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?