Indulgent Balance: Why all-the-time moderation is overrated

There’s a better than good chance you’ve either invoked some sort of balance-oriented mantra today (“It’s all about balance!”), or it’s been (judgingly, cleverly) marketed to you in a parental-scolding-masquerading-as-self-love sorta way. 

I’m personally exhausted by calls for the balance-imperative as the only “responsible,” “adult” choice for how to live and operate. The “all things in moderation” mindset is culturally pervasive — and as counter-intuitive as it may seem, I believe we’re not better off for it. 

Interestingly, when it comes to marketing, there are two repeated, contradictory tropes: on the one hand, we’re reminded how balance and moderation are the key to living a happy life  — just the right amount of sleep / food / sex / work, etc. will make for a perfect life!  And it’s a never-ending job keeping every aspect of our lives in a constant state of perfect equilibrium. 

And yet the ad most likely to follow a call for moderation whispers to us to go on and indulge, to be pampered, to let loose. After all, we’ve earned it after working so hard for this godforsaken balance, right?! 

This confusing messaging leaves us constantly striving for all-the-time moderation (which is praised for its honorable restraint), leaving us with pangs of guilt if and when we do “give in” to more extreme behavior, which is always viewed as deviant — a whim, an uncontrollable urge, rash behavior that reflects our more base instincts. The messaging is clear: Moderation is a virtue, while any extreme is at best a momentary aberration, and at worst an offensive character flaw. But here, won’t you have another artisanal truffle?

What if that whole moderation mindset is just false, or at least only a half-truth? Are we open to that possibility? We like things neat and tidy, but life and behavior are usually nuanced and messy. And the value and optimal execution of moderation is no exception.

If you’ve met me in person, you’ve likely observed that I’m a pretty intense person. I have a somewhat irrationally strong dislike for the phrase “work hard, play hard” (let’s discuss why over a drink sometime, shall we?) so I’ll not invoke it here. But suffice it to say that I like to go all-in on whatever I’m doing, be it labor or leisure.

In some respects, I’ve often envied my more moderate counterparts. Maybe you’re one of them. Those individuals for whom a veil of graceful balance seems to accompany everything they do. (Of course public appearances can be deceiving, and it’s likely there are indulgent secret pockets operating somewhere — but that’s a speculative rabbit hole we’ll not go down right now.) Regardless, there are people who embrace moderation far more easily and/or willingly than I do — and perhaps that resonates with you.

But the question at hand is not how to be more moderate, but a) is moderation always “better” and b) if not, then what’s the right formula?


Let’s start with the concept of “better”:

Yes, what’s “better” when it comes to most things, including moderation, is largely individual and personal, but it’s also circumstantial. That is to say that what’s “better” (I’m going to stop putting that in quotes now, ok?) for you in one instance may not apply in another. Same person, different context. And I think a call for moderation on the basis that it’s better for us is something we need to challenge case-by-case throughout our lives.

We might judge what’s personally and circumstantially better by three metrics: Is moderation 1) necessary, 2) satisfying, 3) beneficial in any given context. Chances are you will be able to make a case for or against it in many circumstances, but the point is that more often than you might think, it won’t be a slam dunk in favor of moderation (or at least not perma-moderation). Which means active assessment is necessary for personal optimization.

  • In the first phase of a new romance and periodically throughout any relationship. Getting lost in thought and action together with a “time out of time” mindset is crucial to the initial and ongoing bonding experience. Love without limits is not just a romantic ideal; it’s crucial to our survival.
  • When deep in a project. Stopping for the sake of stopping can disrupt your concentration and work flow, which sometimes comes in fits and starts. Honor those rhythms.
  • At special events, like weddings. Sometimes life should be celebrated to the extreme.  
  • When traveling. Length of trip plays a role, but veering off the path of everyday moderate behavior when experiencing new and different places and people can be wildly uninhibiting and central to growth and learning.
  • When launching a new venture. Startups are like birthing and raising a child, and no one ever called parenthood moderate.
  • When on a creative streak. When you get that spark, it doesn’t always blossom on Tuesday from 2-3pm between conference calls. Sometimes the schedule needs to be shoved out of the way to make space for the unpredictably special and inspiring.
  • When playing. This is likely the hardest one for adults to justify, but play is serious business and deserves an all-in mindset, however intermittently. Like, for instance, you can never have too much karaoke in your life. That’s just a fact.

[Quick PSA side note: Before you roll your eyes or write to me to say how irresponsible it is to toss out moderation, know that these recommendations necessitate acting with a mindful regard to your personal safety and the safety of others, and also ask that you thoughtfully consider the ethics and consequences of your actions. Further, this does not mean that you should perpetually act to an extreme in every single one of the above circumstances — personal judgement is key. And finally, the subject of moderation in diet and substance (ab)use is an incredibly nuanced discussion, and not one that can be adequately addressed in this space. Thus, it is not the intended target of this article, though you may find some use for applying this methodology to it. End of disclaimer. Phew.]

Notice that that list doesn’t include the indulgences we’re most often marketed, which come in the chocolate / spa treatment / glass of wine variety. Those are all well and good, but the indulgence of time and behavior patterns — like the list above — is often far more satisfying, with longer lasting results, though inherently more complex in their execution. When does nurturing a startup stop being ambitious and instead erode your quality of life and relationships? When does the unbridled passion of the relationship creep into unhealthy obsession, and when does not giving it enough space and time for indulgence hinder your ability to bond and connect? Are you playfully letting loose at that event or creating a cringe-worthy morning-after facepalm moment? (Though the occasional non-career-ending facepalm moment does the body and mind good.)

The answers to these questions aren’t always or usually immediately clear. But when we restrict ourselves exclusively to the mantra of all-the-time moderation, we never get to test those boundaries or discover when crossing the threshold into calculated imbalance is actually beneficial (and fun. Let’s no forget the merits of fun.)

As an antidote to the current moderation craze, I’m a proponent of “indulgent balance”: A mindfully constructed, occasionally hedonistic, sometimes lopsided approach to moderating moderation, or balancing imbalance — whichever you prefer.

Here’s my formula for creating regular outlets for indulgent balance:

  1. Rotate your balancing act. Everything isn’t balanced all the time, and the sooner you give up on that impossibility the better off you’ll be. That doesn’t mean that we need to operate in a constant state of extremes. But effective, satisfying balance is a rotation. When one thing is in focus, some other things shift. Often, this is temporary. It’s when the extreme behavior becomes fixed that it crosses over from fulfilling to destructive. And there may very well be things in your life that you simply can’t ever indulge in or allow to get out of balance. Identify those things, then build your rotating indulgences around them.
  2. Create constant check-ins. Keeping enough mental awareness to actively gauge the situation and know when enough is enough is crucial to thriving in indulgent balance. If you aren’t able to know when or how to put on the breaks, the indulgence quickly spirals into destructive and unsatisfying territory. Establish whatever rules and tactics you need to keep yourself in check, even while going all-in — be it a literal alarm you set or a verbal assessment with a partner. And then do the internal reflection necessary to understand what course of action is needed during the balance- and focus-shifting phases: How can you readjust your schedule to accommodate? How are your relationships affected and what actions will ease the pressure on them? Which life necessities — food/water/rest/exercise — need to be built into this temporary sprint?
  3. Understand your goals. Extreme behavior simply for the sport of it can certainly be exhilarating, but it alone doesn’t often make for long-term happiness. But if you know your goal(s) — both immediately and into the future — and how any given indulgence will affect that goal, it becomes far easier to both self-police AND unrestrict.

Tolstoy may not spring to mind as your supreme happiness guru, but I’m on board with this statement: “Happiness consists of living each day as if it were the first day of your honeymoon and the last day of your vacation.” In other words, indulgence > complacency, and sometimes convincing ourselves that moderation is the only choice is more about fear (or laziness) than responsibility.

Genius often springs from periods of extreme behavior. Social change is rarely scheduled. Deep love is not born from the conditional or the convenient (and romance — a worthy indulgence if ever there was one — is not rooted in practicality). I don’t want to live in a world in which any of these things are neither prioritized nor prized, and I want to participate in all of them — often and fully.

Indulgence need not be a dirty word or a destructive action. Nor will perpetual, across-the-board balance likely lead to excellence or even happiness. Indulgent balance, however, makes space for the incubation of the exceptional within extreme circumstances, without total disregard for healthy functioning.

Contrary to popular belief, many of the most significant moments and opportunities of our lives benefit from less, not more moderation. So bring on the binge-watching. The all-night work sessions. The off-grid weekends. The hours-long discussions. Not everyday, but sometimes. Executed with exuberance and abandon, without apology or regret.