This is the next installment of my series on the Top 5 Obstacles to Productivity. All or nothing thinking runs closely behind perfectionism as a major obstacle.
Here are some examples:
- I can’t start on my taxes until I find all my receipts.
- I can’t vacuum the rug because I don’t have time to pull out the furniture and vacuum along the baseboards.
- I can’t reply to that email because I don’t have all the answers, yet.
- I can’t take the bags to Goodwill because there’s still more to de-clutter.
- I can’t start the update on the company website, because I know my boss is going to update her bio.
In some ways, all or nothing thinking is like magical thinking. We’re expecting the world to offer us all the right ingredients at just the right time, so that we can do the most efficient job possible. Unfortunately, life just doesn’t work that way.
For most projects, we can accomplish a significant amount of work, even if we are lacking some information or other necessary materials. Does it mean that we might need to do it in multiple work sessions instead of all at once? Probably. Does it mean some things might not be as efficient as we’d like? Probably. Let’s look at two scenarios:
Darren knew he needed to migrate the company database to a different platform. He also knew that one of the data fields needed some work before it could be migrated, and another co-worker, who was currently on his honeymoon, was responsible for getting that data field updated. Whenever Darren thought about working on the project, he talked himself out of it, with the rationale that he would wait until his co-worker returned and did the updates, so that he could do everything all at once.
The burden of getting the data migrated was hanging over Darren’s head. It caused him stress and he wouldn’t let himself start on any other big projects. The data migration was a high priority, and he couldn’t justify getting started on anything else. Instead, he found “busy work” to keep himself occupied. By the time Darren’s co-worker returned, his boss was adding new projects and wanted updates on the current ones. Darren had little to report. He pulled an all-nighter to get the data migrated, took a quick nap in the morning, and then began catching up on his other projects. He was still exhausted and couldn’t focus well. He saved his work to the wrong folder and when his boss asked again to see his progress, Darren couldn’t find the file.
Now let’s look at how that could have gone:
Although Darren knew that he would need to go back and spend some extra time migrating the last batch of data, he went ahead and migrated everything else while his co-worker was still away. While awaiting his co-worker’s return, he started work on his other projects.
Once Darren’s co-worker returned and updated the last bit of data, it took Darren an extra hour to get the last batch migrated over. He also had to replicate some earlier steps, but having done it once before, it went smoothly and easily. When he finished, he felt very satisfied with a job well done. He was also glad to be caught up on his other projects, and able to take on new assignments without stress.
Moving Beyond All or Nothing Thinking
In the world of all or nothing thinking, “nothing” seems to happen a lot more often than “all.” Here are some questions to ask, when you know you won’t be able to accomplish the “all.”
- How can I work toward my goal, even if I can’t finish it?
- Will doing this little bit of work make the situation better, even if it’s not ideal?
- Will doing this little bit of work prepare me to take advantage of any opportunities that may come my way?
- Could doing a little bit of work now generate new opportunities?
- Will doing a little bit of work now make it easier to work on other things?
- What are the benefits of having gotten started, even if I don’t know when I can finish?
Working against all or nothing thinking requires a leap of faith. We have to trust that our efforts will be valuable, even if we don’t accomplish 100% of our goal. I’ve noticed that taking this leap of faith often brings good luck. When we just get started, just do what we can, trusting that good will come of it, it usually does! My theory is that just doing something often releases the stuck, stagnant energy, and attracts more positive energy.
Tell me about your experiences letting go of all or nothing thinking. When was the last time you settled for one bird in the hand?