Often when we consider our relationship with alcohol, we can become a bit stuck on the moralistic or judgemental track – beating ourselves up for drinking too much, or feeling a sense of shame or regret about having slid back into old habits. For many people who are not quite where they want to be with their relationship with alcohol, there can be the looming question of ‘Why can’t I change?’ or ‘Why is this so hard for me?’. While our relationship with alcohol can be complex and based on a number of factors – such as environmental, genetic and emotional – it can also involve simple behaviour. This is great news, since habit- and behaviour change are things that we certainly can control – and we can start making changes almost immediately.
The well-known social scientist and behaviour change expert, BJ Fogg, has written extensively about habit formation, and proposes the idea of ‘tiny habits’ – small changes that we can introduce into our routine that build up over time to make a big difference for us. The idea is compelling, since often when we make the decision to change our behaviour we can go ‘all out’ and make huge alterations to our routine. Fogg’s rationale is that, while these big changes can result in big progress, often they aren’t sustainable and we can slip back into old habits fairly quickly, resulting in the cycle of change starting again.
Perhaps someone joins a boot camp that meets at 6 am four times a week, and for the first couple of weeks they attend regularly and love the benefits of early morning exercise. Over time, however, the effort of going to bed on time, dragging themselves out of bed at 5.30 am and doing early morning exercise becomes too much, and they stop attending as regularly … and then realise they haven’t been in weeks. Even though the benefits of doing the boot camp were significant, the effort required was too much, and over time, it slipped. According to Fogg, for a behaviour to occur, we need motivation, ability and a prompt – and sometimes that 6 am boot camp doesn’t happen because one of those areas has fallen over. Fogg suggests making smaller changes instead, and tethering a new behaviour to an existing one so that there are clear prompts (e.g., he does several push-ups after using the bathroom, which means he probably gets a lot of these done per day). Even though it doesn’t seem like much, over days and weeks these little changes build up into actual habits and become automatic.
So how does this relate to alcohol use? When we think about it, you are likely already doing some tiny habits that relate to alcohol – whether it is grabbing a glass of wine as you go to the fridge to start cooking dinner, or stopping by the bottle shop after you’ve done the grocery shopping. Motivation (feeling a bit tired or bored), ability (wine in the fridge) and prompt (time of day or task). There are probably clear triggers for you to purchase or consume alcohol, and these are tied to other behaviours – over time you’ve learned to associate these (e.g., sitting on the couch watching Nexflix, while sipping a glass of wine). From the tiny habits perspective, the first step would be to be aware of these associations, and deliberately change them up – whether this means visiting a supermarket without a liquor store, or not keeping wine in the fridge where it is easily accessible when cooking dinner.
The second step might be to create new tiny habits that support moderation, or, if your goal is abstinence, not drinking. Remember – motivation, ability and prompt. You might find that stress is a major trigger for you to want to drink at the end of the day, and you’re most likely to have a drink if you haven’t had the chance to exercise. Fogg’s bathroom-pushup strategy might work for you, or you may choose to add a walk around the block into your coffee and tea breaks, or get in some squats or star jumps as you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. For some people, being hungry or dehydrated is a trigger for wanting to drink, so even making sure to drink a glass of water each time you take a break or walk by the kitchen, is a tiny habit that can pay dividends.
The beauty of the tiny habits idea is that it gives us freedom to tweak and experiment with our routine to see what works. We can remember that behaviour change is unlikely to stick unless we have all three of those factors present, and also that we can change our alcohol use by being aware of what the prompts and motivations are behind our drinking. If this sounds like it might be useful to you, it will be helpful to sit down and reflect on your behaviours – the good and not-so-good – and understand what it is that keeps them going. For the behaviours that you might want to increase (e.g., exercise, self-care, creativity), consider how you might be able to tether them to an existing behaviour. Perhaps this is listening to podcasts in the morning as you get ready for work, or listing the things you’re grateful for as you brush your teeth in the evening – these small changes, tied to existing behaviours, can make a substantial difference in the quality of your life day-to-day.