What a Year of No Drinking Taught Me
Dec 31st, 2019
It’s day 365th for me. I haven’t had a drink since New Year’s Eve! 🙌I know this degree of extreme isn’t for everyone, but in the hopes of inspiring even a few, I thought I’d share my reflections.
It all started when I read How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Gregor. That was my jumping off point. The book is divided into disease states and ends each chapter with a few simple steps you can take to improve your health. Nearly every chapter recommended no drinking. I like evidence, especially double-blind, randomized controlled trials, so this had a big impact on me.
Then a friend who happens to be a business coach told me one of her mentors says that “If you really want to transform your life, go a year without drinking.” She didn’t realize it at the time and neither did I, but that was the catalyst for change.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.
1. Set the bar low.
I began with the decision to try dry January. I didn’t know it would turn into a year with no alcohol. If I started out with such an epic goal, I probably would have bailed within the first couple of weeks. By starting off small, it seemed manageable — the old adage “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” is true.
2. It takes a lot longer than 30 days to change a habit.
I don’t care who tells you it takes 21 or 30 days to change a habit. It’s just not true — especially for social habits. I’ve never noticed the peer pressure to drink until I decided not to. It took at least 3 months until I stopped feeling the need to explain, justify, apologize for my choice.
3. Care less about what other people think.
This is a big one. I was in sales for 15 years. I was in the business of making other people feel comfortable. When I made a choice that challenged a societal norm (drinking in my 40’s as a way of coping with life and connecting with friends), it ruffled feathers. I was disrupting the status quo and the rhythm in my relationships.
It made me realize that peer pressure doesn’t fade with youth. My choice was affecting other people, especially the people closest to me and they didn’t like it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my decision called all kinds of things into question for them. The two that were most apparent — their drinking habits and my character, were greatest.
They’d tell me how they went a week or month without drinking. (Good for you!) and ask questions like “Why do you always have to be so extreme? Is this really necessary? Isn’t a month enough? Why are you doing this?” and say things like, “You’re more fun when you drink.” and “I hope this isn’t permanent”.
Ouch. Good thing I happened to be getting serious about meditation around the same time and was familiar with the concept of equanimity. I learned to stay neutral. It was other people’s stuff. I didn’t have to react. This was one of the most profound benefits of all.
4. You feel freaking fantastic!
This one is obvious and you already know this, but I’m living proof. Here’s a short list of what clearing alcohol from your system (for an extended period of time) will do for your body and your life:
- Better sleep
- Happier! Less moody
- Less bloating
- Fewer headaches
- More energy
- Clearer mind
- Better hair, skin, nails
- Weight loss
- More productive
- Less pain and inflammation
- Stick to other healthy habits — eating well, regular exercise, meditation, etc.
5. If I can do this, I can do anything!
Once you step into a zone where few people go and you stay there for an extended period of time, it builds your confidence. You prove to yourself that you can do difficult things. It’s a big boost and it gives you the courage to tackle other challenges in life, whether at home or at work. You aren’t afraid to do something no one else has tried. You can handle the discomfort. You’ve done it before.
6. Make no exceptions.
I know moderation is touted as the way to the good life, but not for people like me. There are just too many temptations! I’m an all or nothing kind of person and to change habits, I’ve learned I have to go all in. It has to be strict. If there are allowances, I waste way too much effort debating with myself whether this situation warrants an exception or not and odds are, I’ll cave. The measured approach = failure in my experience.
This is no surprise. It’s Newton’s first law of motion. An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. The unbalanced force was my decision to hold the line — no drinking. That got the ball rolling. Once it got moving, it became easy. I wasn’t tempted anymore. I didn’t have to explain myself. I was over it and so was everyone else. They moved on. That’s when I knew real behavior change takes months, not weeks.
7. Identify with it.
I think this is key to changing entrenched behaviors. For me, it became “I don’t drink. Period. There are no exceptions to this rule.” It didn’t matter if it was my birthday, we were on holiday, I was poolside in the summer. No decision required. “I don’t drink.”
Seth Godin says it another way in his recent book, “This is Marketing” speaking about brands. “People like us do things like this.” Again, by about the 4th month, it was simply “I don’t drink.” Once I identified more with not drinking than my former social drinker self, the resistance went away. I understood that this is who I am now. People understood it too. I had proven myself.
Leading up to today — day 365 — the final day in my year of no drinking, people asked me what I was going to do on January 1st. To be honest, I wasn’t sure, but I am now. I’ll apply my mindfulness practice to drinking. I will drink less. I know that for sure. When the spirit moves me or the occasion calls for it, I’ll enjoy a drink. I’ll drink it intentionally. I’ll savour each sip rather than consuming mindlessly.
I likely won’t go back to multi-task drinking — drinking while doing other things or because it’s Thursday night or because I’m at a restaurant or because I’m with certain people. See, this experiment shone a light on all the assumptions I had around my drinking habit. Now that I’ve made not drinking the new default, choosing to drink is a conscious choice. When I want to, I will. If I don’t want to, I won’t. And finally, in my 40’s, I have given myself permission to do my own thing. No explanation required.
If I’ve inspired you and you have questions or want to chat, leave a comment or DM me on social. I’m happy to help!