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  • Debbie Masner

Applying Atomic Habits to Quit Drinking

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

*You can also listen to the podcast version of this topic by clicking here

Atomic Habits by James Clear is about applying tiny habits or changes to make a giant improvement over time.

The point of James Clear's book is that these tiny improvements or habits can accumulate to make a big change. Improving by just 1% is not always noticeable at first however over time it is remarkable. That is why when quitting drinking it’s popular to say one day at a time. Focus on the day, not the year.

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.” James Clear

Unfortunately, the slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide. If you have one drink today, you might not feel it much the next day. If you go out to the bar and stay late you might upset your family. When we start repeating these behaviors our habit turns toxic. Drinking one day turns into every day, drinking one glass of wine turns into one bottle of wine, and so on.

Behavior Change Starts with Identity

How we identify ourselves is so important. We use identity in many areas of our life- for example, your profession or parenthood. Being a mom and nurse is part of my identity and my actions support that. For example, I am a mom which that means I take care of my children, I feed them, I clothe them, I love them. I am a nurse- I have education, I work at a hospital, I can give medications and do certain procedures. These are examples of identities.

Identity can help with habits. Say you want to do a marathon. Are you working towards doing a marathon or is you a runner? When you become your identity, you will do things that your identity does. If you call yourself a runner you are going to do things that runners do. That might mean running 3 times a week, buying running shoes, belonging to running groups. Running is part of your identity.

“Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes rather than creates, then you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.

True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity.” James Clear

Decide what type of person you want to be (sober/nondrinker/teetotaler)

We can use this concept of identity to apply to quitting drinking. Before you decided to change your drinking habits you may have identified yourself as a lush or a heavy drinker. All your behaviors and actions were related to drinking.

You can decide what type of person you want to be. For drinking you can say- “I am a sober person.” “I am a non-drinker.” “I am a teetotaler.” Your actions and behavior follow.

To build the identity of the person you want to become, ask yourself what is the behavior of that person?

What is the behavior a person who is sober? They don’t drink .

What is the behavior of a teetotaler? They crack open a diet coke instead of a beer.

The goal is not to quit drinking, the goal is to become a non drinker, a teetotaler, sober etc

It can be hard to change your identity, it can be hard to believe it. I was stuck in the identity of a lush. I was telling myself a story that I couldn’t manage my drinking, I couldn’t quit drinking, I’m terrible. When you switch the story, you switch your life. When you switch the story to “I am a non-drinker” “I am controlling my habit” “I am in control of my life” “I am working on my drinking” you take power over your story. Your actions will follow your identity.

Progress is not linear

“It is very easy to lose motivation when we don’t obtain the results we want; sometimes we may feel as though we’ve put too much effort trying to achieve something, without actually seeing any positive outcomes. This is a trap that may lead us to fall into the valley of disappointment, and that is why it is very important to remember

that progress is not linear. Success is the result of daily efforts—even tiny ones—that will lead to remarkable results in the long term.” James Clear

Prove it to yourself with small wins- PRACTICE not drinking

When you set out to learn a new language you don’t expect to learn it after one day of studying the language. It is going to take multiple study session to learn the language. It’s the same thing when you are quitting drinking. It is nearly impossible to decide one day that you are done drinking and just be done and be perfect. It takes practice.

Change the routine

Change your routine and change what you are doing daily. We get so stuck in our routines that we don’t even realize we are doing them anymore. For example, your off work, you drive home, you go right to the fridge, you grab a beer or pour yourself a glass of wine. That has become part of your routine and can be difficult to break. One thing you can do is keep your routine but lose the alcohol. Keep the routine- come home, go to the fridge, but grab a different drink. Even grab one of the NA beers or NA wine or make yourself a fancy mocktail. You can even pour it in a wine glass. You are still doing the same routine but you are taking out an element of it- the alcohol.

Make drinking unattractive and not drinking attractive

This is how you think about drinking and reframing your mindset. You want to think about highlighting the benefits of avoiding a drink. Annie Grace does this beautifully in her groundbreaking book This Naked Mind. She points out that your mindset is stuck in a rut. You think drinking is something you need to do to be social but it’s not. You can be social without drinking. You think drinking is about relieving stress but it’s not. Drinking does not relieve anxiety or stress it just makes it worse. When you quit drinking you are losing nothing and you are gaining better health, energy, and relationships. You are improving your confidence, self-respect, and freedom. You are making not drinking attractive. “I am doing this for my health.” “I am doing this to sleep better, feel better, have less anxiety, improve my relationships.” You are shifting your mindset from something that is negative (missing drinking) to something that is positive for your physical and mental health.

Make drinking difficult

Increase the friction and increase the number of steps between you and your drinking. That involves not having alcohol in your house. If you have a spouse that still drinks have them hide the alcohol. Don’t carry cash or card on you- that might sound risky but if you don’t have the money on you can’t randomly stop at the store and buy alcohol on the way home.

Make avoidance visible

You need to make it satisfying to do nothing. By doing nothing it means make it satisfying to not drink. You want to make not drinking visible. One way to do this is tracking non drinking days on a calendar or in an app. You are making avoidance visible. You could also open a bank account and call it “vacation.” Every time you pass on a drink or a happy hour- whatever amount of money you would have spent is put in your vacation account. That will be a strong incentive for you to keep practicing and see a beautiful bank account. You really do save a lot of money when you don’t drink.

Join a tribe

Changing your identity is difficult when the culture you are in goes against that identity. We live in a society that normalizes drinking. It is so visible and most people do it. It can be hard to be a non-drinker. We are herd animals and we want to fit in with the pack. It might explain how and why we started drinking in the first place. Find a group of nondrinkers to join. The Alcohol Experiment has a free Facebook group. There are also groups online and in person such as Smart Recovery and AA. Choose which group fits for you.

I want to remind you- it's progress not perfection, it’s practice not perfection. Be kind to yourself. Everyone is on a different journey. We are all in the same storm but we are not all in the same boat. What might work for one person might not be what helps you. I want Alcohol Tipping Point to help you- I want to throw out a life preserver, a tow, an oar. I would like to hear from you. What pain points or struggles do you have as you are changing your relationship with alcohol? What would be helpful to you? Feel free to comment below or contact me at or follow Alcohol Tipping Point on Facebook and Instagram.

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