Changing your drinking: The 10 most important strategies for success

Some years ago, we completely refurbished our daughter’s bedroom.  She wanted a laminated floor and Ikea furniture – lots of Ikea furniture.  So, my wife thought that she would be helpful and invite a friend round to help me assemble all this furniture.  Naturally, I protested, why would I need help, of course I could do this by myself.  She then pointed out the obvious, no not that my ego was getting in the way the other obvious, that I could not possibly lift the wardrobes into position by myself.  So reluctantly I agreed that he could come and be my assistant.  At least that was the plan.

When David arrived, he regaled me with stories of Ikea furniture that he had built over the years, I had not realised that there was Ikea furniture in the pyramids!  Also he had a tool kit that dwarfed mine (yeah size does matter), quite obviously here was a man that knew what he was doing.  He then proceeded to empty the boxes systematically, count all the screws, bolts, bits of wood, struts and doohickys (please excuse the technical language) and lay everything out in the place that it should go.

This was not my way of approaching things.  I would usually look at the diagram, grab things that looked as if they should go together and join them up, grab another piece and so on bit by bit.  Then I would stand back examine what I had done, take it apart, try again and then finally, in an admission of defeat, I would reluctantly read the instructions. It should come as no surprise whose method was most successful, but I made better tea!

If we talk to any professionals, the ones who are good at their job that is, they all say the same thing, the most important part of the job is the preparation.  If you are like me, and many of you probably are, you just want to get stuck into doing, you want results – now!  This should come as no great surprise, after all let’s face it one of the defining characteristics of addictive behaviour is instant gratification!  Which is why if we are to change successfully, we need to approach things differently rather than just continue with our tried, tested, and failed strategies of the past.

Successfully changing addictive behaviour requires preparation.  There are a number of things that you need to work out and put in place before you start.

Know your problem

Firstly, you need to know what your problem is.  Yes OK, you probably know that you drink too much, or too often or both.  Is that your real issue?  If it is then just drink less or less often – sorted!  But you have probably tried to do that, probably a few times, and you have been unsuccessful.  So, it is not just about the amount you drink, it is about the relationship that you have with alcohol.  It is about the fact that you cannot control what you drink, that can’t reduce your drinking and keep it reduced.  Many people would call that being an alcoholic, but that may be a word that you struggle with (see this post).  Others would say that you have a dependence on alcohol.  Call it what you want, as long as you understand that your relationship with alcohol is the issue.

Know why you want to change

Next you need to know why you want to change your drinking.  You may think that this is obvious, you drink too much or too often.  So, why is that a problem?  How is your drinking affecting your life.  Is it affecting your health (physical or mental), your relationship with your significant others or your friends, your finances (spending too much, getting into debt, losing jobs etc) or other aspects of your life?  The more specific you are the better.  If you are clear about why you want to change your drinking, then it is easier to resist the inevitable temptation when it comes.

Be clear about your goal

You need to be clear about your drinking goal.  Are you aiming for abstinence, reduced drinking or controlled drinking?  Even if you are aiming for reduced drinking or controlled drinking, you should understand that these goals cannot be achieved immediately.  Most therapists, including me, would say that you need to give yourself a break from drinking for a number of reasons.  First you may need to give your body a rest.  Alcohol in large quantities is a poison and can damage many of the body’s organs and they need time to heal.  You may need to take a break for the sake of your relationships, they might also need time to heal.  Also, there are many habits and cues surrounding drinking, for example you may drink more when you are sad, angry, happy.  Or you may drink heavily when you are in a certain place or with certain people.  It takes around three months to establish a habit and the same amount of time to break one.  So, your goal may be lifelong abstinence or temporary abstinence.  Being clear about that goal helps you adjust your behaviour and mindset to become successful.

Know the barriers to change

You need to know what the barriers to your goal are.  Are there triggers that result in you drinking heavily?  For example, are there people, places and or moods where drinking heavily becomes more likely?  If you know what they are, then you can ensure that you have a strategy to deal with them.  It may be that you need to avoid certain people or places or alternately it may be that you need to change your lifestyle to prevent you from getting too stressed.

Change your lifestyle

You may need to change some of your lifestyle.  For example, some drinkers believe that they can continue exactly as before and still remain abstinent.  They go to the same bars, with the same people and sit with a soft drink while their companions drink heavily around them.  It should come as no surprise that most of these people tend to relapse fairly quickly.  This is not to say that you can never go to a bar and sit with friends, however in the early days of abstinence it is dangerous to put yourself in the way of temptation.  Instead, it is better to change your routine completely and adopt a healthy pursuit.  For example, rather than go to the pub on the way home from work to relieve stress, it would be better to go to the gym as exercise helps to release natural endorphins which are very effective in helping to reduce stress.

Get support

Often people who are trying to change, try to do so secretly.  This can be because they are ashamed of the need for change, or they don’t want to tell people in case they fail.  Whatever the reason, they are denying themselves one of the most powerful aids to change that they can have – the help and support of their friends or loved ones.  Friends can help by encouraging you to reach your goals or they can provide the confirmation that you need that change is actually necessary.  But they can also provide accountability either formally by asking about your progress or informally by just knowing what you are trying to achieve and you not wanting to have to tell them you failed.  However, it is always wise to carefully pick who you get to support you.  If your family and/or friends are not supportive then look at joining a support group such as AA or Smart Recovery.

Chart your progress

It is good to mark your success, preferably in a visual and highly visible way.  One way I suggest to the people I work with is pin a calendar (the planner type) somewhere that you see it regularly, for example in the kitchen.  You can then use a marker pen to indicate each day that you achieve your goals.  You can even get two different coloured pens and use one colour to mark your successful days and the other to mark the unsuccessful days.  This simple tool can provide you with a powerful visual record of your progress.  Obviously if you have more good days than bad it can be motivating.  But even if the reverse is true, it may give you an indication of patterns, for example is there one particular day (eg Friday) or days that you are not successful?  If so, what is it about that day, does something happen regularly, are you normally in the company of someone?

If you fall, get back up

If you do fail to meet your goals, it is important to get back to trying for those goals as quickly as possible.  Some people think that is they fail on one or two days that proves that they cannot change that they are useless.  It doesn’t!  Please remember that it took a considerable time to arrive at the situation where change was needed, so it is probably going to take time to change the situation.  A quote by George Plitt says “The difference between a winner and a loser – they both failed but the winner gets back up and does it again and again until it goes his way”.  Few people succeed the first time but, if you keep trying, you can do it!

Keep going

Change takes time, it does not happen overnight.  Unfortunately, we live in age when people expect instant results.  Some of the self-help books would lead you to believe that change can happen instantly with little or no effort.  This just does not happen, or when it does it happen the change tends not to last.  Changing your life is a bit like building a house, you need a strong foundation otherwise it just crumbles and falls down.  You can build a solid foundation if you make sure that your change is based on the principles laid out above.  Just remember that it takes time and you need to persist, but it is worth it.  You’re worth it!

Reward yourself

People usually change for one of two reasons to stop bad things from happening or to have good things happen.  Often, people with addictive behaviours will change their lifestyles because of the bad things and stay changed because of the good things.  So, it is good to reward yourself for the effort of change, it can provide an incentive to persist on difficult days.  The reward can be anything, provided it is realistic, that motivates you.  All the money that you are saving by not drinking can be put aside for the holiday you always wanted or the laptop you could never afford.  Or you can view this change as an opportunity to learn a new skill, get another qualification or take up a new hobby.  Of course, if you have a family, you can use some of the time, and money, to renew your relationship and forge a closer bond than you did in your drinking days.  The point is that you have choices and opportunities that you never had when you were drinking.  How do you want to use them?

If you follow these guidelines, then you should be successfully in changing your drinking.  Remember this is a major life event, and like any major life event it requires consideration and planning.  Don’t adopt my approach to assembling Ikea furniture and just dive in.  David’s approach may take a bit more time at the beginning but ultimately it was much faster than mine as he did not have to correct all the mistakes.  There is a cliché that seemed to be bandied about in management circles a couple of decades ago.  I don’t particularly like it but nevertheless there is some truth in it, and that is “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.

Finally, having a plan can help others to know that you are serious about change and allow them to be more supportive.  Next week we will discuss how family and friends can support and help their drinker to be successful in their change.

One Reply to “Changing your drinking: The 10 most important strategies for success”

  1. This is really helpful. My sister will shortly be leaving hospital after a detox following a visit to A&E whilst away from home. Most information is aimed at the drinker, but if the family is to be supportive, they need an understanding too. Thank you.

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