This year my One Word is “clean,” but it might as well be “habits.” I am becoming increasingly convinced of the importance of habits in our lives. I’m reading Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin, another book on habits and one that tackles the question of why it can be so hard to develop habits or to break them.
I have a lot to say on this question and on the book, but for the moment I plan to look at just one of the points Rubin makes: for some people, abstention is easier than moderation.
The Evil 6 plan, which works well for me when I do it and not when I don’t, is abstention-based. I have pretty well given up a whole bunch of things that I like with this plan. Dairy products, for example. Apart from butter and cheese, which are such staple foods that I can’t manage without them, I have given up dairy. I love yogurt, I enjoy cooking and baking with ricotta and marscapone, I crave the occasional bowl of cereal with skim milk, I like ice cream, but I just don’t have those things any more. I don’t drink alcohol, except on rare occasions a few times a year. I like juice, but I don’t drink it. I never liked soy products much, except for soy sauce, and I am one of those people to whom artificial sweeteners taste bitter. Crackers have their charms, but it’s clear that they have no nutritional value and I can do without them, so I gave them up, along with chips and store-bought cookies. Processed foods that come in boxes or cans generally I can do without. So there are enormous categories of food which I don’t eat at all.
Over Christmas I ate some of those things. I bought a bottle of cranberry juice for sangria and am now drinking it a tiny glass at a time. I still have some wee packages of cheese from a gift box and I am having those occasionally. I enjoyed those things, and am still enjoying them in moderation, but I won’t buy more.
Sugar and gluten are something else. I’ve cut way back on bread and pasta, focusing on being a gourmet rather than a gourmand, but I still have sweets and starches every day. Every day. That isn’t moderation, given the health issues involved.
Would it be easier to give them up entirely than to try to be moderate? I’ve lost four pounds this month while being admittedly immoderate. It might be that I could have an ounce of high quality chocolate a day or a single small serving of pastry with tea every afternoon or a roll for breakfast each day for the rest of my life and let that be all the gluten and sugar I ever have… but it’s equally true that I have seen that become daily bread (and pizza and pasta and quiche and cake) as soon as I stop being mindful about that moderation.
Maybe for Lent. After 40 days without simple carbohydrates I might be able to look at pizza the way I look at juice: as something which I like but don’t consume.
This approach only works for stopping things, though. It’s harder to imagine what it would mean to abstain from having a messy desk or to abstain from not getting in those 10,000 steps or to abstain for failing to build relationships. But for things that lend themselves to abstention, it might actually be easier than moderation.