Quiz: Are You an “Abstainer” or a “Moderator”?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day,  or Quiz Day.

I’ve posted this quiz before, but because I think it’s such a very helpful thing to know about yourself, I’m posting it again. Recognizing this distinction has been one of the most important insights that I’ve had into my own nature–more helpful, say, than understanding that I’m an under-buyer, not an over-buyer.

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, who said, when someone offered him wine: “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 yogurt treat very often, two and even three times a day, I gave it up cold turkey. That was far easier for me to do than to eat it 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?

  • Thomas Mrak

    I’ve observed this about myself too. There are certain things I just decided to give up. I tend to overindulge far too easily, so they’re not in my life.

    However there are some things I am not willing to give up completely, so I am moderate where possible.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I know some can defer doing or consuming something they really like, but I like to enjoy myself now and then.

    Life is too short never to eat a good burger and fries or a nice chocolate truffle with a glass of wine.

    • lifeinphilly

      This is a real thing?  Not once in my life has anyone seemed to understand when I explain that I can easily give something up 100%, but moderation is impossible.  YAY!  The internet understands me better than my closest friends!

  • I’m definitely a moderator. I could never give up chocolate altogether, but when I have some in the house, I find it easy to eat it only in moderation. I still have candy left over from Christmas, and all the Easter stuff has just arrived! That should do me until December… I like to have a little most days, but I have no trouble stopping once I’ve started.

    On the other hand, if I told myself I HAD to something every day, I would rebel against myself and not do it. Like making my bed. I know you say it’s a simple happiness trick (and I do do it most every day) but if I tell myself I can never take a break from it, it won’t make me happy, but miserable.

    Like you say, I guess the trick is knowing what works for you. 

    • LizHH

      As another moderator, I completely agree with this. There are several things I try to do every day, but I can’t set the bar at “every day this must happen.” Doing that makes me feel trapped — we only get one life; must every day be lived by checklist? Also, if I’m expecting do something daily and miss a day, I view it as a failure.

      It’s much easier for me to say, I will walk most days this week, or I will make a meal plan, shop for everything I need, then tweak things as the week goes along.

      All that said, if I’m truly trying to build a new habit, it does help me to use a spreadsheet and check off the box at the end of the night. After several weeks, the habit is mostly formed, and I abandon the spreadsheet. This is how I switched from drinking soda to water, got in the habit of cleaning something every day rather than letting things pile up, and started curbing my TV time. Many months later, those habits are still intact, even though I don’t follow those rules every single day.

  • adriana

    OMG!!I’m so happy that I’m not the only one!!I’m an abstainer aswell!This blogpost was such an eye opener! 🙂

  • Lucretia

    I’m very interested in this idea, but I’m not sure it applies to everyone. I don’t find that either strict abstaining or simply trusting myself to be moderate works, whereas a strictly structured type of moderation does. I made an agreement with myself to only eat dessert on Sundays (and special occasions like birthdays), and this works much better than either “you can’t do it” or “you can do it, just not too often, maybe once a week”. I suppose it’s about removing the decision, or rather, making the decision for myself in advance and then being able to forget about it. 
    As for exercise  (and I say this after years of trial-and-error), walking for half an hour every day is FAR easier than any system where I have to make a decision about which days to do it.

    • gretchenrubin

      I think you put your finger on it: removing the decision. Decisions can be exhausting, so if you can find a way to strike the right balance for yourself that removes decision-making, that’s a great thing.

      • Peninith1

        Agree–your interviews turned me on to the book “Willpower” and I also recently read “The Power of Habit.” According to these writers, the research shows that habit certainly helps. They also admit, especially with food, too many choices spoil the effort and deplete willpower.

        Here’s what I’m doing to try to satisfy my ABSTAINER personality. I chose a regime suitable for my health needs–in my case The South Beach Diet. I am looking at it as a SINGLE choice: JUST FOLLOW THE REGIME. Occasional treats are incorporated (chocolate dipped strawberries anyone?), and I don’t have to choose whether or not to have them. I ‘get’ them as part of the overall choice to follow the plan. 

        I have my choices and decisions whittled way down (wine is still an issue–one glass no more often than every other day is my ‘choice’ to attempt moderation). So far, I’m nine pounds down and feeling UN-frustrated. I have not given away my book case full of cookbooks though . . . time will tell.

    • Marie

      Yes, I love the idea of the rule – say pick a day to have the treat or not exercise. It is the agonising over the decision that zaps the energy and makes the process much more arduous than it needs to be. Brilliant idea.

  • I have never thought about this in those terms, but it makes so much sense! I am a moderator. I love a little chocolate, a small bowl of ice cream. If I deny myself those ‘treats’, I feel deprived. If I indulge a little, I feel like I’ve given myself a gift. As a moderator, I had a hard time understanding why some people couldn’t stop from eating a whole bag of cookies or the entire pint of ice cream. This makes it clear to me. We don’t operate the same way. The more I learn about the differences in brain function, such as introverts vs. extroverts, the more compassion I have for others. Thank you for opening my mind this morning!

  • Carencat2

    Like you, I’m an abstainer. When it comes to addictions, like I have with sugar, there is no halfway. Thanks for letting me know that I’m not alone!

    • gretchenrubin

      Maybe this is just my perspective as an abstainer, but I think that culturally, we are given to think that moderation is the right way to go, and that we should try to be moderate. But for us abstainers, so much easier to abstain.

  • M-C

    This really resonates with me and helps me understand why I’d rather give up on something entirely than risk having it around to indulge in.  I used to say that I was addiction-prone but now I’ll just call myself an abstainer, which is closer to the truth and sounds so much nicer!

  • Jill Q

    I think I’m a moderator on some things and an abstainer on others.  I love stuff like chocolate and ice cream, but I really don’t like having it in the house, especially since I work from home and I’m alone with it all day.  I’d much rather it live elsewhere and I go “visit it” as I like to describe it.  Lots of times, I send leftover holiday candy/desserts to work with my husband so it won’t tempt me. 
    However, if there is something in the house that I find tempting and I don’t get rid of it, I do usually find it easy to restrict myself to having a tiny portion as a treat every day until it’s gone.  (So I guess there are some things I can make myself do every day ;-))  It feels a little weird, but that’s what works for me.

  • Mainejunklist

    Love this concept. I am a moderator, who often fails at moderation. Reach for one cookie…eat the whole bag sort of thing.  Would LOVE to be an abstanier….but the cookies just call to me all day long saying “just one or two..what’s the harm?”  Any tips on being a successful abstanier?  baby steps towards abstaining most appreicated.

    • Mairsydoats

      Taking the thing from which you’re abstaining OUT of your environment is key!   I am a big fan, however, of buying the one (only one) cookie from the bakery.  And saving it for the very end of the day (so I can’t get any more treats after).  And never ever getting the cheap and nasty version of any food, so one tiny expensive beautiful cookie is infinitely preferable to a package of Chips Ahoy.  Because it’s real, and savor-able, and satisfying.

      I also try to reframe how I think of certain items in the grocery store – I’m the gal murmuring “prop food,  it’s not real, it’s prop food” in the ice cream isle.  Also, when looking at the chips, I think about the last few chips in the bag – how nasty I feel when eating too many of them (as is liable to happen if I have any more than a tiny bag available).  

      I just really suck at portion control, so not having large portions of things available makes my choices a lot easier.

  • lifeinphilly

    This is a real thing?  Not once in my life has anyone understood when I explain that it’s easy for me to give something up 100%, but moderation is impossible.  YAY!  The internet understands me better than my closest friends!

  • I think I’m a combination. By nature, I am a abstainer, definitely, but through experience I’ve found this sometimes backfires in me wanting the forbidden thing more. On the other hand, I find it easier to walk everyday than just some days. Hmm. I guess it just depends on what it is. I’m still finding the approach that works best for me, but I think this is a really interesting topic!

  • Shirley

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Nobody else really ever got it. I am a complete abstainer, it’s pretty much all or nothing for me. I’ve always felt like the odd woman out, people are always telling me it’s okay to have a little chocolate, ice cream, McDonald’s (I’m working a weight-loss program at the moment) every once in awhile (for me, it’s not), but seeing you put my exact feelings into words makes me feel ‘real’. I have a title, I’m an ‘abstainer’ and it works for me. Thanks.
    ( =  

  • Hollowh1

    I would guess that we abstainers are a little harder on ourselves than the more easy-going moderators.  I know that even if I have a tiny square of chocolate, the perfectionist in my whispers that I’ve blown it.  It’s difficult for me to find the success in doing something 50% — or even 80% of the time.  It’s gotta be all or nothin’, baby!

    So grateful for this wonderful insight!

  • clb

    I like the idea of exercising daily.  It just has to be done.  When I tried for 4 times a week something always got in the way and it would becomve 2-3 times.  It could have been too rainy, or I have had a sick kid.  Everytime I beat myself up for already taking my day off.

  • I love this! I’m totally an abstainer. Even though I’ve never really considered the question before, I knew immediately as soon as I started reading your post. How nice to know there are others like me! Every time I try to moderate, I end up overindulging. I do far better if I just cut out the food or whatever completely. People seem to think that’s weird.

    As for getting into the habit of something new, it depends on the activity. I can end up burning out if I’m not careful. I find what works best for me is to put some sort of accountability in place — announce it on Facebook, or tell the people closest to me, or something like that.

  • There’s a strategy I learned about from Martha Beck that seems to relate to this subject, but doesn’t fit exactly into either category.  (I can’t remember where I read it or why it
    works, but I can report that it has been very effective for me.)  It relates specifically to junk food.

    The technique involves flooding your environment with your favorite junk food indulgence.  Like if you would normally buy just one package of cookies (and promptly eat the whole thing) stock your pantry with ten to fifteen packages- so many cookies that you can be confident that you will never run out. Keep it stocked at this level for some time.  The famine/lack/scarcity part of your brain that wants you to hoard and binge seems to quiet way down when it is faced with consistent evidence of plenty.
    When I have tried this technique I begin by allowing myself to eat the junk food without restriction (neither moderating nor abstaining).  And in the first few days there may be a bit of overindulgence, but with time I inevitably become quite indifferent to whatever the food is.  I look in the pantry, I see that food item and register that there will always be plenty of it, and I have hardly any desire to eat it, a sort of natural moderation or abstinence.

    • I think this really works too! In general I’d say I’m an abstainer, but…

      I love kebabs. In my old house, I used to view a kebab as a real treat, and couldn’t resist getting one every time the opportunity arose. Now I live in a flat with at least five kebab shops within a minute’s walking distance, and I don’t eat them all that often. If I really want one, I get one. Otherwise, I’m fine without. It’s not like every time I step out my front door I’m all ‘OMG I must cross the road and get a kebab immediately!’

      Maybe I have moderator potential… it’s definitely something to do with scarcity mindset!

  • I’m a moderator. I can’t workout every single day: I run and strength-train three days a week, then do yoga two times a week. I take the weekends off. Junk food? Only on Sundays, and that’s plenty.

    I go into a tailspin if I consider never having something again or having to do something every single day.

  • ER

    I’m a moderator, but I think your advice about trying to do something every day is great. If you shoot for every day, and miss one day each week, that’s not too bad!

  • Rich Proctor

    I am an abstainer, no doubt about it.

    “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.”

    Great quote, describes me perfectly.

    Moderation for me is a recipe for failure. If I leave myself the opening, I will overindulge every time. I am one who must draw a line in the sand and just refuse to cross it. All or nothing. Period. Once the decision is made and the temptation is removed it is clear sailing. In fact, I pretty much forget about it after that.

  • Amy

    Reading your post made me think of my dad.  Before I was born, he used to smoke cigarettes – a lot of cigarettes.  He quit all at once (“cold turkey”) and hasn’t had a cigarette since.  However, he told me when I was young that he doesn’t feel like he actually quit.  He apparently made a deal with himself when he quit.  He said that smokers sometimes get a super strong craving for a cigarette (which he still gets).  His deal with himself was that if that craving stays with him for two days straight, then he’ll have a cigarette.  That’s never happened, in three decades.  So he somehow struck a magical balance between moderating and abstaining – but has wound up abstaining.

  • I want so badly, like many people, to be a moderator, but unfortunately, in many situations, abstaining is the only way to go. As a diagnosed and self-confessed Compulsive, moderation is a difficult option, and the smartest way to go about some things is to abstain as much as possible, and then, when partaking, take specific action steps to be moderate. There are so many avenues where this can be true for a lot of compulsive people: shopping, food, alcohol; generally the things that are easily labeled as addictions, when they are really better off categorized as target objects with which we apply compulsive behavior.

  • Abstainer. This was a revolutionary discovery for me, because I’d always heard that moderation was easier than total abstention! But it’s far easier for me to do something all the time (or NOT do something all the time, as the case may be) than only every once in a while.

    And I love Dan Pink’s blog, too.

  • Janet M Stenner

    this has been helpful to me and I think I am both at different times e.g Next week I am living below the line on £1 a day for 5 days to try to feel what real poverty is like!! I work for Oxfam and do a 24 hour fast once a year but this will be far harder to do so Ithink that I am an abstainer?? Janet M Stenner.

  • Amandainmd

    It often depends on what is at hand. For example, I am a moderator when it comes to dark chocolate. I can have a very small piece every day and it works because I know i can have some again tomorrow. I am moderate with exercise. I know i can’t get to the gym every single day, so i mke it count when i do.

    On the other hand, with tortilla chips, I have to be an abstainer. I will find a way to incorporate them in every single meal of they are in the house. Seriously, every meal.

  • Alex

    I thought a lot about this, but I don’t think I’m an absolute moderator or abstainer. It depends. The only thing I know is this: if a make a decision, I stick to it. This works for me for everything: from food to gym!

    • Stretching my Imagination

      Stick-to-it-ness is something that I see in myself too as an abstainer.  Somehow there is also that decision to be an abstainer (or maybe it is ingrained?) and adhere to it.  I was just thinking that this is one of those traits that can be used for good or ill, depending on the nature of the decision, the context (i.e. others’ feedback/input might improve the handling of the issue but the mentality of sticking to one’s own thoughts could hurt), etc.  Many sides to the coin to look at in myself… 

  • Gretchen, this might go down as one of your classic posts. So good!

    What’s funny is…I think I’m both. I abstain from things that I’m not too interested in (i.e. most sweets, butter, etc.), but I moderately indulge in things that I truly enjoy (i.e. salty food, coffee ice cream, wine). 

    For me, the keys to moderation thing are:

    1.  To limit what I have in the house. If I don’t allow too many salty snacks in the house at once or if I only allow coffee ice cream in the house on special occasions, I’m okay.

    2.  To limit when I indulge.  I have a glass of wine or two most nights, but I don’t drink it until after 7 or 8 PM.  I’ve found that if I have wine with dinner, then it’s 3 or more glasses a night.  That takes a pleasure of life and turns it into a problem.

    3.  Exercising also helps me big-time! I exercise every day, so if I indulge in too much of anything, I can feel it when I’m exercising. Who wants that?!  Therefore, because I value exercise and what it does for me physically, emotionally, and mentally, I make sure I don’t over-indulge in anything. This way, I’m “happy” with enjoying some of the pleasures of life (salty food, coffee ice cream, or a good glass of wine) and I’m “happy” with the energizing activity of exercising. 

    Again, this was a great post! Thanks for serving and adding value to my life today.

  • maxi

    There is a post below relating to “scarcity”. Yes, she hit on something BIG there.

     I’m an easy abstainer
    except when I think the object of my desire may be “scarce” , like
    yellow chick Peeks at Easter,  which are only available then.  Then I’ll
    give myself “permission” to gorge because I think I will never see them
    again (for a year).

    Or when I travel and find something special that’s “scarce” because it’s
    far away.  I totally overindulge instead of enjoying moderately or abstaining  (potato chips – never, plantain chips in the Caribbean, oh so hard to resist!)  because it hits my scarcity button.

    Or finding a special something on sale like shampoo (of all things)  – I’ll buy 1/2 dozen because I rationalize it will never be at that price again – ha!

    I find it really hard to say, this is not the last Peep in existence or whatever, and be
    able to stop at one or two. And what if it is something scarce, like a special
    food in a town I will never return to???

    Valuable lesson  about how my mind works tho I don’t exactly know the answer. Anybody else do this?

  • Emsuwabu

    HA!  This is so helpful!  And why is it so hard to embrace something about oneself unless an expert declares it as true?  I’ve always had  tendency towards all or nothing.  My husband doesn’t understand why I need to be up at the same time everyday to get exercise in.  He randomly hops on the elliptical, different times of day, different frequencies.  I also need to eliminate a food from the house, pop for example, where as he can take it or leave it even if it’s right there.  

  • I’m definitely an abstainer, like you.  I find it almost easy to give something up entirely than to “sometimes” have it, or to only have a little.  I tend to go overboard or not be able to control my “sometimes” moments.  I’m working on it, though, and getting better.  I’m also very convinced of your “it’s easier to do something every day than 3x/wk” principle — very true!

  • Maggie Mae

    I am ABSOLUTELY an abstainer. I have tried moderation in various aspects of my life and at the urging of SO many others and it just consistently doesn’t work for me. Thanks for identifying the opposing possibilities and making it acceptable to abstain!

  • I think I’m a moderator, though I do sometimes struggle with getting myself to stop once I start something. However, the idea of having to go for a walk every day gets me panicky. If I tell myself to go 4 days a week and do it, I get to celebrate! Whereas if I say I’ll go every day and don’t, I feel like a failure. So maybe that’s a slightly different issue…

  • Ruben

    I’m an indulger 🙂 But yeah, more of a moderator when resolve needs stiffening.

  • Cottoncamby

    Hoo boy! I’m an abstainer for sure. No wonder……..

  • Stretching my Imagination

    As some of the other posters said, as an abstainer, my decision process is something that I’ve decided on already, and now the ‘do it always’ (or almost always) is set.  It doesn’t have to be a decision made each day or each time the issue comes up.  I have to build aspects of ‘moderation’ into the abstainer-driven decision itself if I want those exceptions for when life comes up.  For example, I know if I’m traveling, if it’s a special family event, etc. I won’t be able to get my set exercise or writing in.  So I build that in, saying that on those occasions I am absolved, as it were.  I get to not do it, since I have already decided that other elements are going to take priority as more important to my happiness/well-being.  Again, the decision is made and now I am following it.  Pre-deciding seems to satisfy my abstainer type without making me crazily rigid and unable to function in society, interact with friends, family, work, etc., and  deal with real life where things happen unexpectedly or priorities need to shift.

    Somehow doing this makes me happier, maybe because I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself.  I know that I have already allowed myself X or Y, so it doesn’t bother me and (usually!) doesn’t derail me from the overall trend that I want to form.  Maybe this is just a matter of framing, but it does seem to work for my personality type.  

    What’s interesting to me is the idea of a “streak” – if I’m on a roll doing something, it seems more of a shame to break that by having a day off.  And then it’s harder to get back to it.  But when it’s going, it seems natural.  In the tough moments when other things are pounding away, this voice pops up saying that “hey, you always do that!” and it becomes automatic.   Maybe part of being an abstainer is knowing that I tend to go to polar opposites, all or another, so the defense is to make sure that the undesired pole doesn’t come to pass.  Say I know I need, want, and enjoy taking exercise every day.  I know that if I don’t, not only will I feel entirely lousy mentally and physically, but it’ll be harder to get back to the day after.  So I guard against that lousy feeling that I anticipate will come (based on past experience) by abstaining from the gap.  Self-defense, as it were.

    Another thing that this made me consider is my build-ins.  There seems no way to list everything that might come up, so I have to slot a given situation into one of my boxes.  Is this the type of family event or work obligation or whatever that has been determined to be a ‘moderation moment’? Or is it a voice trying to get me out of something because I don’t feel like it in the given moment? I wonder how other abstainers deal with this.  I try to really consider – and find that if I think too long, the boxes seem fuzzier.  So I have settled on asking myself how will I feel about myself tomorrow if I do one thing or the other (one sorting or the other) and generally go with that.  What techniques/reasoning do other abstainers use? 

  • This is very interesting – I have a life long battle with eating right and being motivated to exercise. I’m always trying to moderate, and it never works.

    Abstaining still sounds daunting, but I am going to try! 

    Or even the opposite of abstaining – yes I WILL exercise 6 days a week, and I will try to enjoy it. (Not as easy as it sounds, it’s winter here in Australia, not the most fun time to start exercising!)

  • Gypsyharper

    I think I’m a little bit of both, actually.   I find, for example, that I cannot have chocolate in the house, because I will eat all of it, right now.  But if I try not to buy it at all, I find I feel resentful and trapped, and then I buy several bags of chocolate, which I eat right now.  What seems to work for me is that I’m allowed to go and buy a candy bar when I feel the urge.  Then I don’t feel deprived, but I don’t eat an entire bag at once either.

  • Megan

    Thank you so much. I always felt guilty over my inability to enjoy guilty pleasures in moderation. I always felt anxiety over how many squares of chocolate I could justify in a day, knowing I wouldn’t stop until it was all gone. 
    From now on I am going to embrace my abstinence rules.

  • What a great post. I’ve never considered that there was a name for these two different ways of thinking. I am absolutely, no doubt, an abstainer. I did a spending fast to eliminate my debt (paid off $23,605.10!) and then a spending diet where I gave myself a $100 “non-need” monthly allowance and it’s insane how much harder the spending diet was. i will be sharing this post. thanks gretchin! 

    p.s. my spending fast/spending diet blog is: http://www.andthenshesaved.com if anyone is interested in learning how to do a spending fast or spending diet

  • Dolores

    Just curious, do you think someone who has a tendency to procrastinate has any affect on them being an abstainer/moderator?

    • Steamboatcook

       Great question!

      • gretchenrubin

        Hmmm…interesting. Procrastination has a lot to do with impulsivity. How does that related to abstainer/moderator? Intriguing!
        I don’t have much issue with procrastination so don’t have any insights from my own experience as an abstainer. How about other people?

  • Snuppy

    Oh yeah.  Looks like I am an abstainer.  Which makes dieting hard sometimes.  Because you have to eat!  It’s easier not to eat bad things at all than to just have a little.   I have always said that dieting to me is harder than I believe giving up say, drugs would be.  Because (in general) you don’t have to have illegal drugs everyday just to live.  You don’t just say “oh I will have a tiny bit and then stop”.  That’s how I feel about junk food sometimes.  Especially at social occassions that involve food.  I would rather not go because I don’t want to even be around bad food.    I have just started exercising and it has certainly been easier to go every day than just 3 times a week.   So now I know I am a gold star craving, overshopping abstainer.

  • joyce

    i just had an aha! moment thanks to you! i am totally an abstainer, like you and dr. johnson! if i make my mind up to give something up, i have no problem. during lent, i gave up sodas and sweets (chocolate and pastries and candy are my downfall). i had no problem with the soda and have actually still not gone back to drinking it as frequently as i used to.  now i’ll only have soda maybe once a week BUT sweets, on the other hand, are still my downfall, as are chips!! i HAVE to make up my mind that i can’t have either in my house or i’ll indulge until it’s gone and that is why i’ve gained 10 pounds since Lent!!  UGH thank you so much for your insightful and knowledgeable blog and posts!! God bless you!


  • Marie Louise

    I’m an abstainer. But blogging when I have the time for it works ok. I’m an abstainer when it comes to things I have to say no to, or things that I have to do that is difficult for me to hold on to. Blogging is just something I love!

  • While I like how you try to simplify this concept, I disagree with it. One because it isn’t this simple and two because while I believe in moderation, I do not consider myself a moderator nor an abstainer. It’s also not particularly unique from Personality Typing (Type A vs Type B) either. Your concept as it is, is a mutually exclusive dichotomy and presumes that an individual must be one or the other. It’s a fixed mindset to believe that you do not have the power to be either of these types, or perhaps a combination (which is the most likely), even if you presently believe yourself to be one or the other. Belief ties into the placebo effect and self-fulfilling prophecy. i.e. I believe I’m a moderator, therefore I exude more and more moderator-type-tendencies, further convincing myself that I am a moderator.

    Typically, if you believe yourself to be a member of either of these groups, then you associate your identity with these traits, and your belief system will prevent you from growing out of them, often assuming that you do not have the power to change it. Also increases the likelihood of attacking people you view as opposite or in disagreement. People are too often either convinced that they need to indulge (= lack of results) or that they must adopt an all-or-nothing mentality (to which there is a relatively good body of knowledge revealing the latter is in fact damaging to our health). These traits are ‘what’ someone views oneself as capable of, not ‘who’ a person is. An important distinction to make…

  • Catherine

    I am definitely an abstainer, but I am beginning to believe that are a lot of times when it would be healthier to strive for moderation. For instance, I recently abstained myself into anorexia and am trying to learn moderation in order to recover.

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  • Bill Frist

    It seems as though I’m the worst of both, as the Abstainer trait of having trouble stopping something once I’ve started applies to me, and the Moderator trait of getting panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something also applies. The idea of the occasional indulgence heightening my resolve or something I’ve declared off-limits no longer being tempting are unfathomable to me.

    • gretchenrubin

      Try this:

      Abstain, but know that you can indulge in moderation IF YOU PLAN IT IN ADVANCE. So, you don’t eat French fries, but you say, “Next Thursday is my birthday, and I will eat French fries on my birthday.” That way, you get to anticipate it, you feel in control of it, and you can limit it.

      But you don’t decide at the moment. You don’t go to a restaurant and think, “Wow, turns out their specialty is French fries, and these look so good I’m going to have them.” Plan in advance.

      Maybe that will let you do both.

      • Bill Frist

        Thanks! I definitely do that “special occasion justification” thing- like your example with the specialty being French fries partially due to the panic of “but this is my only chance! I’ll never get to try this again!”
        … problem is, that makes for “special occasions” almost every day.
        I really like the idea of pre-planned days, as I’m a total black and white thinker. I’m pretty good at deciding certain things are Not An Option and then not thinking about them, but honestly- I have no other excuse- I just don’t want to most of the time. It doesn’t taste as good.
        I think being able to stick to that particular form of moderation would heighten my resolve, though. I’ll try it and see how it goes!

  • Nicole

    ok…found your site by way of a friend and it just might be what I’ve been searching to understand. I abstained for about 7 months, it was hard but easy the longer I went. I ended up indulging on a cruise and haven’t stopped! But I also have a panic attack if I think about not having a dessert ever again. So what am I?? I had shed 80 lbs and have now put a bunch back on (not looking at the scale!!) Is the answer to figure out what exactly I am? I seriously hate food sometimes!! Thanks.

  • Sabra Suever

    I’m an abstainer!!! Gosh this is helpful to know, I was thinking I had to be “easier” on myself by letting down slow, but that never works!! I actually gave up processed food altogether about a year ago, cold turkey, and people are always like “well a little bit won’t hurt, c’mon, have some…” NO! (:

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, people think it’s “easier” to indulge from time to time, but it’s HARDER if you’re an abstainer.

  • Jen Procter, CHt.

    I have realized that I am a good abstainer at certain things, until I have build a kind of separation from them (wine, cookies, cigarettes). After the abstinence period- be it weeks, months, or years, I can revisit some of them but not all. Cigarettes aren’t allowed back in, but wine and cookies are. Also, building a new healthy habit (like running) helps the abstaining along nicely!

  • Jeanne

    My husband is a 12-stepper and feels the need to be a total abstainer. This works for him and is infinitely better than being an addict. Twelve steps teaches total abstinence as the only way. I am a moderator. The thought of “never” is something I can’t deal with. I have friends who are raw vegans (raw vegans!). They claim to love food, but the thought of ruling so much out of my diet would be appalling to me. I really do love food, and I couldn’t stand the thought of saying “never again” to even the food I like the least. All possibilities MUST be open, even if I don’t ever choose them again. I can have a bag of potato chips in my house and not binge on the whole bag. I know many people can’t seem to do this. They will eat the whole bag, the whole box of cookies, or the whole carton of ice cream. They are bingers. No wonder they try to be abstainers. I feel for them… To me, moderation is pretty easy, and the only way to go to enjoy the things that I like.

  • Amit

    Easily an abstainer! Once you decide a thing is off limits, there is no time spent arguing the merits of 4 days or three times a week etc. Especially useful if both parties of the argument live inside your head. Nor is time spent working out cheats for those times you “allow” for excess. And time is priceless.

  • ginsinnot

    Definitely an abstainer. Never thought of it this clearly, great post. I exhuast my willpower when I’m trying to be moderate. And the whole “everything in moderation”, just seems so undefined. If I moderately eat donuts by eating them once a month, but also apply that to every other treat, then I can eat treats everyday….Or walk at a moderate pace, isn’t that different for everone? It just seems so vague and now I know that I like the whole abstain bit better. For some things, things that make sense to me (I also fall equally into rebel questioner categories)

  • Viky Fisher

    I think I might be an abstainer, but when I abstained from caffeine (for example) I decided that I just don’t want to be the kind of person who can’t enjoy a good cup a coffee. So I suppose my struggle is that I would be more effective at establishing habits as an abstainer, but I wouldn’t like myself. I like the idea of creating boundaries instead. I’ll only drink coffee before 4p. I’ll only eat dessert with one meal a day. It’s a kind of moderate abstention?

  • Judy Menzel

    Abstainer. One decision and the rest becomes easy. Far less stressful.

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  • Liesl

    Hmm I don’t feel either defines me. The idea of never doing something again does make me somewhat panicky, but I also have trouble stopping something once I’ve started. I think this is why I have difficulties trying either approach because neither really sits well with me.

  • Alex

    Try and try to be a moderate because it feels like an easy good life, you can do all those things you want. Being an abstainer is hard because everyday life sounds “suffered” and with no joy. There are habits i try to change moderately, but i think the way to go, unfortunatelly, is the absence path.

  • Steve Malerich

    Yes – to both. Some things, I abstain entirely. Many things, I’m moderate. For some of the latter, I got there via the abstaining route. The key (for me) was establishing a new habit.

    Eating: In my late teens I completely quit second helpings and dessert for a year. Once that became normal, I could enjoy the occasional indulgence. But I have to work to maintain the habit, to keep the huge meals and rich desserts as exceptions to my daily routine.

    Exercise: It wasn’t until I made it a daily routine that I was able to stick with it, for it to become habitual. I can miss a day now and then, or even a week if I’m really sick, but I continue to work to maintain the habit. That includes exercising even on days when I don’t feel like it (other than for illness). Even on very busy days, I rarely allow myself to skip it entirely.

  • Andrew

    Moderator. Life’s too short, and little pleasures make it so much richer. I’ll buy a candy bar, and immediately break it in half and throw half away so that I can still have my indulgence and be assured of not going overboard.

  • chuck

    I’m not sure whether people can be put in these two boxes. When i see something as particularly harmful (such as smoking) I am an abstainer. Doesn’t bother me to give up something completely, if I see even a slight chance of my old habit relapsing. Things that are pleasurable but not really good for me (such as french fries) I am a moderator. Bothers me to give up something that is not likely to be harmful if done in moderation. Most paradigms that put people in neat boxes are comforting to the author and perhaps to most readers, but I don’t believe reality works that way.

  • Katia Vladimirovna

    So interesting! I’m definitely an abstainer who has been trying to convince myself to moderate my consumption of sweets. I feel great once I’ve given up sugar, bread, etc. and no long want to consume those after a two-week break. However, if I eat even a small amount of sugar or bread, I will want to eat it constantly. This is very eye-opening for me. Thank you, GR!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great to hear from a fellow Abstainer —

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  • HumaZain

    We can not say that one could be an abstainer or moderator, because i believe no one is perfect. Its human nature even if i talk about myself that i am a moderator , but i love to get experiments different food and taste to bring variety in my life. And i can stop myself where its a matter of good health.

  • I’m sorry I didn’t see this sooner so I apologize for reading and thus commenting so long after this was posted Gretchen. 🙂 As for me, I identified at first as a moderator but by the end of this article, I am indeed an abstainer. I am both a rebel, and an abstainer. When I quit something or start something, I am strongly adamant that I stay away from something I have quit (yes-quitting smoking cold turkey and staying quit) and for the love of all that’s holy, don’t ever try to pull me away from something I’ve started. And just think, I’m ADHD. Ha!

  • CJ

    This is kind of tricky because moderation definitely does. not. work. for me – I just overindulge… but this trait: “aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits” isn’t the case either.

    I am constantly tempted. And sometimes I indulge and I indulge big. Maybe the third type is somewhere closer to an indulger, who abstains in order to go big on rare occasions. Or who ends up abstaining when their version of moderate ends up being much closer to daily indulgence.

  • Sheryl Senkiw

    I absolutely am an abstainer. I guess I already knew that about myself, but your article really clarified it for me, and put it into perspective. Very useful information. Thank you!

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