habit loop diagram

How to break a drinking habit

You might have heard the famous Albert Einstein saying: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

You can probably think of something you do, regularly, on repeat, that keeps getting you results you don't want. But, you keep on repeating it anyway. I've just done it myself... It was a public holiday this weekend and I treated myself to some chocolate and sweet stuff and food I wouldn't normally eat. I enjoyed shopping for these treats, went a bit overboard and now have too much left over. Having spent three or four days "treating" myself to something sugary after lunch and dinner, it has quickly become a pattern. The holiday is over and I'm still repeating the sugar-scoffing behaviour even though it's now making me feel bad.

That's because I've got into an unconscious pattern of behaviour where I'm reaching for the after-meal treat on automatic, not consciously or mindfully choosing what I want to do but allowing my unconscious mind to carry me along without thinking. You know when you find yourself doing the opposite of what you've been telling yourself you're going to do... that's your unconscious mind reverting to familiar patterns and habits.

We all form habits that we repeat time and time again. These can be helpful to us as the brain has a limited capacity to be consciously thinking about what to do all the time. Our brains need to create automatic “habit loops” so that they can work more efficiently. A good example of a helpful habit loop is when my alarm goes off, I get out of bed, even if I'm still sleepy, I get into my workout gear and I go for a run or I do an online workout. I then jump into the shower, scrub my teeth and get dressed. All without thinking - it's automatic. This prevents my brain from having to do too much work - it's just running a pre-programmed habit loop.

Sometimes we form habit loops that end up becoming unhelpful or unhealthy for us (like eating sugar after a meal or developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol). The problem is that, once they’re formed, they have already become an unconscious pattern that we’re often unaware of and are not making conscious choices about. As I'm reaching for the hot cross bun and savouring the sweet taste and texture in my mouth, I'm telling myself off for doing something I told myself I wasn't going to do.

And so we find ourselves repeating the same unhealthy habits over and over, wanting to change but continuing the same old cycle and getting the same undesirable results.

When you interrupt the pattern and do something different - anything different – even if it’s just a tiny change -  it can have a dramatic effect on the whole cycle and can disrupt that unhelpful habit loop.

Charles Duhigg wrote a book called The Power of Habit where he introduces this concept of "habit loops". The concept of a habit loop provides a useful framework for understanding what causes you to engage in certain behaviours and offers a guide to exploring different ways that you can change them.

The Habit Loop



The cue is the trigger that fires off the whole loop. It might be a time of day, an event, a smell, a place, a person, an emotion. The routine is the behaviour you engage in in response to that cue. The reward is the reason you keep engaging in that behaviour - it's what you get as a result of performing that routine in response to that cue. To use the sugar example above, the cue is me finishing my meal, the routine is to take and eat something sweet and the reward is feeling comforted and a sense of being deserving in some way.

Drinking Example

When you want to change a habit like drinking, you need to break the habit loop.

The first step to breaking the loop is to identify the specific routine you want to change. Then, you identify the reward that’s driving the routine. Then you explore the cue or trigger that’s prompting the routine in the first place and develop other, more healthy and desirable ways of reaching that reward.

Step 1 – Identifying the routine
That’s the behaviour, action or habit you want to change. There will be plenty of drinking routines you can choose from and it's important you choose a very specific one.

Step 2 – Exploring and identifying the reward
It’s really important to explore the reward you get from this routine. It might not be as straightforward as the drink itself. To say “getting drunk” is the reward is not enough. You need to be explicit about what the “getting drunk” actually gives you. You can do this by asking questions like:

• And when I get drunk, what does that give me?
• And when I get drunk, then what happens?

So, one way to get to the bottom of what reward is driving this routine is to question yourself to get to underlying, deeper motivations. Take a look at the following example to give you an idea:

Q: When I pour and drink that G&T at 6pm on a Saturday evening, what does that give me?

A: My reward for pouring that G&T on a Saturday evening is the smell and the taste and the feeling of it going down into my belly.

Q: And, when I get that smell and taste and the feeling of it going down into my belly, what does that give me?

A: It gives me instant relief and relaxation. It’s like letting a long breath out.

Q: And, when I get instant relief and relaxation and it’s like letting a long breath out, then what happens?

A: Then I’m happier and relaxed and I can enjoy my evening.

Notice that my answers are all about RELAXED, HAPPY and ENJOYMENT.
So, the reward I’m seeking is to feel relaxed, happy and to enjoy myself (the reward isn’t the drink itself, the drink is just a means to get there).

Once you’ve identified the reward you want, you can start to explore other ways of achieving it.

I now achieve RELAXED, HAPPY and ENJOYMENT on a Saturday evening by choosing exciting new recipes to cook, treating myself to a sophisticated alcohol-free drink, making a nice dessert, watching a good film, going out dancing or to see a band (outside of lockdown), phoning a friend, walking the dog or going to bed early with a good book.

Step 3 - Exploring the cue
This can be done very simply and easily by responding to these five questions when you notice yourself experiencing an urge to reach for a drink:

1. What’s your location?
2. What time is it?
3. What is your emotional state?
4. What other people are around you and what are they doing?
5. What happened just before before this urge kicked in?

Using the above example of my G&T at 6pm on a Saturday evening, my answers would have been:

1. My kitchen
2. 6pm Saturday evening
3. Tired, irritable, a bit bored
4. My partner is in or around the house getting on with his things
5. I walked into the kitchen, opened my recipe book, turned the radio on and started getting ingredients ready

Once you have identified the cue and got really specific about it, you're then in a position to choose some options for rewarding yourself differently when that cue next happens. You give yourself the power to plan for it. When you can plan for it, you are much more likely to succeed in changing the loop.

You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and you can choose a different behaviour or pattern that that delivers the reward you desire.

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