A Foolproof Way To Make Or Break Habits

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slide1Illustrated by Tania Lili.
This morning, I had a long, heated conversation with a friend about the distinction between abstainers and moderators. I really do believe that this is one of the most helpful insights I’ve ever had, about how to change your habits. Of course, I’ve been thinking non-stop about habits for the book I’m writing, Better Than Before. In it, I identify the strategies that we can use to make and break our habits.

One of my big conclusions: If you want to change a habit, you should start by understanding yourself.

Self-knowledge is so important that I spend two chapters on it. First: the Strategy of the Four Tendencies. It’s very, very helpful to know your Tendency.

Second: the Strategy of Distinctions. Although it’s always a bit artificial to divide people into distinct categories, I find that it’s often very helpful. For instance, are you a marathoner or sprinter? When we know ourselves, we gain more command over ourselves.

However, one distinction is so helpful for habit change that I devoted an entire chapter to it: the Strategy of Abstaining.

In a nutshell: “Abstainers” do better when they resist a temptation altogether (I’m an abstainer). “Moderators” do better when they indulge moderately. Abstaining is a counter-intuitive and non-universal strategy. It absolutely doesn’t work for everyone. But, for people like me, it’s enormously useful. As an abstainer, if I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself arguing: "How much can I have?” "Does this time ‘count’?” “If I had it yesterday, can I have it today?” But, abstaining ends those draining debates. I don’t feel deprived at all. If I never do something, it requires no self-control to maintain that habit.

It’s a secret of adulthood: By giving something up, I gain. As my sister so brilliantly phrased it, “Now I’m free from French fries.”

Related: What's Your Work Personality Like?

You’re an abstainer if you…
– have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
– aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits

Moderators, for their part, find that occasional indulgence both heightens their pleasure and strengthens their resolve. They may even find that keeping treats near at hand makes them less likely to indulge, because when they know they can have something, they don’t crave it.

You’re a moderator if you…
– find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure — and strengthens your resolve
– get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something
The key is: Which way is easier for you? I know abstaining may sound hard, but for me, it’s easier. Also, what approach allows you to avoid feeling deprived? For good habits, it’s very important not to allow ourselves to feel deprived. If you’re interested in pushing further into Abstainers and Moderators, consider these questions.

If you’re not having success with being a moderator, would you give abstaining a try? I admit that I’m a 100% abstainer type. You wouldn’t believe what I’m abstaining from these days. That’s a discussion for another day.

Next: So, Are You A Marathoner Or A Sprinter?
Gretchen Rubin, author of two New York Times bestsellers, is our go-to gal for the best get-it-together know-how. Every week, she'll be dishing up her wisdom straight from her popular blog, The Happiness Project, to get you on the road to a more productive, healthier you. Here's to a 2014 resolution that sticks!