Figure Out If You’re An Abstainer Or Moderator To Manage Your Good And Bad Habits

One of the focuses (focii?) of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project is figuring out how to break bad habits and moderate indulgences. Yesterday on the project’s blog, she talked about two different ways to manage temptations: Abstaining and moderating.

She describes author Delia Ephron as a “Moderator”: When she goes to bakeries, for example, she can take a few bites of whatever she buys, get bored with it, and throw the rest away (Ephron’s husband has named this “Discardia”). Moderators can indulge a little bit at a time, but they panic if they’re told that they absolutely can’t have something. Rubin describes herself, on the other hand, as an Abstainer: Abstainers have a hard time stopping once they’ve started, but find it easy to just totally cut themselves off from something, too.

When I read this, I thought, “Oh, I’m neither, I’m just an indulger,” but then I realized that that’s really only with baked goods (which is the way she framed this blog post). I won’t be moderate with baked goods and I won’t cut them out, either. I WILL HAVE ALL THE CAKE. But if you conceptualize it as a sort of life tool, it becomes clear that you probably are more one than the other. All the Frisky staffers figured which one they were pretty immediately. I’m an abstainer. I am much happier just not doing something at all than doing just a little bit of it. Go hard or go home, bro. This means that abstinence is a double-edged sword, of course: You can totally cut something out of your life, but on the other hand, the things you do, you’re going to do hardcore. I run a 5k, it’s not enough, so I enter the marathon. [I would consider myself a Moderator in most things, but an Abstainer when it comes to exercise. — Amelia]

It makes me think that maybe our entire idea of developing self-control as a virtue of character is wrong. If people tend to either be able to do things in pieces, or do things in an all-or-nothing way, there really isn’t any such thing as “self-control.” The only control we can exert is what activities we choose to do or not as abstainers, or what activities we choose to moderate as moderators. And that’s not an issue of character virtue, it’s an issue of honing our skill to judge what actions are best for us. So it may be worth it for me, as an abstainer, to go all-in on my artistic projects or on fitness — constructive parts of my life that I enjoy – but to abstain from having a very active social life, something I find needlessly stressful. Then, too, it can help to organize the way you spend money: Buying $50 of art supplies, sure. Spending $50 at a bar, no.

Then, when I don’t abstain — say, from food — I don’t need to chide myself for not having enough self-control, because it’s not an issue of self-control: I have decided that eating delicious food is in the interest of my mental health. I’ve decided to say “I will only eat desserts that are scratch-made by a local bakery from here on out” instead of saying “I will not eat desserts.” It ends up being a way to moderate my indulgences either way, in the end. Habit management for the win!

Moderators, on the other hand, can ask themselves, “What needs to be moderated in my life and what doesn’t?” So maybe you shop for clothes you don’t necessarily need, but you set a monthly budget for it and only go once a month. You cultivate good habits in bits and pieces like you moderate your bad habits down in bits and pieces.

Obviously it’s not hard science, but it might be a useful way to frame your life stressors in order to organize and prioritize them.

[The Happiness Project]

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