for us and allows us to create the results that we truly want in our lives.

And if you want to learn how to step out of this all or nothing thinking and learn how to create your own toolkit and set of strategies to work with your brain as you learn how to create a plan, follow through on your schedule, and get things done, I want to invite you to check out my group coaching program We’re Busy Being Awesome. Head to I’m busy being awesome.com/group, you can read more about it there, and add your name to the interest list. You’ll be the first to know when I’m having any special trainings, when the doors open for the next round of the program, and any other details you might need. Again, head to imbusyebeingawesome.com/group

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