Gretchen Rubin

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?

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