Abstainer versus Moderator

If you’re reading my blog, chances are you’re more than a little interested in changing a few habits.  In her book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin methodically applies various techniques and insights to make and break habits….and to live, as she puts it, “a generally happier life”.

One such insight offered by the author that I find particularly useful, both in my own life and my health coaching business, is that of moderator versus abstainer.


I would argue that our society tends to support the moderators, and indeed likely more of us ARE moderators.  “Everything in moderation” is a very common phrase.  I know several people, likely moderators, who are doing well on programs such as Weight Watchers because of the inherent flexibility found within the program.  Also, the oft-quoted “80/20” rule of healthy eating is a framework for moderators.  If moderators try to abstain, they will feel trapped and rebel.

However, some people are abstainers.  If given too much flexibility, they exhaust themselves with negotiations and justifications.  They are constantly questioning when and how they will treat themselves.  As Gretchen Rubin (herself an abstainer) writes, “If I never do something, it requires no self-control; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control.”  She also quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson: “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.”

The problem is not that one is right and the other wrong but that there is little understanding of this personality divide which is crucial to habit change.  Moderators may criticize abstainers for being so strict and rigid in their approach; and abstainers conversely will tell moderators to have some self-control already and stop cheating!

I strive to discern a client’s type and personality in order to deliver customized and effective coaching.  For example, I have a client who has a sweet tooth and is unwilling to quit sugar “cold turkey”.  I quickly realized she’s a moderator and balks at a rigid diet.  So I’ve introduced her to dark chocolate and energy or “bliss” balls so she can have a few bites of something sweet (but made with real ingredients and with health benefits) and still feel she is indulging in a reasonable, moderate way.

If, hypothetically, said client was an abstainer, I would of course take a completely different tactic.  The popular Whole30 program or similar elimination diets would be profoundly powerful for abstainers.  Not only are abstainers very effective with “not doing”, but also with “always doing”: they do best when they know they are going to workout every day,  no matter what, no thinking about it.

If you’re interested in this topic, pick up Gretchen Rubin’s book; this is truly just the tip of the iceberg and she is very thorough in her examination of habit change.  I hope you’ll take a few moments to consider whether you are a moderator or abstainer and let it guide your approach to change moving forward.  You’ll be kinder to yourself, more easily explain yourself to others, and you’ll be more successful!





2 thoughts on “Abstainer versus Moderator

  1. Very interesting article and one that makes me think. Maybe my success could be greater if I defines myself as one of these types and stuck to it, rather than vacillating back and forth.


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