All or Nothing, or Always Something?

01 September 2022
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Often, when we strive to achieve a fitness goal (or any goal for that matter), a common cognitive distortion arises known as "all or nothing" or polarised thinking. Essentially, this can be defined as a black and white method of thinking: the belief that something must be fully initiated or engaged in, otherwise, it’s not going to have an impact. Some common examples might be, "I have to eat perfectly, otherwise, I’m wasting my time," or, "If I miss a day at the gym, then I’ve ruined my week." The issue with All or Nothing thinking is that the overwhelming majority of cases will yield the "Nothing" side of the equation.

You’ll find that this type of thinking can seep into nearly every element of day-to-day living. Remember, if you’re struggling with this, there’s a likelihood that your clients will be too.

Navigating Issues with Clients

There are a few tools that Personal Trainers can use to help navigate these issues with their clients. These tools are relatively simple in practice but have well-grounded validity from areas such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, disciplines that align themselves with Personal Training and other coaching practices. While these disciplines are commonly practised by professionals in the field of Clinical Psychology and can only be comprehensively applied by these professionals, getting a grip on the fundamentals of these disciplines is well within the scope of what you can do as a Trainer. They also provide a handy approach when you’re looking to improve on your own training and life goals.

One powerful method of overcoming and addressing this issue is “The Dial of Action.” This approach allows you to investigate what your aims might look like if they were turned down a notch (or up a notch, for that matter).

One powerful method of overcoming and addressing this issue is “The Dial of Action.” This approach allows you to investigate what your aims might look like if they were turned down a notch (or up a notch, for that matter).

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Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

The Dial of Action is a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and it’s something that you as an up-and-coming personal trainer can use with your clients to impressive effect. It addresses the actions that you do to achieve your goal, often referred to as goal-directed activity or goal-directed behaviour. It helps us by laying out these actions in more detail, so we can get a better grip on how they fit with what is or isn’t realistic in your life.

The Dial of Action places your goal-directed actions on a spread of 10, where 10/10 is the biggest, hardest action you could do toward your goal, and 1/10 is the easiest action, the activity you could complete in five minutes or less.

Would it be fair to say that often we strive to constantly hit 10/10? That 10/10 is expected to be an operating norm? Or at least that we have high expectations about things that are important to us? It often slides under the radar that expecting to hit the gym 5-6 times a week is actually an enormous commitment, or that being in a calorie deficit every day of the week (good on those who are reading their course content) is really, REALLY hard. And remember, if you find it hard, how about your client? 

Once our goal-directed actions are outlined across this spread of 10, you can see what your actions could look like if you’re having one of those bad days; you know, the one where you drop your phone down the toilet or every second word typed up on your laptop is misspelled.

Goal Directed Actions

If your goal is to build muscle and strength, and a goal-directed action is to hit the gym six times a week, how about we agree that six times in the gym is a 10/10 action? Perhaps, then, getting to the gym once per week could be your 1/10. Maybe getting to the gym three times could be your 5/10, or getting to the gym twice and going for a walk is your 4/10. You can fill in the blanks yourself.

One of the underpinning factors of success in any particular goal or learning experience is consistency. Being able to repeat small actions on a regular basis not only fortifies our ability to do them but also elicits positive emotion. It makes us feel good about doing something toward our goals. More often than not, despite popular belief, it is the smaller activities that more reliably engage in this process as opposed to the larger, more challenging tasks; the constant collection of low-hanging fruit, as opposed to trying to cross the mountains.

A good way of navigating the dial of action is to start by configuring which actions sit well with the other demands in your day/week. If you have a span of free time in front of you, perhaps it is a good time to work on something that is more challenging and higher on the scale. If your week is looking like a traffic jam of commitments, then striving to work on what’s possible in two minutes is a perfectly sufficient response. We can usually break these two varying responses into the previously mentioned analogies, “low hanging fruits,” and “mountain moving.” Each day you could work on one or two low-hanging fruit, and over the course of a week, you could choose one mountain to move. 

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Turn "All or Nothing" into "Always Something"

Over time, you’ll begin to realise that you will have your own unique ability and tolerance when working in this fashion. You’ll have a grounded, more field-tested understanding of where your limits lie for the day and what’s possible for the week, instead of what you “should” or “ought” to be doing. It will feel more practical and applicable to goal setting as opposed to grasping at straws

This way of thinking allows us to turn "All or Nothing" into "Always Something". It changes our perspective on expectations toward actions, makes room for reality in our schedule and gives us options when we’re in a bind. It also allows us to build resiliency and habit by simply doing “something” at the right time. Something you can build upon. We can’t be perfect all the time, so perhaps it’s best if we establish plans that cater for that. Try it for your own goals and see if it shifts your approach.

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