Why Moderation is Bad Advice
Everything in Moderation.
It’s something we all grew up hearing many times over, touted as the universal advice for exercising self-control and discipline. We all understand the basic premise behind moderating ourselves in the face of alluring temptations. If so, then why am I still craving for that slice of cake? Is sheer willpower the only way? How is moderation supposed to help?
The Need for Moderation
We normally wouldn’t concern ourselves about moderation while folding laundry or taking out the trash, but when it comes to tasty, hyper-palatable foods, intriguing TV episodes, or even procrastination, our notion of moderation begins to take center stage.
From an evolutionary perspective, the hedonistic mind made a lot of sense. Our ancestors needed to prioritize survival through unpredictable circumstances. For thousands of years, this priority to survive meant a primal urge to spread our genetics and store dietary nutrients and energy. But in today’s abundance of stimuli, it’s natural that we’d turn to “ moderation” as the catch-all solution to “have our cake and eat it too.”
So why is moderation a bad form of advice?
This may sound a bit pedantic, but really, the devil is in the detail.
When talking about sharing or practicing an “advice”, the most valuable takeaways are the things you can adopt, all in context with your specific life situation. On its own, moderation provides no actionable substance. It’s almost as if moderation represents this beautiful, prime destination everyone wants to be at, despite having no clue on how to even reach that place. So when navigating temptations or “moments of weakness”, moderation flat-out fails as a practical tool. To explain my case in further detail, three traits come to mind that make moderation unsuitable as an advice or practice:
- Polymorphism (e.g. Shapelessness; Hard-to-put-a-finger-on)
- Semantic Polarization (e.g. Good vs. Bad; Right vs. Wrong)
- Experience Requirements (e.g. Hindsight is always 20/20)
The moment we start interpreting a word like “moderation,” and apply a “one-size-fits-all”approach to any situation—that’s when things easily get misconstrued and misapplied. Imagine if you were told to “moderate” your favorite guilty pleasure now (let’s face it, we all have one or two), an endless assault of questions ensues:
- How much is too much?
- How bad do I want it?
- When’s the best time?
- Historically, does this trigger an addictive episode?
- How can I apply the brakes, once I start?
- …and so on.
It’s utterly overwhelming.
That is why I describe moderation as polymorphic, without any stable shape or form. It’s quite a nebulous word that can mean anything or nothing at the same time, which isn’t very useful for making decisions. Consequently, this sort of advice frequently finds its way to become openly interpreted as a convenient form of lip service —just empty words.
I’ve fallen for this polymorphic trap many times. In fact, it’s a great hack to falsely justify unplanned events like cheat meals or a recurring bad habit — much alike the “get-out-of-jail” Community Chest card drawn from a game of monopoly. The main difference here is that you now have an unlimited free-pass because “moderation” (the poorly-defined advice) can now conveniently authorize it.
Again, I want to reiterate that the intentions behind applying moderation is good, but most of us don’t have a darn clue where or how to begin. What’s a serving of Doritos is in moderation? How much screen time is considered excessive? Am I procrastinating too much? Not to mention, there are a bunch of other factors that play into this. The underlying meshes of culture, social classes, family upbringing all influence our meaning of the word. Without much experience or context, trying to practice “moderation” becomes an unending pursuit of a shapeless ideal.
When examining moderation as a utility tool, I’d argue its main job is to represent an ideal middle ground between opposing sides of a spectrum. Without these opposing ends, there would be nothing left to moderate. One major consequence of this polarization split is that it oversimplifies things to the point where we risk losing objectivity and self-awareness of our choices— when everything gets emotionally painted as black or white.
Imagine if I was trying to quit drinking, and had a one bottle of beer. If I simply embraced the fact that it was not a big terrible deal (not an evil “slip-up”), I’d have a much easier time moving on and “getting back on track.” Whereas if I had treated it as a big deal over having that beer and mentally berated myself for the transgression, it becomes easier to believe that I’ve hit rock-bottom and that I “might as well” just drink my fill. It’s really about how we mentally perceive these activities that motivates us to either overreact or calmly navigate a derailing situation.
Anytime I’ve tried to actively use moderation to course-correct a tempting decision, I’ve found that the options I had ended up becoming labeled as good or bad. It reminded me of the analogy about wielding a hammer (moderation) and everything becoming a nail (good/bad). For some, this polarity can worsen matters by negatively impacting your self-perception for being outside the “moderation zone” (the one-bottle-of-beer). It creates a fragile power balance between avoiding vices and punishing yourself for every misstep. There’s really no reason to make things harder with the polarized baggage that moderation brings.
So rather than becoming this saint who constantly walks the “fine-line” of moderation and avoids the perils of straying from moderation, a more feasible approach could be to accept our imperfect decisions for what they are, learn from it, and move on, just one situation at a time.
Another challenging aspect of grasping moderation is that it is an observed state of being — something that can only be seen or felt but not acted upon directly. Unlike simple gestures and behaviors, mindsets and thought processes require certain levels of experience before one can feel comfortable in dealing with a given situation.
Take the example of telling someone who’s already stressed out to “chill” or “calm down.”
(Probably not going to work.)
Stress is a normal thing when things aren’t familiar. But quality experience changes that.
I don’t necessarily mean the 10,000-hours to reach professional proficiency at a skill, but rather what it takes to gain that level of awareness capable of contextualizing moderation from past failures and successes.
Ask a person who has underwent a fat-loss or mental-healing success journey and kept the weight/depression off for 8+ years till this day. How do they currently moderate their day-to-day to maintain their new physique/mindset? Over time, these individuals learned what works, and what doesn’t. They’ve built up a repertoire of beneficial habits to fend off the bad ones. As a result, they were able to slowly expand their own individualized range of “moderation.”
So yes, moderation can eventually become tangible and actionable, but only after gaining the sufficient experience. Once these requirements are met, the once fuzzy concept of moderation can take form and finally be grasped. Only then, can we get a better idea the kind of “moderation” that is right for our own situation. Nobody else could replicate it with the same exact success —we have to discover the right way for ourselves.
If not moderation, then what? (some alternatives)
At this point, hopefully I’ve laid out some sensible arguments for reconsidering “moderation” as the tool of choice. Now let’s quickly go over some alternative strategies that can be combined or used independently for navigating the temptations we encounter:
- Environment Re-composition (e.g. “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”)
When we change the environment we operate in, the parameters for our behaviors and thoughts will also change accordingly. When I was getting off my addiction to peanut butter (e.g. I was eating about half a jar a day), I started avoiding that grocery aisle at the store. Now I rarely even think about it. This is completely transferable to other hot spot activities as well. So if you are trying to completely cut-out a temptation or addiction, this one can do wonders. It works well if you find that you have an “all-or-nothing” relationship with some guilty pleasure, where recomposing your surroundings can greatly improve your chances of not thinking about them without feeling deprived.
- Growing Time-box (e.g. “make time, little by little.”)
Sometimes, we can indulge too much time in a certain activity or want to introduce a new habit. For me, that used to be playing less video games, increasing my daily step count, or reduce my procrastination on personal projects/chores. To combat this, I started with a timer alarm or calendar event to budget the amount of time that is allocated to these efforts. If it’s an activity I want to cut down on, I’d set off a duration timer. If it’s an activity I want to do more of, I would start small and incrementally add minutes until it’s become a regular habit. This approach works well for non-food related activities, like entertainment or scrolling through social media. It’s useful when you need that extra nudge to switch gears once your time is up.
- Gratitude (e.g. “flip your perspectives; let the ego take the backseat”)
I know this one is an enormous topic on its own (maybe deserves a post in the future). But I find it to be effective in changing up unfavorable self-perceptions of a given situation. Whenever you feel deprived or sense the onset of FOMO, simply think about the things that you do have over the things that you don’t. It’s crazy how fortunate or privileged we all are to have a chance at this thing called life. This may sound a bit strange, but we were all chosen out of the millions of competing sperm that ended up fertilizing that egg. Statistically speaking, that’s literally a one-in-a-million wonder. Every time I think about it in such a way, I can’t help but laugh it off and move on. I’d recommend this strategy for the times when you are wrestling a negative emotional state (anger, anxiety, jealousy, depression…etc) and wish to defuse that tension.
- A 10-minute walk outside
I won’t go into citing the benefits behind a simple walk out with nature, as that’s out of my expertise. But from personal experience, having frequent walks throughout the day has helped me take my mind off of clinging matters I want to be free of. It could be a craving, an emotional state, lack of motivation, or some procrastination state. Nine times out of ten, it would resolve the mental fatigue and gives me a nice “refresh” before continuing with the rest of my day. It is probably the only strategy I would recommend for everyone. To add it into your routine, consider using the “growing time-box” with the 10-minut walks to gradually add it to your schedule.
A warm reminder that these are tools and not meant to cover all the infinite scenarios that are out there. Try them out, and if they don’t work, try something else. It’s all part of the learning process.
That is all folks. Until next time!