Are you an abstainer or moderator?

I don’t know if it’s the cold, gray weather outside, the fact that it’s dark before I finish work for the day, or a combination of a million other factors, but I have had very little desire to leave my house this month. When 6:00 pm rolls around, I want to put on a pair of slippers and be a home-body. Forget my friends, I can see them in February … or March … or this summer when I won’t need a coat, boots, and mittens to brave the outdoors.

Monday night, however, I forced myself to go out into the world and see Gretchen Rubin talk about her book The Happiness Project at the Borders in the Friendship Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. I’m glad that I went — I got to see Aviva Goldfarb who is the awesome brain behind The Six O’Clock Scramble, as well as a few Unclutterer fans — and Gretchen’s presentation gave terrific insights into her book.

One of the topics Gretchen discussed was how during her year working on her happiness project, she discovered that she is better at abstaining from an undesirable behavior than she is at moderating it. She says that there are two types of people — abstainers and moderators. Abstainers can easily quit something cold turkey. Moderators can easily reduce the number of times they do something.

I used to be an abstainer, but now I’m a moderator. When I quit smoking in my 20s, I decided one day to do it. I didn’t even smoke a “last cigarette.” I just walked away from it and didn’t think about cigarettes again. Now, if I try to abstain completely from something, my thoughts become obsessed with it. Instead, I am more successful and happy if I impose rules for moderation (for example, my resolution to eat at restaurants twice a week or less).

Which one are you? Are you an abstainer or a moderator?

Knowing which camp you are in can help a great deal with living an uncluttered life. Is there a behavior that is cluttering up your life? To resolve the issue, would you do best by ending it completely or setting moderate limitations?

28 Comments for “Are you an abstainer or moderator?”

  1. posted by Chris Heidel on

    I have never thought about how I deal with these things as a personality type. Wow. I think I am an abstainer first, then can become a moderator, eventually. I got off 8 foods completely for a year. Now I am deliberately adding some back in moderation to make my life easier when I go out while still maintaining my health. I know that this is not something I could have done in the beginning. Had to be cold turkey.

  2. posted by gypsy packer on

    Definitely an abstainer. This may be a socio-economic problem because financially secure families have enough of small luxuries that their offspring will take them in moderation. People reared in financial insecurity may well want “enough” and overindulge as if the next opportunity may be years away. I have tried to break the “nothing succeeds like excess” mentality with little result. Scheduling pastry binges–one every three months–works well with me, where one piece and only one piece, every few days, does not.
    Oddly, I don’t binge on clothing, dustcatchers, or collectibles (except music or books, which are digital).
    I will cop to a solid wall of book and record shelves in my past…

  3. posted by Susan in FL on

    I am an abstainer, but I’m not OC about it. For example, I no longer buy butter or margarine at the grocery store, but if I am in a restaurant or at someone else’s home for a meal, I will eat (and enjoy) it. I no longer smoke (15 years), but I can be in the same room with a smoker and not get bent out of shape about it if they puff one.

  4. posted by Allison Carter on

    I am an abstainer for sure for anything I can do without completely – Cigarettes, doughnuts, garage sales.
    But I moderate if I have to do/have some to exist or make money: eating food, social networking
    Interesting to think about. Thanks for the post.

  5. posted by Sally J. on

    When I quit smoking, I started by moderating a month or two before my quit date. No more smoking in my car, then my apartment, etc. I got down to one very poorly hand rolled cigarette per day (I was in grad school and depended on the nicotine kick for homework) when a helpful nurse suggested a substitute that worked perfectly for me.

    These days I’m trying to use an additive approach — meaning I’m focusing on adding positive behaviors. Like finding more yummy ways to enjoy vegetables rather than forbidding certain foods, which leads to obsession with that exact forbidden food which leads to overindulgence. Followed by guilt. Feh!

  6. posted by Mikey's mom on

    For me, it depends on what it is. For some things, like the candy Swedish Fish, I have to walk away completely. For other things, I can just limit myself. Doesn’t it depend on the value of the thing to you? Don’t some people naturally deeply value few physical items? I with I could value Swedish Fish (or Dots, love those) a little less, but it just isn’t possible for me. Chocolate I can walk away from pretty easily.

  7. posted by Another Deb on

    This will depend on the item in question. If it is food, I would need to abstain on certain items like chocolate or potato chips because if the package is there, I will have all of it in an embarassingly short amount of time.

    I can moderate other things fairly well, TV for instance. Months and years have gone by without it. I’ll put in a DVD for a movie, but to watch a series or to just sit there and let it run is not a draw.

    I weaned myself off soda ten years ago by switching to iced tea and then to water. Recently I have begun having a Sprite in the afternoons and I realize I need to be an abstainer again! That fizzy sugar buzz is too tempting and I do not need those calories!

  8. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Like Mikey’s mom and Another Deb, it depends on the item or activity. I will eat anything that is fried. Tree bark, small bits of brick, anything. So, I have to abstain from fried foods totally, or risk serious dental injury and/or major weight gain.
    With caffeine, I’ve been able to moderate quite successfully, from a high of 12-15 cups of strong black tea daily a year or so ago to 6 cups of green tea daily these days, even in the dead and dark of a gloomy gray winter.
    With tv watching/reading, moderation is working quite well. I get my chores/evening work done before I settle in, and everything is ducky.


  9. posted by John Nemz Jr @ on

    Being an abstainer or a moderator is not something I ever really thought about. And I think that most people are the same way, especially when it comes to their money.

    So many struggle with their finances because they hear advice that’s geared for the opposite type. When they’re told to reduce their expenses by cutting out spending sprees, it’s impossible, because they’re moderators, not abstainers. The better solution would be to indulge in the spending sprees, but less frequently or on a smaller scale.

    From my standpoint, I was spending way too much eating at restaurants and going out on the weekends. I knew that I couldn’t go cold turkey on either, so I decided to stay in during the week and cook my meals, then on the weekends I was free to enjoy myself and go out. This strategy has worked out pretty well and the savings have amounted to the equivalent of eliminating one of the two expenses entirely, but without the sacrifice.

    Figuring out if you’re an abstainer or moderator will give you a different perspective on life and thus, drastically decrease your stress levels.

  10. posted by K on

    Abstainer for sure.

    Take shopping as an example. For me, the “don’t see, don’t want” approach has worked far better for me than, say, limiting myself to spending $200 a month. I know it isn’t actually curing the bad habit, but it is a means to an end.

  11. posted by Amy on

    Mostly abstainer here. I went vegetarian a few years back and it’s worked out well for me. When it comes to adding in new good habits, I guess I kind of moderate by not setting goals too high. I tell myself exercising once a week is the goal, and I meet it. If I say 3x/week, I become overwhelmed and don’t go at all.

  12. posted by Abeline on

    Interesting topic!

    It may sound counter-intuitive, but I find that a combination of the two works best for me. For example, I abstain from keeping chips in the house, but every now and then I will buy a snack-sized bag and eat that, so it’s also moderation in a way.

  13. posted by Jeanne B. on

    I suppose I’d be an Abstainer, except that abstinence is too similar to resistance, and what we resist persists. I quit smoking 10 years ago. But I didn’t do it by quitting.

    Instead, I decided that from now on, I am a nonsmoker. All I did was declare that I am a nonsmoker every chance I got. Every time I automatically reached for a cigarette, I said “Oh, wait–I’m a nonsmoker now.”

    It worked. It was almost too easy to no longer smoke. There were no cravings, no bumming just one off of a friend–none of that. It just… wasn’t there anymore.

    Wanna know why it worked? Because of the imagery. When we think or say a sentence, the brain has to visualize it before it can happen. Trouble is, the brain has difficulty processing negations like “don’t smoke” without first visualizing the action of smoking. How do you “not smoke”? How do you stop an action in progress, visually? Can you unsmoke a cigarette? Try seeing the action of not smoking or unsmoking. Got it?

    The set of actions that a smoker engages in is the opposite of the set of actions a nonsmoker engages in. The moment I declared myself to BE a nonsmoker, my brain began to search for actions from the nonsmoker set. To crave a smoke would be incongruent with being a nonsmoker, so… my body didn’t issue cravings.

    Ten years, and I am still a very happy nonsmoker.

  14. posted by Another Deb on

    @ John Nemz. You wrote:
    “So many struggle with their finances because they hear advice that’s geared for the opposite type. ” What an interesting insight! I agree with the shopping smaller and less frequently if you crave it. When I crave some retail therapy, I go to the Goodwill. For a few dollars I am out with a few books or a project to work on.

    @Jeanne B. Your strategy worked really well for me as I was losing weight. I’d pass right by the candy and soda aisles in the store with the mental reminder “I don’t need anything here. I don’t use any of that.” Just as easily as I’d pass by shoe polish and baby food. Not on my radar. After several years I did allow the candy and soda back in and now I am paying the price! I need to abstain and re-image myself there.

  15. posted by Richard | on

    The first paragraph explains my views exactly :). I think I’m an abstainer then I slowly turn into a moderator when I get that area of my life sorted.

  16. posted by Jen on

    Abstainer here. With everything that I’ve ever had to get rid of in my life, I’ve been more successful at going without completely.

    Except caffeine. For health reasons I need to eliminate it from my life. But I’ve tried the abstinence method more times than I can count with short term success at best. I’m doing better moderating, but it’s another thing I have to constantly think about in order to be successful.

    I’d like to moderate it into oblivion, but I’m still stuck right where I started.

  17. posted by Meredith from Penelope Loves Lists on

    I’ve never really thought about it in these terms.

    I think I’m mostly an Abstainer. For example, I decided to join the Great American Apparel Diet this year and not buy ANY new clothes for a year. I decided one day and just did it. The fact that I made the act of not buying clothes easy. The topic was simply closed in my mind.

    However, in food-related things, like, not eating a burger for a month, I’m not as successful. In that case, I have to be a moderator.

  18. posted by Glenn on

    I wonder if age plays a part in the abstain/moderate behaviour. Looking back on things that I have quit in the past – cigarettes, alcohol, etc – I had to completely abstain. Now as I get older, I feel that I can moderate on some things.

    Perhaps I have learned to utilize better coping mechanisms like placing foods that are not as good for me where they are not immediately visible and placing the healthy foods at eye level in the fridge.

  19. posted by Candace on

    Like many of the previous comments, I am an abstainer. I made a New Year’s resolution in 2007 to never drink pop, again. It’s the only resolution that has worked. In fact, I think my resolutions should always start with “i’m not” rather than “I am.” Negative, but it seems to work better for me.

    How long did she talk in DC? She was scheduled for an hour and a half in Kansas City (her hometown) and she bolted after about twenty minutes. After the difficulty in parking and getting to the plaza library, I was disappointed.

  20. posted by Karen on

    Abstainer. When I try to moderate, I tend to rationalize an “extra” serving of something. For instance, we have a basket of mini candy bars that we dole out to the kids when they want a treat. Saves me baking cookies (since I have celiac, I need to stay away from wheat flour), and the kids are just as happy with a tiny bit of chocolate.

    However, I found myself dipping into it. At first I’d tell myself, “oh, just one during naptime” and that became “two during naptime” and then “And one for after dinner.”

    When I told myself, “I don’t eat candy anymore,” that worked. I had to do the same thing with coffee. Because I started with one cup of coffee in the morning, and then “A latte at lunchtime” or “Another cup in the afternoon.” But when I decided, “I’m not a coffee drinker anymore,” I was able to resist. And i reminded myself how horrible the headaches were, and I remind myself that when I abstain from candy, I lose weight easily.

  21. posted by PlantingOaks on

    That’s a really interesting concept.

    It’s even more interesting, as I think that I’m a mix of the two. I’m very good at moderation in *not* doing something. I can eat one chocolate a week and stretch a box of fancy valentine candy almost the whole year. I’m pretty good at watching t.v. in moderation too.

    On the other hand, when forcing myself to *do* something, I need to be all or nothing. I was having no luck getting myself to wear makeup, or nice shoes more often until I declared an ultimatum on myself and did it every day. Once I picked up the habit, I can moderate a little bit, but not much.

    That’s actually a really helpful observation, since I tend to think of myself as a moderator given my success with finding a balance on food. However, now that I look more deeply, I bet I would be more successful with cleaning if I resolved to sweep every day whether it needs it or not, rather than just planning to do it when it starts to show.

  22. posted by Bryan on

    Abstainer here. Quit caffeine, long showers, driving unnecessarily, all cold turkey. Unfortunately, when dealing with people and those I care about, I can be a bit of a moderator especially when it comes to spoiling them giving them what they want.

  23. posted by Ethan Moore's Food Story: A Sugar Monkey on My Back | Libra Fitness on

    […] posted an interesting link on Libra Fitness’s Facebook Page to an article contrasting “Abstainers” and “Moderators”. No question whatsoever: I’m an […]

  24. posted by Daphne on

    I’m usually a moderator, especially when it comes to changing my behavior. Only a few times have I made abrupt changes to abstain and it’s not my normal way to function. Some things are easier to quit than others, depending on how ingrained they are in my habits. Thanks for getting me thinking about how I deal with unwanted behavior.

  25. posted by Sarah on

    It is not so much that I am an abstainer, it is that I am a terrible moderator and therefore have to be an abstainer. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the television, and felt I was wasting my life watching it. So, I gave it up. I will watch TV at other people’s houses but only with them – and I have to be seated in a position where I cannot see the screen if there is one on when I go out – I just get so distracted! I’m 5 years without at TV now.

    I gave up chocolate too about 3 years ago now.

    The way I see it, if I cannot control my intake, I stop it altogether. Some things I can control – like soft drink and ice cream etc. but for those I cannot, they are gone entirely.

  26. posted by Beverly D on

    Abstainer, for sure!! I tried quiting smoking by moderating too many times, then I went to a hypnotist and the prehypnotic tape I listened to gave me the same spiel as Jeanne B’s story! That did more good that the hypnotism (not sure I was really there). I was just able to say “I am now a non-smoker” and mean it, and never smoked again. Went through 3 weeks of agony but it was worth it. I gave up caffeine last year cold turkey, very bad 5 days of withdrawal but so glad I did. This year I’ve given up chocolate candy and added in walking. Give me an inch and I take a mile, so maybe by next year I’ll be doing marathons.

  27. posted by Vanessa L on

    I’m the exact same way as Sarah. I’m a terrible moderator, so I have to be an abstainer.

    When I needed to lose 15 lbs. last year, everyone told me to eat 6 small meals a day. But I quickly realized that at each “small” meal, I was eating an entire meal instead! So I decided that I would have three meals a day, and that’s it. It didn’t matter if I wanted to eat something in between meals- I knew that if I did, I would keep on eating.

    I quit chewing gum about 4 years ago, because it hurt my teeth, so I just stopped altogether. I just said that I wasn’t a gum chewer anymore, and now I have no desire to chew gum.

    I also stopped going out to eat at restaurants- I went 3 times in 2009, and only then because they were for family events.

  28. posted by GetOrganizedAlready on

    Reading the comments has been almost as interesting as reading the article! :o)
    I am a moderator and a stingy one at that. Alas, I am partners with an abstainer. It’s all or nothing. We’ve lived together nearly ten years and it has taken me almost as long to understand that he cannot abide by moderation.
    Living with someone who thinks about things so differently has really helped me to be more understanding of people I’m just getting to know.
    Ten years ago I was much more judgmental.
    Now, I say “bring it on!”
    Abstain. Moderate. Imbibe. We are an interesting species, aren’t we?!

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