The most important skill to change your drinking is simply the skill of paying attention. Of becoming awake to your thoughts, feelings, and decisions.
Most of us spend much of our life on autopilot, getting through on momentum and inertia, with very little awareness. We fall into our routines and execute them pretty reliably. Hell even our personality is just a deep semi-permanent routine - a set of habitual thoughts and attitudes that run on autopilot.
This lack of awareness shows up in your drinking. Every single drink is an opportunity for a decision to say yes or no. As a reader of this article, probably you are not saying no nearly as much as you would like. I'll bet you’re not even explicitly saying Yes either - your habit runs on autopilot without much explicit thought.
Consider your normal window for drinking - let's say for the sake of discussion that this is every day between 6:00 and 11:00, or on the weekends starting on Friday at 5:00.
Within that drinking window you encounter multiple decision points about whether to have a drink or not.
- First you have the decision about whether you’re going to drink today. Maybe you have both the desire and the opportunity to crack a beer at 5:30. You may decide No, not yet. You might take this decision again at 5:45, and 5:55, and finally at 6:00 you’ll decide Yes.
- Then you have the decision about whether to have a second drink, and third, and so on. If you drink 5 drinks in a night, you’ll make 5 yes decisions, and again you may or may not make some No decisions if you try to spread out your drinks.
- And every time you raise the glass to pour some of that liquid down your throat, you have a chance to say No or Yes. (For example when I drink a cocktail, usually I have to make a lot of No decisions, or else I’d down the thing in 3 minutes and that wouldn’t be any fun. So it’s a lot of Nos, interspersed with a few Yeses over the course of 20 minutes or so.)
The objective of this exercise is to bring awareness to those drinking decisions, to make them consciously.
The goal here is NOT to change those decisions - this is not about drinking less. And you must not let it become another reason to judge and berate yourself, which just creates guilt, shame, regret, and stress. (All of which tend to make you drink MORE!)
You're going to perform a simple tracking exercise. Use regular paper, or a Note on your phone. Every time you manage to be explicitly aware of a drinking decision, I want you to mark on your sheet a Y or an N signifying whether you decided in the moment Yes to drink, or No not to drink in that moment.
For the sake of this exercise, No’s aren’t better than Yes’s - the objective again is only to bring awareness to that decision process. Now here’s where the real value of this exercise comes - in addition to noting the decision with a Y or N, note the thought - the one simple sentence or phrase - that justified the decision, whether Yes or a No.
Here are some examples of the kind of Yes thoughts that I notice for myself and that my clients have observed:
It won’t matter; I might as well; the train has left the station; I just want it; It tastes so good; fuck it; I was good yesterday; I’ll be good tomorrow; it’s Thursday; I deserve it; I’m doing ok; I planned on this; I don’t have a buzz; I don’t have anything important tomorrow.
I don’t want you judge, edit, or censor the thoughts you observe. There are no good or bad thoughts. The objective is just to see what’s going on in your brain when you make decisions around drinking.
Resolve to do this until you record 100 decisions and thoughts. Note that it doesn’t matter if you don’t ‘catch’ all of your decisions. There is no resetting to zero. You might drop out of awareness for an entire day or two. No problem, just pick back up where you left off.
Here’s a link to a video that describes further why and how this exercise is a useful component of changing your relationship to alcohol.
If you keep up with this tracking until you record 100 decisions and thoughts, you’ll make a huge improvement in your awareness. You’ll be seeing some patterns of thinking that you use to justify your yes decisions. You’ll be well positioned to start reprogramming your thinking so that more and more of your decisions default to No.