Challenges like FebFast, Dry July and Ocsober can be great opportunities to get some perspective on your habits, so in this article I wanted to give you tips for using the period of abstinence to set yourself up for success after the challenge is over.
Going without to gain within
While FebFast is a fund raising challenge that asks people to give up alcohol or sugar for the month of February, you can always choose to set yourself a period of ‘going without’ at any time during the year, and for any ‘vice’ you wish to give up – TV, social media, chocolate, or smoking for instance.
When abstaining you’ll typically find two things – decisions become clear cut and you start to reassess why you do the things you do.
Decision-making gets easier
When you abstain, the decision whether or not to do something is taken away. No more rationalisation, no more compromise which means you are relieved of the constant squabble in your mind and can instead get on with things.
To help you stick to your guns, try saying “I don’t (want a drink, some chocolate etc)” rather than “I can’t…” because researchers have found it signals to yourself and others that the decision is a personal choice and part of your identity, rather than a sacrifice.
You meet the Wizard of Us
I call the unconscious processes that form habits the Wizard of Us because it can sometimes feel like we are shaped by forces beyond our control. It’s as if someone else is making us eat, drink or do the wrong things.
But just like the Wizard of Oz, the Wizard of Us is a fabrication and as soon as you start to disrupt your habits, you’ll become highly attuned to what’s triggering your behaviour and why. More specifically, use the period of abstinence to tease out the three elements of a habit as described by Charles Duhigg; the trigger, routine and reward.
1. The Trigger: When does it happen?
Identify what’s reminding you to do what it is you are trying to stop. When do you feel the urge to do it? Where are you? Who is around?
Once the Trigger is identified you can either remove yourself from it (e.g. don’t socialise with friends who drink) or remove the trigger itself (eg.. store sugary treats out of line of sight).
2. The Routine: What do you do?
Analyse the actions you take when you undertake the behaviour. What steps do you typically follow? Where are you? How is your environment supporting you (for instance, do you have bottles of wine in the house)?
Then it’s a matter of making the routine more difficult. By putting obstacles in your way or changing your environment so it’s not easy to do, you will reduce the likelihood of reverting to old patterns.
For example, store snacks in harder to open containers, or wrap chocolate in foil and store in the freezer where it’s harder to impulsively grab. Use smaller glasses if you wish to consume less wine – and keep the bottle in an inconvenient location. Or even remove wine glasses from the house – it may seem less attractive to drink wine out of a tumbler.
3. The Reward: Why I do it – the pay-off
The period of abstinence will allow you to reflect on why you do it. What psychological pay-off do you receive? How do you feel when you do it? When you don’t?
Once you understand the ‘why’, you can rewire the reward by either replacing or removing it.
To replace a reward look for opportunities to substitute your indulgence for a healthier option. If you like to signal the end of a work day for example, with a decadent drink, swap wine for a sparkling water with a dash of lime served in a fancy glass. You are still rewarding yourself through the ritual of a special drink but not consuming alcohol.
Removing the reward is tough. It’s looking at ways to disassociate the activity from the pay-off. If it’s the taste of chocolate or wine you enjoy, try making it unpalatable. Buy products of poorer quality so you don’t find them as pleasant for example.
Periods of abstinence can be a useful circuit breaker to reassess how your habits are serving your life. Rather than simply endure this time, try to enjoy it as a precious opportunity to regain control over the Wizard, and make changes to sustain your health and happiness.
Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.