Change is hard. When you’re trying to alter a long-standing behavior pattern, such as drinking (or smoking, overeating, shopping), it is normal to feel ambivalence. There are times when you want to stick with your goals and other times when you want to forget all about them and return to what feels good in the moment.
Why can’t we just decide to change course and go another direction? Because of the power of habit. Habits are behaviors that are automatic. They are so grooved in that they require no thought and no real effort. They are your routine and they seem to “just happen.”
Making a change in your habits requires a lot of effort, especially if it involves reducing or giving up a mood-altering substance like alcohol, sugar, caffeine, or nicotine. First, it requires making the decision to do something different (which is a lot of work in and of itself). Then it requires planning, intention, trial and error and lots of practice. You have to identify when the habit happens (I really want to pour a glass of wine when I cook dinner after work) and decide to use an alternative behavior instead (I’m going to go for a power walk to reduce my stress and then drink seltzer and OJ at dinner). And then you have to tolerate the fact that the alternative behavior you chose may not work exactly like your habit (maybe you still want a drink after the walk and the seltzer and OJ upsets your stomach).
If you want to break a habit, you will likely have to try several actions to replace it. You have to do them enough times in a row for them to become your new habit. In the end, habit change requires a significant amount of awareness and effort, two things that are not always appealing in tough emotional moments or at the end of a long day or week.
Given all of the effort required, the desire to return to old patterns (like having those couple of drinks after work) is normal and in fact should be expected. By keeping your ambivalence front and center, instead of wishing it was not true or denying it’s there, you can anticipate it and do something about it.
What can you do when you are feeling the pull to return to an old behavior? One of the first steps is to simply stop and consider your reason for deciding to stay the course or to return to an older pattern of behavior in that moment. It can also be helpful to remind yourself how acting out of habit or on impulse (which is what action without consideration often is) has left you feeling in the past, which is most likely anything from out of control to frustrated with a difficulty achieving your goals.
Do a quick cost/benefit analysis in your head. Simply put, people change their behavior if it’s worth it to them! So take a minute to think through why the behavior change was, and still is, important to you.
What makes your decision feel worth the effort? This simple step of consideration is often all it takes to re-orient yourself to your goals. And in this moment of consideration, it can be helpful to write down your thoughts or talk to another person. Getting the thoughts out of your head and onto paper or shared with another person can make them more meaningful and help increase your commitment.
If, however, you decide to go ahead and drink (or smoke, eat, shop, gamble) despite this consideration, you may find that you feel more in control of your behavior and your path. Believe it or not, pausing for a moment and really trying to make a conscious decision—instead of going on auto-pilot—is the first crucial step to long-lasting positive change.
Here are the four steps of a quick and effective cost-benefit analysis. Before you take action, pause and write down your goal and how you are feeling about taking action. Are you wanting to take a new action to achieve your goal? Or are you feeling the pull to stick with your old routine?
Write down your goal, and the upside and downside of going with an old/more automatic pattern, as well as the pros and cons of sticking with your goal.
Goal: I want to drink 3 days a week instead of 6.
Benefit or Cost of Going with Habit (having a drink on a scheduled non-drinking night).
1. What benefit am I wanting from drinking right now? (“Today was a really hard day and I need to take the edge off, I can start the non-drinking goal tomorrow,” “I probably won’t be able to go to sleep because I am so wound up.”)
2. What negative consequence could occur if I drink in this moment? (“I will feel like a loser because I can’t go without a glass of wine for even one day,” ”I will likely feel too sleepy to read the book I want to finish”)
Now, write down the Benefit or Cost of Going with the New Behavior Pattern (I want to have 4 days of not drinking).
1. What benefits would I experience from not drinking right now? (“I will feel more in control of my actions,” “I will wake up feeling better in the morning and be more likely to go to the gym”)
2. What negative consequence would I experience from not drinking right now? (“I might have difficulty relaxing tonight”)
At the end of this exercise, try to focus on the negative consequences of going with your habit (I’ll feel tired in the morning and probably won’t go to the gym) and the benefits of sticking with it (I will have more energy and be more likely to lose the 5 lbs. I want to get rid of, I will feel better about myself sticking with my plan).
Really focusing on why the change is “worth it” to you can keep you on course when the pull of habit is still strong. It can also be helpful to know that if you resist the impulse to give into your habit, AND you practice alternative behaviors several times in a row, the pull of the habit will get weaker.
Remember, ambivalence is normal. You don’t have to pump yourself up with the thought that “It’s all good” when you are trying to change. Why? Because it’s not!
Change requires a lot of effort and takes work—mental and physical effort. The first step to staying the course is clearly seeing your reasons for making a change in the first place. Keeping your eyes open about what your trying to do and why, can have a major impact on sticking with it.