“Moderation in all things, especially moderation.” Emerson said this, and everyone in the world seems to agree with it – except me. I think moderation is dumb. What does it even mean?
This is why I have such a problem with adages and folk wisdom. These sayings are like incantations to justify whatever it is we want to do. For instance, there is no such thing as the “14-second rule” that we invoke when we really want to eat off the floor. I’m not saying I’ve never eaten off the floor, but my justification is not that “the food hasn’t had time to get germs on it” (patently false). More simply, I’ve done it before without negative consequences. It’s possible that occasionally eating dirty food off a dirty floor may help maintain a robust immune system. It seems to work for my dog (and a kindergartner I just watched put her mouth on the edge of the counter by a garbage can).
Let me point out that telling the Internet about one’s floor-oriented dining experiences is not a moderate act.
Moderation is defined as “avoidance of excess or extremes.” Synonyms listed are restraint, self-command, and self-discipline. Okay, I’m all about self-discipline, but in my mind this has nothing to do with moderation. I do things I want to do, because they make sense to me at the time. I’ve never committed murder. I’ve never needed to restrain myself from murdering someone. This is not something that takes self-discipline. There’s just never been anyone I wanted to kill, and I’ve just never felt that kind of impulse. I also don’t need self-discipline to take a shower, brush my teeth, cook dinner, or play with my dog. These are habitual behaviors.
What’s the difference between habits and moderation? Habits include automated routines and heuristics. A heuristic is a problem-solving technique. My husband and I use a heuristic for parking the car: in a crowded area, take the first visible spot. This may result in walking an extra quarter mile in urban areas, but it saves endless amounts of time, frustration, and potential fender benders. Technically, we may wind up walking 10x as far as someone who spent more total minutes driving in circles and jamming up a parking lot. There is nothing moderate about this, but it works.
Extreme behavior is often what is needed to reach the threshold of effectiveness. Highly strenuous exercise reversed my thyroid disease, whereas my lifelong moderate habit of walking everywhere had no effect. Going on a strict diet for three months resulted in permanent weight loss, because I stayed focused on analyzing and changing my dysfunctional eating habits. Debt elimination was significantly faster when I spent a couple of years on a lockdown budget, because interest compounds monthly. I no longer need to focus attention on paying debts, losing weight, or managing a chronic health condition. My attention fluctuated from 100% to 0%.
Moderation can be really frustrating, to the point of learned helplessness and despair. When I tried to lose weight via distance running alone, I discovered that it took 38 miles for me to run off a single pound of body fat. At the rate I was going, I wouldn’t reach my goal for a year and a half, and then only if I didn’t go on vacation or celebrate any holidays. Paying off credit cards is the same, because if all we do is stop overspending, we’re still spending everything we earn and getting hit with unanticipated expenses. The goalposts keep getting moved further down the field and we never reach them. Getting rid of clutter a couple of bags at a time is another example of how moderation is unhelpful and takes forever. It’s like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. Total life overhauls can happen in a shockingly brief time period when we pause for a radical change in perspective.
Extreme behaviors work for me. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee because I don’t like them, even though it would smooth out a lot of social situations for me to submit and accept these yucky beverages sometimes. (It’s amazing how invested people can be in making sure you eat or drink something in front of them). I maintain my goal weight within 2 lbs. I carry zero consumer debt. I keep my house clean, doing basic chores even when I’m sick. I don’t check baggage, even if it means donating some clothes I packed to Goodwill (from whence they came originally). I’m either not doing something at all, or I’m totally committed to it. If I’m trying to resolve a persistent problem, I put laser focus on it, researching it and thinking about it and working on it and looking for examples of people who don’t have that issue. By the time I’m done, my perspective has changed and I can laugh at Past Self’s ineffective way of approaching it.
Don’t be moderate in following your passions. Don’t be moderate in telling people you love them. Don’t be moderate in wrestling down any problem that causes hassles for you. Don’t be moderate in your daily life. If you sing, put some volume behind it. If you dance, dork out, because vague and half-hearted never look good. If you meet someone and you want to be friends, say so. If you want to be creative, spend every drop, because you’ll learn and improve and you can always burn the evidence. I have a strong opinion and I’ve just laid it out for you. Moderation, schmoderation.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.