Planning for pitfalls

This post was written by Club Soda member and psychologist Helen O’Connor.

Pitfalls when planning not to drink

When we are trying to act in ways that are different to our usual routines and responses (like not drinking when we usually do), there are many ways we might be distracted from our new plan and be tempted to revert to old tried-and-tested habits.

Although it’s not easy, the first step in getting stronger at resisting urges and sticking to our plans is to understand what kinds of things might trip us up. Only then can we start to develop strategies for coping with them when they inevitably arise.

Using a daily ritual helps you to consciously scan the day ahead for things that might undermine your choice and desire to have an alcohol free day (possible pitfalls) and plan and rehearse how you will respond or cope with them.

There are so many possible pitfalls – and possible coping strategies.

Today we want to touch on external pitfalls – these come from things around you, including people, places, things and situations that might cause you to feel an urge for a drink.


When you are getting ready for your day, scan the day ahead for the people you will be meeting, and any social plans that are in your diary. Be honest with yourself:

  • Are any of these people likely to be expecting and looking forward to drinking with you?
  • Will it be irritating, stressful, or even make you angry trying to explain to any of these people why you are changing your drinking, and why?
  • Are any of these people likely to encourage you to drink, even knowing you are planning not to?
  • Have you ever experienced a social event when you have not had a drink with this person? That is, is it highly habitual for you to have a drink when you meet this person?
  • Will you find it difficult having soft drinks whilst the other person or people are drinking alcohol?

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then you will need to plan and rehearse a coping strategy for dealing with this possible pitfall.


Creatures of learning and habit that we are, certain cues in our environment can create small (or large) urges for alcohol because they remind us about alcohol and drinking. We probably can’t avoid them all, but it helps to be aware of them so that we aren’t surprised by an urge.

When you are scanning the day ahead in your daily ritual, ask yourself:

  • Am I going anywhere today where alcohol is served or sold?
  • Do I usually buy or drink alcohol in that place?
  • What places in my daily routine are most associated with a desire or decision to buy or drink alcohol?

Again, if you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you will need to plan and rehearse a coping strategy that will help you avoid alcohol and manage your urges.

When I (Helen) was working on controlling my drinking, the place that was most associated with alcohol for me was the supermarket on the way home from work because it was where I used to buy my daily bottle of wine that I drank alone at home. Pubs, clubs, even my well-stocked drinks cabinet of liqueurs and spirits (that I only associated with guests and Christmas) were not high-risk places for me.   


Similarly, events and situations can be associated with alcohol – whether because we usually drink in those situations, or because everyone else does and will expect us to as well.

Pay attention to situations during the day where you usually have a drink:

  • Once the kids are in bed
  • When you get in from work
  • With your evening meal
  • After work
  • At X o’clock
  • Watching TV
  • Friday/Saturday
  • ….?

Avoiding drinking when it is part of your regular routine may well cause some niggly urges, because of the strong association that has built up often over many years that in situation X we will have a drink.

Also think about whether there are any less frequent or one-off situations happening today that you would usually drink in:

  • A party/wedding/celebration
  • Evening out with friends
  • Work event
  • Holiday
  • Seeing someone you rarely see
  • Payday
  • It’s a really nice hot day
  • …?

Avoiding drinking in one-off situations such as parties or events might not lead to strong urges, but might require us to have some plans in place to deal with the expectations of others that we will be drinking, and to decline when drinks are offered.


Don’t underestimate the power of small sensory cues that can lead to thoughts and then urges for alcohol. Some of my clients have spoken about craving alcohol when they see people on TV drinking – like Come Dine With Me, or the soaps. Even the sound of a ring-pull opening or the smell of alcohol can set off a niggly urge.


  • For some pitfalls it will be possible to AVOID them.
  • For others you might need or choose to stay in the situation but find ways to CONTROL it.
  • If you can’t avoid or control, you may need to ESCAPE!

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