Staying Dry this January?

I have recently become one of over two million people trying to ensure January is dry. I am talking, of course, about the campaign to encourage people to give-up alcohol for an entire month. Dry January appears to be growing in popularity as a reaction, for many people, to overdoing things over the Christmas break. There are some scientific reasons why this campaign is a good thing – most notably because even a short break from drinking alcohol can allow liver function to improve. As most of us are aware, drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis is bad for us and particularly bad for our liver function. The new alcohol guidelines recently published in the UK asserts that there is no safe level – and has adjusted recommendation downwards accordingly. However, while the idea behind Dry January is to encourage people to change drinking habits – or even to stop altogether – there is little evidence to date that this campaign does result in long-term behaviour change. That said, little research has actually tested this. I am not one for New Year’s Resolutions – I prefer systematic and realistic goal-setting; but after over-indulging over the festive period I decided Dry January was a good idea – for me at least.

The other side to this is that I enjoy a drink – only usually on a Friday / Saturday night and in moderation. But what I was interested in was whether I would be able to give up something that I enjoyed. After all, being so interested in mental toughness I wanted to find out if I could use my own willpower to abstain for at least a month. In many studies concerning mental toughness (including some of my own) I have always thought that the participants are people who enjoy doing something – like exercise, physical activity, sport etc. The real test of mental toughness is actually to commit to doing something you don’t really want to. That’s the tough bit. So the fact that I enjoy a drink or two at the weekend made this is mini-challenge. I decided to take on the challenge knowing that there would be times when I would be tempted. So how did I do?

At the time of writing (January 27th) I am still dry. Less than a week to go and I haven’t really found it that difficult. There have been moments – for me the times when I am most likely to have a drink are at the end of the working week, relaxing at home on Friday night or if I go out with my wife for a meal or to the cinema etc. My strategy has been to try to avoid situations where I might be tempted. When in the supermarket – simply don’t walk down the alcohol aisle. When we have gone out for a meal plan in advance to go for a soft drink instead. I have been to a couple of public houses over the last month, during daylight hours, and order a tea with my meal rather than the usual alcoholic drink. To me it was about thinking ahead – identifying the potential habits and situations that are tempting and generally avoiding them or planning how to respond in advance. I also made sure I ate some nice food / drank tasty fruit juices – not always healthy but a treat now and then is okay.

So was it worth it? Do I feel any better? I have to say that having read a few other online blogs and websites about Dry January, the glowing reports of how much better people feel, my own experience is somewhat different. I perhaps feel marginally better – I don’t miss having a hangover, but then I rarely have a hangover anyway as I usually drink in moderation. I haven’t noticeably lost any weight but then often loss if fat can come from around vital organs so it’s not always so easy to tell. Will it change my drinking habits? Not sure on that one either. What is has made me think about is alternating drinks when out with friends / family. So perhaps have one soft drink between alcoholic drinks and thereby cut down on total alcohol intake. The reality is that I am not a heavy drinker so there will probably be lots of people who have more to gain in terms of health and feeling better. On balance I think it was a good thing to do and I will probably repeat it again next year. The one thing I would recommend if you are trying to change behaviour is to plan ahead. Think about your habits (as these are generally ingrained and powerful behaviours that are likely to persist) and how you might work around them. Don’t just set a goal and expect that’s the end of the process – it’s actually the beginning. Changing behaviour is difficult so develop strategies that work for you.