A couple weeks ago I past the 365 day milestone, which represented a full year without any alcohol consumption. It was not an easy mission to achieve, which is why I want to share how I accomplished this goal. This write up will be on the ‘how’ I accomplished the goal, it will not include any of the ‘why’ questions that will be asked. To be certain, the past year has been full of many more ‘why’ then ‘how’ questions, as the effort appears to be a form of self-punishment to many of my friends. At a later date, I may address those questions.
When looking back on this success, it was not as simple as committing to the goal and watching it happen. It was a process that had to unfold. The first couple times I made the decision to cut out alcohol, I would make it a few days or a week, then I would have a beer. What follows is the specific behavioral change program I designed for myself to finally reach an effective outcome. It includes concepts of social accountability, loss aversion, behavioral economics and some good ol’ competitive spirit.
Step One: Identify the barriers and triggers that lead to a drink.
The biggest trigger for me to have a beer (which is almost always what I would drink), is the social setting. When a group of friends would want to hang out, it would often be at one of the local breweries. The setting is always fun and where nearly all of my social circles gather. Runners, cyclists, triathletes, friends of friends – we all seem to like craft beer and using their facilities as a gathering spot. While choosing to not drink is an option, it often felt awkward. Some of these places do not have options other than an alcoholic drink, which also does not help. Other types of settings that I identified were dinners out with family and friends, along with a few work trips which include meals with alcohol. The final setting I found myself drinking a beer or two, was at the end of a day as I would settle down. Typically occuring at some point between 9pm and midnight. This was when I would try and watch an episode of some show on Netflix, scrubbing the day’s stress from my mind, allowing me to sleep well.
I realized that all of the social settings were triggers to drink, but they were also settings that I did not want to remove myself from entirely. As someone who works from home, being social is already a challenge that requires being proactive. I knew if I continuously avoided invitations to hang out, I may stop getting any invitations. So while managing the triggers was possible, eliminating them was not going to be a part of my plan.
Step Two: Recruit someone to act as an accountability partner.
I have several friends that could play this role, however I reached out to Jeff Buhr. I knew that we would be in some social settings together, which would help. I also knew that he would not let me go back on my commitment, without some amount of ridicule or disappointment. I believe that this was one of the most critical steps in my process. The couple times that I tried to accomplish this on my own, I failed. It is often easier to let yourself down, or make an excuse, when it is only you that is acting as the judge and jury of your behavior. An added bonus, is that Jeff and I have been competitive over the years in athletics (however not all that much recently), so I figured some of those competitive memories may help.
Step Three: Develop the reward or punishment.
I know myself well enough that choosing a reward was not going to be all that useful. The immediate gratification of having a beer with friends, is way too powerful of a temptation, when compared to the reward that might come at a later date. I understood that I needed to make the consequence of drinking the beer (or alcohol) immediate to the behavior, much like the gratification of drinking it would be.
To do this, I used the behavioral economic principle of ‘loss aversion’. I understood that losing some money was going to be more powerful than gaining some money (or reward). In my program, I agreed to pay Jeff $50 for every week that I had any drink of alcohol. To be honest, when I designed the program, I assumed that there would be a week or two that I had a drink. In that case, I could then pay Jeff the $50 and have a few more drinks during that week, which is why I did not say “$50 for every drink”.
I did actually commit to paying myself the $50 for every week that I did not drink. I actually never followed through on this part of the program. This is just another example of how strong the principle of loss aversion can be. Gaining the $50 meant nothing, but losing the $50 to Jeff was powerful.
The other piece to this program was that I made the impact of the loss big enough to matter. I am absolutely positive that if the deal we had was that I had to pay $5, $10 or $20 each week I had a drink, I would have easily paid the money. There were definitely days that paying $25 to have a drink at the bar with friends would have been worth it. But, for me, when the cost of the beer went from $5 to $55 (the drink plus the payment to Jeff), it gave me enough pause to chose to pass.
Step Four: Determine the duration and monitoring methods.
We agreed to do the program for six months, with Jeff checking in each Sunday on how I did for the week.
The first few months definitely required some willpower. I had to learn how to navigate all those settings I mentioned in step one, adopting new behaviors. The two most challenging settings were for very different reasons. The first was when we were at a friend’s service who had passed from cancer. Being around close friends, with heavy hearts and spending a lot of time reflecting, was a time that felt like it warranted a drink or two. The second setting was when I was in Chicago on a work trip. The trip was specifically so we could accept an award for being one of the best places to work in Chicago. Times of celebration, also warrant a drink. Luckily the accountability and program was strong enough to support my efforts and desires.
There were a few other times in the first six months, such as the trip Nikki, her parents and I made to the Smokey Mountains. It is pretty challenging to visit all the moonshine distilleries and not participate. There was also the Husker football game in Illinois, where Steve, Jason and I had to watch one of the more disturbing losses a Nebraska team has had in years. That definitely warranted a drink.
However, I have found that the past four or five months, I have not really had to think about it too much. I no longer feel awkward ordering a coke when everyone orders their bourbon, wine or beer. I also have been gaining a better understanding that many times that I would order a beer, it was just a conditioned response. Sure, I do love a good craft beer – but I also enjoy an Ale 8 too. So I can feel all warm and fuzzy about supporting a local craft bottled product, that earns me hipster points and I don’t have to have the alcohol that comes with it.