Willpower isn’t Enough: How Habits Can Help You Stop Drinking
Around the same time every year, I get a message from a guy I used to date. It’s your standard: “hey, how’s it going?” text that rarely elicits a response. This year’s message from him was different: “hey, I see you’re still not drinking! You must have so much WILLPOWER!!!”
His message made me stop and think. For I don’t have much willpower at all. I can’t say no to a bag of maltesers, and I’ll eat the whole share-sized bag, I snooze my alarm 5+ times before I get up on any given day and my new fitness regime lasts 2 whole weeks before I give up and go back to my once-weekly yoga class.
And yet here I am, two years sober on Tuesday.
Pre-sobriety, I thought not drinking was all about willpower. I thought that you had to be strong, and determined and that each event would be a test of my will and my ability to refuse every. single. drink. This was true, to a point. But relying on willpower alone didn’t work for me. Even though I tried it this way for a good year or so before I managed to quit for good.
‘I don’t think I want to drink anymore’ wasn’t a strong reason for me to stay sober. I’d clock up a few weeks, and sometimes even a few months, and then my resolve would weaken and I’d have a drink or two (or five). I had to do a lot more work to make it stick.
I dug underneath not wanting to drink anymore, to why I didn’t want to drink and what I wanted my life to be like.
With a strong enough why, I was less reliant on willpower and more able to see the long term benefits of my decision. Before every birthday, night out and supermarket trip – I’d remind myself of my why and order a soda and lime instead. And before long, it became a habit – part of my routine.
Habits can save the day when your willpower wanes.
And new habits can help you stop drinking (and keep me/you sober).
Established mental patterns are powerful; the patterns of stressful day = wine, football match = beers, wedding = champagne can be very difficult to break. Psychology Today explains it as: imagine yourself running up an escalator that’s going down, and the faster you run the faster the escalator moves. You may eventually make it to the top – no doubt exhausted – or you may simply run in place, or, worse, fall backwards to the floor. Here, the escalator represents the learned mental patterns you’re “running” against whenever you exert your will – they’ve been there for a long time and they are very resilient. Changing our drinking patterns and behaviour requires long-game thinking.
Here, your why comes back in. Why don’t you want to drink? What have you got to gain from not drinking? Can you imagine your life at a week sober? Or a year?
Can you project that vision of your sober life forward?
I often notice myself imagining negative scenarios, thinking about things that could go wrong and playing that scene over and over in my mind. But I/we can change those patterns, we can create positive visions that help us succeed (in sobriety, in moderation, on our next run).
Visualisation is one of the primary technologies used in sports psychology. Research has shown that when athletes visualise or imagine a successful competition, they stimulate the same brain regions as you do when you physically perform that same action. We can use the same technique of visualisation as a way of conditioning our brains for successful outcomes. Next time you catch yourself imagining you said yes to a glass of mulled wine, or thinking about how a friend might react to your sobriety – try switching the film in your mind. Instead visualise saying no thanks to a drink, see yourself coming home sober and waking up feeling great and your friends supporting your decisions everyday.
With long term thinking in place, and visualisation to support it. Creating new habits to replace drinking-behaviour is essential. Our mental patterns have learnt that drinking is a solution, for happy times, sad times and fun. This isn’t a habit in itself, but becomes the creation of new routines and habits. And it is important to do. Sit down and figure out where your drinking is, or was, ingrained in your life and when you rely on it as a coping mechanism.
Always have a glass of wine after a stressful day? Replace wine with your favourite alcohol free drink, or a cup of tea or break the pattern entirely and have a bath or ring a friend or even throw cornflakes on the floor and stamp on them. A book once recommended the cornflake-stamping to me as a solution and it seemed extreme at the time but I have found it’s a great way to get rid of unresolved anger (that often masquerades as stress in my mind). Ripping up bits of paper and stamping on bubble-wrap also works.
Willpower runs out. It fades after a long day and your monkey mind can sometimes override it. Work to put new habits in place to support you to stop – or stay stopped – drinking.
Summary – Three New Habits to Help You Stop Drinking:
- Remind yourself of your why. Check in with your why before every potentially challenging situation.
- Visualisation. Take 5 minutes every morning or evening and visualise your sober self. Create your sober world in your mind, imagine saying no to alcoholic drinks and what you will choose instead.
- Create new mental patterns. Replace drinking rituals with new routines.
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts and what’s helped you stop drinking, comment below or message me on instagram xxx
Enjoyed reading this? Keep reading …