Moderation doesn't sell self-help books. Anthony Robbins, the chisel-jawed guru famous for "inspiring" people to walk barefoot over hot coals, wrote a bestseller called Awaken The Giant Within, and there's a reason why he didn't call it Awaken The Somewhat Taller Person Within. Robbins advocates taking "massive action" to make "sweeping changes", just like he did when - can you guess? - he hit rock bottom and decided to turn his life around. "I decided to change virtually every aspect of my life," he writes. "I would never again settle for less than I could be." (Motivational speakers always have a personal back story like this, in which they hit rock bottom, then decide to change their lives by immediately becoming motivational speakers, which is, when you think about it, a bit weird.)
Regular readers will know this column's opinion that extremism like this doesn't work. Deciding to go from couch-potato to running five miles every morning, from disorganised to blisteringly efficient, from gloomy by nature to ultra-optimistic ... all this makes failure nearly inevitable. Then, a dispiriting spiral kicks in, where you give up, go for broke again, give up even more completely, and so on. Still, it's worth asking why this disastrous approach always seems so enticing. The clichéd answer is that these days everyone's looking for a quick fix. But most people who resolve to make some change in their lives aren't feeling lazy: on the contrary, they're feeling idealistic and energetic, however fleetingly. That's a noble feeling, not a shameful one, and it would be nice to think there was a way of harnessing it in a way that wasn't doomed to fail.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you "extreme moderation". Partly, this is just an excuse to highlight the endlessly fascinating website EverydaySystems.com, whose proprietor, Reinhard Engels, coined the phrase. (He's best known online for inventing a crazy but effective home-fitness tool called Shovelglove - see shovelglove.com.) Extremist approaches to life, Engels notes, have the virtue of clarity. If you have a drink problem, and decide never to touch another drop, your personal rule is unambiguous: there isn't a slippery slope. "You can cross this line, if you decide," he writes, "but you can't do it by accident or by imperceptible degree."
Usually, though, extremism demands too much of us: we want to cut back on drinking and still savour good beer, or go running more often without threatening cherished Sundays in bed. "The most powerful extremist technique is drawing hard, clear lines and exploding when those lines come anywhere close to being crossed," Engels notes. "Moderates should be the same way - except we draw those lines in different places." Choose a moderate goal, then stick to it with an extremist's zeal. Set an upper limit of "x" drinks per night; cut out sugary foods three days a week; run one mile twice weekly. You won't Transform Your Life In Seven Days, but you won't do that by reading books called Transform Your Life In Seven Days either. And at least with extreme moderation you might make things a bit better, not worse.