Moderation: finding it in everyday life
In a world of extremes, it’s hard to feel a sense of balance. There’s often pressure to be the perfect student, parent, you name it - but in trying to “do it all”, we often find ourselves either doing “too much” or “too little”. When we’re struggling to manage different aspects of our lives, it’s important to consider working towards moderation.
What is “moderation”?
You’ve likely heard of the phrase “everything in moderation” - but what does that actually mean? While it would be great to spell it out in workout prescriptions and meal plans, moderation can be challenging to quantify because it’s completely relative. For someone who is used to watching 6 hours of TV every day, watching 3 hours a day would be a step towards moderation. For someone who rarely watches TV, 3 hours a day would be an indulgence. What works for one person may not work for another - if you’re not a morning person, expecting yourself to be up by 5 AM is likely an option that will leave you feeling out of balance.
So how do we know what is moderate for us and how to apply it to our lives? Since it is relative, it’s important to have a long-term perspective when thinking about what works for us. One day of indulgence doesn’t matter when you look at a week or month-long perspective. A healthy, moderate perspective would allow for a rest day, a drink with friends, or dessert on a special occasion. But if those occasional moments become routine over the course of the month, it can shift to being a bad habit. This isn’t to imply that the focus of moderation is solely based on minimizing “bad” habits, either - a lifestyle that doesn’t allow for any relaxation is just as damaging as constant indulgence. For example, exercising excessively to the point of canceling all social plans to spend hours at the gym can lead to injury as well as isolating yourself from your community and loved ones.
Why do we struggle with moderation?
Moderation isn’t an easy balance to achieve for many of us, but the reason why may not be what you expect. Some of us may assume that it has something to do with us being “lazy” or “disorganized” - but instead, it has much more to do with perfectionism.
When we are perfectionists, we tend to strive for flawlessness, whether that’s through fixating on minor mistakes, trying to control situations, working too hard, and/or being critical of ourselves. In the process of doing so, we often develop “all-or-nothing” thinking. This way of thinking can cause us to polarize situations, experiences, people, and choices into either “good” or “bad”. When we eliminate the opportunity for mistakes to be growing opportunities, we risk pushing ourselves too hard to achieve our goal or equating any hurdles or challenges as a personal failure.
In the context of moderation, it can be difficult to strike a balance when you are viewing situations in extremes. A typical perfectionist pitfall is to decide to change a habit rapidly with little-to-no transition. You may be wanting to improve your health and decide to go on a sugar-free diet without any transition, but likely find this doesn’t last long term as you would like. In these situations, we may unknowingly choose goals that lack the foundation to be sustainable and therefore reinforce our thinking - when we miss a day or have sugar in a meal, it’s easy to equate this to “failure” and simply give up. This reinforces our “all or nothing” thinking and that we must implement a change or habit perfectly or else we have failed.
A mindset based on moderation would instead likely involve gradually removing sugar from the diet, recognizing that our body will need time to adjust. Similarly, moderation could allow for us to enjoy the moment and have a slice of cake on a loved one’s birthday. While we know no one person’s definition of moderation will be the same, it can be self-sabotaging to make extreme adjustments without allowing for any fluctuations or balance in the process. This is why it’s important to address where you may be using “all or nothing” thinking - is a “slip up” a sign of failure or just part of the process? Start out slow and allow yourself time to get used to something before you add more.
When moderation doesn’t work
There are a few scenarios where moderation would not be appropriate:
For someone who is a recovering alcoholic or addict, moderate drinking isn’t a viable option. It’s important to receive professional guidance and seek moderation in other aspects of your life.
If you’re on a week-long vacation, it’s ok to let loose! There are 52 weeks in the year - one week of indulgence won’t derail all your progress.
If you’re training for a race or competition, you may need to let the preparation take precedence over other aspects of your life for a bit. Sometimes those periods of living in extremes can help you appreciate the other times in your life where things are more balanced.
Believe it or not, even practicing moderation requires spontaneity too! As many of us experienced firsthand during the initial phases of the pandemic, being out of our normal routines can make us feel completely out of balance. Many of us found ourselves staying indoors, not socializing as much, maybe watching lots of TV or baking more. We may have had to adjust our expectations of ourselves during that time and needed to give ourselves some leeway as we cope with changes. And in moments like that, moderation may require some imbalance as we readjust our priorities to adapt to the situation at hand.
You may assume moderation has to be rigid and fit a certain idea of how your routines “should” look, but in reality it’s meant to be an honest review of your activities with the acknowledgment of external factors. While moderation being subjective can feel a bit daunting, remember that it’s also an opportunity for you to make your habits and routines work for you!
So how do I get started?
It can be hard to figure out how to make meaningful change. Here are a few things to consider when asking yourself about a specific habit or activity:
1. Look at your relationship with an activity
Ask yourself how it is serving you. Eating one chocolate bar and savoring the flavor is different from eating 3 chocolate bars and not recognizing its taste. When is it experiencing enjoyment and when is it numbing?
2. Make a plan
Once you’ve decided to reconsider how you engage in something, you can start to think about how you want to get started. As we mentioned above, it’s important to avoid the “all-or-nothing” thinking that can often plague us. If your goal is to make more time to exercise, don’t start off with a hardcore workout seven days a week. Start with something approachable, like exercising two or three times a week. If you feel good doing that, stay there or add more.
As you start planning these small adjustments, treat it like an experiment and walk yourself through different scenarios and potential decisions:
How does eating a big dessert Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night impact your health?
What if you got rid of eating dessert on Thursday?
If that feels good, you could then also try eating a smaller dessert Friday night?
It’s important to walk yourself through this planning process so you can feel confident about the decisions you’re making. You can also feel good about the fact that you are planning this based on your unique needs and preferences - this doesn’t have to fit anyone else’s definition of “moderation” as long as it is something you are comfortable with!
3. Don’t get discouraged by bumps in the road
Striking the right balance also means plenty of trial and error, so try to remember that when you find yourself struggling to maintain your efforts. It’s okay to indulge in a few extra cookies one night, but it also doesn’t mean that you should stop trying to find a balance. And if you find that it is increasingly challenging to maintain this balance, that’s when you have to check in with yourself and see if your goals are too restrictive. It’s important to listen to your body and expect some fluctuation as well - none of this is a failure but rather a part of the process!
Flora, Carlin. “Moderation Is the Key to Life | Psychology Today.” Psychology Today, 4 July 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201707/moderation-is-the-key-life.
Lane, Stella van. “Everything in Moderation - a Key to a Happy and Balanced Life.” Thrive, 23 Apr. 2019, https://thriveglobal.com/stories/everything-in-moderation-a-key-to-a-happy-and-balanced-life/.
Moore, Charlotte. “A Life in Moderation.” Restless Network, 24 Mar. 2021, https://www.restlessnetwork.com/a-life-in-moderation/.
Russo-Pollack, Shannon. “5 Secrets to Living Life in Moderation.” DASHA Wellness, 6 June 2017, https://www.dashawellness.com/5-secrets-living-life-moderation/.