A Foolproof Way To Make Or Break Habits

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.
Advertisement
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.
Advertisement
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.”
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.
Advertisement
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.

More from Mind

We explore the unconscious messages a voice can give off and why snap judgments can be harmful, even if they're innocent
It's not always easy to predict how much you're going to drink when you go out — or how drunk you'll actually get. And according to a new study, your ...
This story was originally published on May 19, 2016. A few years ago, I called my dad for one of our weekly chats — but he wasn’t happy to hear from me...
(Paid Content) Taking short breaks during the workday can bring your sanity back to earth. Of course, they have a calming effect, but did you know breaks ...
As much as it sucks, anxiety doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Without a little bit of it, you wouldn’t make sure to show up on time to that job interview or...
This story was originally published on May 19, 2016. I am six years old, in the first grade girls’ bathroom with my friend. We are washing our hands. ...
This story was originally published on Jul. 19, 2016. Several months ago, a woman I’m very close to checked herself into a hospital because she’d been ...
(Paid Content) Moods are fickle things. You can be going about your day in a happy, productive, and calm manner, and boom — everything changes. And ...
This article was originally published on May 27, 2015. Now that pot legislation is making its way across the country, it's time for a refresher on the ...
Depression is one of the most common mental-health issues in the United States, and it affects roughly twice as many women as men. Yet new research ...
On social media, it's easy to catch all sorts of digital diseases, such as FOMO, internet addiction, and anxiety. Facebook and Instagram-wary researchers...
As a culture, we have a slight tendency to exaggerate. We don’t just love PSLs — we’re obsessed. We aren’t just neat and tidy — we Kondo. Another term we ...
Prince William recalls his mother's death as he consoles a grieving family
We live in a world of dichotomies. Good or evil, pink or blue, clean or dirty. Then there is man or woman — what if you don't identify as either