Abstainer vs. Moderator

I love summer – it’s by far my favorite season of the year. While the summer solstice (6/21) is the official beginning of summer, I always view summer as being bookended by Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. So – for me, summer has begun.

As I was walking Brooks this morning for his early morning poop, I pondered the dynamic of “abstainer” vs. “moderator” which Amy pointed out to me comes from Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project. I’ve never known how to moderate particularly well, in any aspect of my life, so I’ve always been an abstainer. For example, I’m afraid of drugs, so I simply don’t do them – I abstain, since I’m concerned that if I started I wouldn’t know how to moderate.

Another example is my struggle with eating. I’ll use sushi as an example. If I’m part of a group sushi experience, I don’t know how to moderate. I’ll eat whatever is in front of me until it’s gone – sometimes a legendary amount of sushi. So – the only way for me to control myself is either to have a separate order to myself (e.g. abstain from the group plate) or use extreme effort to moderate and only have a reasonable amount. Same with bread or tortilla chips – if they are on the table I eat them all. My only way of not doing this is to abstain completely.

This applies to my work. I’ve always struggled to moderate – that’s part of why I chronically have gone through my annual boom / bust cycle where I completely wear myself out by the end of the year and have to abstain for a while. My Qx vacations – quarterly weeks off the grid – are a version of abstaining. My daily schedule is another example of this – and something that I’ve recently started approaching very differently as I’ve grown weary of being schedule from early morning to the end of the day.

Most recently, Digital Sabbath is another example of this for me. I’m now shutting down completely from Friday night at sundown to Sunday morning. I’ve been doing this for few months and think it will become a rest-of-the-life habit. It’s been fantastic for me and Amy. No phone, no email, no work. Just living for a day a week. Yesterday we slept late, wandered around Boulder a little, had brunch at Snooze, binge watched the rest of Season 1 of Revenge, had dinner with friends, and just lived.

I know that I don’t know how to moderate, whether it’s food, work, relationships, sports, communication, or something new. I’m all in and the only way for me to manage the total load is to abstain from some things and create specific times where I abstain from most everything.

Are you an abstainer or a moderator? How do you think about this?

  • DJ

    Definitely an abstainer. I’m pretty militant about my diet and exercise, and if I fall off the wagon for more than a couple days it can take me weeks to get back on track. I’ve found that setting certain rules or habits about my daily life serve as guard rails for overall fulfillment. More broadly, I’ve found that I’m happiest when I have a fairly consistent daily work routine. Not that I would like working on an assembly line, but I would hate being a jetsetter.

  • I’ve completely cut out some stuff that I can’t (won’t?) moderate, like drinking + riding street bikes. I’m pulling back on some other stuff, too, tho I wouldn’t [yet] call it abstaining.

    I think these cycles are pretty normal + reflect healthy adjustments in lifestyles as we grow up / get older. In my case, I decided that the ‘feel like crap the next day’ that came w/ drinking was no longer worth the ‘fun’ the night before, so I quit three years ago.

    My choice to quit street riding was even simpler: I really don’t know how (or just won’t) take it easy when I ride. Since the consequences of me getting hurt / killed now includes my family, I stopped. I’ve been reluctant to get another street bike for this reason.

  • The way I tackle this is, is to ask myself – AM I FREE or AM I PRISONER?

    Looked at this way “freedom” becomes the abnormality. No matter whether that challenge is inward as an individual imprisoned by their own biochemistry or outward as an individual imprisoned by political chemistry – the challenge is to look freedom in the eye – which is where do we accept the nature of our imprisonment and where do we challenge ourselves to be “free”.

    Abstaining and moderating IMHO can only be done in the state of imprisonment – but remaining with the problem and understanding it’s nature is the only form of “free will” that exists. I don’t know how to tap into my own free will, otherwise I will be addressing this as a highly transformed individual.

    What prevents me from a transformational life (which is “freedom” itself) is being tethered to my own weakness – my continual failure to exercise free will. Most of us don’t have the courage to examine the truth that is within us because we don’t have the strength, or if we have the strength, we have overriding fears adding unfortunate weight – the very heaviness created by own thoughts, actions and the environment.

    If it took a long way to be the way I am, does that correlate it to take a long way to be what I am capable of being? That question becomes one of the bars of my own prison. Those bars are the ones I have added, in addition to the bars that society has placed, or our past or environment as dug in.

    So since I have done nothing significant as to gaining my freedom, I can continue to look at what my life is in my prison. Then I ask myself what the nature of words are – are my own words – ” a sentence”. Have I in anyway sentenced myself by the actual words I use, and more so did I really “choose” to use them.

    Take a simple word switch from “abstaining” to “disenablement” and “moderating” to enablement. So the question here for me becomes a different one – what am I enabling?

    I don’t know – and if I don’t know and have not examined the roots of my own truth, how can I help anyone else know what their roots are – when I don’t know my own life?

    IMHO freedom is not an end, it’s a beginning – here then is my question How do I enable such freedom? The answer to this freedom cannot exists in someone else if I am to be free, as long as I remain in my own self-sentencing imprisonment.


  • Alexander Peschkofff

    Great post, Brad. I guess the problem with being a moderator is “how much is enough”. Take sushi as an example: how do you moderate? 10 pieces? What if you are not hungry even after 8? Or the lunch still carries on nicely after 12 (or you saw a nice fresh sashimi after you had your 10 pieces). Same with work: a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. If you have something urgent to finish and it takes an extra more hour than “moderated”?

    That’s why abstaining works better – you simply don’t have a choice (or don’t have to think where exactly do draw a line). “Nothing” is actionable, “not to much” is subjective. Cialdini covered that well (only in reverse), e.g. http://faculty.babson.edu/krollag/org_site/soc_psych/cialdini_door_face.html

  • John Fein

    You’re certainly ahead of the game by being able to identify when you need to abstain. I’m a moderator but am close with abstainers. I wonder how much of the all-or-nothing behavior stems from dopamine levels. Those with chronically low dopamine levels will consume certain things – alcohol, drugs, certain foods – to essentially self medicate by boosting dopamine. But of course the danger comes in when the brain tells us “a little feels good, so more must be better!” Though I built one of the largest pharmacies in the world, I’m not a fan of any kind of drugs but wonder if most extreme behaviors are caused by chemical imbalances coupled with emotional needs/triggers.

  • I totally get this – I am an abstainer as well. I attribute my habits to a strong need for closure – it’s not that I want to eat all the tortilla chips, it’s that I want the basket to be empty. I will eat everything on my plate – regardless of how much is there – because the plate needs to be empty. Frankly – and not to make you feel bad – your binge watching of Revenge is the same trait.

    I don’t have a magic formula for success, I just keep trying to remind myself that no matter how much I “close” today, there’s a bunch left open I will want to do tomorrow. So it never ends. And I also remember how miserable I feel after I overeat, so that helps too 🙂

    But that same trait is what allows us to jog and stick with it, to work on startups when most others would give up, and to have that persistence that everybody admires about you.

    • I have the same “basket needs to be empty” problem. I attribute a lot of this to my OCD.

    • the plate needs to be empty


  • fwmiller


    • Thanks, always like to add a word a day to the vocab 🙂

      • fwmiller

        The word is mostly used with a simple meaning, i.e. in all things in moderation. However, the actual meaning is more subtle. I recommend Plato’s Charmides and Symposium for full discussions of the meaning of this underappreciated concept. The bottom line is this. The ability to moderate is to display self control. This is something people need to be aware of and work on their whole lives, it doesn’t necessarily come easy. However, few personal struggles yield greater rewards than self awareness and moderation.

  • Ben Kepes

    Brad – awesome post. I always find it hard to explain to folks why I tend to eat only one meal a day. People say I must have amazing self control – in fact it’s my lack of self control that drives me to that somewhat crazy approach to eating – once I start, I can’t really control what I do – buffets are a nightmare since I’m so binary in my approach. Same for exercise – I find it hard to get motivated, but once I am I find ii hard to stop… Always wondered if some kind of hypnotherapy would be effective to this sort of obsessive/compulsive approach to life… hmmm…

  • I’m totally with you — I’m terrible at moderation. I need to abstain to not do something. Self awareness is a powerful thing…

  • The digital sabbath is a good reminder that you need to live your life, and not just work for it, no matter what. Work always expands to fill the time you give it, and you can always return to it, but life passes by and you can’t re-play it. It’s the Now moment that’s so important. Life is made of memories.

    That said, I believe in moderation re: food…except if you place a plate of bbq’ed lamb shops in front of me. I would challenge your sushi plate. But in work, I tend to perform more efficiently with deadlines and time pressures.

  • I am an extreme moderator. If there is a 6 pack of beer in the house, I’ll usually make it last a week, sometimes two. Consequently, it can be hard for me to form habits… good or bad.

  • Gretchen Rubin is the author of an article that made me cringe when I read it, “The Eight Splendid Truths of Happiness”. So, as I frame my response to this post, it is in the context of a certain lack of practicality inherent in some philosophical views. My answer is, “It depends, or needs to be further qualified”… which seems to be my answer to a lot of absolute questions. Let’s go with “I moderate” for now.

    If I feel a need to arbitrate my cookie eating habits (wife makes the BEST cholocate chip from scratch…), I moderate it with two things. First, a healthy helping of fresh veggies during dinner. Second, a positive mental reinforcement of my desire to exercise (more vigorously) the next morning. In this way, I get to reward myself with as many cookies as my veggie-stuffed tummy can realistically handle, only to convert the surplus to energy shortly thereafter. I get three healthy benefits from this, whereas if I were to moderate by “only eating one”, I would get zero.

    This carries over into all sorts of situations, and may be distilled as “moderation via efficient risk mitigation and creative reinforcement of good behavior”. In this view, abstinence should be a last resort.

  • Abstainer trying to fake it as a moderator with varying results. I think part of the chemical makeup that causes depression has some serious tie ins with the moderation controls as well, at least IMHO. Great to hear the positive results you’ve had with the digital sabbath.

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  • jerrycolonna

    I’ve often oscillated between abstaining and bingeing. I often likened it to my expereinces as a kid. I’d commit some heinous sin and then go to confession and be absolved. I’d make a deal with God that I would abstain and fairly soon I’d be over the top again.
    I think bingeing and abstaining are, in fact, two aspects of the same challenge. They’re energetically the same…they both deplete.

    I wrote a bit about this in a piece called “What I Learned from Eating Oreos.” http://bit.ly/alkVSe

  • Hmmm, I’m leaning toward abstainer but I’d call it “all or nothing”. I’ll do 3 – 90 day rounds of P90X & then nothing at all for 6 mos. I used to think “If I feel this good after 1 martini- I’ll feel 3x as good after 3” (wrong). I have found I need to do active stuff every day or else… I do absolutely nothing, I can’t exercise 3 x a week, it just won’t happen.

    With alcohol, I realized the happiest moment was the moment I sat down and ordered the cocktail. I began to relax and enjoy life right at that moment, it was a symbolic trigger to my body saying “now it’s time to relax & have fun”. We have a joke in my family that I don’t need to actually drink the cocktail, just order it & it has the same effect on me.

    This has really had an impact on my life when I can remember to do it…. checking in with myself to see how I’m feeling. Creating happy moments for myself as often as possible. I *love* having a Scandal, Revenge NetFlix marathon- it’s such a treat. Rich & I did the same thing with Twin Peaks on dvd in the ’90’s. 🙂 (Now it’s Vampire Diaries with my teenage daughters) That’s not “binge watching” – that’s called great tv. ha ha And it makes me very happy, too.

    My favorite toast is “I declare THIS a perfect moment”, but I don’t save it for special dinners anymore. Sometimes in the middle of working my ass off on a project that inspires me, I’ll look up and say to my colleagues- I declare this a perfect moment. How cool that we get to do this?! Anytime I can hang out with my family- esp with nothing on the calendar- is a perfect moment. Making it to the top of Mt. Sanitas = perfect moment. Sitting on a ski lift watching the sun sparkle on the snow = perfect moment.

    So instead of abstaining or “everything in moderation”, this is my challenge to myself- how many perfect moments can I declare each day- no matter what’s on the agenda? Sometimes a basket of chips & salsa (and one mini marg at Rio) = perfect moment. Oh well…..

    Love you Brad! You are awesome-sauce.


  • Elizabeth Kraus

    I am definitely an abstainer and I have an un-researched, non-scientific theory that this is the source of many entrepreneurs’ (and my own) success, but also depression. Whether its training for a triathlon or running a business (often simultaneously while operating on an average of four hours of sleep), I, and many of the entrepreneurs I know, have the ability to push further and farther in our chosen direction to reach the point of success. This constant pushing results in super highs, but also in deep adrenaline-crashing lows. As evidenced by the fact that I have arthritis at the ripe age of 31, I too need to learn how to moderate. Thanks for reminding me and for speaking out!

    • I’ve struggled to figure out how to moderate and at this point I’ve more or less accepted my fate as an abstainer!

  • I so get this. 🙂
    And to state the obvious, this is a very common trait of artists and scientists.

  • Alas, for me it may be meta-contextual, as I find myself abstaining from moderation yet also moderating abstinence, trapped near the inner circle of fault. 🙂

  • mattblumberg

    I always feel like a bit of an ass when I quote myself, but: http://www.onlyonceblog.com/2005/06/shifting_gears – right there with you

    • Great post and awesome to see this wisdom from 2005!

  • Abstainer, for sure. Go big or go home 😉

  • Failing moderator tending towards acceptance that abstinence is what really works…

  • my mom’s favorite line is “moderation in everything” and she really taught that to me. i pretty much do everything but i do it moderately. i don’t take hard drugs, however.