“What’s it like being back on the B?” Lydia said as we sipped on stouts and porters at Brash Brewery in Houston. In this case, “B” referred to Beer, and I had just come off 90 days of not drinking any.
For the challenge I carried around a tally counter in order to easily track the number of urges I had to drink beer during a day. The tally counter technique is something I’ve used before to quit smoking, and it offers a number of positive reinforcements for the behavioral change process. In brief, it harnesses mindfulness, self tracking, ritual, click training, and curiosity to drastically increase adherence as opposed to relying on sheer will alone (I will do a more detailed breakdown of the technique in the future).
Whenever I felt an urge, I clicked, and totaled the number with a few notes at the end of each day.
I started this challenge for a number of reasons. First, I wanted to know if the tally clicker technique would work on another vice. Specifically, I wanted to know if it would work on what I’m calling a “half habit” - that is, a habit that’s a partial behavioral change - not drinking beer, versus not drinking at all.
I feel half habits can be important when it comes to moderation. For a long time, the general medical advice for alcohol consumption was 2 units for males per day. In practicality, that’s not easy to do and in fact requires even more razor sharp, specific discipline to make it stick. This is all exacerbated with alcohol, a discipline eroder.
In addition, I wanted to test whether beer had an adverse affect on me. In the past I felt super bloated and sluggish after imbibing it, which I know other people have issues with. And in a larger context, I wanted to help further map out the terrain - is there a pattern to quitting a behavior like there is a pattern to creating a habit?
All of this is also a great test of the viability of the technique for future changes (including the most personally difficult to remove vice I can think of - negative self talk.)
Unlike other vice removal challenges, this formulation - focusing on tracking urges rather than just not doing the behavior - allowed me to collect a lot of daily data.
90 days later, I had my data. But before analyzing the specifics, my general takeaway was that the technique was almost scarily flawless. At no point was I remotely close to breaking down and having a beer. As with the last time I used the technique, the thought that kept arising was “effortless.”
At one point, I got drunk with an old friend in a bar with excellent selections of beer. A few other times I was lonely and incredibly depressed (with Lydia’s beers in the fridge!), both instances of willpower-breaking circumstances. In each case the level of control and adherence despite my natural inclinations was shocking as I clicked away.
Looking at the data specifically, there didn’t appear to be any concrete pattern to the chart data, other than gentle swells up and down and up again in clusters that diminished across time.
There wasn’t any correlation to the popular “icky threes” that always gets bandied about in smoking cessation - namely that day 3, week 3, and month 3 have more clusters of urges.
While this chart informed the diminishing of my urge for beer, I am also interested in how this lines up with a general map for quitting anything.
Looking at my notes, I realized that at some point, urges for other vices arose. I started finding other ways to closely skirt the urge. For quitting smoking it was getting into cigars or hookah, here it was switching to cider. I started catching cravings as they came yet before they fully crystalized. Sometimes I would have this sensation of craving without any content. I just wanted.
The turning point was when I started feeling revulsion towards beer. It wasn’t consistent, but spoke to a greater equanimity towards it. At several points I had people pushing beer on me or asking me to taste it, or watching a tv show where people were drinking, and I just didn’t feel anything. This matches up almost exactly with the notes I took when quitting smoking and my earlier experiment trying to uproot negative self talk.
James Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits came out recently, and in it he describes another layer to the Charles Duhigg/Pavlov behavioral process. Instead of TRIGGER - RESPONSE - REWARD, Clear interjects a MENTAL CRAVING in between TRIGGER and RESPONSE. I think this is a good move.
Usually TRIGGER, CRAVING, and RESPONSES are so mashed together they appear as one. During this challenge more connections and triggers became unearthed, ones I never consciously thought about. In the 3rd month, I went to get ramen, and just got hit by a lot of urges. Apparently I associate ramen with having a beer! But also, it highlighted subtle nuances, like that there’s a difference between a memory of a craving and having the actual craving. Boredom also seriously triggered bouts (also common in smoking and in my anxiety), but it was also funny how so many urges came simply because of the assumption that drinking a beer was just the easy choice.
While much of the technique worked shockingly well, what didn’t work was the recording. Looking back, I made all sorts of mistakes with dates, the number of days I did the challenge (I think I actually went 94 days) and basic arithmetic for weekly totals. In the next experiment, I would probably just default to a spreadsheet where it’s easy to fill in numbers and have the math done for you. I would also see if the process can be sped up by simply exposing myself to the trigger more. Would looking at pictures and videos of beer actually inoculated me through exposure, speeding up the removal of the urge entirely?
Opera singer Jerome Hines once said that “the only proper way to eliminate bad habits is to replace them with good habits” and that seems to be the general consensus of the productivity community today. To follow Duhigg’s advice, you’ve gotta change the cues, routines, or rewards.
After getting home Lydia asked if I was going to continue to abstain. Almost despite myself, I said yes. I didn’t really miss beer as much as I thought I would. And seeing a map of the entire process is just too compelling.
When I think back to unwieldy replacement methods or just old school brute willpower, they always seemed to involve multiple attempts, massive amounts of irritability, and a whole lot of failure.
When removing vices in the future, I know the method I’d want to use.
photocred: “beer” by Mor