Habits: All-or-Nothing or Everything-in-Moderation?

I was listening to Gretchen Rubin discuss her new book on habits on a podcast. She pointed out that people tend to gravitate towards one of two general approaches towards making habit changes, which can be referred to as all-or-nothing and everything-in-moderation.

There are strong advocates in both camps, arguing either for absolute rules and no deviation whatsoever or the more laissez-faire approach of allowing for some flexibility in behavior using the 8020 rule or another similar system.

The problem comes in when we run into a compelling argument or tactic for behavior change, whether it’s coming highly recommended from a friend, a well-regarded book, or a multitude of other sources and fixate on that tactic as the “right” solution. The reality is that there are as many tactics as there are individuals, and what works for that friend or author may be wrong for you. These aren’t new ideas, but the point that caught my attention is how we try to force habit changes using one of these two approaches when that particular approach may not actually suit our personality at all.

The funny thing is that philosophy and personality can conflict. I’m a good example. I love the idea of flexibility and adapting my behavior to the changing situation, but this rarely works well for me when it comes to creating new habits or removing old ones. If there’s any sort of bend in the rules, my willpower typically fails and I end up bending too much.

Thus, for myself, I find that I’m firmly in the all-or-nothing camp for the bulk of habits, doubly so if we’re talking about food. I was vegan (full story later, promise) for two years in college and never had issues with breaking from that diet, despite constant ribbing at lunch from co-workers about all the meat I was missing out on (honestly, still not sure how I managed to pull this off for two years…I’m such a carnivore). Having an absolute commandment—“thou shalt not break this rule ever—feels surprisingly easy for me. I just say “no, I don’t eat that” and move on, with plenty of willpower to spare.

If you find it easy to set a new rule—as long as it’s black and white with no wiggle room—and stick to it seemingly without effort, you’re probably better suited for all-or-nothing strategies. If you feel constricted by rules without room for any deviation and can follow an 8020 (80% adhering, 20% not) style rule without frequent lapses that edge closer to 5050, then you’re probably more of an everything-in-moderation person.

(Of course, to make this more confusing, these aren’t absolutes. Odds are, there are some arenas where your typically preferred strategy just doesn’t feel right for you.)

Let’s look at the case of me and chocolate. If I buy chocolate and bring it back home, the odds of that bar surviving for two days are slim: I’d say one day…except I know from experience that 80%+ dark chocolate in large doses is so not a wise idea if I want to sleep at night. If I know it is in the house, it’s gonna get eaten. Thus my favorite habit hack for all-or-nothing types, particularly around food, is to not keep anything in the house you are trying to avoid. Shaping the environment in your favor makes maintaining discipline far easier.

In contrast, perhaps your experience with chocolate is different; it’s easy for you to savor a few pieces after dinner, and saving the remainder for the days to come doesn’t require much additional willpower to achieve. In that case, having a specified daily or weekly limit, say two pieces per day or one bar per week, is likely to be more of what you need to stick to the habit.

Neither approach is absolutely right, and neither is wrong. The answer is in what works for you. If you reflect on your own experiences and past successes and failures in changing habits, I bet you can see which of these approaches works better for you in most cases.

The question is: which are you? All-or-nothing? Or everything-in-moderation? Knowing that, you can structure your habits accordingly.

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