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Habit Change: Stop Focusing on the Action of Drinking

By Anna Charles,

A few years ago I moved house. Not long afterwards I drove home from work … only
to find myself in the driveway of my old house. Clearly my brain hadn’t yet established
the route to my new home as habit.

Habits are a normal element of living a human life. A normal consequence of how
human brains operate for maximum efficiency.

We each have hundreds of habits from cleaning our teeth, to knowing how to hold a
knife and fork, to locking the front door each night. Many of these we do without
having any kind of conscious control. Think about going out to dinner. You pull the
chair out from the table, sit down, put your napkin on your lap and pour a glass of
water without having to really think about any of it. And good thing too or imagine
how laborious life would be if we had to consciously concentrate on each of these
actions every single time.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a habit as ‘something that you do often and
regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it.’

In other words, the more we do something, the better we get at that thing. Until we’re
not even aware we’re doing it. Simple as that. So if you pour a glass of white wine at
6pm every day that will eventually become a habit, possibly until you’re not even
aware you’re doing it. As would taking your dog for a walk if you repeatedly did that at
6pm instead.

Makes sense?

So why, when it comes to alcohol, is the idea of having a ‘drinking habit’ often laced
with shame and disgrace and disgust? I want to put an end to such language and
instead view drinking as any other habit. All habits are reinforced when we pay
attention to them. And lapse when we ignore them.

In my work with highly-functioning people who struggle to drink less, I find this mind
shift provides a lot of solace to my clients. It gives them back a sense of control. They
developed the habit around drink which means they can stop the habit too.

The thing that makes this hard is that alcohol is designed to provide intense feelings
of pleasure. And when we do anything that gives such concentrated levels of
pleasure we learn the habit faster. In other words we will more quickly develop a habit
of drinking a glass of white at 6pm than walk the dog, however loveable our pet is.

The mistake many people make with changing their drinking habit is they focus
exclusively on the actual activity of drinking. They try to resist picking up the glass
when offered. They get rid of all temptation from the house. They avoid going to bars.
But while this can help some, I offer this is only papering over the cracks.

I maintain that as the habit is created and reinforced in the mind, that’s where we must
focus our work on changing it.

Start by asking yourself why you drink. If you say: “because I like it,” you need to dig
deeper. Because liking something is a choice and you drinking is the RESULT of that
choice. The moment you stop seeing your desire for alcohol as something you have
no control over, things will start to change. Drinking alcohol is a choice you are
making, even if you insist it’s not something you want to be doing. Period.

Then ask if you like your reason for drinking. This is going to give valuable insight into
what keeps you drinking.

Next, investigate what positive and negative consequences you get from drinking.
See how they compare. If your positive consequences are stronger (for example ‘I’m
shy and alcohol makes me feel confident’) you will find it hard to cut back, however
much you say you want to.

By layering this kind of consciousness into your drinking you will start to pull the
drinking out of automatic mode. You’ll start to become more aware of when you’re
drinking, who you’re with, what you’re doing and overall why you’re doing it. As soon
as you start to understand how your drinking habit is showing up and what’s
reinforcing it you can start to make changes.

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