On not drinking alcohol
The first 200 days
In “On Making Progress” I wrote about how long-term goals are hard to keep since you have to deal with waning motivation that comes after the first few weeks. I wrote that post many months ago, towards the beginning of writing this newsletter. At the end of it, I wrote about my new goal to not drink alcohol:
In this vein I recently decided to add a new goal for myself: I will not drink for 1,000 days. That’s about 3 years. This is likely the longest time horizon habit goal I’ve ever set. […] At the end of the 1,000 days I’ll reevaluate and see if I want to change it. Let’s see how it goes :)
Well, it’s been 200 days of teetotaling - a good 20% of the way through my original goal and surprisingly it doesn’t even feel like a “goal” anymore… I have zero interest in drinking again and it’s been way better for my health and happiness.
I’d probably been drinking in some way shape or form since I was a teenager so that’s a good 20+ years of drinking that I am upending. Before starting this goal, my habit was drinking a few glasses of wine on weekends (more if it was a party), and maybe a glass here or there during the week if I was stressed or wanted to celebrate something. The last time I tried to not drink was probably a decade ago and, on reflection, I lasted maybe a month (although it felt like much longer).
After setting the goal this time, the first few weeks of not drinking were by far the hardest: I was still in the habit of drinking a glass of wine with dinner many nights and if I wanted to unwind after a long day, I always treated myself with a drink. I always had a bottle of wine in the kitchen. It was a part of my routine. It was “normal.”
After deciding not to drink I had to change my social reflexes: if someone asked if I wanted a beer or wine, I now had to train myself to answer was “no” instead of “of course!” This was, and remains, the hardest part of not drinking: social events are often centered on alcohol – it’s the medium for socializing. I felt compelled to drink by my surroundings. “It’s fun to drink - why am I going to ruin the party!” This was (and still often is) my internal monologue. What I’ve noticed over time is that it doesn’t matter if I don’t drink – I’m far from my college and grad school days when there was peer pressure about drinking. Among my older friends and family, nobody cares.
Not only that, what I’ve also noticed is that if I say I’m not drinking there’s often a few people around me that were waiting to see if that was permissible and then also choose not to drink. Many more people want to abstain from alcohol than one would think…
My go-to alternative to alcohol is sparkling water. To treat myself for staying “on habit,” I’ll get “the best sparkling water” available which is often just a fraction of the cost of alcohol and yet feels lavish. If I want to be extra demanding I’ll also get lime!
One other thing that has helped me a lot is to eat mindfully and center myself before a meal. I wrote more about mindful eating here, but by really focusing on each bite and not rushing my meal, I’m able to really make the flavors come alive. Acknowledging the richness and complexity of a meal, I feel less compelled to supplement it with alcohol.
After the first 100 days of not drinking, most of my habit cues changed: when people asked if I wanted a drink, I would reflexively say “no” and move on with my life. Days 101-200 were a breeze.
In retrospect it was much easier to do this habit since I didn’t have that many social events during the pandemic. As a consequence, I had less times to actually confront saying no - by just changing what I had in my house I was able to get through 90% of the days. This concept is similar to “warehousing” which I wrote about a few months ago: modifying our physical and digital environments is often the simplest path to changing habits. By being home and not having alcohol easily available, I was able to bootstrap the first few months.
Not drinking has been wonderful for so many parts of my life. The main drawbacks of drinking were all the second-order effects; I would get sleepy or moody after having a few glasses and all of my other plans would fade: “Oh, I’d like to meditate before bed” (never going to happen); “Oh, I would like to learn a new language” (my hippocampus would like a word with you); “Oh, I’d like to wake up earlier and go running” (ha!) After a night of drinking, I’d also wake up in a bad mood, sometimes trying to remember if I’d said something mean to someone or done something I should be ashamed of, and for what? For the taste? For a few hours of fun?
I love not drinking. Of all the changes I’ve made the past few years, it’s probably the best.
For some people drinking is a wonderful part of their culinary and social experience. For some others, it’s a terrible habit that ruins their lives (one in eight American adults are alcoholics!).1 Most people are somewhere in between...
I write this post to normalize not drinking since I think many people feel compelled to do so by their surroundings. If that’s you, I hope this is some inspiration.