New York City is a city that loves to drink. We meet friends for happy hours, we eat at business dinners where a sommelier serves amazing wine, we go to trendy lounges that serve artisanal cocktails, we attend networking events with open bars, and many of us love a nice quiet drink with a delicious meal and a lively social scene seated at a restaurant bar. The beauty of it is that for many of us, all this drinking actually leads to great things: successful business dinners, mingling with new and interesting people, a sense of relaxation that happens effortlessly as alcohol immediately creates a mild euphoria that makes us open up, laugh more, and shuts off our incessant internal monologue. Alcohol has clear benefits for many of us, both personally and professionally.
The benefits of alcohol lead many of us drink so frequently that it can become habitual. There is nothing inherently wrong with drinking habitually, but many clients who come to my office indicate that they would prefer to be in control of their habit rather than feel as if the habit has taken on an inertia of its own. It is very important to note that this is different from alcoholism or addiction to alcohol. The distinction I’m making here is that with an addiction, we tend to think of drinking away our last dollar, drinking that leads to arrests or hospital visits, or other forms of drinking that clearly suggest our normal standards of safety and personal responsibility have been severely compromised due to a desire for alcohol; those types of relationships with alcohol are generally best classified and treated as addictions. I do not treat addictions to alcohol- my practice is limited to situations where a person’s alcohol use is perfectly safe and more habit-based than addiction-based; I work with clients who are not alcoholics but simply people who want to increase their sense of purpose and control around the way they drink. Here is how many people in my practice have done this successfully:
- Decide to build your awareness: Commit to observe your drinking without trying to change your habits, at least at first. Before we can really try to change something, it’s often helpful to just observe it. This helps us to set realistic goals, and to understand our drinking patterns and triggers more fully than we might if we paid attention to alcohol only a) to drink it, or b) to control it. The idea here is to pay attention and study your drinking from a neutral, information-gathering, curiosity-based mindset before you attempt any significant efforts to change it. Once you’ve made a commitment to observe your drinking, here’s one way to do it:
- Define your observation field: Mindfulness meditation often involves choosing something to observe and then observing it for a set period of time. This builds our observation and awareness skills, and frees us to delve into the observations without second guessing ourselves with questions like “Should I stop yet? Have I observed long enough? I wonder if I’m doing this right?”. We can apply this to drinking observations in the following manner: For a predetermined amount of time (for example two weeks, two days, or whatever feels best for you), commit to observe your drinking in a neutral manner by noting down your drink counts. Your goal here is to tabulate your drinking without attempting to change it. This is actually more difficult than it sounds for many people, so be gentle with yourself if you struggle with this step. Remember: the more familiar you are with basic information about your drinking and the more capable you are of observing it, the easier it will be for you to make whatever changes you desire.
- Document your observations: Try to complete the log below for each day, making one entry per day. If you forget or decline to make a same-day entry but still want to note the information later, put “No” in the “Same Day entry” column to indicate you are making a retroactive log. Don’t judge yourself if you forget or decline to make a same day entry; just document that it happened if you wish to do so by making a retroactive log. You don’t have to do retroactive entries if you don’t want to do so; you can simply resume your log with your current day and let your log reflect that there are some missing days. Or if you wish, you can make retroactive entries and simply indicate this with “No” per above. Part of the observation process includes observing your willingness or ability to indicate awareness of your drinking over a predetermined period of time. Many people find a two week period is a good length of time for an observation period, but you can choose whatever period of time feels best for you.
Same day entry? Enter “Yes” or “No”
Count of drinks Are you estimating or did you count? Enter “E” or “C”
What to do with your observations:
At the end of your observation period, you’ll not only have logged observations of drink counts, you’ll also be observing your overall drinking observation skills and patterns. We call this “meta awareness” in psychology. It is a form of mindfulness. If you notice that you skipped a lot of days, you can become curious and try to understand why you’re skipping. Is it because you simply forgot and would benefit from a reminder in your calendar? Or maybe this means there is a part of you that doesn’t like the idea of observing drink counts? Or maybe there is some other reason you tend to skip. The idea is to replace any forms of judgement with curiosity so that this becomes an exercise in self-compassion and self-observation rather than self-flagellation. There are no “wrong” answers, only observations that help you get to know yourself better (caveat: as stated at the beginning, this is only true if you’re someone for whom alcohol does not lead to dangerous behavior- if alcohol is dangerous for you but you can’t quit, then please see an addiction specialist).
The goal is to sharpen your observation skills regarding drinking, so hopefully you will be able to enter more “C”s than “E”s in the last column documenting whether you’re estimating or counting your drinks for the day, but if you find that your log shows nearly all “Es” then welcome this as good information not only as an estimate of your drinks, but also as information about your observation skills or style. Become curious about why you tend to estimate rather than count. If it’s because counting feels boring, remember that this is just an observation period that doesn’t have to last forever. If it’s because you feel ashamed or regretful about the count, try to be accurate anyway and congratulate yourself for increasing your awareness at all.
Remember to suspend judgement during the counting phase; be proud of yourself for being bold enough to note the real numbers or at least real estimates. If facing the real numbers is too daunting, that’s good information for you to know as well. The idea here is just to document your observations as well as your willingness and ability to make observations.
Your drinking “sweet spot”
Once you have enough data, you can identify a “magic number” of your ideal number of drinks, or your “drinking sweet spot”. Your ideal number of drinks for our purposes here is the number of drinks that brings you the most pleasure. Many people find that the first 2–3 drinks bring a great deal of pleasure, while the fourth and fifth (or sixth or seventh) drinks seem like they will bring pleasure but actually bring hangovers or regret. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve had some sort of experience with hangovers, oversharing, extra belly fat, or other features of drinking that you’d rather skip. The good news is that you can keep the pleasurable parts of drinking and nix the negatives by simply stopping at your “magic number”. Of course, this is easier said than done– if you leave it to your “buzzed self” to decide the magic number “in the moment”, it will be much harder to find the sweet spot than if you track some observations to locate your magic number in a more logical manner, and then do your buzzed self a favor by learning to stick with that number. Your buzzed self will actually have more fun and thank you later since it no longer has to do “on the spot thinking” about how much to drink. Many people find that through observation, they discover they frequently drink one or two drinks more than what is actually their true pleasure point. By reframing your drinking target as a “magic number” that is about your pleasure rather than as a “limit”, many people are able to embrace alcohol moderation as a friend rather than a foe.
Many people find that having a reference point of how much they wish to drink is very helpful since by definition if we “make it up as we go along” and just drink “however much feels right” then we almost always end up drinking more than we want over the years. This is because we develop a tolerance, and because once we’ve had a few drinks it becomes very difficult to gauge how much more we really want to drink versus how much we’re just operating in a buzzed “more is more” type of mindset that can trick us into drinking more alcohol than is actually optimally pleasurable. The first step to determining your magic number and then ultimately having drinking habits that support your magic number is to observe how much you’re drinking without judgement. I hope you will find the approach and worksheet above helpful. Bottoms up and cheers to you!
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