Overcoming Anxiety with a Binary Mindset: A Tip From an Imperfectionist

As you may or may not know, I suffer from anxiety/panic disorder. It’s gotten a lot better since I moved home from Korea, but it hasn’t gone away, and it was really difficult the first few weeks after it started.

In the early days of my recovery, I read the book How to Be an Imperfectionist, and though the book is full of good advice, there was one tip that really stood out in my mind as something useful for people dealing with anxiety*.

Stephen Guise, the author of HTBAI, dealt with pretty crippling anxiety in his time, so he knows where he’s coming from when he says that perfectionism is a major cause of anxiety. Socially anxious people are more concerned than anyone else about a social interaction; they want it to go perfectly, and may or may not imagine all the things that could go wrong. If they do end up at the party or talking with that person, and it doesn’t go perfectly (and it won’t, because we’re humans on earth), then the person walks away feeling like a failure.

Enter the Binary Mindset

Guise says that decreasing a fear of making mistakes begins with a shift in your perspective.

He starts by talking computer lingo, but don’t worry, it’s stuff we all know; 0 and 1. Computers speak it. He goes on to talk about digital vs analog information. Digital information is finite and defined, and analog is more of a spectrum. Guise says we need to adopt the binary or digital mindset in order to overcome fear of failure.

He gives a lot of good examples, but the basic idea boils down to this; in a digital or binary task, you either succeed or you don’t. There’s no gradient of success. You flip a switch. It’s either “on” or it’s “off.” The focus is on if you take the action, not how well you do.

Contrast that with the analog idea of a task like a speech; you won’t fail absolutely 100% but you probably won’t be completely flawless either. You fall somewhere on a spectrum.

The trick is to make as many tasks binary as possible, including ones we normally put on a spectrum (like speeches).

Reimagine your speech. Instead of aiming for 100% flawless delivery, which is pretty much impossible, instead decide that getting up on stage and giving the speech is a success; a 1. That’s it. You can make all kinds of mistakes and still consider it a success because you did it. You redefined success and put it in a binary position.

Let’s extrapolate. You want to go to a party. Before, in your analog state, you would want the party to be fun the whole time, you wouldn’t want any awkward time drifting between friends, and you would want to be witty and charming when you were talking. Anything other than that is some kind of failure, and your night (especially for an anxious person) is ruined. Or it doesn’t exist because you’re too psyched out to go.

Now, redefine that in binary. If you go to the party, it’s a 1 – success. If you don’t go, it’s a 0 – fail. No matter what happens at the party, if you go, you have succeeded. So let’s say you go, and it’s okay, and you leave early when you get tired, but you went. Success!

As I’ve talked about a lot with every book of Guise’s, the idea is to build up a mental stronghold of success. If you keep succeeding, you enter a positive feedback loop that will help your mental state. Likewise, if you keep failing (in your mind), you enter a negative feedback loop where you are more likely to fail the more you fail because you are used to and expect failure.

I’d rather get used to successes, even small ones.

Personal Experience

I tried this immediately after reading about it. I redefined anything I could as a 1/0 situation. When I went to the doctor for the first time after coming back to America and getting healthcare, I wasn’t sure what would happen. I might have my insurance rejected, or have to pay a lot more than I was expecting, or the doctor would find something wrong with me, or the medicine might be expensive…there was a large spectrum of things that could go wrong.

But instead of thinking of all of those things, I said that if I drove myself to the doctor, it was a success. Even if my insurance somehow had messed up and they didn’t take it. The only way to fail was to not go.

I went. It went well. Yes, there was some back and forth over insurance (isn’t there always), but I was able to talk to my doctor and got good results. But the point is that even if I hadn’t gotten good results, it would have been a success.

I did the same thing with pretty much every social encounter as well; something that’s tough on an introvert with anxiety. If I did the thing, it was a 1, no matter how it went. D&D session wasn’t quite what I’d hoped? I went, so it was a success! Got super tired after talking with a friend? I did it, so it was a success!

This sort of mindset has been hugely helpful so far. I mean, it’s changed how I view everything. Of course it hasn’t taken the anxiety away, and it doesn’t mean I float through life like a butterfly, but it does mean I realize that situations are up to me to control. I define success on my terms, and if I can define it so I will succeed, so much the better.

The binary mindset. It’s the bee’s knees, y’all.



*Disclaimer: if you do have depression, anxiety, or have suffered trauma or abuse, this sort of advice will only do so much. I always encourage you to see a doctor or psychiatrist first. They are trained professionals. The advice I give on this blog is more general. 🙂

How To Be An Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise: Book Review

How to Be an Imperfectionist. The title alone catches the eye.

Many people, myself included, struggle with being a perfectionist. But we don’t struggle hard enough to get over it. I’ve read a lot of self-improvement books over the years, and sometimes they’ll mention how perfectionism is the enemy of success and so on, but NO book has addressed how to overcome it as thoroughly or as practically as Stephen Guise‘s latest.

Guise’s books are, above all, practical. How to Be an Imperfectionist gives the reader a lot of information; in the first section, Guise outlines what perfectionism really is, including the various studies over the years on how it affects us. In the second section, Guise goes over how to be an imperfectionist in the five areas people are usually a perfectionist in. The final chapter is the application guide, where he revisits every technique and tip in an easy to access manner. One chapter to sum everything up. It’s great because it means you don’t have to keep going back to each section to pick out the tips.

The reason I loved this book so much was how practical it was. I’m going to keep saying this. A lot of books are feel-good, motivating type books that do get me to jump up and start working, but those books rarely have any sticking power. They don’t keep me thinking long after my initial jump of joy has come back down to earth. This book has sticking power.

Are You a Perfectionist?

“Life is not a one-way, single-lane road. It’s a sprawling, free-for-all field. […] The assumption of the perfectionist is that there is a golden path and that no other way will suffice.”

I can’t work out now, I’m tired. I don’t have my gym clothes. People will laugh. I can’t publish a book. I’ve never done it before. It’s not even that good. It’s too similar to that other book. No one will read it. I don’t know how to market. I don’t want to travel for book signings.

Sound familiar? We always assume we don’t do something we want to do because the circumstances aren’t right, or whatever other fear is present. We assume there’s a right (perfect) way for us to do something, and we often won’t even try anything else. But like Guise says above, it’s a free-for-all. No one is you. No one has lived your life. And there is no perfect path. There’s just the field, and the flag at the other end. How you get there, and how long you take, doesn’t matter.

Perils of Inaction

“Unequivocally, the worst choice is inaction. Perfectionists often choose inaction because, with an infinite number of possible paths, finding the perfect one is difficult to figure out.”

This sounds a lot like choice paralysis (analysis paralysis), the inability to decide when faced with too many options. There are great studies out there about flavors of chips and jams and brands of toothpaste, but I’m sure you’ve felt this at some point. Maybe it was when picking a major, or your first job, or an internship, or even something like what book to read first, what TV show to watch first. We assume that gathering more information to make a more informed choice makes us more logical and successful, and up to a point that’s true. You shouldn’t buy a car without some research. But too much deliberation means you will never take the action, and for the fledgling novelist or gym-hopeful, inaction just means time you aren’t working on your dream.

Choice paralysis is often caused by our perception of opportunity cost, meaning the cost of following one particular course of action over all others. As in, if I make the choice to buy this car, I am making the choice NOT to buy all the other cars, and often that can feel heavy. Guilt-ridden. Especially when the cars are very nearly identical in so many ways.

Or when choosing a major, meaning you are NOT choosing all the other majors (unless you double or triple up, which can lead to burnout and all kinds of other problems). Or when choosing to work out, you are choosing NOT to spend time with family, or writing your screenplay, or hanging out with friends, or playing video games, or literally anything else. The more options we have in our mind when making a choice, the more expensive the opportunity cost, and the more paralyzed we might feel.

It’s tough. I know it well. It can be damn near impossible to live that way.

The Solutions

Many of the solutions to perfectionism are a shift in mindset, Guise notes. I agree. More has been helped in my life by changing my outlook on life – pessimism to optimism, fixed to growth, controlled to controller, mindless to mindful – than by anything else. No class will make you smarter unless you believe you can get smarter. No doctor will heal you unless you believe you can be healed.

One of the main takeaways for me from the book was to “change what you care about,” as in, “don’t care about the results, care about the process,” and the tip I mentioned in another post, “don’t care so much about your anxious thoughts and feelings (let them be and don’t fight them).”

Other tips include; changing your expectations to generally high and specifically low. Meaning, overall you’re optimistic about your life and interactions but aren’t too chuffed about the outcome of a specific project, paper, or conversation.

One I love – what he calls lowering the bar – ties into his previous book, Mini-Habits. If you lower your bar for what you consider a success, you will have more success, which causes a positivity loop in the brain, leading you to more success, and so on.  A great cycle to be in.

Another solution is understanding chance and failure action; this took me by surprise, honestly. I’ve read probably hundreds of self-help books by now, and none of them have mentioned something like this. It’s so simple too, it almost makes me angry so many people are stumped by it. Chance vs failure means to reflect on something that went wrong and decide whether it was really up to you or not to determine the success. Got an F on a paper even though you worked your ass off? The grade was up to the teacher, not you. Wrote a book that flopped? The writing was up to you (congrats on getting it published, yay!), but the response was up to the public. Didn’t get the raise you wanted? It’s up to your boss.

Care about the process, not the results, especially when you aren’t in charge of them. Failure actions are actions that you do directly influence. Didn’t chat up the cute person at the cafe? Your fault. Misspelled a word? Your fault. Try another strategy next time. When you fail, you learn. Fail better next time. And the next. And keep failing forward.

Other tips deal with the need for approval, ruminating over the past, changing self-talk, and more. Seriously, this book covers all bases.

(There’s one particular tip that I’m going to go into in another post because I want to explore it fully and in relation to anxiety; the binary mindset. Wait for it!)

But I’ll say for now that changing how your mind works, including how you see failures and successes, makes a huge difference in what you do and produce. And that’s what most of us want, right?

We want to write that book, make that product, get fit, sell that idea, act in that thing…and perfectionism, in one of its many forms, stops us.

This book will help you overcome it. If you follow the advice. You can’t just read it and not do what it says. Medicine is for taking, not for looking at.

Please buy this book and read it, cover to cover and over again. I know too many people who need this book and its advice. I did. I still do. I read it only two weeks ago and I already need to reread it.

I hope you will read it. Honestly. If I could send this book to every person on the planet to read, I would.

If you do read it, let me know what you think!


*Quotes from How to Be an Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise. Stephen, if you ever read this, thank you for this book. You’ve quite likely saved my life.

See Also:

The Paradox of Choice

Diminishing Returns

The Pareto Principle