Tuesday, 31 July 2018

3 steps to developing a non-drinking habit

Over the past month I have been away from Hong Kong in Europe and it struck me a couple of weeks ago that not drinking has now become second nature to me.  A week ago my husband and I were in Greece celebrating my friends' 10th Wedding Anniversary and we had an action packed itinerary of events to attend, along with a large group of their friends who had flown in from around the world. Despite not knowing the majority of the group, I had a really great time meeting lots of new people and being one of the only non-drinkers really didn't faze me.

This got me thinking back to my first booze-free holiday to the Philippines earlier this year to celebrate a friend's 40th birthday.  Looking back at my blog I highlighted how I felt very self-conscious about not drinking and withdrew from the crowd the moment the booze started flowing.  I believed I'd lost part of my identity and I wasn't entirely comfortable with the new sensible, calm, less extrovert character that was emerging.  In Greece, I noticed that not drinking felt entirely normal.  I didn't feel apologetic or embarrassed about the fact that I wasn't partaking and I wasn't paranoid that I was being judged for my choices.  It's clear that I've started to care a lot less about what people may be thinking and I've adjusted to the calmer version of me.  Most nights I was out until around 1am and, with the exception of one night, I didn't feel I had to skulk off when the party got into full swing.  It struck me that not drinking has become a new habit.

Alcohol-free beer - my new normal

I was interested to find out a bit more about how habits are formed so I started to read up on the topic.  Here are the basic steps to developing a new habit:

Stage one:  Initiation

Research shows that in order to initiate a new habit it is vital that you are sufficiently motivated.  For me, by the start of this year, I was so ready to quit drinking and to dispose of all the negativity that accompanied my drinking that I was 100% motivated to give it my best possible shot.

The same research goes on to explain that 'within psychology, ‘habits’ are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance'. For me, this has meant developing a new action (e.g. drinking non-alcoholic drinks) in response to contextual cues (e.g. being in a bar or in a restaurant).  This seemed quite alien at first, after all, over the past 30 years, there have been very, very few times that I have gone into a bar or out to dinner and ordered anything other than booze.

Stage two:  Learning

University College of London research explains that 'in order to form a habit, an action must be performed repeatedly in a consistent context. This repetition creates a mental association between the context (cue) and the action (behaviour) which means that when the cue is encountered the behaviour is performed automatically.'  Therefore, the key to ensuring my non-drinking habit has stuck has been to keep repeating the ordering and drinking of non-alcoholic drinks when I'm out in bars and restaurants and not to deviate from this new path.

Stage three:  Automaticity

Research shows that 'it takes 66 days (up to 10 weeks) on average to form a new habit after the first time the new action is performed, but this can vary from person to person and for different actions.'  For me, I would say it has taken me longer than 10 weeks for this habit to become 'normal' but I have noticed that in the past month ordering alcohol just doesn't cross my mind any more.

Changing behaviour initially requires considerable cognitive effort but, if you do keep up the action until a habit is formed, it will eventually become second nature. By tomorrow, I will have completed seven months without alcohol and it is apparent that non-drinking has become a habit and going into a bar or restaurant and ordering a glass of wine would feel quite abnormal for me now.  Creating this new habit has not been plain sailing, but I am happy that I have finally reached this point after all my hard work.

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