motivation

Moderation Versus All or Nothing

I am not, in many ways, a moderate person. If I want something in my life then I really want it. And if I don’t, I really don’t.Certainly this is true for exercise. I’d find it hard to maintain a three times a week, 30 min, gym experience. Much harder than what I do now. Really.

And when there is something that’s okay in small doses, not large, I’ll often choose to quit entirely rather than struggle. It feels liberating. You know those people who can smoke 6 cigarettes a month? I’m not one of them. Almost three years ago now I quit drinking and it’s been a very positive change in my life and it felt right right from the start. I’m much more relaxed not having to work to be a moderate about alcohol. I don’t ever want to go back to drinking. Ditto television. I would have been happy watching one or two hours a week of commercial TV but I never did. I watched a lot more, missed out on reading fiction and exercising, and so we got rid of our television. It felt good though now we watch movies and tv series on netflix and seem to be able to keep it in control. I had a similar experience when I quit eating meat for ethical reasons. I wasn’t so much bothered by killing humanely farmed animals–it was animal suffering not animal killing I cared about–but I knew if I started to make exceptions, given my aversion to asking hard questions in restaurants, I’d soon be eating factory farmed meat again. Now I find the idea of eating animals repulsive through and through and I don’t worry about my choices.  But when I became a vegetarian I drew the line in a place that was easy for me to maintain.

Food though is tricky. You can’t just quit eating. Our bodies need food to move, to build muscle, to repair themselves. Mostly I’m happy with the way that I eat. Love food and love my choices but I still struggle with amounts, particularly with foods that are just treats, that don’t add a lot of nutritional value to my life, foods that are just for pleasure and taste. Abandoning chocolate and cookies and cake seems extreme but I’m not a moderate, see above. I am going to try making some rules around treat foods, the way I used to do with alcohol. You know, I drink a day, or in this case 1 treat food a day. Or just weekends. Or holidays and special occasions Let’s see if I can make principled moderation work in this case. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Gretchen Rubin author of the Happiness Project thinks that people just have different temperament when it comes to making change in our lives. Some of of us are moderators and others are abstainers. She writes:

“A piece of advice I often see is, “Be moderate. Don’t have ice cream every night, but if you try to deny yourself altogether, you’ll fall off the wagon. Allow yourself to have the occasional treat, it will help you stick to your plan.” I’ve come to believe that this is good advice for some people: the “moderators.” They do better when they try to make moderate changes, when they avoid absolutes and bright lines. For a long time, I kept trying this strategy of moderation – and failing. Then I read a line from Samuel Johnson: “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” Ah ha! Like Dr. Johnson, I’m an “abstainer.” I find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. When I admitted to myself that I was eating my favorite frozen “fake food” treat, Tasti D-Lite, two and even three times a day, I gave it up cold turkey. That was far easier for me to do than to eat Tasti D-Lite twice a week. If I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count?’” etc. If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control.”

Oh, and you can take Gretchen Rubin’s quiz, Are you a Moderator or an Abstainer, When Trying to Give Something Up?, here.

11 thoughts on “Moderation Versus All or Nothing

  1. I’m absolutely fascinated by self-control as a concept. I’ve always been that person who can easily have a bag of chips or chocolate in the house and eat a bit of it when I feel like it. I guess that makes me moderate (or an intuitive eater?); it does not take me any more effort to do this. I totally understand the ‘it is just easier not to think about it’ concept too — and it works for me in so many other areas for the same reason: exercise, writing, not watching tv. I’ve often wondered if self-control can be taught? is it like resilence? can certain things help foster self-control?

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  2. I love this post because so much of it reflects areas where we are exactly the same. Moderating sweet treats is hard. I found that the only time I had an easy time with sweets was when I gave them up entirely for a full year. After about 3-4 weeks it was simple–as with alcohol and animal products, they were just something that I automatically said “no thank you” to, without having to think about it. But then I “picked up” again and I have never been able to get back on the wagon with sweets. And though I love them and can occasionally moderate, in general I always feel a little bit out of control when I am around sweets or anticipating being around them. Let us know how it goes! I feel that I myself am not far from having to abstain again.

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  3. Re. Jessica — I think this goes a bit to why I am unsure it’s all about quantity. I probably look like a moderator from the outside (can have chocolate in the house without eating it all at one go and am able actually to forget it’s there for periods of time). But for me it’s just that I feel I eat sweets a bit more often than I want to eat them. So my need for moderation isn’t so much in quantity but in frequency, if that makes sense.

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