Summer is on its way and that often means that schedules become busier and there just never seem to be enough hours in the day to run errands, get kids to numerous activities and maintain household tasks, all while trying to have fun and enjoy the nice weather. As times get busier, you might find yourself turning towards “to-do” lists more often. “To-do” lists are a great way to try and manage the controlled chaos that is life at times. I personally live by these types of lists for chores, packing or just tasks that I may be trying to put off. The satisfaction that comes from crossing off a task or item on a list is one of life’s little victories. 

Personally and professionally, I am a big advocate for such lists that help us feel like we are on top of our days and ready to prioritize. I will often encourage clients to itemize lists and prioritize to help manage feelings of stress or being overwhelmed. However, I also personally and professionally have experienced some anxiety directly connected with creating lists and then the pressure to feel like a certain number of tasks have to be completed within an unreasonable time frame. The lists that once were meant to make us feel accomplished and organized have now flipped the switch and left us feeling defeated. I address these concerns with clients and within myself by discussing “all or nothing” mentality. 

“All or nothing” mentality simply put is misconception in our mind. We feel as if one mistake or missed task is a black mark on the day and the day is ruined or we make one mistake within a relationship or friendship and feel as if we are the worst person ever. Key words like “never”, “always” “every” are a few identifiers that our thinking is a bit too large for a situation and may need to be scaled back a bit. For me personally, I catch myself doing this most often with the ever popular “to-do” list! Looking at a “to-do” list on a Saturday at home might as well be a detailed itinerary for my day because if I don’t complete a task, I feel like the entire day is a waste (or so I feel.) Catching ourselves when we apply this type of thinking to our everyday life is the first way we can work through it.

Keeping with the theme of being busy and creating “to-do” lists, the best thing we can do for ourselves is pick one task to start and only do that until completion. That doesn’t mean trying to do 4 tasks at once or constantly checking the list to see if a task magically crossed itself off. We then can get caught up and ruminate on all we have yet to do, rather than taking it task by task and focusing only on that one. When we take a list or a large task and break it down into “small bites”, it becomes more manageable and easy to pick apart. I often challenge myself and others with the pizza metaphor, because who doesn’t love a good pizza metaphor?! We wouldn’t pull a hot pizza from the oven and shove it all in our mouth to eat it! We would cut it up to squares or triangles (whatever be your pizza preference) and we would put enough on our plate and then return for more as we want. We sit and focus on what is on our plate in front of us and don’t keep going back to what’s left and thinking about that too. Only when we are done do we get more.

Seems obvious right? So why do we let “all or nothing” thinking take such control over us? I think it is because we think we will feel more prepared or accomplished for the day if we look at it big picture and try to anticipate how the day will go. In theory, that sounds great! However, what we are doing when we think this way is laying the ground work for anxiety, worry and stress to creep in and eventually defeat us later that day. The more we look at a long “to-do” list and psych ourselves out, the more we get frustrated before even beginning and then want to give up and convince ourselves that we will “just do it tomorrow” because it now seems to be just too much.

“All or nothing” thinking is common and very manageable, we just have to recognize when we do it. Are you able to think of other areas in your life where “all or nothing” can be applied? Recognize those areas and then break them apart and only take a few pieces of that pizza at a time.

Jordan Martin, is an individual and family therapist at Lakes Center for Youth & Families.

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