When Sinatra crooned “All or Nothing at All” with Tommy Dorsey’s band, it was romantic. Hey, I fell for it, too, and like many of my clients, applied the same OCD principle to other areas of my life. Until I finally realized…it wasn’t working. I’ll admit, a certain amount of obsessive compulsion makes the world go around. It fuels the kind of persistence needed to make things happen.
But for people who are obsessive compulsive about their obsessive compulsion, it’s just not a very good long game strategy. “All or nothing” is another term for perfectionism, and perfectionism is a really just an excuse to do nothing.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had clients blame their bad results on perfectionism. They have one little slip-up and instead of getting right back in the saddle, they use their perfectionism to justify a landslide. So one Oreo turns into twenty. One chip turns into the whole bag. One French fry becomes the entire plate. “You see, I’m an all or nothing kind of person”, they brag, as if it’s some kind of badge of honor. It’s not. It’s an honorable sounding reason to be lazy. You’ve already set yourself up for failure because who can be perfect all the time for the rest of their lives? No one.
This is such a common issue among my Type A clients who think they’re taking a macho stance. “I’m so intense, I can’t do anything unless I do it all the way.” It seems like an admirable creed until you realize over the course of a lifetime, it’s not sustainable. It can work for a six-week training camp leading up to fight night, but who can train like that day-in-day-out, for weeks, months, years, decades?
And when applied to exercise, “all or nothing” can be dangerous. On the one hand, people will often use it as an excuse not to exercise. If they can’t do a full hour, forget it—not worth the trouble. Or if they can only do 3 days instead of 5, there’s no point in doing 3. So if they can’t do it “all the way,” hey, guess what? They don’t have to do a damn thing! We all know what kind of metabolic and structural issues this leads to.
While lesser known, the flipside to “nothing” is overtraining, and it can be just as harmful. Earlier in the year the American Journal of Medicine published an article on several cases of rhabdomyolysis, a life threatening condition involving muscle breakdown due to over-exercise—in this case, spinning. In my practice, I see a laundry list of other more common consequences of overtraining as well. Dysbiosis—an imbalance of gut bacteria—is especially common in endurance athletes. It can lead to GI distress, metabolic and immune dysfunction, not to mention adverse effects on body comp. Over-exercise is a stressor to the body, which results in soaring cortisol levels, structural breakdown of muscle and joints, depressed immunity, and mood disorder. So what’s so sexy about going all out all the time?
As I mentioned before, “all or nothing” has its place. It’s good for short term goals, fight camps, bursts of inspiration. But smart athletes have an off season. And they don’t give up when a wrench gets thrown in their plans either. Imagine if one of my fighters quit training camp because he didn’t get his morning run in one day. For my recovering obsessive compulsives—and God knows I’m one of them, too—let’s take that Type A mentality and channel it towards something productive. All my most successful clients have done this. Train smarter, not harder. Work hard at being more forgiving of mistakes while staying the course. Be obsessive compulsive about not being obsessive compulsive.