Quiz: Are You a Moderator or an Abstainer?

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Quiz: Are You a Moderator or an Abstainer?

Often, we know we’d have more long-term happiness if we gave up something that gives us a rush of satisfaction in the short-term. That morning doughnut, that impulse purchase, staying up too late watching TV.

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.” 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.

There’s no right way or wrong way – it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. If moderators try to abstain, they feel trapped and rebellious. If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend a lot of time justifying why they should go ahead and indulge.

People can be surprisingly judgmental about which approach you take. As an abstainer, I often get disapproving comments like, “It’s not healthy to take such a severe approach” or “It would be better to learn how to manage yourself” or “Can’t you let yourself have a little fun?” On the other hand, I hear fellow abstainer-types saying to moderators, “You can’t keep cheating and expect to make progress” or “Why don’t you just go cold turkey?” But different approaches work for different people. (Exception: with an actual addiction, like alcohol or cigarettes, people generally accept that abstaining is the only solution.)

You’re a moderator if you…
— find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure – and strengthens your resolve
— get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something

You’re an abstainer if you…
— have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
— aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits

Now, sometimes instead of trying to give something up, we’re trying to push ourselves to embrace something. Go to the gym, eat vegetables, work on a disagreeable project.

Perhaps this is the flip side of being an abstainer, but I’ve found that if I’m trying to make myself do something, I do better if I do that thing every day. When people ask me advice about keeping a blog, one of my recommendations is, “Post every day, or six days a week.” Weirdly, it’s easier to write a blog every day than it is to write it three or four times a week. I don’t know how moderators feel about this. Moderators – what do you think? Is it easier to go for a half-hour walk every day, or four times a week, for you?

Mike Vardy of the blog Effing the Dog was nice enough to do an interview with me. I don’t think I kept up my end of the comedy, but it was fun to do.

Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Donna

    Gretchen, I really appreciate “knowing” you through your blogs. You sound so much like me, that it is comforting. I too am an abstainer, and find my fun in reading children’s literature…to name just a few things we have in common. The light you shed on how “okay” all this is I find very freeing.

  • Hello Gretchen — thank you for helping me discover I’m a Moderator. I get very rebellious if I deny myself too much (I am currently eating the most delicious oatmeal raisin cookies!) I’m going to ask for your personal resolutions chart. Thanks!

  • Adriana

    I loved this article, I now know its ok to be moderator! 🙂 I felt guilty before this! Thank you Gretchen!
    I think we should teach this to our kids too. It would make it all easier for them too. Some things we must teach them to be abstainers and then with others we go easy on them by letting them be moderators.
    Big huggs from México 🙂

  • Jeff W.

    I find the abstainer / moderator insight personally very helpful. I actually adopted a hybrid approach for watching TV — I moderated by abstaining during the week, and only watching on weekends. For me, that works better than trying to moderate each day.

  • ABC

    Do you realize that your interview link at the bottom just goes to a weird spam-like website advertising viagra and cialis? Wasting time like that doesn’t add to my happiness.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yikes, where???? I don’t see it. bottom of what?

      • Elise

        There is a line that says, “Mike Vardy of the blog Effing the Dog was nice enough to do an interview with me. I don’t think I kept up my end of the comedy, but it was fun to do.” But the link doesn’t go to an interview of you and it doesn’t seem like it’s something you would necessarily do…

  • hadassah

    Just found this Quiz after it was referred to on your recent podcast episode. I find this concept fascinating but am struggling to define myself as either. I struggle immensely with self-control therefore, in the short-term, I find abstaining to be more effective than moderating. However, if I ever think about how I am “never going to consume sugar again” or whatever the vice is, etc., I panic & typically end up caving. Any insights?