7.26pm. A packed commuter train. I left home almost 14 hours ago. I’m sweating. My trousers have ripped. It’s been a hard day. I’m shattered and I’m going to miss my kids’ bedtimes.
This was the scene as I travelled home from work earlier this week. I felt broken. That was until it hit me that I hadn’t thought about alcohol all day. It wasn’t in my thoughts when the training workshop I was delivering got really confrontational. It wasn’t there as I sat with the group leaders 90 minutes after the allotted finish time, helping them work out how to use the days revelations positively with their teams. I didn’t even think about it when I started my journey home, only to be hit with delays. Not even running for another train and sweating so much my trousers stuck to me and ripped when I sat down was enough to bring on thoughts of alcohol!
That has literally NEVER happened before (the alcohol thing not the trouser splitting thing – that’s happened once before). I have never faced those situations without instantly thinking, “I deserve a glass of wine when I get home. I’ve earned it!”
How did I break the link between bad days and alcohol?
I wish I could say it was some kind of magic formula but it wasn’t. I broke the link by having bad days and not drinking. Over and over again.
I put that last sentence in italics because it’s what I wrote before continuing to the explanation. Whilst writing the explanation, I had a lightbulb moment. The link didn’t break because I wasn’t drinking. It broke because I redirected my thoughts.
Not only was I a habitual drinker, I had habitual thoughts about drinking as well.
How habits work
Neurons that fire together wire together
Our thoughts, feelings and actions correspond with electrical impulses in the brain. Since the brain is constantly looking for ways to get more efficient, as soon as it notices electrical impulses that fire together, it goes, “Let’s automate that! Every time this impulse fires, I’ll automatically trigger that one. It’ll be so much quicker…You’re welcome!”
According to Charles Duhigg, a habit is made up of 3 pieces – the trigger, the routine and the reward.
In my case, any one of the elements of my bad day would have classed as triggers for the thought, “I’m definitely drinking tonight!“. The reward would be that sense of knowing the day would end and I would, at some point, be home on the sofa with a glass of wine in my hand.
I hadn’t thought about it until writing this blog but by the time I walked through the door, I had already made dozens (if not hundreds) of decisions to have a drink. As soon as I got home, I’d get changed and go straight to the fridge. Sometimes I wouldn’t even bother to get changed first!
You can’t just stop the habit. You have to replace it with something
Duhigg says you can’t just stop doing the routine. Since the triggers are still there and the brain expects the routine and reward, you have to provide a different routine that still leads to the reward.
In the past, the only routine I sought to replace was the routine of drinking. I didn’t think to replace the routine of thinking about drinking. Instead, I’d have a bad day, think about drinking and then think, “Dammit! I can’t drink!” so I wouldn’t experience any reward. All I’d get is feelings of deprivation and frustration and I’d end up feeling worse.
When I did my first 100 days alcohol free, my motive was to explore the feelings hiding behind alcohol. This motive unwittingly gave me a new routine. When I felt itchy and scratchy during the day, I thought, “What’s going on? What am I feeling and where is it coming from?”
These thoughts diverted my attention away from thoughts of drinking and, because I started to learn about myself, they also provided a reward. The whole process ran far more smoothly and those feelings of loss and deprivation gradually disappeared.
When you want to change a habit, it’s easy to think only about the habit itself – the drinking – but that’s only a small part of the picture.
In my earlier attempts to stop drinking, I made huge efforts to replace alcohol with something else or replace drinking with some other activity. I totally missed the need to replace the hundreds of thoughts I had about drinking with new thoughts.
Looking back, it’s clear. Replacing the thinking-about-drinking habit has had the most powerful effect.
After all, if there are not thoughts of alcohol, there’s no ‘need’ to drink.