the ABCs of habits

There are three basic ingredients for making a habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Behavioral science calls these three parts the Antecedent Stimulus, Behavior, and Consequence — the “ABCs” of my title. But cue, routine, and reward work too, and can be read about at greater length via links like this.

It’s really just a way of describing how all of us learn through experience, and how our brains are predisposed to look for patterns in the world around us. Once a particular behavior is found to be rewarding is some way, we tend to want to repeat it, and our brains seek out clues for the right time to perform the same routine for maximum reward. A habit that gets repeated often enough simply becomes automatic. Works great when we end up with a productive habit, but the same mechanism kicks in to make unproductive habits harder to change than we’d like.

That’s why wine o’clock is such a challenge. The circumstances of my day provide cues that it’s time for me to perform my drinking routine (pour, drink, repeat!). In my case, like with most of us, there isn’t just a single cue. There are many: the time of day, my arrival home, the arrival home of my partner, dinner preparation, eating, sitting down on the couch, and more. And there are physical/emotional cues too, like hunger, tiredness, and so forth. All of those cues tell me that it’s time to drink…which is to say, they trigger drinking urges. The fact that I practiced my drinking routine over more than a decade means this particular habit loop has worn a pretty deep groove in my brain.

Habit loops seem far too simplistic to really explain complex human behavior (and they are — when it comes to how we learn, and how our brains work, this is a ridiculously tiny fraction). When I started trying to moderate, tools like counting, delaying, and urge-surfing seemed appallingly simplistic too. They really are. But, as with anything complicated, if we start by learning the basic building blocks, we can eventually build increasingly complex structures. We might start by painfully practicing our ABCs, and later find ourselves capable of writing entire paragraphs and pages.

Changing habits is the subject of books, articles, websites, podcasts, TED talks, and more, and even with all those different sources of advice, most of us struggle with it. I certainly do, anyway, despite the fact that I’m reasonably familiar with Behavioral Science 101 (and, for the record, I don’t think anyone has to be familiar with this stuff to effectively change their behavior). It’s one thing to have a broad understanding of what’s going on, entirely another to be able to reach into our own lives and start deconstructing triggers, constructing alternate behaviors, and changing our habit loops for good. But it does help, I think, to at least understand that behavior can be changed. Our behavior is the product of our learned experience, and as long as we are alive, we’re learning. To me, that’s a pretty good reason for optimism.





same old me, or not

I’ve been busy, busy, busy this week. In a good way, to be sure, but it doesn’t leave me much time for thinking about moderation and related topics. My approach to moderation has been to focus on operant habit-building, which takes a ton of effort at the beginning, but almost none to maintain (once a habit is established). As I’ve said before, my approach has its drawbacks, but it’s convenient for times like this, because the routines of regular life just pull me along and I don’t need to pause and think through things. But I was reminded recently that pausing to think also has its place.

I went out for a nice evening with my partner last night, spending some time together in the midst of one of those times where we both seem to be in constant motion. At one point he sat back and mentioned how much he likes the way we are now that we’re drinking less. Then grinned, and pointed out that he liked me before too, he just meant he appreciates the small, subtle differences that have emerged over the last ten months. The things I celebrate here — better sleep, better evenings, better mornings, doing more, being more present — are things he notices too. I appreciate positive feedback whenever I get it, and I agree: I like the new me too.

It’s also true that I don’t feel like a whole new person, nor do I really wish to be. I liked the old me too, in a lot of ways. Drastically cutting back on my drinking hasn’t really changed who I am, nor has it suddenly made me the grown-up I sometimes wish I could be. I still leave the bed unmade, I still procrastinate, I still get hit with an occasional bout of depression that makes getting through a regular day seem like an impossible task.

I’m the same me, but it’s like I’ve reset the difficulty setting for playing this game called “everyday life,” making everything about 5% easier. I’m just a little more likely to laugh off an annoyance than fixate on it, a little more likely to say “yes” to a new adventure, a little more able to get more done on a regular basis. Underneath this, and harder to describe, I think I’m taking responsibility for myself in a different way. It feels good, and it’s nice to know that at least one other person is noticing too.

It also tends to just feel normal, unless I force myself to pay attention. It’s so easy to adjust our baseline, so that the way we feel today seems like the way we’ve felt forever & ever. One of the many reasons I decided to try blogging about my first year of moderation was to ensure that I noticed things, so that I could celebrate them (or learn from them, as the case may be). It’s easy to focus on what we get wrong, but if we really want to change our behavior over the long term, we have to learn to focus intensely on what we get right, whether or not that feels natural. I still feel just like myself. And also better.

things that count

Moderation involves counting. It’s one of those things that feels totally artificial initially, even though it’s really not technically that hard. Or at least, it seemed tedious and off-putting to me at first, and I spent awhile hoping I could somehow be the only moderator who doesn’t have to count (I have a theory that many of us in MM tend to resist conformity, but it’s just a theory. It might just be the way most people are, really).

I think it seemed artificial because it was pretty much the opposite of how I’d been drinking for years. I drank mindlessly, without measuring or counting, except for noticing that the amount I was drinking kept increasing steadily with time. Actually noting real quantities would have filled me with fear and shame, because it was far, far beyond what people “should” be drinking. In a curious irony, trying to moderate can feel like we’re paying MORE attention to drinking than we did when we were actually drinking heavily, or at least it did for me.

Many things about moderation felt artificial at first. It was nothing like the fantasy of “being able to drink again,” although that’s not to say it’s bad…it’s just real life, not a fantasy. Counting was just one of the many new skills I had to learn, which felt totally weird, and then got easier, and now I do it more or less without thought. It has become a habit of noticing — noticing what I am doing, noticing how I am feeling, noticing what my choices are (and considering various circumstances), and if I do order a drink, noticing several things about that too.

For years, I told myself that drinking was a treat I needed to get through the day. I felt like I couldn’t get through anything challenging without the promise of something special at the end of my day, but the truth is, when you drink everyday, there’s nothing special about it. It’s just what you do. It makes all the days blur together in the end, because I did the same thing on every single one of them: get home, pour wine, start sliding into fuzzy oblivion. I’d drink to help manage a bad day, and slowly go numb; even if the first pour was more cheerful, drinking at the end of a good day did about the same thing.

As time passed, I have come to realize that I’m not just counting drinks. I am counting successes. I collect strings of abstinent evenings, bright and shiny sober bedtimes. I count fresh mornings, memories that don’t embarrass or worry me, times I can be the designated driver, the days where I don’t have a single intrusive thought about alcohol, cups of tea made by and for someone I love.

And I count days, and weeks, and sometimes an entire month, when I consistently behave like the kind of drinker I want to be. I collect warm handfuls of evenings out with my partner, raising our glasses (sometimes alcohol-filled, sometimes not) in a toast — to a shared anticipation, a celebration, or simple recognition of how kind we have been to each other lately. I collect moments when I make myself proud — that tight little glow of satisfaction when I say “no thanks” to a second drink; that half-proud/half-rueful feeling of stopping after the third glass of wine; even the tickle of amusement I feel when I discover I’m just not in the mood for a drink, despite having planned on one (still a very novel feeling, for me). My drinks are rare, and so they have become special again, something I share with people I like, in circumstances I enjoy. There are much fewer of them, but they count for more.

I am a happy moderator

Kary May just wrote a lovely post defending moderation, which gets treated as a dirty word by some in the recovery community. I commented, but ran out of space before saying everything I want. Guess I have a few thoughts when it comes to moderation and shame!

What I thought I’d add here is simple: I like moderation. I’m proud of the changes I’ve made to my drinking, and the way my behavior continues to move toward healthier drinking habits. It’s not perfect or seamless, and it’s certainly not the fantasy that most of us imagined at some point. Sometimes I plateau, and sometimes (as in August & September!) I hit some unexpected rough patches, and fall slightly short of my goals. Sometimes, I get frustrated, and tired of the whole thing. But mostly, I’ve done really well with moderation, and feel that I am slowly gaining the tools I need to smooth down those rough areas.

I chose to try moderation partly because I like the science it’s based on, and mostly because of my own fear of failure & the way that negative consequences for mistakes can crater my best attempts at change (you can read more about that in my Why Moderation post, if you want). A desire to keep drinking was not my primary motivation, though it certainly played a role. For one thing, it made transitioning from heavy drinking a bit less frightening. It let me play a complicated mental game, where I could sneak up on serious behavior changes without making any bold declarations. It probably helped me start when I did, instead of waiting another few years to gather my courage. It definitely helped me make real changes to my behavior, instead of starting strong and falling back again.

At the time I chose to try moderation, I actually wasn’t sure I would like it. It had been so long since I had drunk moderately that I wasn’t even sure I’d like the drinking part, which I worried might simply leave me feeling irritable and frustrated (only three drinks? seriously?!?). I also worried that I’d like the drinking part too much, of course. I worried that I’d grow obsessive, that I’d feel constantly denied a privilege (and, feeling denied, eventually rebel with a binge-to-end-all-binges), and that I was simply going to fail. I’m not sure this fact is clear to casual readers, but at the time I quit, my alcohol dependency had moved to a high enough point on the spectrum that moderation might simply not have been achievable for me anymore.

Understanding that, I still had my reasons for trying moderation, but I also made some contingency plans and worked hard to grow comfortable with the idea of long-term abstinence. I didn’t want to be afraid of it, or use it as part of an ultimatum, because for me, fear is a poor motivator. Besides, it turns out I enjoy abstinence quite a bit, so it’s not exactly a fate I ought to fear.

But I sometimes think that people work too hard to stress moderation’s role as a path to permanent abstinence, as though that’s the only thing that makes it really respectable. Moderation can also be a destination in itself, or at least a perfectly healthy long-term habit, and I’m not sure it requires the excuse of being a route to permanent abstinence. In fact, I am growing increasingly comfortable with the idea of permanent moderation, although I am still not ready to make any bold declarations.

Drinking heavily used to cause me a lot of shame. I used to buy my wine at a different liquor store each time, because I couldn’t face the same clerk again and again. I routinely woke up in the early hours of the morning, hating myself, unable to do anything but marinate in self-loathing. And when I first started trying to teach myself how to drink moderately, I carried some of those complicated emotions into the experience, making my first few months emotionally fraught. The edge slowly wore off, things simplified, and I discovered (among other things) that I really do like the way it feels to drink moderately. I like the way it feels to abstain too, which is what I actually do most of the time. And I like the way that I get to decide which to do in almost any situation, and that I have the tools to follow through.

These days, moderation doesn’t make me feel shame at all. Moderation makes me happy, and is helping me continue to build and practice healthy habits. The joy of moderation comes from empowerment, at least for me. It comes from feeling in control of my actions and my choices. The way I used to drink was essentially passive, requiring only that I surrendered to circumstance and urges. Learning to be an active participant in my own life has many dimensions, of which this turns out to be one. However I chose to get here, I’m glad that I am here now, and not because it’s the path to somewhere that’s considered just a bit more respectable. Simply because this, right here and now, is pretty nice, and I’m proud to be here.

To bees, time is honey.

Those aren’t my words in the title, it’s a quote from Bernd Heinrich’s Bumblebee Economics, or so I’m told. I found it in this rather lovely NY Times article about hunting for Arctic bumblebees. Doesn’t that just make you want to be a kick-ass bee scientist, headed up for a summer of research above the arctic circle?! Well, it has that effect on me, anyway…the fantasy may be more fun than the reality, I suppose.

When I was drinking heavily, time started to compress, becoming filled with drinking thoughts and alcohol-related anxiety. Without noticing, I started treating drinking as a full-time hobby, an interest that could fill any evening (and then, every evening). During the time when my drinking accelerated most quickly, I was dealing with depression, anxiety, and some real world stress, which made the prospect of an evening “relaxing” with wine seem like a real treat. Too many people depending on me to be the responsible one, the one who is always okay; too much feeling like I really wasn’t okay, not at all.

Evenings are shorter when you fill them with wine. Weekends can be shortened too, especially if I treated myself to a beer around noon, then another, then another, then switched to wine toward the evening. Less time for thinking. Less time for dealing with things. Mornings were rough, but I ramped up my drinking slowly and steadily enough that I rarely got hangovers. I just woke up feeling slow, sticky, and requiring several glasses of water, a couple of aspirin, and a lot of coffee to get up to speed. Slow mornings, short evenings, and thoughts buzzing with an increasing amount of alcohol-fueled anxiety in-between. Did we have enough wine in the house? Or should I buy more? Wasn’t I drinking too much? What was wrong with me? Would people notice? Why wasn’t anybody noticing? Ahh, wine o’clock again, time to turn the volume in my brain way down.

The most embarrassing thing, by far, when I quit drinking like that was discovering that I didn’t know how to fill my time anymore. Long, long, empty evenings stretched out before me, filled mainly with the struggle to surf through drinking urges. Weekends lasted forever, and at the end of them, if someone asked me what I’d done last weekend, I just stared at them blankly, then blushed. To my acute horror, it turned out that drinking so much, for so long, had turned me into an incredibly boring person. I hated it, and I hated those long, empty evenings that I had to endure.

I started signing up for things just to fill time. I learned how to make yogurt, because spending an hour or so boiling milk was preferable to spending it feeling empty. When my volunteer organization scheduled evening meetings, I sighed in relief (though I also had to make a plan for getting home afterward without buying wine along the way). I signed my dog up for classes. I signed myself up for classes. I sewed a quilt (although I hate sewing). I accepted every single invitation that came my way (except the ones that involved drinking, at least at first). I started a blog. I paced. And if I’d read an article like that one I linked to above, about a group of people who spend weeks passionately hunting bees, I would have been filled with envy and misery: why hadn’t I been able to fill my life with that kind of passion?

As the months went by, I stopped feeling like I just needed to fill time. It’s not perfect, and I still don’t have a lot of things figured out, but I’m starting to remember how it feels to have a rounded life that actually interests me. Just as an example: when I first quit, I used to ride out the toughest urges by curling up on the couch, wrapping myself tightly in a thick blanket, and watching old, familiar movies (like The Princess Bride, or something else I’ve seen a million times). These days, my movie-watching gravitates to more interesting fare. Movies that challenge me, are off-beat and weird, have subtitles (which are embarrassingly hard to handle while drinking, so I have years of foreign films to dip into!), and that require that I pay attention all the way through. I still watch dumb movies sometimes, but it’s awfully nice to have variety, and to feel myself wanting to use my brain again.

It’s a relief, honestly. I have these evenings that can be used to do all kinds of things, and weekends I look forward to.¬†Life is still frustrating, stressful, boring, and embarrassing sometimes, but it has mostly stopped feeling like a constant struggle. The bad parts pass a it more easily, and the good parts are brighter, and more interesting, because I’m not stuck in a tight, spiral orbit around alcohol anymore.

That’s my clear long-term goal: to never let alcohol be the center of my life again. But along the way, I’ve discovered that I need to keep filling my life, keep pursuing other interests, so that I’m less tempted to fill the emptiness again. My drinking was a bad habit, and habits tend to stay wired in our brains, even as we adopt other habits to replace them.

Sometimes, understanding that I need to be present, be engaged, and be involved in a variety of things exhausts me. That’s a bit embarrassing to admit too, actually, because it feels like being present in my life is just a requirement of being an adult, and one I should probably have accepted a long time ago. But it’s a responsibility I’m still making my peace with, and I am slowly learning to be patient with myself. Seen through a slightly different lens, of course, it is a tremendous opportunity. I am a fortunate person in an uncountable number of ways, and I finally get to take real advantage of that again. And if I sometimes still wrap myself up tightly in a blanket, and lie on the couch watching The Princess Bride, then that’s not such a bad thing either. Balance, I guess, is what I am describing. It feels pretty sweet.


does moderation carry over to other things?

When I decided to try moderation, a part of my brain wondered if it would carry over to other things. Would learning to consume alcohol moderately help me do other things moderately, like eating only until I am full, or consuming ice cream only in moderate quantities? It was a very small part of my brain, admittedly…99.9% of my brain was busy screaming in terror over the very idea of permanently changing my drinking habits.

It is a great fantasy, isn’t it? And it’s a fantasy a lot of us share, I think. We’ll cut back¬† on drinking (and/or quit entirely), and become healthier people in all kinds of other ways. We’ll reach our ideal weight, get up half an hour earlier every day, and never again discover that we forgot half a bag of spinach at the bottom of the fridge and now it’s just a blackish-green sludge. I fall into that thinking trap as much as anyone else.

But moderation, at least as I practice it, isn’t magical. It isn’t a sudden new character trait that I’ve glued into my brain — oh look, now I’m “a moderate person,” happiest with only occasional, small treats. Just because my behavior is (mostly) moderate when it comes to alcohol doesn’t mean I’ve instantly become moderate when it comes to chocolate, ice cream, french fries, or negative thoughts. Changing our drinking habits, tragically, does not instantly turn us into saints, or even well-balanced people…at least not as far as I can tell. And just like abstaining from alcohol doesn’t magically make us master all the skills involved in moderating, moderating in one area of life doesn’t magically carry over to every other corner.

Moderation does help though, in a couple of ways. Most importantly, I think, is the fact that moderation, as Moderation Management teaches it, is really a dynamic problem-solving process. I identify an existing behavior I want to change (“I drink too much”), identify a goal behavior (“to drink within healthy guidelines”), and use the MM tools to achieve incremental behavior changes to reach that goal. It’s a skill, or perhaps more accurately, a set of skills, which can be adapted to different situations, and it gets stronger with practice.

I don’t drink (mostly) moderately now because I have more willpower, or a new personality. I drink (mostly) moderately because I’ve made some changes to my behavior that produce significant changes in how much I drink. So if I wanted to eat less ice cream, I could use those same tools to effect change in a different area of behavior. Of course, the details and specific strategies would be different, but the overall process would be very similar. Actually, I know this first-hand, because earlier this year, when I decided that I was substituting ice cream for wine at a rate that was starting to bug me, I used the same set of skills to return to moderate ice cream consumption. As it turns out, changing behavior that is only slightly out of control (like my ice cream habit) is a lot easier than changing behavior that is of much more serious duration and intensity (like my alcohol habit). Let’s just say that I’m not going to be starting a blog about ice cream moderation any time soon, because there would basically just be one short post: “yep, I’m back on track.”

Less obviously, but interestingly to me, my personal experience has been that moderating with alcohol has actually carried over to other areas of my life quite a bit. For instance, I’ve worked really hard to learn how to recognize when I’ve had enough to drink. That is, when I’ve had all of the enjoyment from a particular drink, and am not likely to get much more out of it…and then I put the drink aside, even if the glass is still a quarter, a third, or a half full (actually, I usually offer the rest of the drink to my partner, who still treats it as a delightful, and unexpected, present). The more I do that, the more I find myself noticing when I have had enough of a sandwich, salad, basket of fries, or whatever else is in front of me. I’m not depriving myself of anything, I just notice that moment when I’ve honestly had enough, and any more would be too much, and set it down. Or I grab a cookie from a platter, bite into it, realize it’s actually not that good, and toss the rest…again, no feeling of loss or deprivation, just a freedom from the compulsion to always finish what’s in front of me.

It’s suspiciously like the fantasy, enough to make me hesitant to trust it. But, reassuringly, it isn’t perfect. If I’m tired, or sad, or distracted, you may be assured I will eat the entire basket of fries. If I’m in a particularly ornery mood, I may do it just to prove I can. And if dessert is really delicious, I will definitely eat more of it than is good for me. But it’s interesting to see skills carry over like that (the behavioral science term is “generalize,” and as a behaviorism nerd, I love that I am noticing it!).

None of this makes me a magical moderator. If I bring a pint of ice cream into the house, I will probably finish the whole thing later that night. If I bring a bottle of wine into the house, I’ll probably finish the whole thing later too. But the part of me that decides whether to buy ice cream, or wine, is much more empowered than it used to be. That part of me has structure, guidelines, and tools that it can use to decide whether this is really a good idea (or can just distract myself for twenty minutes, which is usually enough for me to move on to other things). It’s enough to make me want to go around recommending Moderation Management to everyone, even though I realize that everyone has to find their own path. But it is pretty nifty stuff, I think.

patterns and habit-building

One reason I find blogging helpful is that it helps me see bigger patterns. Thinking about why September & October were more challenging than previous months, I skimmed some previous posts, and decided that I’m probably struggling a bit with the transition from short-term Big Life Changes to sustainable long-term habits.

“Short-term” might not be quite the right phrasing, but my first six months went really well. I had a lot of motivation, the amazing feeling of constantly surprising myself, and, perhaps most importantly, a clear trajectory. Thing started out unbelievably, embarrassingly hard, and got easier; I went from drinking a lot, every day, to drinking a (usually) moderate amount occasionally; I went from terrified to confident, from freaking out to bursting with pride.

I wrote a number of things to celebrate the six month mark, and then the seventh and eighth month rolled around, and I had to keep it up. I didn’t just get to pour energy into this for six months and retire to rest on my laurels, I had to keep plugging away, and in an unfortunate coincidence of timing, both months presented specific challenges that required extra effort on my part. No wonder, really, that I found the whole thing a bit more challenging, and felt far more ambivalent about this entire enterprise in general. The “one day at a time” mantra is ubiquitous for a reason, and it seemed clear to me that I was wobbling a bit at the idea that I’d really have to keep this up forever.

Then again, maybe not. Now I am solidly ensconced in my familiar routines again, back home and with no travel looming on the horizon, I’ve slipped back into my new habits with barely a twitch. Not drinking at all most days (sick dog, overload of things to do, and persistent depression notwithstanding). Enjoying most of a beer while out for dinner at the place down the street, and having to consciously draw my own attention to how slowly I was sipping it, and how I found that “enough” point 3/4 of the way through and set it down for good (neither thing accidental, but rather, specific skills I’ve practiced quite a bit — and not coincidentally, in this particular bar/restaurant more than most).

Habits are amazing things. They also depend on contextual cues — we’re triggered to act out our habitual behaviors by specific surroundings, situations, locations, and so on. Small wonder that during two months with a lot of unusual contexts, I struggled more. At home, everything is a cue to do things other than drinking. Wander off into new territory, and my brain scans desperately for cues about what to do…and not surprisingly, tends to come up with that old fall-back, why-not-have-a-drink(or-ten). The drinking habit isn’t gone, just because I’ve replaced it with newer habits, but it takes more unusual circumstances to really make it persuasive.

There’s an a solution, I think, though probably not a perfect one. One piece is to keep practicing my new habits in a lot of different circumstances until they generalize. Another is to put together some specific plans for certain “unusual circumstances” that are fairly predictable (e.g. camping, staying in hotels, flying on airplanes, hosting guests, visiting family) so that I can eventually build solid habits in those situations too. And maybe, one piece is to accept the fact that during certain times, in certain situations, old habits are simply going to make themselves felt, and that I don’t always have to respond perfectly. Hmm, accepting imperfection, that tricky thing again.