Why I Don’t Believe in Moderation

I have given up on moderation regarding “treats.” I’m defining a treat as anything that’s perfectly fine in small doses, but bad for you if it becomes something you do or buy habitually. To use many financial bloggers’ favorite example, Starbucks coffee is a treat.

Buying a tasty coffee treat even once a week is probably not a big deal. However, when it becomes part of a $4 habit every weekday (to the tune of $960 a year–ponder that figure a moment), it’s easy to see how this treat quickly becomes a huge financial problem. Before we get too hung up on the food examples, note that it works with time, too. I have turned on a fantasy RPG or a TV show only intending to invest an hour or so. Several hours later I realize I haven’t spent any meaningful time with my child. Moreover, I stayed up too late and will be tired for work the next day.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

You, reader with an iron will, may be saying to yourself, “… If anything it seems to me like you need more moderation, not less.” Yes, I would be happy to be able to be more moderate, but that’s really hard, for a few reasons that have nothing to do with me being lazy (although that is also true).

Humans are really good at justifying the things we want to do. I consider myself an intelligent person (humble, too!), and many of my friends are brilliant people. You would think this would mean that we have it all together in this department. Instead, it seems to just make us better at justifying our treat purchases. Let’s say I allow myself one latte a week, and I decide Tuesday is the morning for that latte. Then on Friday morning my office goes out for coffee, or I have a really stressful situation arise and want a pick-me-up. Where does my one latte rule go? “Well, this is special because I need to bond with my coworkers, or because I just need a little extra oomph, and it’s only for this one week…” Except, of course, the latte inevitably begins to happen more often, and two lattes becomes the new norm.

Human beings also thrive on habits. We need them because we need to know how to react to the world around us quickly and automate many parts of our day. The problem is when things that should be irregular become habitual. This happens with easily because our brains are hard-wired to create patterns and turn those formulas for future use. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg maps habits onto a trigger/response/reward rubric. We come home from a long day at work, sit down to watch an interesting TV show, and feel less stressed. That rapidly becomes a habit with the trigger of “come home from work”, response of “turn on the tv,” and reward of “vegetative happiness.” Same for Starbucks: “Driving to work” is the trigger, “stop for latte” is the response, “sugary caffeinated yumminess” is the reward. The sad part is that once the habit is formed, the treat usually isn’t even that any longer–it’s just a normal part of the routine. We then turn to something more or different to make us happy.

Why I Just Have to Say No

The only way I’ve found to disrupt the cycle is to build a huge wall between the trigger and response portions of a bad habit. I do this by quitting things cold turkey. Do I find myself spending too much on coffee? Then I get a coffee embargo: absolutely zero coffee that is not made at home or free from the office coffeemaker. Does this stink at first? Sure. For the first week or two, will I bemoan just how much deliciousness I’m giving up and silently plead with myself internally to stop? Absolutely. But unlike when I’m being “moderate,” when I’d probably find some way to justify the purchase, I can instead firmly tell myself, “I do not buy coffee” and drive on. The same goes for the video game example. When the computer beckons, I can firmly say, “I do not have time for video games” and find something else to do with my time.

After a week or two, I find that the trigger stops provoking an intense response. In fact, I can drive past the Starbucks without thinking about the coffee at all. If I allow myself even a little room, however, I will think about the thing I can’t do every single time I can’t do it. I’m saving myself some mental torture by simply cutting the item from my life.

So You Really Never Have Nice Things?

As hardball as this makes me sound, I still think there is room to enjoy treats as treats. One method that works for me is to enjoy treats on occasions completely removed from habit formation because of a genuinely special circumstance. That looks like only getting coffee on a road trip, or only eating at a certain restaurant when a friend visits from out of town. For fun things that are time sucks, I decide when to play/watch/read in advance, and set a timer for when I need to be done. Or, I might only allow myself to watch my favorite TV show when it is paired with exercise or household maintenance. In most cases, this makes the opportunity to have the treat fairly rare–which is exactly the point, and the treat is enjoyed all the more fully for it.

What techniques do you use to limit your treats? For those of you who manage to truly be moderate, how do you keep your moderation from spiraling out of control?

11 Replies to “Why I Don’t Believe in Moderation”

  1. youmeanme

    I love your ideas! I have great intentions about setting timers or pairing my television watching with an activity but it never seems to work for me. I love how you break down the ways treats become habits.

    I’m still working on moderation – in terms of food I try to give myself servings and then pack away everything so if I want seconds of chips or a meal I have to unpack everything. In terms of restaurants, I give myself an entertainment line and know that if I use it all it’s gone.
    For Starbucks I have a gift card and I load it with $20 at a time. This can only be reloaded if there’s left over money in my eating out line. It’s been helpful in not letting me get crazy expensive drinks too often.

    I do a lot of limiting as well. I tend to not do well with cold turkey but I’ll count out one treat a day e.g. Donut for breakfast means no extra treats after dinner. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    • Mrs. Steward

      Glad the ideas are of interest to you!

      The timers are actually the hardest part for me, for sure. I do better with the “must do x productive thing while doing x nonproductive thing” and accept that it means the productive thing will take longer than usual.

      How do you hold yourself to the entertainment line when it is all gone? Just a hard and fast, “Cannot go over”?

      I am fascinated by you people who can do it without quitting cold turkey. 😉

      • youmeanme

        It’s taken some time but now it’s fairly hard and fast. I realized I didn’t tell the whole truth in my previous reply: we have an eating out line (restaurants/fast food) and an entertainment line that I always put money in.
        It’s funny because I admire people like you as all my attempts at cold turkey have ended up in binging :).

        • Mrs. Steward

          Oh, don’t let me misrepresent our situation, either. We still have an “eating out” line, but that has to be for meals Mr. Steward and I eat together. Basically, it pays to eat at the Indian buffet a couple times a month, since we both love Indian food and I haven’t learned to successfully make it at home yet.

          Stuff for an individual, like Starbucks, has to come from our personal money, which is very open-ended as to what it’s used for, and why it’s dangerous to have any sorts of costly habits coming out of it! That’s why it’s imperative that I not get used to Starbucks or eating out for work lunches.

    • Mrs. Steward

      Do you think having a physical thing saying, “NO!” is the trick? (Because I’m sure you still want coffee even once the app says you can’t anymore…)

  2. Des

    Oooooh, have you read Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin? She talks about moderation a lot, and goes over how some people can totally moderate things, like only having a treat once in a while, or only watching one episode of a show. Then she goes on to talk about how that absolutely doesn’t work for some people, who are better at abstaining overall, because one (latte, TV show, etc) quickly turns into several. That second one is me to a T, so I’m pretty much on the “no treats ever” when I really do need to change a behaviour!

    • Ms. Steward

      I haven’t read that one. I have read her Happiness Project and the sequel, and they were enjoyable. I will have to check that one out for sure! And, obvious from the post, I am definitely the latter one, too!

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