Harness the power of positive habit-making to quit drinking and change your life

Giving up alcohol for Dry January? How to change your habits to change your life

The pandemic altered many routines, leaving space to create new habits.
Editor's note: This story first appeared in January 2022. We resurfaced it to support people participating in Dry January in 2023. If that's you, consider joining our Facebook community here.
"I think drinking alcohol has just become a habit and it's time to break it."
"My drinking has grown habitual during COVID, two glasses of wine every night."
"I go to wine in the evening to relax, but it has become such a habit."
In describing why they're attempting Dry January, many Minnesotans have turned to one word: habit.
Their drinking changed during COVID. What once was occasional has turned habitual. Conscious has become unconscious. Fun has become mundane.
So we enlisted the advice of a habit expert. Gretchen Rubin, who became a household name with the No. 1 bestseller "The Happiness Project," turned her attention to habits in the 2015 book "Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives."
She aimed to understand how habits form — and how we can form new ones to harness their power. "Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life," Rubin writes. "If we change our habits, we change our lives."
By phone, the entrepreneur and podcast host spoke about the pluses and minuses of Dry January, the myth that it takes 21 days to make a habit and the surprising ease of abstaining. (As a rule, Rubin doesn't grapple with issues of addiction: "It's such a serious, complex subject.")
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I keep hearing folks talk about how, since COVID-19 hit, their drinking has become more habitual. What was it about that time of shutdowns and isolation?
A: When there's a major disruption or a big transition, old habits can be wiped away. New habits can come in very quickly and easily because they're not up against the cement that's already been set.
Sometimes you want to take advantage of that very intentionally. When people are trying to quit smoking, moving to a new house is a good time because you don't have these old associations. Or you have a new puppy, a new relationship, a new job, a new commute.
The pandemic was such a giant disruption that there were a lot of habits that it broke — for good and for bad. If you were used to bingeing on junk food at the vending machine every day at 3 p.m. in your workplace, you broke that habit without even trying, because you're nowhere near that vending machine.
Or maybe you're cooking more because without a commute, you have an extra hour. So what was a rushed, unpleasant chore feels leisurely and creative. So that's a good habit.
Q: In "Better Than Before" you talk about one of the four pillars of good habits: accountability. That disappeared for many people during the pandemic.
A: For some people, outer accountability is absolutely essential. And for just about everyone, it can be useful. Feeling like you're floating off in your own universe can make people feel less accountable.
Q: You've outlined four tendencies to describe how people relate to habits. Why is it important to know whether you're motivated by others? Or whether you're a rebel, who resists control?
A: People get discouraged because they think, "I'm lazy, I'm a failure, I can't keep my promises to myself."
For example, rebels often can't keep to-do lists. Because the minute someone's telling someone to do something, they don't want to do it — even if it's themselves. But there are all these other tools that rebels can use.
Q: Thus your argument that the starting point has to be self-knowledge.
A: It's so much easier to change our surroundings and our schedules than it is to change ourselves.
To take an obvious example: So many people want to exercise, right? So people will say: I'm going to get up early and exercise first thing. And on paper, that sounds like a great idea. But if you're a night person — and 30 percent of people are night people, and it's largely genetically determined and a function of age — you are not at your most productive, creative and energetic early in the day.
I have a friend who gets her exercise by dancing in her room to Beyoncé at midnight. I'm like, I can barely crawl to the bathroom at midnight. Who am I to say that's wrong for her?
A really good question to ask yourself: Is there a time in the past when I have succeeded with this habit? Often you can spot clues. Maybe I was running every day because I was running with my neighbor, and that created some accountability.
Q: What are the pluses and minuses of a 30-day challenge like Dry January?
A: Thirty-day challenges, they're complicated. They can be super useful because they remind people that they can give something up and sort of acquaint themselves with what it would be like to give something up, or to do something intense.
Here's where people are sometimes disappointed with how it plays out: First of all, there's this sort of urban myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Oh, if I do it for 30 days, then it's a habit.
Research shows that's not true. And we all know that's not true! A lot of people blast through it, muscle their way through. It's novel, it's exciting. And the really dangerous thing is there's a finish line. Whenever you have a finish line, you finish and that means you have to start over. And starting over is hard.
Think very carefully about what you're trying to figure out. What does Day 31 look like? What does six months from now look like?
Thirty days in a lifetime is not really what most people are seeking to change. Most people, I think, do it because they're hoping to change a habit long-term.
Q: So if someone is doing Dry January with an eye toward the long term, what are some suggestions to make it a deeper thing?
A: Be very clear about why you're doing it. Are you trying to drink less? Drink only on special occasions? Do you just want to know how much you're drinking?
Along the way, ask yourself: How is this making you feel? How is it changing your day-to-day experience? And start thinking about: What are the implications of this going forward?
Q: Many folks in our group have been subbing their usual 5 o'clock cocktail with a mocktail or NA option. Some wonder whether it helps or hurts to make that kind of substitution.
A: I think that if it makes the change feel easier, it's a great idea. Sometimes people like the ritual or the feeling of having a treat, and so by substituting something else, it can make the habit more pleasant.
Q: Dry January helped me see that it's much easier for me not to drink at all than it is to moderate. To make the decision once, rather than night after night.
A: That's a huge value to people. You could just take it off the table and be free from decision-making, which is so exhausting. That's why I gave up sugar, because I have a huge sweet tooth.
Q: You've written about abstainers versus moderators. Do you consider yourself an abstainer?
A: Such an abstainer. The thing is, people are a mix. I'm a moderator when it comes to wine. I can have half a glass of wine, but I can't have one Oreo.
When you never indulge, it's not tempting. I could stand in a bakery for an hour and smell the cookies and see the pastries, and I still wouldn't feel tempted. Sometimes when you have a little taste of something, you want more, so you're constantly managing the craving. But when you don't have it, the craving goes away.
And here's something important for abstainers: You can have planned exceptions. You plan it in advance, you anticipate it with pleasure, you follow through in the moment and you look back on it with pleasure.
I don't eat sugar, but my sister was getting married. I decided to have a piece of wedding cake. I looked forward to it, I ate it, and I'm like, that was great. Or my husband has ice cream Saturday. He goes hard. Then he doesn't eat it the rest of the week.
Q: Dry January has become a social thing, which can be important.
A: Sometimes people around us — for a variety of reasons, some well-intentioned and some more selfish — try to put pressure on you to not abstain or behave in a certain way. "Come on, you've been so good." "You're being so rigid." "This is a special bottle of wine, you've gotta have one glass."
But the response to Dry January is "OK, cool."
Maybe you say, "I'm doing Dry February." "I'm doing Dry March." "I'm doing Dry April." That might be a good idea, just in terms of getting people off your back.