Learning how to break the habit of drinking alcohol every evening is possible, but it requires an understanding of how habits are formed, as well as how to eliminate them. Breaking the nightly wine habit is something I struggled with for many years. I would vow to drink only on weekends, but then at the end of the work day I would arrive home itching for a glass of wine to “take the edge off.” This was often followed by an internal debate between two voices in my head. I’m sure you know the experience.
One voice would tell me to go ahead, have the glass of red wine, especially if there was a bottle of Pinot waiting to be uncorked. Heck, I'd tell myself, you deserve it after today. Remember the fight with your son? How about that frustrating colleague? It’s just one glass and it’ll feel so good.
The other self would encourage me to stay strong! You don’t need the wine. What about your new vow? You promised to not drink until Friday and you’ll feel so much better tomorrow morning knowing you resisted. More often than not, I would give in to the temptation to drink alcohol every night, well almost every night.
The most frustrating part of this exercise was that I really wanted to stop drinking wine every night, but couldn’t. I had a deeply ingrained habit that compelled me to grab the bottle of wine every evening and pour a glass. Like most people, will power, alone, was never enough to break that habit.
I finally realized I needed to be more strategic with my efforts and I believe what worked for me can work for anyone with enough desire to change. I recently read the book, Good Habits Bad Habits, by Wendy Wood, which confirmed why my strategy worked so well. The book is based on her research on habits (something she has dedicated her career to studying) and is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn how habits can have a tremendously positive (or subsequently negative) impact on your life.
How to break the habit of drinking every night the hard way
Success is less likely - almost impossible - if you plan to rely on will power alone to quit drinking every night. This requires effortful work for our brains. According to the author Wood, “Our executive functions wear down over time. We get tired of thoughtfully trying to control our behaviour and make decisions.”
Most of us start with the simple decision to stop drinking alcohol. Maybe for a week, a month, a year or forever. But how do we plan for this? If you’re like me, you don’t put a lot of thought into strategy. Instead, your plan is to fight the urge as it pops up. For me, the main urge occurred after work while making dinner. My pattern was simple. Get home from work, get changed, start pulling ingredients out for dinner, pull out a bottle of wine and a wine glass. Pour. Sip. One glass. Two glasses. Then dinner time. And possibly a third glass while eating.
The first pour was the one I did without any thought. It was a habit built into my routine for winding down after work. It was in the moment before I went for the bottle that my internal debate began. Every time I vowed to stop drinking, I had to face that battle every night. It was exhausting and, no surprise, I always gave sooner than I wanted (often a few days was my max.)
Fighting temptation, while a noble act, is hard work and, according to Wood, is not something human beings are good at. So many of us have this belief that we’re somehow better people if we can exert our impressively strong will to achieve our goals. I came not that long ago that life’s a lot easier and enjoyable, if I can simply avoid temptation than resist it. It’s bound to set me up for greater success and who doesn’t like to feel successful?
The easier way to get rid of a drinking habit
As Wendy Wood explains in her book, “it’s easier to act on habit than to make a decision based on our best intentions.” It doesn’t matter how noble the intention, using our brains to make daily choices is draining whether the goal is to stop eating cookies every afternoon at the office or to stop working so late that you can’t see your kids before bedtime. Hardwired habits are so stubbornly ingrained that it’s so much easier to give in to them than fight them.
What happens if we change the context of self control just slightly? According to Wood, all you have to do is put yourself in the right situation to develop the right habits, in other words create the right context. Context encompasses everything in the world around you that creates the external forces that drive or restrain your actions.
This forces shouldn’t be too difficult to determine when it comes to a nightly drinking habit. When I decided to quit drinking alcohol for a year (and subsequently never picked it up again), I looked at the times of day I drank, and where and when I purchased my wine, for clues on how I could cut back on the temptations.
I realized I drove past the LCBO (Ontario’s liquor store) on the way home from work every day, which would trigger the desire to buy a bottle of wine. I also shopped at a grocery store that had a wine shop set up just past the cashiers. I would pay for my groceries and walk straight into that wine shop, maybe taste-test a couple wines on display then decide, what the heck, I feel like wine tonight and buy a bottle or two. It didn’t matter if I told myself before entering the grocery store that, tonight, I would not buy a bottle of wine. Just seeing the selection of wine was too hard to resist buying a bottle.
These cues, I realized, had always worked against my previous efforts to quit drinking wine, so I changed my route home and looked for other stores to grocery shop (this is especially hard these days since so many grocery stores now sell wine, as well.)
I also looked at timing cues. My most vulnerable time of day was right after work, as described earlier. Get home, start making dinner, drink wine. This offered the perfect opportunity to replace the habit with something else. It was really hard at first, and not particularly enjoyable, but I changed the bottle grab to the kettle grab.
When I started making dinner, I grabbed my kettle that permanently sat on top of my stove, and filled it with water then set it to boil. I picked a favourite tea (I bought a few for variety), then made a cup. This was as close as I could get to mimicking the wine habit. It was a similar pattern in making the drink as well as offered the sipping ritual I’d grown accustomed to with wine. Wood describes this form of habit replacement as stacking and replacing. Use an existing behaviour to try a new behaviour. Most of my behaviour routine stayed the same, however I replaced one short sequence within the larger ritual with a healthier version to help me maintain my goal of not drinking.
I’d also tried replacing the glass of wine with a glass of sparkling water mixed with blueberry juice, but I found this didn’t work as well. It was too many steps and I didn’t always have Perrier available. Tea was fewer steps and always available.
The switch to tea wasn’t easy, at first. Trust me. I preferred the taste and buzz of wine, but drinking tea offered its own rewards. Which is key. If you don’t feel any reward for the new behaviour, you are unlikely to stick with it. My rewards were:
- I liked the taste because I was experimenting with new fruity flavours
- I felt so good that I was fulfilling my vow to not drink (success!)
- I loved that I had a clear mind after dinner and could do anything I wanted, such as attend yoga class, go for a long walk, read a book -- anything was better than flaking out on the sofa and watching tv
- I woke up the next morning proud of myself that I’d gone another night alcohol-free! (success x2!)
This wasn’t the only ritual I changed, but it was my most important one because it replaced the biggest cue for nightly wine. Find your biggest trigger and figure out a way to replace it while still keeping the rest of the routine leading up to it intact.
How long does it take to break a drinking habit?
Repetition is key to forming a new habit. Unfortunately, the belief that it takes 21 days to form a habit or break another is pure myth. I can attest to that based on my own experience. It can take months to let autopilot take over with a new routine.
In a study described in Good Habits Bad Habits, participants took 65 days (about two months) of repeating a simple health behaviour before they experienced it as automatic. From my own experience, I would say it took a little over a month for the kettle routine to become automatic. In some ways, this change was the easiest one for me. It was predictably at the same time every day and was a one-to-one replacement of my biggest trigger for drinking wine. To this day, I still have tea when I make dinner. I just like doing it now. It’s not at all related to my desire for alcohol (I have no desire anymore).
Other drinking habits I’d formed were a lot tougher to overcome because they weren’t based as much on contextual triggers. Much of my drinking after dinner, as the evening wore on, was triggered by emotional cues. They weren’t part of a larger routine so couldn’t easily be replaced by another habit. Feeling down, lonely or bored were big cues. Tea couldn’t overcome those cues a lot of the time. Sometimes will power was the only way to face them. You can read more about this in the Tackling my triggers post. I found going on long walks and attending yoga class at night were most helpful for me in managing emotional triggers.
The transformation through sobriety
When I decided to quit alcohol and really commit to this for the first time in my life, I had no idea that I’d be undergoing one of the most transformational journeys ever. Reliance on alcohol had enabled me to bury a lot of my shit. Resentments, fears, insecurities, sadness. For anyone courageous enough to pursue sobriety, it can be an emotionally difficult journey.
The longer I travelled along the sober path, the more healing I experienced. It occured a few months in. The first couple of months are mostly about overcoming the urge to drink. That takes up enough energy to eclipse almost anything else. The months that follow have their own challenges as you come face to face with some of the issues that were easily ignored thanks to alcohol. If you’re in your forties or fifties, like me, you’ve had a lot of time to bury a lot of shit. So, don’t be surprised by how much arises over the course of a year. (For me, they’re still surfacing!)
The mindfulness community often refers to these as wounds. For most of us, these wounds are rooted in trauma from childhood and onwards. I know trauma may sound like an exaggeration, but if you view trauma as the pain it evokes rather than the actual event or events that first created it, then you may feel more comfortable accepting we all have experienced trauma. Trauma does not have to be a horrific event to have created wounds. People who love us and who had the best intentions can also be the source of our trauma.
For me, it was important to accept that I had many wounds that needed healing, and that those people who created these wounds did so unintentionally because they had their own wounds that needed healing, too. When you arrive at the place in your alcohol-free life that you begin to face these internal struggles, it may be a good idea to visit a therapist to have someone objective to talk to without judgement, shame or blame.
I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of self-acceptance through my sober journey. Layers of my authentic self continue to be revealed as layers of my ego self dissolve. It’s not easy to accept all parts of yourself when you’ve spent years (as I did) trying to be the person that you think everyone around you wants you to be.
You may also come to the realization that you’re not the person you’ve spent much of your life wishing you could be based on an image you’ve created of the “ideal person”. I am slowly learning to accept who I am, even though I don’t have all the characteristics that I always thought I did (and felt I needed to have.) I feel more comfortable in my own skin and life feels easier just being me. I may not be as well-liked as I once was, but that’s ok. I recognize a lot of my past friendships were not really authentic after all. Many have fallen away, which has been hard, but part of the journey.
This brings me to my final point (if you’ve made it this far into the article, then you may not think I’m completely crazy by now.) The desire to change a habit, such as drinking, is so often motivated by the belief that you are flawed. You need fixing. What if you could change that belief of trying to fix something that’s broken (you) to thinking you simply want to be happier?
If you need fixing and therefore, must change a habit, how does it feel when you don’t actually succeed at changing it? Like a big failure.
What if you try to change a habit because you want to be happier and live a more authentic life. How might it feel if you don’t succeed at changing it? Probably not so bad. You may recognize that it was harder than you thought, but you can give it a try again. It invites curiosity rather than judgement.
The great illusion about drinking alcohol is that it makes our lives better. Alcohol makes parties more fun, it makes you more sociable, it relieves stress. But does it really do all these things? When you’ve gone without it long enough, you finally realize that alcohol actually erects walls between yourself and all these things you want. A temporary wall, no less. And, worse still, it puts up a wall between you and your self.
An alcohol-free life means authentic connections between you and everyone around you, all the time. But, as many of us who have been on this path for a while can attest, the most fulfilling connection is the authentic one you build with your true self.
If you want to read more about tips for quitting drinking alcohol, check out my post How to stop drinking alcohol.
You can get some deeper insight on how to create a strategy that works for you at Goodhabitsbadhabits.com