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A Better Alternative to Dry January

Enact a healthier routine for the new year

If you’re like us, you may have enjoyed a drink or two during the holidays – possibly more than that. And it’s time for a breather.

Maybe you’re considering doing “Dry January” – cutting out alcohol during the first month of the year. The idea sounds great. The emotional and physical effects of alcohol are worth taking a break from, and it’s a simple rule to follow: just don’t drink.

But although Dry January sounds great, for many of us there’s a better option.

The great thing about the new year is that it provides a fresh start. It’s easier than at any other time of year to reconsider old routines and make new choices to improve your life. Those choices can kickstart new, healthy habits that make life better for years down the road.

The problem with Dry January? It doesn’t do that.

Dry January’s all-or-nothing approach only serves as a temporary reset – not a long-term improvement to your life. It’s like a crash diet. Come February, it’s the easiest thing in the world to fall right back into the same old drinking routines. That’s not sustainable.

But there is an alternative. We can leverage the opportunity of the new year to initiate smarter and healthier drinking habits that actually stick. And by sticking to them, we set the stage for a healthier relationship with alcohol long into the future.

Dry January does not make life better long term

At ZBiotics, we’re about improving life in ways that are sustainable. Often, that means marginal improvements that stack over time to create major, lasting change.

Anyone who’s ever made that kind of change in their own life knows what this means: changing habits.

Changing or developing new habits is tough. One study found that the average time it takes to form a new habit is more than two months – assuming the habit is picked up at all (Lally et al., 2010). And a growing body of scientific research is revealing what we know intuitively to be true: habit formation doesn’t just take time, it also takes the right environment, incentives, and circumstances to be successful (van der Weiden et al., 2020).

If it takes us two months on average to develop a new habit, how can we expect Dry January to be anything more than a temporary reset? The answer is that we can’t. It’s a quick break in routine that may be helpful at the time, but it fails to take advantage of the opportunity to be anything more than that.

This is born out on the data. One of the reasons people attempt Dry January is because they’re interested in cutting back their alcohol intake. According to some Nielsen research, a full 47% of Americans are looking to make this change. But if that’s your goal, Dry January is unlikely to help.

A 2021 study analyzing the impact of Dry January on people’s drinking habits found that increased participation in Dry January did not correlate with lower alcohol consumption – neither during February-December nor during January itself (Case et al., 2021).

Dry January just isn’t a method for sustainable change.

Long-term success comes from sustainable habits

This year, consider going another route. Instead of Dry January’s temporary and total purge of alcohol, use the start of the year to kickstart some new healthy drinking habits.

Set an intention, and make choices that give yourself the best chance to succeed.

If the goal is developing healthier drinking habits – and we think it should be – then we have good news. The same data telling us that habit formation is difficult also provides pointers on how to make it easier. Research indicates that the following elements facilitate habit formation (Kaushal & Rhodes, 2015):

  • Low behavioral complexity (i.e., it’s easier to form habits for smaller behavior changes than big behavior changes)
  • Consistency
  • Environment, and
  • Affective judgments (i.e., our expectations about how we’re going to feel if we do indeed take up a new habit (Nasuti and Rhodes, 2013))

Let’s focus on two of these elements: low behavioral complexity and consistency.

“Low behavioral complexity” means you’re more likely to form habits around behaviors that are simple and easy than around behaviors that are complex and hard. That’s intuitive. Making a big, dramatic change to our behavior all at once is more difficult than making a minor change that is easier to enact.

Which brings us to consistency. When behaviors are easier, we’re more likely to do them, which makes it more likely that we do them again and again. More consistency means more sustainable habit formation.

Knowing what we now do about habit formation, we can use it to enact a better alternative to Dry January: healthier drinking habits.

The Dry January alternative: Healthier drinking habits

Instead of going cold turkey this year, we recommend setting an intention to build healthier drinking habits, and using the fresh start of the new year to help us succeed.

There are no rules for how to do this. And we don’t judge anybody – including ourselves – for trying different things here. Changing alcohol consumption patterns needs to take your lifestyle into account to be sustainable. We talked about consistency and complexity, but having the right environment is another element of habit formation, and all of our environments are different.

In thinking about what you can do to build healthier drinking habits, we recommend a few things:

  • Start small: Don’t try to boil the ocean. If you want to reduce your alcohol intake, try cutting back rather than cutting off. Want to drink less frequently? If you currently drink three times a week, try cutting back to two. Want to drink less heavily? Target two drinks at happy hour instead of three.
  • Set specific intentions: We know from the research that specific goals are easier to meet than vague goals. Keep that in mind when you think about what habits you’re trying to build.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t stick to it every single time: While consistency is important, it’s important over the long-term. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a rule once or twice. Remember that habit formation takes time, and there are bound to be situations during that time period where your behavior doesn’t match your intention. Give yourself some grace when it doesn’t.

For inspiration, here are examples of some healthy-habit intentions:

  • I’ll start and end my night with a non-alcoholic beverage
  • On any given night, I’ll stop drinking after I hit 3 drinks
  • I’ll keep it to 1 drink per hour
  • I won’t drink on an empty stomach
  • I’ll stop drinking at least 2 hours before going to sleep (alcohol causes poor sleep)
  • I won’t drink more than 2 nights a week
  • I’ll alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks throughout the night

These are just a starting point. Iterate on what works for you by considering what’s realistic and how you’ll implement it.

Then, when you accomplish that intention enough times that it becomes second nature, you’ll have meaningfully improved your relationship with alcohol. And that doesn’t have to end in January; you’ll be able to build on it all year long going forward!

Quick note before we close

Regardless of the goals you set for the new year, a healthy relationship with alcohol is important to our health and wellbeing.

Remember that not everyone can choose to be sober, nor control how much alcohol they intake. 14.5 million people in the United States suffer from alcohol use disorder (NIH, 2019). If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol and needs professional support, contact an alcohol treatment center, rehabilitation center, or SAMHSA’s National Helpline.