Want to create a good habit? Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator?

When I was talking to a coaching client last month about her issue with her struggle to mentally switch off after work, I was reminded of Gretchen Rubin’s book ‘Better than before‘.

In her book, Gretchen Rubin offers insights on making and breaking habits. In the section ‘Desire, ease and excuses’, she suggests three strategies to help shape habits by adjusting the amount of effort involved:

  1.  The Strategy of Abstaining
  2.  The Strategy of Convenience
  3.  The Strategy of Inconvenience

The Strategy of Abstaining talks about the concept that we may be a Moderator or an Abstainer. Moderators feel that if you completely deny yourself access to something – say, alcohol or chocolate – you are bound to fail. They would argue that you are more likely to form a long-lasting good habit if you take a moderate approach:  ‘I’ll just have one glass of wine this evening when I’m out with friends and then I’ll switch to water.’ For a Moderator, knowing that the occasional indulgence is perfectly acceptable makes them less likely to over-indulge.

Abstainers on the other hand prefer an ‘all or nothing’ approach. ‘I’ve given up alcohol’ means exactly that: no more alcohol. For an Abstainer, a taste of honey is worse than none at all.

Back to my client – let’s call her Anne. Her main issue was checking her email after she arrived home for the evening. ‘I tell myself I’ll just have a quick look whilst the kids’ bath is running and then I end up missing bath time because I’m caught up responding. If my husband’s watching the football, I figure I might as well do some emails. If I wake up in the night and can’t fall asleep again, I pick up my phone and start reading. I know it’s not good but I don’t seem to be able to stop myself.’

Changing a habit may be simple, but it's not easy, and the more tools used, the better.

I talked to her about Abstainers and Moderators and which tendency she thought she might have.

‘I like to think that I could be a Moderator and set myself certain times at which I’d check and respond to emails: that seems like it should be perfectly achievable but even as I say that, I know I won’t be able to do it.

‘I need to be an Abstainer for this particular habit. I need to hand my phone to my husband when I get in and ask him to keep hold of it until the following morning. I’ll delete my work email account from my tablet so I can still use that in the evenings and I’ll dig out my old alarm clock so I don’t even need my phone in the bedroom. I think that’s the only way I can stick to it,’ Anne decided.

We’re two weeks in to the new routine now and I emailed Anne to see how it was going: she replied (during her working day!) and said that the first week had been really tough but it was getting easier.

Not all my clients are Abstainers. Many of them are Moderators and in similar circumstances to Anne have chosen to allocate certain times of day for checking and responding to work emails. Some clients will find they are Moderators in certain areas of their work and lives whilst they take an Abstainer approach to other areas.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: if you’re wanting to create a new habit, which approach will work best for you: Moderator or Abstainer? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’re ready to transform your work or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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1 Response to Want to create a good habit? Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator?

  1. Pingback: Five steps to stop self-sabotage in its tracks | Turning over pebbles

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