Video: For Habits, the Strategy of Abstaining, or, How To Be Free From French Fries.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of Abstaining. This is one of my favorite strategies — but then, I’m a 100%, total Abstainer.

Abstainers find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. If they try to be moderate, they exhaust themselves debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count’?” “Don’t I deserve this?” etc. Once they’ve decided something is off-limits, they don’t think about it anymore.

Moderators, by contrast, feel trapped and rebellious if they try to abstain. They do better when they indulge sometimes, or a little bit.


If you’re having trouble figuring out your category, take this quiz.

Abstaining may sound rigid and hard, but for Abstainers, it’s easier than trying to be moderate

I have to tell this story about my sister the sage again, because I love it so much.

When I was identifying the concepts of “abstainers” and “moderators,” my sister was my model moderator. For instance, her weakness is French fries, and she told me that she couldn’t give up French fries, but she would eat only half an order, share an order with her husband, not order fries every time she went out to dinner, etc. Those are moderator strategies.

But to my astonishment, a few months ago, she told me, “You know what? I’m actually an abstainer. It turns out that it’s just easier to give something up altogether. “

But I know something else about my sister. While I find it easy to say “No,” “Stop,” or “Never” to myself, my sister is a person–and many people are like this–who does much better with positive resolutions. (I posted about this difference in Are you a “yes” resolver or a “no” resolver?) So I asked her how she was handling that issue. Because, after all, abstaining means saying “no.”

My sister is so brilliant with words.

She said to me, “You’re right, I can’t tell myself a negative. I have to make this a positive thing. So I tell myself, “Now I’m free from French fries.”

Free from French fries!

That’s exactly how abstaining feels to me. I’m free from decision-making, free from internal debate, free from guilt or anxiety.  That Halloween candy, that bread basket, that cookie plate at the meeting…they don’t tempt or distract me. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: I give myself limits to give myself freedom.

But the Strategy of Abstaining doesn’t work for Moderators.

Know yourself! It would be so nice if a magic, one-size-fits-all solution existed for habits. But there’s no single correct approach. To change your habits, you have to figure out yourself.

How about you? Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator? How has that influenced how you’ve tackled your habits?

  • Gillian

    Oops, Gretchen. Your link to the quiz doesn’t work.

  • HL

    The test about whether we can just eat one square of a bar of chocolate is a great one. In that way, I am definitely a moderator: can eat one square a day till it’s done.
    But can a person better abstain from certain things and better moderate for other things? I may need to go cold turkey when it comes to websurfing, including your page, Gretchen. 😉

    • gretchenrubin

      Absolutely, people can be a mix – and most people are.

      This has to do with how you resist a STRONG temptation.

      Even I, a hardcore Abstainer, can be moderate about things that don’t strongly tempt me. For instance, TV is not an issue for me. I like it, but I don’t have to abstain from it. But cookies, yes.

  • Gillian

    I get the point about abstaining altogether being easier than moderating but I find it too discouraging to say that I will never again have a particular thing I enjoy. Never is a long time. I tend more to the “planned exception” approach. For example, I love chocolate but milk chocolate is just too “moreish” – it is very difficult to have just
    one square. Dark chocolate, on the other hand, is not as delicious, sweet or moreish so I allow myself one square every evening and only rarely need a second piece. It gives me a little treat without tempting me to eat a whole bar.

    Another example is cake, which I also love (I inherited my mother’s sweet tooth; for her, dinner was just an excuse to have dessert). I avoid it most of the time but do indulge when I go out for dinner (which isn’t often) or at a social occasion or group meeting. The other exception is the occasional Sunday afternoon when my husband and I sit down for a kaffee klatsch. He is German and afternoon coffee and cake is an integral part of the German living culture. It isn’t only about stuffing yourself with cake. It is about the intimacy, coziness and “gemütlichkeit” that go with it. For him, it is wrapped up in family tradition and fond memories of his mother who was an excellent baker. As he says, it isn’t about feeding the body, it is about feeding the soul. So the Obliger in me gives in on some Sundays. Expecting him to sit by himself eating cake or to join him and not eat would be cruel because the companionship is part of the whole exercise. Of course, I love the cake and the atmosphere too!

    All in all, I think I am a moderate abstainer, if that isn’t an oxymoron. One strategy that I find helps with abstaining is not to say “never” but rather to say “I don’t need that today; I can always have some tomorrow if I really feel like it”. But of course, that gets into the decision-making realm again.

    While I think self-discipline and self-control are hugely important, life is too short to completely deny ourselves all the little pleasures it has to offer. They are often what lift the spirit and provide energy for more discipline. I guess that’s a moderator talking. This is where I would love to see an interview with Frances Mayes – my impression is that she has this skill down pat.

    • gretchenrubin

      Spoken like a true Moderator.

    • theshubox

      I love this.

    • Judy

      Gillian, thank you for your description of kaffee klatsch with your husband. It’s a good reminder, for both Moderators and Abstainers, that feeding the soul – and strengthening our relationships with others – is just as worthy of our time and effort as the adoption of healthy routines and the elimination of bad habits. Here in Texas even the strictest Abstainer I know will occasionally break down for Tex-Mex and a margarita with friends and family. She knows it’s important to be part of something beyond herself from time to time.

  • Shannon H

    I never thought I was an abstainer till I gave up sweets for 3 weeks before Easter (not part of Lent, just in hopes of fitting into a certain skirt LOL). It was suddenly easy to pass up desserts because I had a bright line rule. Who knew?! So after Easter (and still not able to fit in the skirt) I kept it up–and I’m now down about 10 pounds. But as you discussed recently, I’m a “mostly abstainer,”–I feel free to cheat on certain occasions (when I’ve planned ahead).

  • Penelope Schmitt

    All you have written convinces me that I am an abstainer . . . but gee, it seems to be hard to commit consistently to those bright line choices! I keep on trying to be a moderator anyway.

  • theshubox

    I always thought I was a moderator. I decided to change to eating in the paleo style (probably much more in your style 🙂 ) 2 weeks ago and abstaining has actually felt oddly freeing. (I also feel a million times better and love eating whole foods so much that I don’t really miss the grains and such, at least not yet). Although I decided to keep dark chocolate, and I did just eat one square and am done, so I guess I’m a mix like most people.

    It actually makes me think about whether I should try abstaining from other things, like Facebook and certain internet habits. I’d love to hear more non-food examples of those who were able to abstain from other things!

    • Gillian

      Glad you can get by without the grains. It’s not working for me! I read the Taubes “Why We Get Fat”. It makes a fair bit of sense but I cannot accept it all. I started by changing my breakfast (4 days a week) from high-carb, high-fibre to a cooked protein/fat, no-carb breakfast. Modified lunch somewhat and left dinner much as always. After 3-weeks, I gave in this morning and had a small cooked breakfast and a small bowl of cereal. I need the grains for the fibre! A lunch time salad and veggies with dinner do not provide enough. I went from being regular as clockwork to being very uncomfortably irregular (hope that’s not too much information) and that is definitely not healthy.

      I did not do this to lose weight but to help maintain my existing weight. At the beginning, I lost 2 pounds (probably water) then stabilized.

      I understand the science about the insulin, etc. but I think we need carbs just like we need fruit, veggies, protein, etc. – a healthy balance. I don’t buy into the line that we have not evolved to handle grains. And the assertion that we should limit our fruit intake is, to me, foolish. At this time of year with all the berries and fruits available, a gift from Nature, it is a sin not to enjoy them. As usual, I take in the “expert” information, apply my own logic and common sense and come to my own conclusion. I will be reducing my carb intake somewhat, but not as much as Taubes and others recommend.

      40 years ago, I bought margarine because the experts said it was healthier than butter. Then I read the label, decided it could not possibly be healthy, and returned to butter. Decades later, the experts all decided that margarine is bad for you. Glad I ignored them in the first place.

      Most of the chronic diseases of today are a result of us living longer. In prehistoric times, I suspect the average lifespan was 30-40 years. They died before they had time to become obese, or get diabetes or cancer.

      As a moderator, I will continue with what I feel is a balanced diet for me, that makes me feel well and that is not a very low-carb diet but a moderate-carb diet.

      The more I think about it all, I think that in most areas of life, being a moderator is better, healthier and more fulfilling. It is just a case of us each figuring out how to most effectively be moderate. I can see the simplicity of abstention and in some cases it is probably a good idea but the price for me is too high.

      • theshubox

        To clarify, I’m doing paleo which is grain free but not super low carb. Still eating fruit, sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash, etc. Luckily no GI issues!

      • Mimi Gregor

        I, too, have read Taube’s book, and have applied a lot of what he said to my eating habits because the way he explained it made sense to me. I think that most of the chronic diseases of today are the result of the chemicals that go into the processed food that most people eat. I’ve been a cook-from-scratch person for a while… except for a few things. Now, I’ve cut out those few things that I don’t cook from scratch — like bread (which I used to eat every day) and canned soups (I make up huge batches myself and freeze them in small portions for convenience). But I haven’t given up carbs entirely. I treat them more as a condiment now — very small portions of rice or pasta. And I no longer fall back on pasta several days a week. I buy more meat — always at the farmer’s market. In fact, the bulk of my food dollar now is spent at the farmer’s market and produce stands. I buy organic, which I didn’t do before. It costs more, but it’s still a bargain when you think of what processed food is doing to us.

        • Gillian

          Totally agree, Mimi. I have been following that regime for many years. I avoid packaged foods as much as possible, buy organic and local produce as much as possible, and buy my meat from a local butcher who sells only non-medicated meat. We have a very small local farmers’ market with a limited selection but I buy as much there as I can. I will now modify my carb intake, especially the refined sugars, but will still be eating some whole grains. The solid protein breakfasts every day weigh my system down. They don’t feel healthy.

          • Mimi Gregor

            I don’t think that we can have a “one size fits all” mentality about food. Some people do well with certain ways of eating, and some don’t. Proponents of the Paleo diet say that man has not evolved to eat dairy, hence lactose intolerance. However, some people do have the ability to eat dairy with no problem (fortunately, I am one of them!) Evolution doesn’t always take millennia to occur. Sometimes it only takes a generation or two (punctuated equilibrium). A really good book about how evolution works in real time is The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.

    • gretchenrubin

      Interestingly, most are technology related: TV, Facebook, World of Warcraft, Ruzzle, sites like StreetEasy or gossip/sports sites.

  • Binky

    I’m thinking: Gretchen your too young to really understand happiness at anything but a surface level. You have not weathered enough of life yet to be able to focus on maintaining happiness in the face of the transitions and the losses that come with being alive. To commit to being happy is a radical revolutionary act and one cannot really teach the mechanics of it until they have learned about the cycles and rhythms that life throws at you and how to dance in those cycles . Hardfast rules never last because everything changes. To move with those changes gracefully and still be open to the grand adventure life offers is both a practice and a path.

    • Gillian

      Lovely comment. Especially “how to dance in those cycles “. Life is, or should be, so much more than daily routines and regimens. The important parts of life are about spontaneity and joy and simple pleasures. We need a framework of discipline which involves, to a degree, habits but that is just the supporting skeleton which is fleshed out with the all the other beauties of living.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I really think that experience + willingness to learn from experience can equal wisdom at a very early age. Some young people suffer greatly and learn early what many elderly people who have no desire to learn or an exceptionally smooth life path (I have met some people like this) never get a clue. Wisdom is not automatically earned with years, it is earned by being open to what life can teach — and alas, life can be quite a brutal instructor.

  • Richard Phinneas

    Huh. I guess I’m a moderator. I never even realized there was a difference, but what if you have moments where you’re an abstainer, when it comes to certain foods that are your absolute favorites? Is it more important to be one over the other? I think everything is fine in moderation, but then moderation itself isn’t fun either.

  • Brittany

    Happiness has nothing to do with age, and I would argue depth of happiness has nothing to do with age either. Understanding and wisdom may come with age (note: May) but it is no guarantee. Just like success and good health an any number of other blessings don’t produce happiness, or at least the attainment alone of those things doesn’t produce happiness. It seems Gretchen’s work has proved happiness is consciousness, to large degree, rather than circunstantial.

    • Brittany

      This is regarding a previous comment.

  • Susan

    This is fascinating as so much of the “know yourself” chart of Better Than Before is. I feel I’m typically a moderator. I am, however, more successful with full juice fasting than partial, then I realized I moderate the days before and after the abstention. I wondered if eating might provoke a different answer than other activities, but realized it’s not the chemical dependency that creates or breaks the habit- it’s knowing what about you formed the eating habit in the first place that makes food a good example.

  • sandy

    “I give myself limits to give myself freedom.” I LOVE that! I am an abstainer for sure.

  • Nicola

    I have been trying to work out if I’m a moderator or an abstainer for quite a while now, neither approach seemed to quite fit. Your chocolate example has brought it into clear focus though, I must be mostly abstainer because I have a lot of difficulty saying no to more of things I love, so while it pains me to think that I’m going to have to give up things I love but that also make me unhappy because they’re bad habits, now at least I know it will be the easier more effective approach. I must admit I did swear out loud just now when I realised the truth, I’d much prefer to have the control of a moderator, but clearly this is not the case. :S

    • gretchenrubin

      The nice thing is that, when Abstainers embrace their abstaining nature, they find it EASIER. Generally they feel relief and freedom, and don’t miss the things they’re giving up (mostly) nearly as much as they expect. So they feel much better than before, once they get underway.

      That’s certainly my experience. When I think: what do I enjoy more: the fleeting pleasure of a delicious brownie, or the freedom from cravings, remorse, bargaining, the noise in my head (now, later, today, tomorrow, just one, I earned it, I deserve it)? For me, it’s definitely the latter. Yes, “we only live once,” but for me, I’m much happier when I don’t eat the brownie.

      But again, this is true for ABSTAINERS!!! Moderators, no one is trying to persuade you to abstain! Let us do our thing and you do your thing!

      • Nicola

        Well so far my new knowledge of myself has helped me make some really good easy to follow rules. Only time will tell of course, but I think this just might work 🙂

  • Liz Z

    I’m definitely a moderator. We have a cafeteria in our building at work and it is very easy to eat everything I shouldn’t whenever I want. Rather than tell myself I can’t eat there, which not only makes me rebel instantly, but also restricts my social interactions which I really need to focus more on (I’m a huge introvert), I tell myself I can have one breakfast and one lunch there a week. I like to save my breakfast for Friday morning when things are a little less stressful, and I often don’t even eat lunch there all week. It does give me the freedom to go in at lunch and browse the choices, before deciding that what I brought that day is better than the options in the cafeteria.

    I’ve also learned to change my mindset and give in to “cravings.” I’ve been craving cottage cheese (I modify a bit and eat 2% milkfat, 30% less sodium version) and fresh pineapple for a few weeks now, so treat myself to that for breakfast most mornings. The funny thing for me is that I can remember when that was diet food and people felt forced to eat it. Learning to see something as a positive not a negative can have a huge impact on self-control.

    My husband, on the other hand, is an abstainer. As a smoker he’s had to be when he quit, and knows that when he quits again it will be when he’s ready to commit to just stopping. He’s always on me about “how can you expect to lose weight if you’re cheating?” He thinks that if I quit eating chocolate and cheese the weight would magically drop off.

    Sometimes I have to be an abstainer though, because I know that once I take one donut from that box on the table at work, I’ll keep going back until the box is empty. If I can just keep telling myself I can have one later until other people empty the box, I’m good.

  • Megan

    Hmm… I think I’m a mix. I can “abstain” from sweets through the week and then allow myself something on the weekend. I think this is more abstaining than moderating because I’m setting up strict rules – “No treats on weekdays”, and not just saying I can indulge “sometimes”. To me, “moderation” would be more relaxed, like having to decide yes or no each time I’m confronted with a sweet. I’m saying “no” through the week, and “yes” sometimes on the weekends. Or maybe I am a moderator…. or both. I don’t know!

  • Prue

    100% abstainer all the way. That said I’m not necessarily good at abstaining but I know moderating doesn’t work for me. Like you Gretchen, there’s some things that don’t tempt me so I’m fine to moderate with. But there are also some things I can’t moderate but refuse to abstain from. Like reading before bed. I’m the most hopeless “just one chapter” person ever but it brings so much pleasure I refuse to abstain!