Quiz: Are you a Moderator or an Abstainer, When Trying to Give Something Up?

Are you a moderator or abstainer?

One of the great mysteries of happiness is: why don’t we do the things that we know will make us happy? Why do we skip exercising? Why do we eat two doughnuts for breakfast? Why do we buy that thing we don’t really need? Etc.

Often, I know I’ll be happier if I don’t indulge in something. For example, I won’t be happy if I eat five cookies — and I’m the kind of person who can’t eat just one cookie.

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.

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.

However, in my experience, both moderators and abstainers try hard to convert the other team. A nutritionist once told me, “I tell my clients to follow the 80/20 rule. Be healthy 80% of the time, indulge within reason, 20% of the time.” She wouldn’t consider my point of view — that a 100% rule might be easier for someone like me to follow.

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?)

So…do you identify as an abstainer or a moderator? Do these categories ring true for you?

* Of all the things I’ve learned from my happiness project, one of the most important is the necessity of good sleep for me. I was fascinated to read this article about “short sleepers” who need very little sleep — and how many people think they’re short sleepers, but aren’t. I have no illusions. I’m a long sleeper.

* What? You didn’t know that The Happiness Project is now a bestselling paperback? Now you know!
Order your copy.
Read sample chapters.
Watch the one-minute book video.
Listen to a sample of the audiobook.

  • I find myself in an in-between place here. While I have a similar problem with moderation in that I have trouble deciding when to indulge, I can’t abstain. I find that if I confine all my (food) indulgences to one day (Sunday), that I can maintain that schedule. That works for me. I exercise five days a week – not every day, but most days.

  • Kelly S

    And the lightbulb goes off – I’m an abstainer. When I attempt to moderate, then choose to break an agreement with myself, I have this lovely little conversation with myself that goes something like: “Oh well I had one I might has well have 10, or I blew the budget here might as well go for it there”. Just abstaining is way easier for me!

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh yes, I have the very same conversation in my own head! Just easier not to
      start — if you’re an abstainer.

    • Katy

      Kelly S., it’s like you’re inside my head. : ) “Well, I already blew it; might as well go all the way,” is something I have told myself many, many times!

  • Cruella

    I’m probably an abstainer if we’re talking efficient approach but I honestly don’t like the idea of denying myself things that I know give me pleasure, unless I would really have to stop because of real health issues but I guess that’s not what we’re talking about. To me it doesn’t feel altogether sound, if you know what I mean.

    I know you’re described yourself as high maintenance and that for you it’s an important part of being true to yourself, but I take another approach and try to loosen up a bit.

    • gretchenrubin

      Spoken like a true moderator!

  • megs283

    I am definitely a moderator. I met with a nutritionist and she allotted for 4 alcoholic drinks a week in my diet. I was so relieved! Given parameters, I stick with them. If I’m told that something is off-limits, I’ll indulge once, and then over-indulge, and then panic.

    • gretchenrubin

      A terrific articulation of the moderator position. For me, figuring out when
      I got those four treats during the week would consume a huge amount of
      mental energy. Couldn’t handle it!

      • charlotte

        Yes, I have a little of both in me. I realized that it was creating those strict rules that are too inflexible for real life was what would trip me up. Now I re-frame a situation in which I want to change my habits in just a moderate way by thinking about exactly why it is I want to change (for example with food it might be – because afterwards something makes me feel bad, and/or because I want to live a long and healthy life) and what I don’t like about the habit/food/etc (for example how it controls me). And just thinking out this process I form a some disgust towards the food or the habit (which makes it easy not to want it much anymore). And then from there its just reminding myself I am bigger than this habit/food and I’m choosing not to be controlled by it anymore. And I just cut back. It works amazingly well. No rigid rules holding me to 2x a week, or never again; nothing that I will “fail” at if I don’t explicitly follow indefineitely and then feel guilt over (because I mean realistically are you never going to eat another Tasti-D-lite in your life? And how will it make you feel if you do?). Additionally, because the more you get caught up in rules, the more time you simply spend thinking about the food/habit that you want to cut back on, and in many ways you are then still being controlled by the item.

        But, for someone like you who sounds like loves rules maybe that doesn’t apply.

        • Jeff

          Spoken like a true moderator! I don’t think Gretchen indicated (in this article anyway) that she loves rules. I’m an abstainer and I hate rules! A Moderator would feel like abstaining is a tough rule, and an Abstainer would feel like moderating is a tough rule. 🙂

          Trying to moderate (food), is a rule I can’t seem follow long term, especially at home. I often intend to moderate. If I am successful I don’t feel guilty. I would feel great about enjoying the reward and denying the monster of overindulgence. It’s just that when I do this I am at risk of eating the whole quart of ice cream over the whole course of the night and enjoying myself immensely! Guilt doesn’t really factor in until I have already thrown in the towel too many times to count.

    • Tapleyruth14

      This is me as well. I feel like I am a moderator with shades of abstainer. What I find works is to schedule my moderation: I don’t feel guilty about not going to the gym on Thursday, if that was my scheduled day off. I don’t feel guilty about eating that greasy taco if I know that I eat only one, and only once a week – then I don’t crave it so much the rest of the time. I guess I try to be moderate about individual habits by making a plan – but pretty extreme about sticking to that plan.

  • If your talking food, I’m a moderator. There are times that I just have to have a particular taste, be it ice cream or a burger. And what I try to do during those times is first, think a lot about how bad I will feel afterward if I eat the whole thing, and second, eat a small portion as mindfully as I can. Studies show the first bite tastes the best anyway, so I’m trying (with mixed success 🙂 ) to get the best of both worlds.

  • Melissa Lovejoy Goldman

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since test-driving Tim Ferriss’s Slow Carb Diet. I *think* that the evidence points to abstainer, but I have to also have outlets. Like Megan, I confine my indulgences to just one day a week (food-wise, at least). It’s easier for me to stick to a strict list of foods that are “allowed” than to decide what to have for each meal or snack.

    However, I find that if I try to actually write one blog each day, I miss a day and then it’s easy to miss another and another. I find that I work best in batches – write a ton of articles one day (which I schedule out for the week or ten days), research and brainstorm another day, work on site maintenance and functionality another day. It seems like I need to chunkify my work to get it all done. When I manage to devote several hours to whatever aspect I’m in the mood for, I get so much more done that I never have to worry about a late post.

    So… what does that all mean when I put myself together? It seems a bit like I’m a flip-flopper rather than being one or the other.

  • Erica G.

    I am an abstainer, but this is after having sugar hangovers that made me completely miserable. Once I cut sugar out of my life, I was able to be more aware of what I put in my body has a huge effect on my entire system.
    I abstained from coffee (caffeine) but, I had a taste, I’m back to it. I do enjoy a taste of 91% cacao dark chocolate rarely, but for me this isn’t something I can over indulge in or something I crave, so I know I am safe with that.
    As for exercise, once I start missing days it is VERY difficult to get back to it. I think about doing it, for the time I spend thinking about it, it could already be done.

  • Accepting that I have to be an abstainer was such a relief to me – even though it requires action that is not always easy. I don’t eat ANY sweets (including artificial sweeteners) or foods that trigger sugar cravings (including wheat, all flours, corn, etc) because I hate craving sweets and I can’t eat just a little. I’ve given up cheese and nuts for the same reason, but sweets are my real downfall. It’s so much easier to go through life without the punishment, guilt, and anxiety of trying to exercise self-control. It is my wish that more people would accept that not everyone can do moderation (which is, to my dismay, the cornerstone of government dietary guidelines and accepted orthodoxy on diet).

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s what’s hard for moderators to understand — that for us abstainers,
      it’s EASIER and HAPPIER to abstain.

      • The very perplexing thing to me is why so many moderators are so upset in the face of abstinence by others! My best friend is a moderator, and she simply cannot accept that I am unable to have just one cookie, or just one glass of wine, or just one handful of cashews. The results of my abstinence are entirely positive and clear, but she’d make me a moderator if she could!

  • Lindsay S

    I’m a moderator with a penchant for delayed gratification…so I appear to be an abstainer from time to time. I don’t find it difficult to go without something that I really enjoy for long periods of time and then return to it when it becomes available (see: cheesecake). I’ve always been this way. My mother thinks that I’m well disciplined…but it just comes so naturally to me that I don’t think I’d call it discipline. Now, abstaining, I’d call that discipline 🙂

  • I am definitely a moderator. For the times I’m trying to get myself to do something (like go to the gym), I’m definitely a four day/week kind of person. It just works for me. I rarely have the problem of over-indulging, but if I know I “can’t” do something or “have to” do something, it monopolizes my thoughts. Kind of funny.

  • Trevel

    I’m mostly a moderator, to a certain extent. I can successfully eat Just One. I have a great amount of trouble with Just Seven.

    I cannot, for example, eat Just One Handful of Potato Chips — but I *can* do Just One Cookie, or even Just One Spoonful of Icecream. (And, of course Free Refills of pop means that by over-indulging I’m getting a BETTER VALUE — I can’t fight that! So best not to indulge at all.)

    The important thing to know is where I can and cannot trust myself.

  • So I am definitely abstainer. but I think that I flirt with turning the virtue of culinary abstinence into a vice. I have so many foods that I avoid– dairy, gluten, refined sugar, etc.– that I occasionally have to push myself to indulge. I’m not sure what that says about me. Perhaps I need to head down the path of moderation.

  • Natalie

    It depends upon the situation for me. If we are talking about chocolate, it is easier to give it up for a week or a month at a time. I could not give it up forever, but I also cannot just have chocolate 1x a week or 1x a day.

    However, for a long time, I could run just a few days a week. I didn’t need to force myself to run everyday because I was able to just do it without making excuses. I think now I would need to make myself run every day of the work week in order to get into the habit.

  • Nicole

    Wow, this was helpful! This makes it clear to me why, once I start to fall off the wagon, I do it so hard – I do much better abstaining than moderating, unless the moderation has very strict rules (Half a donut every Sunday morning at church but no other time).

  • I would suspect that most people are neither one nor the other, but a combination. For example, I know this about myself, having lost 100 lbs a few years ago:

    I can moderate sweets. I can have one cookie, one small piece of cake, a square of chocolate – and be perfectly happy. I cannot have one serving of potato chips. I simply can’t. I will eat the entire bag w/out even realizing it. So when I find my weight creeping up, I moderate my sweet/treat eating and I totally eliminate starchy salty goodness from my diet.

    I think most people are the same way – some things they can have or do moderately, whether it’s eating, shopping, drinking, playing computer games, whatever. Some things they simply have to walk away from.

    • Dazy

      I was just going to say something similar! I find some things I’m an abstainer on, others I moderate. And not just with food as you said, though that’s a great example, as I have that same battle, same salty starchy lack of control.
      Spot on Frugalforties.

      • Me too, especially with food. Most things that I shouldn’t have I can easily do without. Some things that I must have, I must carefully manage (moderate). Some things that I very rarely crave, I either buy one at a time or just accept that the whole package is going down.

    • Invisiblestarfish

      I’d definitely agree! When it comes to exercise/food and generally being healthy, for the first few weeks that I’m trying to get into some sort of routine, I have to be very strict with myself about exercising and eating healthy. Once I get into the routine though, then I can allow myself a few treats. Even then, I try to abstain during the week and leave treats for the weekend!

    • Nadine

      I agree. I could not abstain from foods because then I would just never deal with that issue! I could never completely give up say chocolate or pecan pie. Instead I moderate my intake so I don’t gain weight or feel crummy from eating too much. For things like gossip or being critical I absolutely have to abstain. I grew up in a hyper critical gossipy home and once I open my mouth habit kicks in and it is like a floodgate opening. After I feel like I just binged on a dozen boxes of sugar coated jujubes ( FYI: that would be a bad feeling; even for those of us who love those by the way!) So my rule sounds totally PollyAnna but if it isn’t nice or neutral I don’t say it. (OOOh but still sometimes I think it.)

  • Jen

    I never would have expected it, but I’m an abstainer, for the very reasons you describe. Huh.

  • Meghan

    I am an abstainer, and I have no trouble restricting myself to fresh, unprocessed food when I’m left to my own devices. But when I’m in a situation where it isn’t possible to limit myself to lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and unprocessed meats — like, an office luncheon where the only things available are sandwiches, cookies and pasta — I go overboard, eating more than I need of everything, and usually feeling sick later. I haven’t worked out how to handle this one.

    • Katy

      ME. TOO, Meghan! As an abstainer, when I’m on my own, I’m totally in control. When out in a different situation, I go nuts. I wish I could figure this one out…I really don’t know why I do this. I just know that when I want to eat healthy, I just HAVE to bring my own food. It’s something I so wish I could kick…but at least now I understand the “abstainer” impulse and know who I am…then I can provide myself better options, instead of going to the party/luncheon/whatever telling myself that THIS time I’m going to do better at controlling myself…only to feel like a failure when it doesn’t happen. Knowing yourself is half the battle. : )

  • MissBiz

    Why is it that we spend so much time thinking about giving something up? Too pre-occupied by health and weight?

  • I should be an abstainer, but I constantly play games with myself to pretend that I’m a moderator. For example, if I’m behind on work, I’ll say to myself “I’ll just take a little break and check my e-mail.” The next thing I know 20 minutes or more is gone. I should just not check e-mail in the middle of the day. When trying to lose weight, I’ll say after several days of doing well with healthy eating “Oh, a little ice cream won’t hurt after dinner.” But the taste of that sweetness makes me crave more. I know I should be an abstainer in many areas of my life, but I’m just not honest with myself about this.

  • With Coke I need to abstain or I can’t do it. Too addictive. Once I start I crave it.

    Treats like chocolate chip cookies (LOVE those!) I am a moderator.

    Really being in tune with what works for you makes the most sense to me.

    Have a great evening!

    • Annemarie

      It was diet Coke for me. I tried to cut down, but I just couldn’t. I had to give it up entirely—even though I’ve been inculcated with the “Moderator” philosophy all my life.

  • Tamara

    Thanks for this post!
    My husband is a moderator while I am an abstainer, which has always caused trouble for us (mostly me) when we’re working on giving something up, as a couple. He’s fine ‘cutting back slowly’, so the temptation is there for me to ‘have just one’ and before I know it, I’m back to having as much as I was before we started the diet (or whatever).

  • Fenner Kb

    Totally an abstainer, as is my mother. My dad is a moderator.

    I think nutritionists/dietitians preach what works for them and find it hard to imagine other realities.

    • gretchenrubin

      My mother is a moderator, and noticing the differences between the two of
      us, along with the Johnson quotation, made me see the distinction.

  • Last night I accidentally ate oatmeal cookies for dinner. (Not after dinner, FOR dinner.) I can’t remember if I ate four or five, but it was at least three too many.

    There’s no question that abstaining generally works better for me, which is why I have a long list of things I won’t keep in the house (because I would eat the whole bag). The list includes: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey’s Miniatures. Now I will be adding oatmeal cookies to my list.

  • Sophieyale

    I am an abstainer through and through and have had years of frozen yogurt addiction where I would wake up thinking about when the store would open and how I could convince my husband, coworkers, family, to ‘accidentally’ drive by so I could get my fix. I had to quit cold turkey. Seriously, tasti-di-lite is like a crack house to me.

    • Deb (SmoothieGirlEatsToo)

      I think that they put crack into Fro Yo. It’s very hard to stop. I feel Gretchen’s pain with the taste-d-lite. I think that it’s the ‘out of control’ feeling of needing to have the yogurt rather than it being terrible for her or ‘evil’ as one commenter questioned. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Abstainer. No question. And yes, I read that article about “short sleepers” too. My husband is one. I am not. I feel like I’ve been tired for years!

  • Lauren Cook

    I’m definitely a moderator! Life is too short and sweet to not enjoy the simple pleasures of life every now and then! I like to write about the simple pleasures of life, too at http://www.thesunnygirl.wordpress.com!

  • mb


    At about 4:38 of the video, she’s reading the happiness project!! She’s flipping through it right when she’s narrating how she doesn’t feel stressed about rent or money! I thought it was very fitting!

    • gretchenrubin

      I saw that video! Yes, it was such a thrill to see her pick up the book. And
      so satisfying to see how she’s fitted everything so nicely into such a small

  • Oh nicely put! I never quite understood this. I’m a total abstainer, and always felt a bit like a weakling because I couldn’t control myself to have moderate anything. Thanks!

  • Julie

    Why completely give up something you really enjoy? Is Tasti D-Lite (whatever that is) evil? How about not beating yourself up over something you enjoy? That’s the best way to instill moderation–by not putting things you like in some arbitrary separate category.

    “If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend a lot of time justifying why they should go ahead and indulge.”

    Right, and they should work on changing this attitude rather than giving things up entirely. Totally abstaining from things you love just doesn’t lead to a healthy outlook, in my opinion. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about something unequivocally bad, like cigarettes or sniffing glue.) I used to try to give up coffee, and all that happened was that I felt guilty whenever I gave in and had it. It’s better to allow yourself things you like. If you do, you will learn to moderate because you recognize it’s never an all-or-nothing situation and you can have the item again when you want it.

    • gretchenrubin

      Spoken like a 100% moderator! As an abstainer, I think: Why should I work on
      changing my attitude, when my way works for me? Why is moderation better
      than my way?

      Someone once told me, “Life’s too short not to eat brownies.”
      And I said, “Life’s too short to have my day shadowed by my bad feelings
      caused by brownies.” They’re just not that delicious! It’s not worth it to
      me! I’d rather not worry about them at all than have to adjust my attitude.
      It’s not that I think they’re evil, it’s just easier for me not to eat them
      at all than to struggle with moderation or deal with the bad feelings of too
      much indulgence.

      We keep a bag of cookies in the cupboard, and I’ve never once have eaten a
      cookie from that bag. A moderator would say, “Why draw these strict lines?
      Why not just eat one cookie, every once in a while? It won’t hurt you, it’s
      healthy to have a little bit of everything.”

      But FOR ME (and I’m speaking for myself), never eating a cookie from that
      bag means that I can go into the kitchen and never think about them. I don’t
      have to struggle with myself. I just never think about those cookies. They
      have all the allure of a bag of uncooked rice. But if I ate a cookie once in
      a while, I’d be thinking about those cookies ALL THE TIME. And whether I ate
      a cookie or not, it would exhaust me. Plus it’s really, really boring to
      debate constantly “Now, later? One cookie, two cookies…okay, five
      cookies.” Etc.

      Moderators, abstainers. There is no one way we “should” do it.

      • Rebecca

        I totally agree.  Since I lost 90+ pounds several years ago, I’ve known I’m an all-or-nothing type.  If I keep to a strict set of rules about what I will eat, or when I will eat, it’s easy and totally non-stressful.  If I try to moderate, I either fall apart and just eat the whole bag of cookies, or  stress about it until I do fall apart.  It’s so much easier to just say I will not eat anything that doesn’t nourish my body and spirit!  I still eat really awesome treats – and plenty of raw, vegan dark chocolate.  There’s no deprivation.  I don’t really want the flipping’ cookie or brownie.  I want to feel good, and truly nourished, all the time.

    • Julie, why are you bothered by someone who prefers abstinence? I have learned that whatever issues I had at age 10, I will still have at age 70, but I can learn to manage them better. My resistance to moderation will not change, but I can manage it through abstinence. (There is also a great deal of research that many people are genetically predisposed to be unable to be moderate in many things, so I’m not sure how to get around that. Should we all work on our DNA, too?)

    • Grekre

      Also, yes, Tasti-D-Lite is evil. You can tell by the name.

  • Deb (SmoothieGirlEatsToo)

    TOTALLY rings true! I’m so glad that someone finally made the labels and said that it’s OK to be one or the other. Apples and oranges. I’m thinking about righting a post about this and naturally I’ll link to this post. Thanks Gretchen.

    • Deb (SmoothieGirlEatsToo)

      PS. Mortified: “writing”, not “righting”.

  • I’m definitely a moderator – but to an extreme! I can limit myself to one or two bites of a treat when I’m watching my calories. And just 30 minutes of TV time before taking care of business! I find that tiny indulgences are more fun than binging on pleasure.

  • I have been an abstainer for as long as I can remember. Moderation does not work for me. It’s all or nothing. Sometimes I think I would like to know how to live with moderation. To not take everything to extremes, but I am not there now and don’t know if I ever will be. I’m not even sure it’s something I should strive for. It’s not who I am. At least not now.

  • There are some good biochemical reasons for this distinction, especially if you read the literature on sugar (for some people, it acts like heroin on the brain’s dopamine receptors). Any food or activity can become problematic or even addictive to those who are susceptible.

    Some of us who are wired to be sensitive to these “dopamine hits” find that we do best simply abstaining from various things, even though we may wish we were born moderators.

    “Takes all kinds to make a world,” as my great-grandma used to say….

  • I’m always a little surprised when folks take such a strong stand on one way or the other being right or wrong. But you said it well with “People can be surprisingly judgmental about which approach you take.” It’s so annoying when someone talks to you like if you only did it their way you wouldn’t have any problem! We all have our challenges to overcome, whether it’s food or exercise it really comes down to wanting better health. Whatever works for you is the right way! :~)

  • Great post!

  • Katy

    Gretchen, I have to tell you…I read this when you posted it a few months ago and it was a complete game-changer for me! As Karen S. said below, a lightbulb went off! What a relief to be able to describe myself as an abstainer, to know that other people have the same problem I have of not being able to stop at just one!

    It takes so much pressure off me to just not have anything. I also liked your description of the flip of the coin, that the same holds true when you’re trying to establish a GOOD habit. I definitely noticed that a few years ago when I was trying to wake up in the mornings to work out. For a while, I went at 5 a.m. MWF. Strangely, that was so difficult…but going every day at 5 a.m. was much easier!

    That said, I suppose there’s a little bit of moderator in me in that I do allow myself an indulgence on weekends…but I try to just pick out one thing to bring in the house. If I had more, I know that would be the end.

    Anyway, sorry this is getting so long…but since I read this the first time you posted it, I have done so much better at accepting this about myself! I have actually been at parties where I have wanted to grab something to eat, and then said to myself, “You KNOW if you eat that you will eat the whole bowl. Don’t start,” and it actually worked. In the past, I would have said, “Well, I’ll just have a little bit,” would have way overindulged, and then beat myself up about it.

    You’re a genius. LOL!

  • Thanks, Gretchen, for making this distinction so clear. I think that to be a ‘moderator’ one must be very disciplined by nature. It’s takes that level of discipline to say “I’ll only have one small piece of cake” and actually do that. I consider myself an ‘abstainer’. To avoid eating too much cake I’d have to resort to what Miranda Hobbes did in an episode of Sex in the City when she threw the cake in the garbage covered it in liquid soap to keep from eating it. Check out the scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfk5iseN87k

    • gretchenrubin

      I truly don’t think that being a “moderator” is a matter of being
      disciplined. In most areas of my life, I’m very disciplined. And when I see
      moderators, I don’t think, wow, those people have more discipline that I do.

      This seems to operate separately from that.

      • Grekre

        I agree. I’m aggravatingly undisciplined in my life, and I’m a moderator. It seems to me that it would take a great deal more discipline to abstain entirely.

        I have 2 friends who are now totally avoiding sugar and sweeteners. It’s working really well for them. I’ve thought about doing it myself, but it almost brings me to tears to consider it. On the other hand, I’ve no problem buying just one chocolate bar a week and sharing with my partner, or eating a few bites or just skipping free cake at work parties. And I have maybe a soda a month. When I really thought about it, I realized that my sweets intake is pretty low through my sort of nonchalant moderation — except it had spiked considerably during the couple of weeks I was contemplating total abstinence!

        • I am very undisciplined in life and more of a free spirit and spontaneous! I have an addictive personality to the point that when I find something I enjoy, I become fixated on it and have a knack for tuning most everything else out!

          I have always followed(to the best of my ability) the motto taught to me as a very small child-“If you are going to do something, do it 100% the right way or leave it for someone who will!” I apply that to everything I do! I do not like to start things I cannot finish, so if I think that is a possibility, I won’t begin to do it! Hence why it is easier for me just to stop doing something altogether than to try to manage doing it some times at half capacity!

  • JaninOC

    I’m a moderator in most areas of life. I love how you point out moderators get rebellious or panicky at the thought of going cold turkey on something! Having little rewards or treats to keep me making progress toward my nutrition goals is motivating. But with exercise I have to switch sides to being an abstainer – or rather a reverse abstainer – meaning I have to do it every day. The pressure of deciding which days to exercise is just too much and it easier and less stressful to just do it every day.
    So I think some of us can be both an abstainer and a moderator…just depends on which area of life we’re looking at.

  • Armychic73

    I am definitely a moderater! I am vegetarian and am also very conscious of what I eat. I try not to eat too many processed foods. I try to eat food in its most natural state. I try to eat fresh food items as opposed to boxed or bagged versions of it if it affects it nutritional value (I am not talking about bagged spinach for example). I love the way I eat and I truly enjoy the way I eat. BUT I do still enjoy a small bag of potato chips from the vending machine about twice a year. I do still indulge in a can of Dr. Pepper just about as often. While I rarely eat cheese I LOVE one slice of pizza once in a blue moon. Sometimes I even treat myself to a Snickers bar. I still like what I like but I love my healthier choices more. I don’t see that I have to stop eating some of the things I enjoy completely, totally and forever. Whenever I decide to have a delicious, quality piece of cheesecake I really enjoy it because I don’t do it all the time..rarely infact even though it is my favorite.

    Eating some of the things I that I love that are not as healthy actually allows me to still love them. Often times when someone gives up something that is “bad” for them cold turkey, they associate it as a negative thing. All of sudden the Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey is so bad “for me.” How I eat and what I eat is always a topic of discussion where I work. Co-workers see me eating a piece of cake at an office party and ask, “How can you stay so thin and eat cake?!” Uh, because that is the first piece of cake I’ve had in about eight months.

    I am guilty of being one of the ones that always tells friends and co-workers who are on a diet, “Don’t give something up all together and completely. You can still eat, just eat it every once in a while and in moderation. If you give everything up that you love for a diet then you associate foods you love as bad and not ever being able to eat them will only make you think about wanting to eat them!”

    Thank you for your blog. I see now that that might not work for some people and that the cold turkey method might actually work better for some. Thank you for helping me see there is another way.

  • Doulaarts

    I belong to Weight Watchers and our leader is frequently talking about deprivation – that we should not deprive ourselves of things we love. In other words – be a moderator. However, I am definitely an abstainer by your definition. I cannot stop once I start with the concentrated sugar or salt. So I do better by making it off limits and I can live that way!
    Thanks for the confirmation that there is more than one way.

  • Abstaining works better for me if I’m really serious about quitting (say Coca-Cola ). If I try the moderation route, I just lose track and I also hate thinking about it. I’m all about simplifying my life and it’s easier for me to think that I just can’t drink Coke than to constantly think “oh did I have 3 cokes already this week?” Right now, I’m trying to moderate my carb intake now and I just keep forgetting. In other areas that are less important, I think moderation works best.

  • People like to make blanket statements that make perfect sense within their own perception. I liked this article for journeying outside the box and trying to help people that fall in to different categories. I too am abstainer, all or nothing!

  • elle.victor

    This distinction is so perfect! It explains so much about why something works for one person and not for the other. Your warning about judgment is also good so that we can be aware of how we view others’ choices. It is so easy to fall into judgment!

    I am not sure what I am. Take my favorite bad food, Cheetos. I will go for months without eating them and be perfectly happy. Then I’ll get a craving and it will hang around for another month, until I finally indulge it. I can go through a whole huge bag of Cheetos in a short time, but then I don’t want them again for another few months. Can moderation be spread out into really long time frames? In regards to seeing food as bad – I definitely see Cheetos as bad for me, but I don’t feel guilty when I do fulfill that craving, because I know that I won’t want them again for awhile.

    On the other hand, I know at work when I want to be productive, being an abstainer is definitely the way to go. I have to turn off all email notifications from my favorite “play” sites. If I even see an email from those sites, I will read that and then go to the site and waste so much time. At home, if I turn on the TV at night I’ll blow through 3 hours of shows and wonder where my evening went. It seems like a good mix of abstinence and moderation is the way to go.

  • Elizabeth

    I am best at being an abstainer, but as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that moderation is good. For instance, I could probably exercise every single day but there are days that it is better to skip it and do stuff with the family. I could never have ice cream again but I don’t want my kids to think ice cream is “bad.” Over the past twenty years, I’ve gotten much better at being a moderator, though, abstaining is still my tendency. The things you do for your kids!

  • This makes so much sense to me. I am a definite abstainer.

  • Natalie

    I think I have the worst of both worlds: My body says that I’m an abstainer but my mind panics at the thought. I find it easier to avoid temptation all together but then I feel I’m depriving myself. I’m trying different experiments in the hope of finding some kind of middle way.

  • When this question was originally posed a while back I was thrilled to learn that I was an abstainer, particularly when it came to sweets. I really was beginning to feel I had some sort of character flaw when it came to only eating one kiss or half an Andes mint like my friend (really, I’m mean they are so small to start with).

    My Lenten preparation for many years has been to give up sweets. After the original post the following Lent stopped being so difficult to abstain, perhaps giving it the name helped.

    This year however I decided I needed a challenge to be closer in prayer to God. What better reminder to pray than after taking only one bite with the fleshly desire to continue into gluttony as per normal. I needed to remind myself to indulge in that one bite on several occasions. In the end it was successful in my eyes.

  • Shonsl

    This whole thing is a struggle for me. I can be an abstainer for awhile, then I start to feel deprived and give up the whole thing and just pig out. I am reading a book called the Jerusalem diet. It looks worth a try to balance these elements out and learn to be more of a moderator. You start with your current weight and develop a series of weekly weight goals that go down by one pound a week until you get to your goal weight. On any day that you are over your goal for the week (a Fat Day), you stick to certain diet restrictions. If you are at your weekly goal, you get to eat whatever you want (a Thin Day). Of course, on Thin Days, one tends to still be somewhat careful about one’s intake so that the next day won’t be a Fat Day. The author says that once people get going on this, it’s rare that they have more than one Fat Day in a week and their eating habits, even on Thin Days gradually improve. This is the second day I have been doing this so wish me luck!

  • Shaynasmart

    I’m definitely a moderator. I do find it easier to go for a 1/2 hour walk a few times a week, by the way!

  • stephanie

    I just came back to this post in order to tell a friend about it and what I find really interesting is that one can be a moderator in some things and an abstainer in others.
    I’m a moderator when it comes to exercise: if I tell myself I’ll do pilates or whatever every day for 3 weeks I inevitably fall off the wagon, but if I tell myself 4 times a week is fine, more is a bonus, I usually end up doing 6 times a week (never 7).
    But in other things I am an abstainer, including milk chocolate for example.
    And I agree that these processes seem to be distinct from discipline.

  • I am definitely a moderator 🙂

  • I am wholly an abstainer! It it far easier for me to just stop doing something than it is to moderate my doing it!  I stop doing a particular practice and quickly it is altogether removed from my personal, mental “To-Do List”!

    BTW: Awesome Blog,Book,Video Clips! You have inspired me to be proactive in my own happiness as well as in my loved one’s as well! Thank you so much!

    • gretchenrubin

      Happy to hear from another abstainer — and thanks so much for your kind words. I’m so happy to hear that my work resonates with you.


  • Shortly after I read this, I read David A Kessler’s the End of Overeating where he talks about will power and rules regarding eating, and how making a hard and fast rule can be helpful for abstainer types (like me!). It made me think of your experience of how it felt good to just give up something (e.g., fake food) entirely.


  • Shortly after reading this post, I read David A Kessler’s The End of Overeating, where he talks about will power and rules where eating is concerned, and how the use of rules can work really well for abstainer types (like me!). It made me think of the part in your Happiness Project where you talk about how good it feels to give up something completely (e.g., fake food) and how hard it is to give up something partially or to indulge moderately.


  • I’m definitely the abstainer!

    Thanks for the insight! A great gift for this time of year! 🙂

  • I am definitely an abstainer. It works very well for me 🙂

  • Reeb

    I am an abstainer! But that is through having suffered the consequences! I totally understand both sides and obviously, as you know, the world would be a boring place if we were all the same. Just one thing: if you are an abstainer, don’t let others bully you by trying to label you as obsessive – it is really not fair of people to label abstainers this way, it’s quite upsetting tags a negativity to a positive action. Try to explain to them that you find it easier this way! I have many allergies and so have the ultimate motivation – if I ate the ‘bad’ foods that I love, I’d be in agony! So, somehow, I guess I’m lucky, haha!

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  • Dianne Ochiltree

    Agree that people can be moderator or abstainers depending on the substance or activity involved! ;o)

  • jarsofclay

    I wonder if this applies to relationships too? There is a relationship that did not work out (it was a mutual decision not because we could not get along but because of circumstances), but there were very strong undercurrents of care and friendship in it, besides the romance. My friend tells me that to get over this relationship, I have to go cold turkey, and make no contact, not even think about being friends right now. He says this is the tried and tested rule in getting over someone, and it seems that this is the most common advice out there. Strangely however, it takes up a lot more of my effort and leaves me feeling hollowed out. But once I accept that that person is important in my life, that I don’t have to purge every iota of care, my heart lightens up so much and I can get on with other routines and endeavours. Any thoughts?

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