When Facing Temptation, Are You an All-or-Nothing Person? A Quiz.

This morning, I had a long, heated conversation with a friend about the distinction between Abstainers and Moderators. I really do believe that this is one of the most helpful insights I’ve ever had, about how to change your habits.

Of course, I’ve been thinking non-stop about habits for the book I’m writing, Better Than Before. In it, I identify the strategies that we can use to make and break our habits.  (If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.)

One of my big conclusions: if you want to change a habit, you should start by understanding yourself.

Self-knowledge is so important that I spend two chapters on it. First: the Strategy of the Four Tendencies. It’s very, very helpful to know your Tendency.

Second: the Strategy of Distinctions. Although it’s always a bit artificial to divide people into distinct categories, I find that it’s very helpful. For instance, are you a marathoner or sprinter? When we know ourselves, we gain more command over ourselves.

However, one distinction is so helpful for habit change that I devoted an entire chapter to it: the Strategy of Abstaining.

In a nutshell: “Abstainers” do better when they resist a temptation altogether (I’m an Abstainer). “Moderators” do better when they indulge moderately.

Abstaining is a counter-intuitive and non-universal strategy. It absolutely doesn’t work for everyone. But for people like me, it’s enormously useful.

As an Abstainer, if I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself arguing:” How much can I have?”” Does this time ‘count’?” “If I had it yesterday, can I have it today?” But Abstaining ends those draining debates. I don’t feel deprived at all. If I never do something, it requires no self-control to maintain that habit.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: By giving something up, I gain. As my sister so brilliantly phrased it, “Now I’m free from French fries.”

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

Moderators, for their part, find that occasional indulgence both heightens their pleasure and strengthens their resolve. They may even find that keeping treats near at hand makes them less likely to indulge, because when they know they can have something, they don’t crave it.

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

The key is: Which way is easier for you? I know Abstaining may sound hard, but for me, it’s easier. Truly! Also, what approach allows you to avoid feeling deprived? For good habits, it’s very important not to allow ourselves to feel deprived.

If you’re interested in pushing further into Abstainers and Moderators, consider these questions.

If you’re not having success with being a Moderator, would you give Abstaining a try? I admit that I’m a 100% Abstainer type. You wouldn’t believe what I’m abstaining from these days. That’s a discussion for another day, but here’s a hint: read Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes.

What has been your experience?

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  • statmam

    I have a split personality on this one: For problem areas (e.g. clutter) I find abstaining works best (so no paper newspapers enter the house). For areas that aren’t especially problematic (e.g. diet), moderation is sufficient.

  • Carolyn

    I am an abstainer but didn’t realize it until I read Gretchen’s definition above. I find self knowledge so difficult. Looking forward to the book and hoping it will help me know myself better.

  • PolarSamovar

    I think this is an important distinction. I’m a Moderator. Your description of getting panicky at the idea of “never” is completely accurate. I rarely eat sweets, unless it’s socially awkward not to. But the idea of deciding to never eat cake again would make me freak out and eat an entire cake, just to prove I could.

    Today is a great example. I’ve had a week that was upsetting on every level. I stopped by a little shop on the way home to maybe get some ice cream as consolation. They didn’t have *exactly* the kind of ice cream I was imagining, and I ended up walking out of the store without buying anything. I don’t miss the ice cream; partly because I feel secure that I could totally go get some if I want to. I just don’t feel like driving 12 miles into town.

    But there are some areas where I’d consider myself an Abstainer. While my husband was alive, not only did I not cheat on him, I never considered it. That must have been a strategic choice, now that I think about it. Obviously I must have met other attractive men over the course of 20 years.

    The things we choose to moderate vs. the things we choose to abstain from might be an interesting question. Maybe it’s related to what we believe the stakes to be.

  • sandy

    I am an abstainer 100%. I have tried (unsuccessfully) to be a moderator, but now embrace my true nature.I label my personality “all or nothing”. If it is a good habit, I feel like I try to do it with all I have(exercise) If however I feel its a negative habit( drinking alcohol) I refrain from it completely!!

  • Where’s the quiz?

  • KristenInSanDiego

    I think that someone can be an abstainer AND that it can be hard for them to abstain (just not as hard as moderating). I would suppose that for Gretchen, she finds abstaining to be easy once she makes the rule – not because she is an abstainer, but because she is an “upholder.”

    • Dottie

      This rings true for me. I’m an abstainer, but I’m also an obliger which creates problems for me. I can be swayed into falling off the wagon (and into a face full of whatever food is being offered) if someone close to me pushes my buttons enough. Recently I was trying out the paleo diet and I was doing well with it after the first few days of cravings, but I have a friend that pushes brownies, candy, chips, and just about everything else I don’t want to eat. Once I feel guilty enough about refusing her food offering, I inevitably gorge myself on everything in her house, and going back to paleo the next day is like starting from zero with crazy strong cravings again. I wish I could unlearn being an obliger…

  • Sarah Vail

    I am surely an abstainer. I try to do things in moderation, and I know I can’t continue to abstain if I “open the floodgates”. Once I start on that cookie dough, it’s all over. This distinction is an eye opener to me, and I see that I need to look more carefully at why I fail at losing weight or stray from a budget. I’m looking forward to reading more of your material!
    Any thoughts about research on this topic?

  • I think there are some things (ice cream, perhaps, mentioned below by PolarSamovar) where moderation makes total sense, and then others (adultery, as mentioned below!) where being a moderator really shouldn’t even be an option on the table! The tricky thing can be to know where that line needs to be drawn. It’s in our nature to overestimate ourselves sometimes, thinking “we can quit anytime” but really not having the willpower we think. Good post, and some really great comments too.

    • Agnes

      As I’ve commented before, I think part of the attraction of abstaining is just that it’s simple. So finding a simple rule that leads to moderation can be useful. “I don’t eat ice cream at home” could be abstaining or moderation depending on your point of view.

      • gretchenrubin

        Absolutely.

  • Claudia Tiefisher

    I am an abstainer with a bit of “moderation” thrown in. I can abstain 100% if it makes sense for me to do so (for example, I eat no grains now, thank you Gary Taubes, author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why we Get Fat” and also to Nina Teicholz, author of “The Big Fat Surprise”) because they have made their case conclusively. However, because I’m not ALLERGIC to said grains (or even to wheat gluten) I can make an exception once in a while to eat something I suspect may have wheat in it (a good example would be salad dressing or soy sauce) (after all, it won’t kill me). I won’t then splurge on “healthy” whole grain bread because I blew it because the soy sauce contained wheat protein.

    I’ve also cut added sugar completely from my diet, but a couple of days ago we were at a friend’s house celebrating a birthday. For dessert, there were six different kinds of pie, fruit salad, and a big tub of vanilla ice cream. I had a bit of ice cream for the occasion on some fruit salad (though no pie) because the no grain is more important to me than the no sugar. However, I didn’t then the next day scarf a bunch of candy or sugary flavoured yogurt, figuring I’d blown it. The habits are well seated so one or two minor and uncommon exceptions are not nearly enough to knock me off my horse.

    I think Agnes’ point to JK Riki’s post is well thought out. I never have ice cream at home either. For example, we have season’s tickets to the symphony in our city and there is a Häagen Dazs ice cream vendor in the lobby. So when we go to the symphony I have an ice cream with my family. (It’s getting to the point though, where these “sugar exceptions” aren’t all that wonderful … everything sweet tastes sickeningly so now after having given up sugar).

  • Lisa

    Fascinating discussion. I am very curious about Kristen’s comment regarding the affect of one personality trait (upholder) on another abstainer. I am another of those that feel I am some of both. Abstaining definitely works for me (so glad I found it). For example, my family decided that there was too much we didn’t want see in many movies. We spent a lot of time deciding which movies and for which reasons, and couldn’t I see just this one, etc. Now we just don’t see R rated movies. No thought involved. Every once in awhile I notice a movie that I wish wasn’t R rated, but rather than go back to deciding about each film, I just remind myself that it’s only a movie. On the other hand, I get completely panicky at the thought of never having chocolate again, and then go on a binge. What does that make me? A split personality?

    • gretchenrubin

      Abstaining is a way of dealing with a strong temptation. When you’re not strongly tempted, moderation usually works fine. So most people who are Abstainers with some things (e.g. ice cream) are also Moderators with other things (like potato chips).

      I’m an Upholder and Abstainer, but I know Abstainers of all Tendencies – including Rebels. At first I was surprised to meet a Rebel Abstainer, then I realized that actually that wasn’t surprising. And many Upholders are Moderators.

      • KristenInSanDiego

        I see that there can be all sorts of combos – e.g., I think that I’m an Obliger for whom abstinence from sugar works best… BUT I still find abstaining so difficult, maybe because living up to a rule I set for myself is difficult and so often there is not another person present to feel Obliging to. I suppose I need to come up with other accountability strategies to get myself to stick with it. Thanks for the thought provoking work, Gretchen!

        • gretchenrubin

          Abstainer and Moderator operate along a different trajectory from the Four Tendencies.
          For instance, I’m an Upholder Abstainer, but a friend is a Rebel Abstainer, and another friend is an Upholder Moderator.
          Abstaining/Moderating relates to how you deal with TEMPTATION

          Four Tendencies relates to how you deal with EXPECTATION.

  • DebbieS

    I think it definitely depends on what area of your life you’re talking about. I would say I’m a moderator for diet. I’ll have a treat and may feel a bit guilty, but that eventually subsides because I know I don’t eat that food all the time. And when I do have it, I really appreciate it. Other areas of life, like smoking or drugs, I am an abstainer. Why bother even trying it? No good can come from it.

  • Kate

    Hi Gretchen, I’ve just bought the book by Gary Taubes at your recommendation. I wanted to check back on what you’d said on it, since I remembered you had mentioned the book. I searched “Gary Taubes” and it listed a few posts where you’ve mentioned this book, and said about your diet change “that’s a story for another day” – I was wondering if you would be doing a blog post about that as it would be so interesting to read!!

    • gretchenrubin

      I haven’t yet, but will do that soon.

      I’m posting an interview with Gary Taubes next week, so that’s coming as well.
      I write a lot about it in BETTER THAN BEFORE, but that won’t be out until March.
      I’m so happy to hear that you’re intrigued with the subject —

  • NIL

    – have trouble stopping something once you’ve started

    That’s me, with my strongest temptations.

    – aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits

    Works to a large degree, but I don’t truly abstain from anything.

    – find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve
    I think this may be true.

    – get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something
    That’s me.

  • PRASAD SN

    True that ‘all or nothing’ never works in the long run. It is like making human decisions on the basis of binary system without any room for discretion. The very foundation of human values rest on Interpretation, Discretion, Perception of Value and Love which can never find form if the decisions are All or Nothing

  • emgroop

    I just finished reading “Better Than Before” and thought I was a moderator for a specific habit I was trying to break. However I found out that it was more of an excuse and I needed to become an abstainer to truly break that habit. I’m using one of your techniques you discussed in your book where you give yourself 60 days of abstaining. I’ve actually found that adding in an accountability partner or cheerleader (aka my husband) helps. I was faced with giving in yesterday and I couldn’t wait to text him after to tell him I abstained. Thanks for all you do!

  • Brian Schwartz

    i wish this was an actual interactive quiz like buzz feed or survey monkey.

  • I found this confusing, perhaps because I am thinking of different habits from you. For me, temptation is not even part of a habit; a habit is automatic, with no thought or temptation involved (nail-biting, defaulting to take an elevator instead of stairs, getting angry at your pet peeve, etc. – examples of habits I have broken, by the way). Awareness can play a role, but often we are not even aware of what our habits involve or that we are doing them.

    I think the distinction might have value in the negative sense of intentionally giving up something (ice cream). I think it has less value in the positive sense of intentionally doing something (going to the gym). Do you abstain from not going to the gym? I do not think that sort of double-negative would not fail for many people. 🙂

    For most habits, however, I am not even sure how abstention could be used. A person usually is not tempted to bite nails, then decides to do it or not to do it; instead, one finds themselves biting nails and wondering, “What am I doing?” or “How do I stop?” With habits driven by motivators like anxiety, anger, discomfort, etc., addressing the underlying emotions may be more helpful.

  • Bridgett Mahoney

    I am an abstainer because if I love something, I get obsessive. I can crave things off-limits for a while, but eventually I adjust. Often it is easy if my energy is redirected.

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