All Things in Moderation: When to Moderate and When to Abstain

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Wanting to change something about yourself is an admirable journey that often comes with its unique set of opportunities and challenges. People typically want to change behaviors or habits that aren’t serving them well or are leading to destructive patterns.

When someone gets to this junction, there are usually two options: moderation or abstinence. For some people, limiting behavior can result in a healthy lifestyle change they can enjoy for years to come, while for others, completely avoiding that behavior is necessary for health and well-being.

Knowing whether or not you need to moderate or abstain from a certain behavior depends on a variety of factors including self-knowledge, respecting your limitations, and understanding your goals.

Start from the Beginning

The first question to ask yourself is: What behavior are you wanting to change? Is it drinking too much soda? Eating too much cheese? Smoking cigarettes? Enjoying the occasional gluten-filled treat? Once you answer this question, then you need evaluate the consequences of the behavior.

Sure, a small amount of gluten won’t harm your gluten-free lifestyle … well, unless you have celiac disease. In that case, no amount of gluten is worth consuming. If certain foods (like wheat, dairy, artificial sweeteners, and refined sugar) are acutely inflammatory to you, even a “moderate” amount of these food items won’t benefit your health.

Other behaviors like smoking cigarettes are almost universally understood to have negative effects on you, and should be avoided. The occasional soda or piece of cheese won’t affect you quite as negatively, but when taken to an extreme, it can become detrimental to your health.

Choose to Abstain or to Moderate

Depending on your personality, you may find it easier to have none versus a little bit. The biggest challenge in using moderation as your habit-changing method is that it relies strongly on willpower. For many people, the resolve is strong in the morning, but wanes as fatigue, stress, and hunger creep in. The ability to moderate relies heavily on your self-knowledge.

For many, abstinence seems so daunting that they just don’t change at all. Knowing yourself allows you to decide if you have the ability to keep chocolate in your house without eating it or if having any around will ultimately lead to a binge. When in doubt, begin with abstaining. Then, once a new pattern has formed, you can experiment with having an occasional treat.

Set Your Boundaries

If you choose to moderate a certain behavior, then draw clear lines on what is and isn’t permissible. Don’t make general claims like, “I’m going to have fewer cookies.” Are you having one cookie a day or one cookie a week? No cookies at all is clear because you can see if you are successful or not. No cookies = success. One cookie = failure. “Fewer cookies” is far less clear. New habits need clear boundaries to form. If you don’t have a clear goal, you won’t know it you ever achieve it.

Another example is that you may be great at running as long as you run every day. As soon as you miss a day, you feel like you have broken an imaginary chain. You feel like you are starting again from scratch even though it was just one missed day. If this resonates with you, then trying to moderate by skipping a single day might not be a good strategy for you.

Use Different Methods for Different Goals

Some things are easier for you to do than others. If you think of things in your life as red, yellow, and green, it can become a helpful tool in deciding when moderation is appropriate. For example, you can apply this method to keeping certain foods in your house.

If you can keep treat items, like chocolate, donuts, and cookies, in your cupboard without ever thinking of eating them, label these as “green” foods. They get the green light to live in your kitchen, and you can trust that you will not eat an unhealthy amount of any of them. Green foods are easiest to have in moderation.

If ice cream is one of those things that occasionally you will eat late at night when you really don’t need more food, it can be labeled as a “yellow” food. While it’s usually safe in the freezer, ice cream and other yellow foods are best to keep out of the house and perhaps indulge moderately on rare occasions.

Those foods that you simply cannot leave alone in your house are “red” foods. It might be that soda under the counter or the bag of potato chips in the cupboard. Whatever it is, these are foods that you will crave constantly until it’s either consumed or thrown out. Red foods are to be avoided at all costs.

Assess Your Goal

Your ability to use moderation effectively depends on your ultimate goal. If your goal, for example, is to stop cursing, then cursing occasionally, as a way to moderate, doesn’t meet your goal. However, if your goal is to eat sit-down dinners with your family, eating Sunday sit-down dinners is meeting your goal, even if Monday-through-Saturday dinners are less structured.

Keep in mind, a little of something good is always better than none. If you choose to abstain from or moderate something and find yourself indulging in it, brush yourself off, offer yourself some grace, and start over. Don’t let perfect become the enemy of perfectly good.


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About the Author

Tamara Lechner

Certified Instructor: Meditation
Tamara Lechner is a happiness expert and Chopra-Certified Primordial Sound Meditation Instructor. Her mission is to be so happy that those around her cannot help but step into her light. She enjoys writing, speaking, and teaching about how a positive mindset affects business, relationships, health, and life satisfaction. Tamara is often found throwing epic parties or walking barefoot in the sand. Join her on The Happiness Trajectory , a free online mindset reboot, or find out more about her at...Read more