Five steps to changing your drinking habits
According to popular myth, it takes 21 days to change a habit. But the psychology behind changing behaviour is a little more complex. The truth is that some habits are easier to change than others, for example, adopting the habit of drinking an extra glass of water a day is much easier to establish than beginning a new fitness regime.
And of course, when the habit that you want to change involves giving something up, it becomes harder still. Especially if it’s something you enjoy.
While many of us hang onto the idea that it takes 21 days to change a habit, a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that some of us need as long as 254 to make a new habit stick. Others can do the same in just 18 days. But on average, it takes 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic.
This means that you have to keep working on it until the new habit starts to feel as natural as brushing your teeth.
Know your triggers
Triggers are a big part of our habits, so it’s important to understand them. A 2012 study published in the British Journal of General Practice defines habits as ‘actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.”
For example, when you get into a car, you put your seatbelt on. You don’t have to think about it, or why you’re doing it. Brushing your teeth is another good example - we don’t have to consciously make time for it in our morning, we just do it. Our brains love habits like this because they make us efficient.
When it comes to drinking habits our triggers might be a little more complex, so it’s a good idea to identify them. It could be a time of day (I used to love a glass of red wine in the evening), a situation or a feeling such as stress. And, because alcohol is a big part of social situations, there are drinking triggers everywhere!
If you know that certain situations are linked to drinking then you can develop some good strategies to help change the habit. Planning ahead can help you.
For example, if you normally share a bottle of wine with your book club friends, let them know that you are having a break from alcohol ahead of time so that you won’t feel put on the spot when someone hands you a drink.
Non-alcoholic drinks are really handy in this situation because they give you an easy alternative. But if you are going to a venue that doesn’t allow you to bring your own drinks, it’s a good idea to find out what drinks are available before you arrive so that you can decide what you’ll order and avoid going for your default option.
Create a new habit
Another strategy that will help you to change a habit is to swap the old habit for a new, healthier habit. For example, if you’re trying to make your snacking habits healthier, you could swap crisps for popcorn. And of course, if you are trying to drink less alcohol, you can switch your regular drink to a non-alcoholic one.
It’s also worth looking at the big picture. If you do most of your socialising around alcohol then you could consider changing the way that you catch up with people. There are lots of ways to spend time with friends that don’t involve alcohol. Swapping a drink at the pub for a neighbourhood walk is a great win/win - it’s not just impacting your drinking habits, it’s also getting your step count up.
Acknowledge your success
Creating long term change is hard, so it’s really important to celebrate success and acknowledge yourself. There are lots of different ways to do this - perhaps buying yourself a small gift or simply spending some time reflecting on how great it feels to create a new, healthier habit.
Important note: If you are dealing with alcohol addiction it is important to seek professional help.