“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.” – Charles Bukowski
Alcohol. We drink it to celebrate, socialize, drown our sorrows, loosen our inhibitions, keep ourselves warm and quench our thirst. It’s the drug of choice for billions of people around the world. Heck, some studies even claim that moderate alcohol consumption can improve health and lead to a longer life.
So bring your friends and let’s go have a drink, or maybe a dozen then?
Not so fast. While alcohol is great when consumed in moderation, for many it’s hard to limit how much and how often. And that makes alcohol a problem.
Two characteristics make alcohol a particularly mercurial friend. First, alcohol stimulates the pleasure reward system in the brain, which reinforces the desire to continually use alcohol to avoid discomfort or the after-effects of depression that alcohol can cause. This leads us to drinking more and more often.
Second, alcohol is a socially acceptable drug, which is often abused with little resistance in social settings. Your parents probably drink alcohol. Your grandparents probably as well. It’s not only accepted in many cultures, but also encouraged.
So how do we find that elusive middle ground between the two extremes where we can enjoy it while maintaining control? Between not drinking at all and drinking too much or too often?
Average Joe’s Solution… Doesn’t Work
The most common strategy for people who want to reduce their drinking is to simply decide to drink less. “I won’t drink at all this month” or “I will only drink on weekends from now on” are common vows usually made just before, during or just after a drinking session. But they rarely work. This is because the only tools at one’s disposal are motivation and will-power. Why is this a problem? Because motivation is often fleeting and unreliable, and relying on will-power is in many instances thoroughly ineffective.
The reason for this is that most of us are already trying as hard as we can – even if it doesn’t look like it. Sure, you can try harder for one moment or even a few days, but you can’t sustain that effort over a longer period of time, otherwise you would have done it already and fixed all your problems.
For whatever reason, us humans have a tendency to overestimate our will-power in habit transformation. We fail to anticipate that how we feel right now about something is not how we are going to feel about it in the future. Our emotional states are so vivid and immediate that it’s extremely difficult to imagine feeling any other way in the future than we feel right now.
For example, when you feel hot, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it’s actually like to feel really cold, even though you’ve felt cold thousands of times in your life. The reverse is just as true – when you’re feeling cold, it’s very difficult to imagine what it feels like to be hot.
So even though you might be really motivated right now to quit or reduce your drinking, it’s more probable than not that you won’t feel as motivated in a few days or weeks. What will help you stick to your goal then? You started out with motivation, but now that motivation is gone. Your mind and your body are screaming for just one drink. Or maybe it’s a subtle but relentless nagging. Regardless, your will-power has taken you this far, but it can’t carry you any further. You need something else, something that can weather the storm of your feelings that come and go like the seasons.
What you need are strategies that use every lever at your disposal so you can power through in times when the well of your almighty will-power has run dry.
So without further ado, here are six solutions to help you control, reduce or quit your drinking. And many other bad habits.
1. Find an authentic reason not to drink
One of the best ways to overcome any habit is to find a powerful enough reason not to do it. If you can’t find a good reason not to drink, then you need to dig deep and create one for yourself.
Far too many people try to give up their bad habits without a strong enough reason. Just because you want to be thin, sober, or healthy doesn’t mean you have a strong enough reason to do so. Being thin, sober or healthy are just goals. They’re not reasons. What you need is a reason why it’s important for you to be thin, sober or healthy. A reason that really connects with you.
One way to find such a reason is to look at your life and pay attention to all the ways drinking is causing you and your loved ones harm. Then ask yourself whether all the pain and suffering your drinking is causing is really worth it.
Another way is to imagine you have already lived this life to it’s unflattering end and you can see all the mistakes you made and where it lead you. Now you’re suddenly getting a second chance to live it again. What will you do differently? What steps will you take to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes again?
2. Drinking is a symptom. Find the cause.
Unless you are talking about a fully blown alcohol addiction (which is a disease), your drinking is probably a symptom of something, not the cause of your troubles. You need to find out what that cause is.
The cause is usually some form of anxiety, discomfort or fear, but it may also be something more seemingly benign like drinking simply because you’re bored or have nothing better to do. Boredom can in fact be a sign of something much deeper. Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl observed that 90% of alcoholics he studied suffered from an “abysmal feeling of meaninglessness”, while another study of drug addicts found that 100% believed that “things seemed meaningless”.
Many people use alcohol (as well as drugs, sex, food, work, television, or even shopping) as an anesthetic in an unconscious attempt to remove the underlying unease of their lives.
If you suspect that a lack of meaning in your life is the cause for your drinking, fear not. You can find that meaning for yourself, and even if you can’t, you can create one for yourself.
Start by asking yourself what’s more important to you in life than instant gratification? What potentially desirable future are you forsaking by continuing to drink? What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? What problem is your drinking shielding you from? How could you solve that problem without drinking?
3. Identify your trigger
Any habit becomes automatic after we’ve created a bond between the trigger and the habit. In order to curb your drinking habit, you need to identify what triggers your desire to drink.
Research tells us that our habits are triggered by five primary cues: time, location, preceding event, your emotional state and other people.
The next time the urge to drink hits you – even the desire to plan a drink – pause and take note of what is happening. Can you identify what caused your thirst? Is it always the same time of day or week? Is it often in the same locations? Does it happen around the same group of people? Is it more likely to happen when you feel a certain way?
Keep paying attention, and with a little work, you will be able to zoom in on what the true triggers are.
Once you identify your trigger, you can either start working on substituting a different behavior for the same trigger or taking actions to avoid the trigger altogether. For instance, when you feel bored or lonely – the trigger to drink in this example – you might call a friend who is most likely to go out for a walk with you instead of the one who is likely to ask you to go have a drink with him. If you want to avoid the trigger altogether, you need to pay attention to when you are most likely to feel bored or lonely, and then try to schedule your life in such a manner that you won’t be alone or idle in those moments to avoid the trigger from being set off.
4. Find an appropriate counterweight
When you forbid something from yourself, it easily turns into an obsession and this can make it especially difficult to resist the urge when you really feel like a drink.
So instead of forbidding alcohol from yourself, allow yourself to drink if you want to, but only with the condition that you will fulfill certain rules. Viktor Frankl details a case of a man who couldn’t stop drinking by telling him he wouldn’t have to stop, he’d just have to abide by a few simple rules: that he could drink as much as he wanted, but only at one particular bar that was located 10km from his home, and he’d have to travel to and from the bar on foot. The result? The man immediately walked to the bar, drank himself stupid and walked home. But he never did it again, because knowing what a long walk it was, he now had to weigh the emotional and physical price of walking 1.5 hours to a bar and then back. And on most days, his desire not to walk was higher than his desire to drink.
The point here is that you need to find a solid counterweight for your drinking. Give yourself permission to drink, but only if you obey preset rules. Be honest with yourself and make sure you set the price just high enough that you won’t want to pay it too often. It is equally important not to make the rule impossible, or you will be tempted to cheat.
Other possible counterweights include giving a certain amount of money to charity, visiting an elderly home for two hours, only drinking in a distant town, or going for a jog of a certain distance or duration.
5. Be present and in the moment
Being present and in the moment isn’t just a fad. It actually helps with just about any problem in your life, including curbing your drinking. No really, it does.
Let me explain.
Firstly, when you are present and aware of what is happening in and around you, you have the ability to catch yourself before your automatic programming kicks in (habits, in other words) and therefore choose a different path.
Secondly, being anywhere but present means your mind is usually running wild with hope, expectation, fear or anxiety. As addictive as these thoughts are, they are the cause for much of your suffering. This is because the past gives you an identity, and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in some form, yet they’re both illusions.
The practice of being present has been shown to reduce stress, loneliness and anxiety, mainly because you let go of the concept of time and all the emotional noise it brings. When you no longer experience all the noise, you obviously start to feel better because you begin to relax in the moment. This further reduces your need to drink or whatever issue you may be struggling with.
If you think this means you’ll need to sign up for a meditation class or spend 15 minutes in a lotus position every day, you’ll be happy to hear that you don’t have to do either. All you need to do is to start paying attention to your thoughts and emotional states. Spend as much time on what is happening on the inside as what is happening on the outside.
This simple act of becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings is often enough to help you gain much better control of yourself and your actions.
6. The early bird… has no excuses
People who drink a lot usually stay up late and then sleep in. If you arrange your life in such a way that you’ll need to get up early every single day, your ability to stay up late and drink is severely compromised.
The key is to make getting up every morning a responsibility, not a choice. Get a job, join a hobby club, or volunteer your time at a place where you have to go meet other people every morning. Not for every morning for the rest of your life, but for a couple months at least so that it forces you to spend your evenings resting instead of drinking.
If that isn’t practical in your life, you can try playing badminton in the morning with a friend before you go to work or join a jogging group that runs in the mornings.
And if you do end up drinking and staying up late? Get up early the next morning and do what you’ve promised to do, just like any other day. There’s no doubt it will feel terrible – but that’s the point. You will be much less likely to stay up the next night because you’ll simply be too tired and it’ll make you think twice the next time you’re tempted.
Putting a Cork in It (a.k.a Summary)
If you decide that you want to reduce your alcohol consumption or quit altogether, remember that simply deciding to do so doesn’t give you enough leverage over yourself to stick with it when the going gets tough. And there’s no doubt it will get tough.
With the right strategies, it is entirely possible for you to persist with your decision and create adequate counter-weights to your desire to drink. And when you wrestle back control over your drinking, you can start enjoying alcohol the way it was intended to be enjoyed – in moderation.
If you have other ideas on how to help people reduce their drinking, I’m keen to hear from you.