Moderators and Abstainers: Two Approaches to Balance and Temptation

14 February 2014 · 28 comments

For the past four (almost five) months, I’ve spent most of my work hours writing an ebook. At first the book was about how to “master your money”. Then it became a treatise on financial independence. That morphed into a grander project about how to achieve financial and personal independence (and is the source of my year-long series of articles here at More Than Money). In the end, in its fourth iteration, the book turned into a manual on how to be the Chief Financial Officer of your own life.

I’m good at writing short pieces. I’ve been creating bite-sized blog posts of 500 or 1000 or 2000 words for years now, often on a daily schedule. But I’m less good at molding larger pieces of writing. I finished the first draft of my ebook on Wednesday afternoon, and it weighed in at 96 pages and just over 40,000 words. But getting to that final product felt like pulling my own teeth.

Part of the problem is I’m not good at balance. Try as I might (and I do try), I can’t figure out how to juggle all of the things I want to do in life. How does one learn guitar, study Spanish, go to the gym, cook healthy food, write weekly articles about money, all while writing a book? (Not to mention other miscellaneous tasks!) It’s tough. At least for me.

Eventually, I simply had to pull the plug on everything else, which is what I did when writing Your Money: The Missing Manual. At the end of January, frustrated because I couldn’t seem to finish the ebook, I stopped going to the gym, stopped practicing guitar, stopped studying Spanish. I got up every morning and wrote for eight or ten hours. The method worked, but I didn’t enjoy it.

Perhaps you’ll notice that this issue seems similar to others I’ve had in the past. Very similar.

To me, this “all or nothing” state of mind reminds me of how I got into (and out of) debt. It reminds me of how I gained (and lost) weight. And it reminds me of how I swore off alcohol for the month of January. For me, moderation is difficult. It’s tough to find balance.

As part of my ebook project, I’ve been conducting short audio interviews with some of my favorite folks. I interviewed Adam Baker about debt reduction, for example, Jean Chatzky about money rules, and Liz Weston about credit. In one interview, I talked to Gretchen Rubin about the relationship between money and happiness. During that conversation, we discussed the book she’s writing now, which is about habits.

3 Temptations
For some, abstaining from cookies is the smart choice. Others can indulge in moderation.

Rubin says that not everyone is the same.

At one extreme, there are Abstainers. Abstainers tend to have an “all or nothing” approach to life. In order to reduce their alcohol consumption, they stop drinking. To refrain from eating cookies, they can’t have cookies in the house. Abstainers have trouble stopping something once they’ve started — but they’re not tempted by the things they’ve decided are off limits.

At the other extreme are Moderators. Moderators do better without absolutes and strict rules. Instead of swearing off cookies completely, they have one cookie on two or three nights per week. (Me? I’d eat the whole damn package!) They don’t need to go dry for a month to drink less — they simply drink less. Moderators enjoy an occasional indulgence and find that it actually strengthens their resolve instead of weakening it.

Here’s a short bit from my recent interview with Rubin in which she describes the difference between the two personality types.

Gretchen Rubin
For some people, it’s much easier to give something up all together than it is to indulge a little bit. And it’s very important to know this, because both sides try to convince each other. And Moderators – those are the people who can have a little bit – will often say things like, “You shouldn’t be so rigid with yourself. If you deny yourself everything you’ll fall off the wagon. It’s not healthy to always say no to yourself.”

But the thing is, for an Abstainer, it’s easier never to have French fries. It’s easier to never have sugar. It’s easier to say none that can manage it a little bit.

This is a good test for whether you’re an Abstainer or Moderator: Let’s say that I handed you – and here, J.D., I’ll ask you too – let’s say I handed you a bar of delicious chocolate and I said, “Hey, J.D., eat a square of that chocolate.” So you eat a square. And then I’m like, “Okay, hey, just put the rest of it in the drawer of your desk.”

For the rest of the day, would you be like, “Oh, my gosh. When am I gonna eat the rest of that chocolate bar?”

Or would you be like, “Oh, I had a little bit of something sweet. I don’t want anymore. I’ll have another square tomorrow.”

J.D. Roth
No.

Gretchen Rubin
I would be haunted by the chocolate bar.

J.D. Roth
Yeah, me too.

Gretchen and I are Abstainers. This quality manifests itself in all aspects of my life, from work to food to money to love. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — but it is a thing. I need to be aware of this, and I need to know how to work with it to my advantage.

And, perhaps, I need to find ways to moderate this tendency. I don’t enjoy those times in my life during which I have to flip a switch and be “all or nothing” about something. I like it better when I can pretend that I’m a Moderator by drafting schedules, by deciding to develop habits and routines.

After I submitted my ebook manuscript to my editor on Wednesday, the first thing I did was sit down and draw up a schedule. Spanish in the morning! Followed by guitar practice! Then email and blog posts for Get Rich Slowly and More Than Money! Then the gym! Then more work in the afternoon!

I love the schedule. I love looking at it and imagining this ideal life where I adhere to a regular routine as if it were nothing. I know it would be good for me. But I also know that I don’t work that way. This sort of balance seems impossible to achieve. It’s a pipe dream.

Still, I’m going to try.

Right now, however, I’m going to take a long, hot bath while reading a comic book. In fact, maybe that’s what I’ll do all day…

Note: Photo by Kathleen Franklin.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 moneystepper 14 February 2014 at 10:11

Interesting post. I’d find it very difficult to not eat the chocolate bar!! :)

I look forward to reading the book…

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2 chacha1 14 February 2014 at 11:21

Wouldn’t the opposite of an Abstainer be an Indulger? i.e. one who just doesn’t try to set limits?

I mean, by definition a Moderator is not extreme. :-)

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3 adr 1 March 2014 at 14:44

the abstainer is the indulger, the all or nothing mentality has both of these extremes. the opposite personality trate is the moderator. it is an extreme personality trait to do everything in moderation. disregard for passion, or at least an almost inhumane ability to shrug ones shoulders at wants, is indeed extreme.

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4 Del 14 February 2014 at 11:28

Really interesting article. I tend to be an Abstainer because I like order. I like things to be well defined so that I don’t have to think about the choices I make once I make a decision. The good about that is that I tend to stick to rules that I’ve made for myself. The bad is that I find it difficult to be open to anything else that my come up.

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5 Stephen 14 February 2014 at 12:08

That is some good stuff. I’ve had the same inner dialogue but I’ve never really had the words to articulate the way I felt. I am most certainly an abstainer but my wife is a great moderator. It is funny the dialogues we have and I’ll send her this to give some more context to our different approaches.

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6 PawPrint 14 February 2014 at 12:35

Definitely an abstainer and right now I’m abstaining from sugar and alcohol. I’ve tried being a moderator, and all that does is make me feel guilty because I can’t be. So I embrace my abstainer attitude and feel better for it.

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7 Sophie 14 February 2014 at 12:52

As one abstainer to another (wonder why we’re all abstainers in the comments here?) I’ve found that the solution is to define things more narrowly. So, knowing that you’re going to eat the whole packet of cookies, you buy a single-serving packet. Knowing that the only way you finish your book is if you do nothing else, you set up your week so that two days of your week, you do nothing but work on your book. Or you swear off alcohol on Thursdays and Saturdays. . .
The trick is to find unbreakable rules that create automatic space for all the things you want in your life on a regular basis and define automatic limits for the things you don’t want to become a big part of your day. And like any muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it gets.

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8 jdroth 14 February 2014 at 12:59

I like it. I like it. You’re absolute — but not all of the time. I need to do this!

And something just occurred to me: I’m a rule follower. Maybe that’s why I’m an Abstainer? I follow rules and laws (well, generally) because I think they provide order. I like instructions. I like following directions. This seems to me to be related to the whole “all or nothing” thing…

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9 Virginia 16 February 2014 at 07:42

JD, if you like rules, maybe you are what Gretchen Rubin calls an “Upholder.” (http://www.gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/01/four-personality-types-which-one-are-you/) I find her 4 personality types fascinating. Sometimes when I read a personal development book, I wonder if I’m reading a book written by, say, an Upholder (currently wondering that about Jeff Olson, author of The Slight Edge), and if their ideas will be harder for me to implement because I’m an Obliger. You should check out the article if you haven’t already.

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10 Ian 14 February 2014 at 13:53

I am definitely an abstainer who constantly tries to be a moderator. I have to revisit schedules and adjust them monthly. Tough really…I like the commentabove about setting rules to kind of let you cheat.

How’s the guitar playing going? I imagine it has to be much to tougher learning at a later age. No one tells you that you can’t hang with your friend. Now so you just go into your room and play for hours. I just was in the studio last night..it is always a sobering experience. If you ever having any questions about playing let me know.

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11 jdroth 14 February 2014 at 14:08

The guitar playing is going well…especially when I practice. I’ve found that I prefer fingerwork to chords/strumming, so my instructor is having me learn classical-style stuff. I’m still doing VERY basic stuff, and will be for a while, but it’s fun. I’ve been borrowing a friend’s guitar, and think I may actually pick up one of my own on Tuesday. :)

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12 Tyler Karaszewski 14 February 2014 at 15:58

This is why, after being in credit card debt once, I don’t even have credit cards any more, and why I’ll buy a bottle of wine instead of six, and why hobbies tend to take over all of my free time for months at a time until I switch to another one.

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13 Cody Limbaugh 14 February 2014 at 16:42

I have a very hard time with this.

I have identified long ago, that I am an Abstainer when it comes to certain habits. Nutrition, for instance, is one area that I am only successful with if I commit to long periods with no cheating. And I’ve proven to myself that I can do this and enjoy it.

One the other hand, if I try to regiment my productivity or hobbies I resist it terribly. I hate rules. I dislike schedules and I despise repetition. I rebel against my own goals if I try to structure too much.

I would love to find a way to turn this personality quirk into a strength instead of a constant internal battle.

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14 Mel 15 February 2014 at 09:52

I think whether I’m an abstainer or a moderator depends on what I am resisting! When it comes to food, I have no problem stopping after one cookie — same with spending. But with other habits? Not so much. I’ve been trying to reduce my wasted time on the internet in favor or doing more productive things. I couldn’t do it. One hour online would quickly turn into three or four. Finally, I just stopped using the internet on weekdays, and I deleted my facebook account. It turned out to be an all or nothing deal!

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15 bon 14 February 2014 at 16:59

Are Gretchen’s thoughts based on any research? Because I would guess, that there really aren’t 2 types of people, there are just abstainers, and then people who “try” to be moderators. I guess my question is – are there really that many people for whom moderation is a successful strategy?

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16 CB 18 February 2014 at 14:40

My husband is a moderator. He can keep a carton of ice cream in the fridge for weeks. After 30 minutes on the Internet, he’ll close the computer and not even think about it anymore. It’s foreign to me.

On the flip side, he’s mind boggled by my ability to abstain entirely from things like grains and says he couldn’t do it.

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17 Kristi 15 February 2014 at 06:15

I’ve had an open, slowly-shrinking chocolate bar in my desk this whole week, so I guess that makes me a moderator? I don’t have this sense that if I have just one of something that I’ll completely lose control. But I do dive into projects and hobbies and focus completely for periods of time; I thought it was normal for most people. It’s too hard to stop a writing project and pick it up again later…you waste so much time figuring out where you left off.
I would also be interested if Gretchen’s observations were supported by research.

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18 JKC 15 February 2014 at 06:50

I will weigh in as a “moderator”. I would have no problem with the chocolate in the drawer. To respond to bon (above). This discussion reminds me of “The Marshmallow Experiment”. Which you can Google if you don’t know what it is. Not exactly the same thing, but it did test moderation, willpower, and delayed gratification. All important aspects of getting things done.

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19 JoDi 15 February 2014 at 08:09

I’m not sure what I am because I’m definitely not either/or. I seem to have aspects of both. When it comes to food, I can eat a couple of chocolates from a large box each day, and it will last a week or more, but if I want to only eat one, I will almost ALWAYS eat more than one. Not sure how you’d categorize that. When it comes to scheduling activities, I generally do things the way Sophie described above. Certain things on certain days or in a set timeframe. Certain days for certain things seems to work better for me. If I try to divvy up my day into too many segments, something gets squeezed out. And I need some things that have externally imposed deadlines. If everything I’m doing is just up to me to get done “whenever” then whenever never comes. There have to be some external things to work the other things around. Large expanses of uncommitted time are a productivity killer for me.

My husband is definitely an Abstainer. He will eat the whole box of chocolates. Every time. That’s why he had to stop drinking completely. Moderation never worked for him, and because he drank to such excess in his younger years, his idea of moderation was not moderate at all.

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20 Bruce 15 February 2014 at 13:58

I look at it from a slightly different approach. If I don’t do something every day then it can quickly get pushed backed to tomorrow then the next day and so on. And then soon I am not doing it all. So I now have a 20 minutes a day rule for everything in my life I want to maintain.

In your case that would be 20 min guitar, 20 min exercise, 20 min spanish, and 20 min working on the ebook. These are minimum times per day. Since, obviously, you have a lot more time in the day than 80 mins the extra time can be dedicate as you see fit. In your case right now that would be working much more than the 20 minute minimum.

The benefit I have found with this technique is that nothing ever completely drops. YMMV

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21 Bruce 15 February 2014 at 14:00

I look at it from a slightly different approach. If I don’t do something every day then it can quickly get pushed backed to tomorrow then the next day and so on. And then soon I am not doing it all. So I now have a 20 minutes a day rule for everything in my life I want to maintain.

In your case that would be 20 min guitar, 20 min exercise, 20 min spanish, and 20 min working on the ebook. These are minimum times per day. Since, obviously, you have a lot more time in the day than 80 mins the extra time can be dedicate as you see fit. In your case right now that would be working much more than the 20 minute minimum.

The benefit I have found with this technique is that nothing ever completely drops. YMMV

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22 stellamarina 15 February 2014 at 15:06

Yep….I am an eat the whole box of chocolates sort of person too. So I prefer to go out and buy one slice of pie, or one chocolate bar or one ice-cream bar than have large amounts siting in the fridge that are going to call to me all day long. I think that I go and eat them all up just to stop them calling me!

Good helpful ideas from the commenters…..thank you.

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23 Mark A. 15 February 2014 at 16:17

I’m an Abstainer. Just really lousy at it.

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24 Adam Kamerer 16 February 2014 at 08:25

Wow, this is really insightful stuff. I think I’m realizing lately that my wife is an Abstainer, and I’m a Moderator…although I think the boundaries are probably a little blurry for most people.

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25 Matt 17 February 2014 at 07:35

Really helpful stuff, here. I’m definitely an abstainer and my wife is more of a moderator. I never thought about it in these terms, but it’s super helpful to have a context in which to frame our natural tendencies or behaviors. Thanks for sharing!

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26 Felicity Fields 17 February 2014 at 08:42

I’m also an abstainer, and it’s taken me years (and Gretchen’s presentation at WDS 2013!) to figure that out. I’m all or nothing about computer games (I can play it non-stop for 3 weeks, and then not play again for a year.)

I’m all or nothing about projects, too, which is why it bothers me when a whole project isn’t completed.

Like you, JD, I’d like to pretend I’m more moderate. And I’m very good at drawing up moderate schedules. If only I were as good at *sticking* to said schedules . . .

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27 Bridgett Rasmussen 18 February 2014 at 06:14

There’s no right way or wrong way – it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. If moderators try to abstain, they feel trapped and rebellious. If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend a lot of time justifying why they should go ahead and indulge.

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28 CB 18 February 2014 at 14:22

I feel your pain JD, I’m an abstainer too. Your story about making the pretty schedule, fantasizing about your perfect life where you stick to the schedule, and then never do it makes me laugh. That’s soooo me.

I truly believe that life is all about balance. BUT…what if it’s not about balancing everything at one time, but more about balancing in the long run? For example, is it really so bad to work in (what Mr Money Mustache) would call “nuclear robot mode” for a month or two to blast through a project, if you then follow that with several weeks of vacation, or stay-cation, or a 30 day yoga binge, or whatever? Sure, the work phase isn’t so fun, but you can balance it out by blissing out during the fun stage. You could probably create a life that’s balanced on the whole, just not in the everyday, the way you believe it is “supposed” to be.

Maybe you should try to re frame this quality of yours as a strength, rather than a weakness. When the pressure is on, you have the ability to work longer, harder, and more focused than many people. That could be a really good thing, if you stop telling yourself that it’s wrong.

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