Voices: Doing Dry January? Here’s how to maximise your chances of success

·3-min read
Find another way to unwind, like meditation, instead of reaching for booze.  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Find another way to unwind, like meditation, instead of reaching for booze. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

We’re fast approaching that time of year when we resolve to make changes. For many, this will be pledging and go without alcohol next month. If this is your plan, you’ll be one of an ever-increasing number taking part in Dry January, organised by Alcohol Change UK – 4000 people signed up when it began in 2013, which swelled to 130,000 last year. And this is just a fraction of the millions who take part unofficially.

Although well-intentioned, we all know New Year’s resolutions are easy to make and easy to break. Fortunately, research from behavioural scientists reveals how we can maximise our chances of success.

What’s clear is that preparation is key. While some can abruptly change their drinking habits, most of us would benefit from a bit of planning. There are several aspects to consider, some of which should be started now.

It makes sense to incrementally reduce the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed prior to 1 January. Doing this gives you time to psychologically and physically adapt to the shift. While you might think it’s relatively easy to go from your usual pattern of drinking to abstaining, an abrupt change can prove to be quite tough.

Gradual easing into a Dry January gives you the opportunity to find alternative ways to relax, celebrate or commiserate depending on how you’re feeling on any particular day. Try experimenting with alternative ways of winding down, whether it’s meditation or diving into a box set you’ve been meaning to watch. In short, treat yourself. This pivots the change from giving up something to gaining something.

It’s really important to tell someone you’re planning to do Dry January. Better still, find some like-minded friends or colleagues to join you. Telling someone and being part of a group improves your chances over a solitary attempt. It is far easier to lapse back into drinking if you’ve kept your original aim to yourself rather than letting others know what you’re doing.

Planning should include thinking about what you’ll do if you lapse and have a drink in a moment of temptation. Research points to the way we tend to use this lapse to give ourselves permission to carry on drinking by catastrophising the situation. Instead, use the lapse to gather intelligence about why it happened and make contingency plans for the future.

A simple but critical action is to remove alcohol from your immediate environment. This not only removes temptation but makes it more of an effort to get hold of alcohol should you start craving a drink.

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In many ways, December is the toughest month to begin to make this type of change – although thanks to Omicron, there are fewer invitations to parties and get-togethers inevitably involving alcohol. Nonetheless, be realistic as well as optimistic: it’s not just about reducing drinking in the run-up to the New Year. There are other ways to prepare that will help you achieve your goal.

Thinking about what you’re gaining rather than losing isn’t just some internalised spin or trick – the science shows it works. Whether you decide to follow the science or not, the fact that you’re considering making this change is a vital first step. So, I won’t say cheers, but do wish you well in getting ready for a dry January.

Ian Hamilton is associate professor of addiction at the University of York.

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