What kind of discipline style should you use, abstinence or moderation? Abstinence provides that there are no exceptions allowed, and it actually gives you a sense of freedom because you won’t have to negotiate with yourself on when to start, stop, and feel satisfied. Moderation is when you accept a certain amount of deviation, as long as you can meet your goals and milestones you set out beforehand. There is also freedom here because you can indulge and not feel like you are missing out on anything.
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Something that’s important to know before you engage in all this planning and scheming to achieve your goals is your style of discipline. And of course, once you know, that’s when you make it a habit.
There are two primary approaches people take to self-discipline: moderation and abstinence. Each has its merits and negatives, and no approach works for everyone.
Let’s start with the definitions of these words. According to Oxford Dictionaries, moderation is “the avoidance of excess or extremes.” You’ll have only one scoop of ice cream. You know when you’re too drunk to keep drinking. You can limit yourself to one hour of television a day.
Merriam-Webster defines abstinence as “the habit of not doing or having something that is wanted or desirable.” No ice cream allowed. No games. No television. No alcohol. No fun.
Let’s start with moderation. Moderation, if you can handle it, is a strategy to have your cake and eat it too. Eating dessert in moderation is a way to enjoy sweets without going overboard. You wouldn’t want to eat multiple desserts every single day, as there may be health, weight, and blood sugar consequences. But a dessert every now and then is acceptable. This is moderation in action. You’ve heard the maxim “everything in moderation,” which generally supports the freedom to indulge without overindulging.
So what is the application of moderation in the self-discipline realm? If you are trying to accomplish a task, you can take breaks along the way. You can indulge in your distractions, take a walk, and even procrastinate a little bit. In moderation, you get a mental break, you refresh yourself, and then you start again, reenergized. There’s a timeline, and as long as you’re basically adhering to it, then all is well. Of course, it might be said that you need a decent degree of innate self-discipline to engage in this strategy. If so, you can save yourself from the pain of abstinence that others might encourage – it would probably drive you insane and not work for you.
Moderation can give you freedom – the freedom of choice and flexibility to adapt to your circumstances and desires. It’s the happy medium between the extremes. You don’t have to go all or nothing when you’re able to find that “sweet spot” in between. Of course, this comes with a rather large caveat. If you identify with this description of moderated self-discipline, it’s because you feel that you can regulate yourself well enough that indulging won’t completely throw you off. Just imagine a chronic alcoholic or addict of any kind – a moderated approach probably isn’t ideal for them.
That’s where abstinence comes in. For those with a weaker sense of self-discipline, an inability to regain focus in a timely manner, unfamiliarity with flexing their self-discipline muscle, or simply seeking a simpler approach, abstinence is the way to go. You might be able to stop the action itself, but it may occupy your brain afterwards for a detrimental amount of time.
Thus, it’s easier to set a blanket rule for yourself instead of having to rein yourself in instance by instance and negotiate with your desires and impulses. When you have to keep telling yourself no, a lapse in judgment is far more likely to occur than when you already know the answer is no. Sometimes complete lacking provides less suffering than having to stop before you are fully satisfied. An addict needs to stay away because they lack the ability to control themselves in that environment or context, so it’s easier to position themselves for success by keeping their temptations at arm’s length.
Another example is so-called screen time. At times, it seems as if today’s society has us in front of a screen at all hours of the day. We have smartphones, tablets, television, laptops, and e-readers, and one of them is never more than an arm’s length away.
While many people can moderate their screen time, not everyone has that ability. If you are a gamer, you may need to give up gaming completely in order to be able to function – otherwise, the gamer can often be heard saying “just another round” or “just another five minutes!” Similarly, some people leave or give up social media for good because they know it’s impossible to just hop on there for 30 seconds and push it completely out of their minds.
Abstinence, for some, is the simplest, surest, and easiest approach. You don’t have the struggle of trying to stop, rather just not starting. Abstinence can also offer you freedom – freedom from tough choices and freedom from punishing yourself for trying to moderate or control your behavior and potentially failing.
What’s the answer to improving self-discipline – moderation or abstinence? Should you try to pick one over the other? Which one is “better”? Is it always an either/or proposition? Is it just as easy as saying, “If you can handle it, moderation. If not, abstinence”?
There are no easy answers to these questions. To some degree, you need to know yourself. Do you have a tendency for extremes? Do you go all-or-nothing when approaching a task or goal? Or are you able to cut yourself off at a given milestone or time point? How easily can you redirect your energies toward a task? Instead of answering these questions off the cuff, answer them by thinking about examples of your past behavior – only actions matter here, not intentions.
Maybe we can think of this as a process. The first step would be abstinence. While we work on our willpower, you can completely avoid your triggers and distractions. As we mature and develop our discipline, then we can consider moderation. This is otherwise known as going “cold turkey.” You might find that you can completely control yourself after this learning period, and no further reinforcement is needed.
On the other hand, the opposite process (moderation to abstinence) is also valid as a process of weaning yourself off of something. Here, the end goal would be complete abstinence. Whatever the case, understand that you probably lean naturally towards one over the other, so don’t try to be someone that you’re not.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit https://bit.ly/peterhollins to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
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