Always and Never: Why Setting Firm Limits Can Change Your Life

firms limits

Are you struggling to make changes in your life?

Perhaps you always start off with good intentions – but slowly, old habits creep back in.

You promise yourself that this week, you’re going to eat healthily – and you do fine on Monday. But on Tuesday, your boss buys donuts for the office, and then on Wednesday, it’s a friend’s birthday party and you just can’t resist that chocolate cake…

If your attempts at change seem to get constantly derailed, then you might want to consider setting some clear, non-negotiable rules.

Setting Firm Limits: Always and Never

Sometimes, it makes good sense to have a very clear limit on what you will (or won’t) do. For instance, your change might look like one of these:

  • Always meditate for 10 minutes before breakfast
  • Always eat at least five portions of fruit & veg a day
  • Never drink alcohol
  • Never smoke

As Oliver Burkeman puts it in This column will change your life: just say no:

For many people, it’s just easier to do things 100% than 98%. That’s the approach of Alcoholics Anonymous: once you’ve decided to stop drinking completely – or never bring work home, or go for a daily run […] – you needn’t waste time or energy weighing the merits of each potential exception, because there aren’t any.

Of course, you need to make firm rules that will actually work. “Eat healthily every day” probably won’t – it’s too vague. “Only eat dessert at the weekend” or “Have a salad every day at lunch” is a much clearer rule to stick to.

When Firm Limits Trip You Up

While these rules work for some people, and for some situations, they’re not always the best idea.

If you’re someone who tends to lapse into all-or-nothing thinking, then you might find that one small slip throws you totally off-track.

For instance, if you tell yourself you’ll never smoke another cigarette and then you have one at a party, you might give up on quitting smoking altogether. If you say you’ll only snack on fruit, and then end up raiding the office cookie jar, you might ditch that diet completely.

You may find that it helps to set a small “must-do” target (then anything extra is a bonus). For instance, if you never manage to stick to your five-a-day for more than a week at a time, you might aim to have at least three portions of fruit and veg every day instead. If you can manage more on a particular day, great; even if you only hit three, you’ll still feel good about reaching your target.

Don’t be over-ambitious in the goals and limits that you set for yourself. It’s much better to make steady, consistent progress towards one goal than to throw yourself headlong towards five – only to end up quitting them all.

Your Turn: What Will You Always or Never Do?

If you’re struggling with a particular change right now, what firm limit could you set?

It might look like one of these:

  • Always get out of bed before 8.00am on week-days
  • Always eat a piece of fruit with my breakfast
  • Never open my inbox before 10.00am
  • Never drink alcohol on week-nights

Try coming up with a rule today (even just a small one) and stick to it all week. See whether it makes a difference to how much progress you make towards your goal.

If you want, share your “always” or “never” with us in the comments below. And if you have a success story (or a bad experience!) to tell us about, let us know that too.

Photo by Angelo González

15 thoughts on “Always and Never: Why Setting Firm Limits Can Change Your Life”

  1. I used to be like this for years, especially with diet. If I went a tiny bit of my plan I’d cancel it and start again the following Monday.

    I learned just to do the first 5 minutes of something, say running, and you find the motivation to go longer.

    1. I never go to a fast food restaurant no matter how famished I think I feel. I would rather snack on carrots or other snack-able vegetables that I always have on hand. That way I am sustained until I can prepare a satisfying nutritious meal. I did the same for my child while she was growing up as well. So many parents hit the fast food drive through because of tight schedules, but a little bit of foresight and time in the kitchen one can create travel snacks for their kids that could last for an entire week.

      1. Jamie, I think the all-or-nothing mindset is especially common with dieting … I’m not sure why, but it’s so easy to think “Oh, I’ve spoiled my diet now, I might as well give up.”

        Lori, great tips on healthy snacking on the move, thanks!

  2. i strongly agree with you Ali
    when i don’t follow the limits i set i realize that i waste lots of time
    happy to see your post here

  3. The disadvantage of an “always-and-never-appoach” is that it might discourage people to do it at all. Little steps of change may not evoke so much resistance. I have reduced the amount fo sugar per cup of tea little by little from one full teaspoon to just a dash of sugar, but I still need this little dash.

    1. This is indeed a disadvantage, Olaf; I don’t think “always or never” works in every single situation (and an “all or nothing” mindset can become problematic). I do think that in at least some cases, though, setting firm limits is a useful tool.

  4. I really like the specificity of this technique, such as having at least three servings of fruit each day. It’s something attainable not only in the mind but easily actionable in reality. So many of us, including myself in the past, have taken the “all or nothing approach” and for me it doesn’t work.

    I like the gradual steps to becoming the envisioned self or attaining a specific goal. When you change everything overnight it doesn’t usually prove successful, at least that’s what I’ve noticed happens for most people. I often compare it to running when I’m working with people and helping them realize what they’re really doing. It’s like they’ve never run before and decide to do a marathon the next day, the results won’t be pretty. There’s an occasional exception, but training or gradual change proves the most positive. Especially with specific goals to gradually build upon.

    Love this post Ali!



    1. Thanks, James! I definitely think small targets are crucial here.

      I agree with you: I think a small minority of people *do* thrive on a “change everything overnight” approach … perhaps especially when there’s a specific crisis (like a medical emergency) which prompts them to overhaul their life. The vast majority of us, though, do better with a steady step-by-step approach.

  5. Very interesting post. I think if we are looking for long lasting change, it’s better to start small and build momentum. It will be better for our motivation, as we see small results add up and the challenge in the beginning is fairly low.

    Of course that means shedding the idea that changes can happen overnight. :)

  6. Hi Ali,
    Thanks for the great post! Agree that setting firm limits does discipline us to keep off bad habits. In addition to what was being mentioned, would like to add on an important point- How to motivate oneself to sustain the changes. One effective way derived from research in cognitive and educational psychology is to reward oneself for a job done well. At every milestone when small success are achieved, give yourself a special treat. It could be a latte, go to a movie you have been wanting to see, ask your partner to take you out to dinner, and etc. It really doesn’t matter what you feel is an adequate reward for yourself, as long as you do give yourself a treat. This will motivate you to stick to your commitment and make a difference in your life! :)

  7. Great post as usual Ali. I like a modified all or nothing approach. I will absolutely work out 3 days per week, never 2 days in a row. I leave myself the flexibility of choosing the specific days. Makes it seem more manageable to me. Jamie made a great point, just getting started is 80 % of the battle.

  8. I agree and disagree. While I think this post has a lot of information I can use to help me reach my goals, I also think that setting things as always and never can be as potentially dangerous as being too flexible. It all depends on context.

    For instance, always doing something that harms another because it benefits you would be a very bad rule (at least, for the general well-being of humanity as a species). But always helping the old lady pick up any fallen groceries would be a good one (again, for the general well-being of humanity as a species).

    I’m just saying that always and never can be used negatively just as much as it can be used positively. So flexibility is still needed in life, just so you can weigh the benefits and rewards of any given action.

    It’s funny, but I think my point is that we should be both flexible and inflexible. Flexible in looking at things from an overall perspective, but inflexible in going against certain beneficial rules. A sense of balance is probably the most important thing in this matter. Which, I’ve noticed, most of us lack. As you said, most people think very all-or-nothing, myself included. When, in truth, we need to approach things in a more Goldilocks sort of way: Not too little, not too much, but, instead, find the just right.

    Anyway, great post. Provided some awesome insights for me. I’m sorry that I had to point out the flaws in your argument, but my natural inclination is to analyze everything for potential benefits and consequences (I call it the risk ratio), and I couldn’t resist pointing out my findings. Hope you have a great day, and that I haven’t hurt your feelings! And thanks for taking the time to publish this great post!

  9. Best advice that can be given for goal setting and accomplishment.

    I feel the same that most of the goals just fail because of “always” or “never” thinking.
    It doesn’t matter how small thing you decide to do (like taking an apple daily), what matters is you are doing it regularly and setting small goals are really helpful for that.

    Thanks for the post!

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