Bad At Moderation

I’ve been tracking everything I eat and buy food-wise the entire month of April (post to come). One thing I’ve learned, or I guess that I’ve always known but is just highlighted in the data, is that I’m terrible at moderation. I am and always have been an all-or-nothing kind of gal.

For instance, I have a general rule not to eat processed carbs. But once I’ve broken that rule I go all in. Ate some bread? Well some chips won’t hurt. And, here, let’s add a cookie in there too why don’t we.

On the other hand I am very good at abstaining from things in the first place. For instance, I almost never have alcohol– I never buy it, it’s not a part of my daily consumption, therefore it is easy for me to make the healthy choice without too much thought. (Luckily, I’ve not drunk enough to have acquired that much of a taste for it so moderation in that particular sphere is not terribly difficult.)

Really it’s where I deviate from the boundaries I’ve set for myself that it feels like all the flood gates have been opened and things go haywire.

I see this in the way I treat my work. Either I’m the superstar who’s getting everything done or I’ve messed something up (even something minor) and have decided that nothing matters and I’m the lazy duck who can barely string a sentence together. Actually, no, it’s not quite that severe anymore though it used to be. Still, success does seem to snowball into more success, failure to more failure. And so it goes.

It’s also apparent in the way I treat FIRE. I wake up in the morning and think: Man I don’t feel like working, but at least I make good money. And then I lean into that super hard. I optimize how much money I make, I save it, I kind of even hoard it. And maybe retire in ten years? That’s all a totally reasonable reaction to kind of sort of not wanting to go to work, right?

Anyway, that is all to say: maybe I should work on this moderation thing? Or at least create glide paths from minor failures back onto the regular track. Because the world is not all or nothing, even if my brain wants me to feel like it is.

Are you an all or nothing thinker? In what areas do you have difficulty with moderation?


7 thoughts on “Bad At Moderation

  1. There are ways to use the all-or-nothing personality to achieve moderation. For example, my DH has an allowance that he spends all of, but that doesn’t mean we have no money ( ). For me, I have hard rules, like “no eating the free chips in the work box lunch unless they’re cheetos”, “no eating free donuts unless it is a chocolate frosted” “no eating free cookies unless they’re homemade or the chocolate walnut cookies from the one good sandwich place”.


    1. I like this methoda lot, but my brain probably seeks the workarounds more than it should. E.g. I have a “only eat fresh pasta” because the boxed stuff isn’t worth the stomach ache. It does help me eat less pasta, but I end up spending a lot more time and $$$ at the butcher where I know I can buy the good local-made fresh stuff.


      1. Yeah, the rules can’t be too broad. That’s why I can’t just eat any cheetos, only cheetos of opportunity. When I come up with a work-around I have to figure out a way to stop that (like deleting all the history from internet explorer when I start using it to get around the leechblock firefox workaround). Always a work in progress!

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  2. I am the opposite (except for a few snack items that I rarely keep in the house). If you tell me I can’t have something ever again, that is very demotivating for me. Whereas if I know I can have anything I want, just not too much of it, I find that much easier to live with long-term.

    Gretchen Rubin of “The Happiness Project” has done a lot of thinking about abstainers versus moderators. You might enjoy some of her posts on this topic:

    Rather than try to turn into a moderator, it might be easier to work with your actual tendencies to make them work for you in more situations.

    For those few snack items, I am like nicoleandmaggie with the rules. I may eat them when someone else brings them to a party and I may get them when they are on sale. In the latter situation, I may not eat them out of the bag but must put them in a little dish and eat out of the dish. Which doesn’t mean I don’t re-fill the dish repeatedly, but at least it’s a new decision each time. And a tiny bit of exercise.

    Your observation about a success/failure snowball is interesting. I don’t think I have that, but I do have a problem once I consider something to be overwhelming. If it seems barely possible to finish something, I will crank out the work and finish it! But once it goes past the line to impossible, I have no motivation at all. Or when it’s just a really big, depressing stack with no timeline, It’s much easier to ignore it than to at least do a little each day.


    1. Moderating snacks is so hard for me, I just try not to keep them around. Or just food in general. Like, if I’m sitting down at a family meal, I will continue serving myself food to graze on even after I am full. For day to day meals it’s fine because I just serve myself the appropriate sized portions (like in your snack example) but if it’s just in front of me, I can eat endlessly.

      I have a bursty sense of flow when it comes to work, sometimes I can focus for weeks straight working weekends, sometimes I have trouble putting pen to paper for the smallest thing. Deadlines help spur my motivation, but I have been able to get in the zone without those sort of external motivators.


  3. I don’t think of myself as having too many challenges with moderation. (With things like candy and snacks, I do eat them year-round, candy and chocolate especially, but generally don’t have too much trouble keeping it to 1-3 small pieces a day. There are certain very specific items I don’t do a good job of moderating my intake on – so I’ll buy a bag or box of it when the craving strikes (usually not often, maybe once a year for most things like… crunchy cheetos) and will eat it as quickly as I feel like.

    I do think my approach to productivity and goals is quite all or nothing. For the most part, when it comes to work especially or some of my other goals, I don’t see any way to be productive and accomplish them without taking a rather excessive approach, or at least an approach that sounds a bit “too much” (often in part because there are also some inefficiencies). With managing my money, for instance, it’s a daily thing, and I use both YNAB (with the daily real time tracking of expenses) and Personal Capital, and do some math on top of that with Excel, and don’t put things on autopay, so I’m actively “working with” my money all the time. Except that it’s also not very efficient, because I still can’t tell you with certainty when I expect to hit “net worth zero” or finish paying off my loans, even though I have more than enough information to calculate that. With weight, when I’m paying attention to it, I don’t really see any way around calorie counting, which I think feels pretty “high effort”.

    And with work and school, it became a very “all or nothing” thing, I don’t really know how to turn it off. At least at school, though I’m still a lot less type A than most of my peers and had a lot less stamina for late night marathon sessions of studying, so my total hours spent on schoolwork is probably less than most. With work though, I seem to have more trouble than average with disconnecting or dialing back how much I worry about it and think about it on my off-hours. I think most lawyers have trouble disconnecting and not being anxious about their work all the time (in part because in biglaw they actually are potentially on call literally all the time), but I seem to be worse at it than most.


    1. Getting off-call is the hardest thing I’ve found about work too. I used to be pretty good at it, especially before I had a work-issued laptop which I’d take home with me. Back then it was a nice deviation from school, when I felt like there was always something I was supposed to be doing. Now the low-level baseline stress of just knowing work can/should be done kind of drives me nuts.


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