Do you have behaviors in your life that you would like to do less often?

Me too.

Cutting back on a behavior falls under the heading of moderation or temperance. It’s about doing the right amount of a behavior. Moderation is good. It can also be very difficult. Recently, I’ve rethought what to do when I fail at moderation.

Eating fewer sweets is an example of failed moderation for me. Over the years, I’ve tried countless times to cut back on sweets with no luck. Eating a dish of ice cream became plowing through the whole carton.

In the past, when I failed at moderation, I would default back to my original behavior. With sweets, this meant eating as many as I wanted.

Now, I’m trying something different. When I am unable to cut back on a behavior, I try giving it up completely.

This seems counterintuitive. If giving up some of the behavior is difficult, wouldn’t giving up all of it be impossible? In actuality, abstention is usually easier than moderation.

How can this be? As I understand how the brain works, it loses neural connections underlying a behavior once we stop doing that behavior. Use it or lose it. Moderation keeps brain circuits active. Abstention lets them atrophy.

Also, repetitive behavior forms habits. Habits bring together a cue, behavior, and reward. With moderation, we receive intermittent rewards. It turns out that intermittent rewards make habits stronger. In contrast, abstention removes rewards altogether. This lets habits die.

After years of trying and failing to eat fewer sweets, I changed my strategy. A year and a half ago, I gave them up completely. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Other than getting run over by a plate of Christmas cookies in the first month, abstention has worked well for me. It’s been surprisingly easier to eat no sweets than to eat only some sweets.

This has me thinking about other behaviors that I have trouble doing in moderation. Maybe I want to try abstinence with them as well. Surfing the internet and using credit cards come to mind.