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Moderation vs. Abstinence

December 18, 2015 — by Matt

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I like giving stuff up.

No, not “giving up on stuff” but “giving stuff up” for a while. Going without. Sacrificing.

I’m not totally sure why, but I have some theories. I think I like knowing that I don’t need a thing to get by. That I’m not dependent on it. That if I didn’t have it for a while I’d be just fine and I shouldn’t be scared of going without it. I also believe that sacrifice is a muscle you need to work out just like anything else. Going through life without having to sacrifice anything can make you soft and less willing to sacrifice when it really matters – like giving up your superficial comforts for a while to put your goals first. And finally, on a deeper level, I think I like giving stuff up because it makes me feel in control.

So when I gave up alcohol for the month of October, I felt great afterward – not just because I had challenged myself and won, but because it honestly hadn’t been too difficult.

But then I started to think – why hadn’t it been that hard? Was “giving something up” not the real challenge? Were some of my “sacrifice experiments” just me trading one extreme for another. After a friend brought up a similar concept in conversation, I wondered if abstinence wasn’t the real challenge I thought it would be. Maybe the real challenge was learning moderation.

Struggles with Moderation

“Everything in moderation except whiskey, and sometimes too much whiskey is just enough.” – Mark Twain

I’ve never been good with moderation.

Sometimes this has been a gift. If I’m excited about a new idea, I tend to go all out in pursuing it. Getting a new song idea might lead to pulling an all-nighter with no regard for the clock or work the next morning. It’s extreme – but I get my ideas out, and I make progress. (On the other hand I sometimes burn so hot on a new project initially that I fizzle out and give up on it, so there’s still a place where moderation should probably come into play).

Sometime’s it’s a curse. If I get home exhausted after a long day, I might put on an episode of a TV show on Netflix to wind down before I write or work on music. But one episode is just a taste, and 7 episodes later I’m way past my window to get a good night’s sleep and haven’t gotten anything creative done. And I had more than a few nights out in my 20s where once I got a few drinks in me, moderation went out the window.

In a way, binge watching Netflix, getting addicted to a game or a drug, or becoming a “workaholic” is not much different than completely giving something up. Yeah, the results of one extreme are often much more positive than the results of the other – but they both hold so much weight.

I know for me, a little moderation would go a long way. If I could watch one episode of TV, work on music for an hour, and go to bed at a reasonable time, I might get more done. I might be happier. I might be less frazzled, anxious, or stressed because I’m more balanced.

Or maybe not. I mean, is being “extreme” always bad? Most of us live and work in this limbo state, not straying too far from our comfort zone. Aren’t trips into the edges, jaunts into the extremes, and journeys into the Danger Zone necessary to test your boundaries and make big changes?

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I have no answer, no lesson. I don’t know that there is one place on that spectrum between complete abstinence and complete abandon that’s “healthier” than any other. I think both “going extreme” and “practicing moderation” have their place in life. Always doing one or the other isn’t “the way”, but there are no rules as to when each makes sense either. I guess we just try to find what works for us in different situations. The alcoholic might decide that their best approach to alcohol is extreme – give it up forever, for good. The writer may find that when brainstorming, locking themselves in a cabin for days (extreme) works – but when refining their first draft, an hour a day (moderation) delivers the best results.

It’s up to us to find where we are at our best for each situation, because when we do, we set ourselves up for greatness.

What do you think? Do you struggle with moderation, or do you struggle to make big changes? If you’ve recently found the place on that spectrum that works for you in even the smallest area of your life, I’d love you to share it. I have a feeling we are all trying to find that balance.

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