All of us, all of the time, are wandering around with our bodies full of thoughts and feelings. Feelings which distract us, which sometimes we were not even really particularly aware of.
And when we come to make a change in our behaviour, maybe navigating a new social space, it’s really important to remember that you’re not doing that from a blank sheet of paper.
One of the things which is really helpful, just as a kind of foundation to all of this, is just to start to take a step back from your own experience and what’s going on and just be able to acknowledge ‘I’m feeling this right now’, or ‘I’m thinking this thought right now’. What you are thinking or feeling is going to shape your experience of whatever it is that you’re doing.
We get a lot of benefit from that, there’s all sorts of things which happen as a result of paying attention. Our stress levels reduce. We start to feel more comfortable with what’s going on inside us. We relate better to the world. Just the act of noticing itself is really helpful.
But then there’s this other bit, which is about how you take that state of being attentive and noticing and being aware , and how you translate it into practice. And that’s really about intention.
There is something about intention and about making a commitment to change in a way which is rooted in the present. We’re not talking about goal setting. This is not about to turn into your developmental review. It’s not forward-focused. It’s just about how do I want this present moment to be different and how do I want to be. How am I going to respond differently to whatever it is that’s going on around me.
So you’ve got these two things. You’ve got this kind of central idea of mindfulness, and you’ve got this business about paying attention and then acting with intention and everything that we’re doing is about balancing those two things. We’ll talk about planning and some practical tips and techniques. That’s all about living with intention, but if you do that and forget that you’ve got all that ‘whole world’ of stuff going on inside you, those things aren’t going to work.
Equally, you can be perfectly blissfully mindfully aware of what’s going on, but not able to take any action because you’re in that state of mindfulness bliss. So it’s about a balance with those two things, paying attention and living or acting with intention.
Changing your drinking, in fact doing anything, isn’t a matter of willpower. The best analogy for willpower is that it’s like a battery. You have a store of willpower each day, but as you try and do stuff that willpower gets depleted, we get tired out. It’s often why actually, if you’re stuck with a problem, or something hasn’t worked out, sleeping on it really does help because you get some energy back. You can approach the idea anew the next day.
Willpower does work in an emergency. I’m not going to knock it from that point of view. If you’re really, really stuck, just kind of gritting your teeth and going with it really works. But as a long term strategy for change grinning and bearing it, sheer willpower is hideous. Nobody needs to live that way. Fortunately, there are better ways of going about changing. These are better ways. The first is about being clear what your intentions are.
We did some research earlier this year about what really helps people approach a situation or when they’re approaching change. What we found is the more complex and multidimensional people’s intentions are the more likely they are to stick.
So if you were going towards Friday and going, ‘Okay, I’m going to have two glasses of wine‘. All your brain is doing is focusing on two glasses of wine. Or you could approach Friday going ‘I would really like to remember what goes on. I’d like to wake up the next morning and have really clear memories.’
If you walk into your party on Friday night thinking, ‘I want to wake up tomorrow morning, having really clear memories of everything that goes on’ , the clarity of that intention is going to shape your behaviour. It’s going to help you work out if I’m going to have this next drink or no, actually I probably need to hold back – I’m going to swap out for something non-alcoholic because I’d really like to remember tomorrow.
This is the other really important thing to do as a mindful drinker – planning to within an inch of your life. I’m going to give you four questions to help you guide your planning.
But first, let me tell you two questions that you’re not going to ask yourself. You are not going to ask yourself how much you drank. I don’t care. And you shouldn’t care either. Because it’s not the point. You’re also not going to ask yourself why, why you drank more than you wanted to, that’s not what this is about. So you don’t need to ask how much and you don’t need to ask why.
The four questions to ask are:
Where am I going? Really, it’s that simple. So much about how we behave is shaped by the place that we going to.
When is the thing happening? So we know the answer to that is your office Christmas party on Friday night. It’s interesting to notice different times of day that might be problematic or difficult for you. If you are changing your drinking or embarking on being a mindful drinker, you might sail through a weekend lunchtime, and then everything falls apart in the evening. It’s really interesting to notice those times so that you can plan in advance for them.
Who am I with? It’s really important when you ask the ‘who’ question to remember that you’re not blaming them. You’re not blaming yourself either, by the way, in all of this, but you are noticing who you’re with. All of us have that friend, the one who can’t take no for an answer, who will always buy you an extra shot, even if you don’t want to. Even if you said no. Everyone has that friend, you might be that friend. Who you are with is really important. There may be people that you decide you can catch up with next week instead. You might want to make that call. That’s a completely okay.
The fourth question is a bit surprising. It is What am I going to drink? All of us drink different drinks in different contexts to get different feelings. My experience of drinking wine is very different from my experience of drinking beer. My experience of drinking spirits with a mixer is very different from my experience of drinking cider. So if you are going to incorporate alcohol into your evening, work out what you’re going to drink based on your previous experiences of what you know works for you.
So four questions; Where am I going? When is this thing happening? Who am I with, and What am I going to drink? Those are the four questions and everything that you do about planning centres on those four questions. So you’ve done all of that. You’ve got a clear intention. You’ve got a plan.
Here are some practical top tips for getting through Friday night. Think about venues and menus. And I mean that in two different ways.
If you’re going out with friends, you don’t have to take somebody else’s lead in terms of deciding where you’re going, you don’t have to go to a bar. You could go out for a meal. Thinking about that ‘where’ question, where am I going?
If you are going out somewhere, check the menu in advance. Most pubs will publish their drinks menu online. If you want a good low alcohol or alcohol-free option, find out what it is in advance. What I do is I go straight up to a member of staff and I lean over and I look in their fridge and I say, ‘What have you got that’s alcohol free?‘ Just so that I can orient myself to what my options are in that place.
The second thing is if you are planning to incorporate alcohol in your evening, don’t start with an alcoholic drink. That’s going to diminish your ability to make good decisions, and then you’re going to have another alcoholic drink. Start your evening with two good alcohol-free drinks. There are two reasons to do that. You’re buying yourself time, right? So if things go wrong it may be seven o’clock in the evening, not five o’clock. You’ve given yourself time. You’re going to go to bed at some point, but you’re limiting the damage.
The other is you’re giving yourself time and space to acclimatize, to being in another social environment and to work out how that feels and how you respond and all those kinds of things before you decide, ‘Okay, I’m going to have a beer or I’m going to have a glass of wine. I’m just going to relax and understand what it’s like to be here.‘ You could go home. Having had two alcohol-free drinks no one will be any the wiser. Believe me, once your colleagues and friends have had three drinks, they don’t care what you’re drinking.
The advice that I used to give is don’t take part in rounds because that way you can control exactly what it is you’re drinking. I want to modify that slightly to think about what it is that rounds do. One of the things that happen when you are in a round is that you are signalling that you are including people socially.
If somebody offers to buy you a drink, what they’re saying is ‘I value your presence here. I like that you’re here and I’d like to mark that in some way‘, … it’s a whole load of sociological stuff going on there – essentially what they’re doing is inclusion. So there’s a question of balance. I don’t know the right answer for you. You can not opt-in. You can completely control what it is that you drink, or you can decide to go in. We’ll still need to ask for alcohol-free drinks, but you can still be included.
Even if you walk into the evening and say, I’m not drinking this evening, somebody will offer you a drink, so practice creative ways of saying no and if you don’t trust whoever’s buying you a drink, then go and help them at the bar. It’s all about inclusion, but it’s also all about controlling what’s going on.
This is the final important things – you are allowed to go home. I don’t know whether you know that. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re allowed to go home. There’s no shame in escaping to your sofa and a box set. ‘I’m not drinking because I need to drive and I’ve got an Ocado delivery at eight’ and you’re done.
The Fuck It Button is real. It exists. One of the things to bear in mind is that you do have the ability to wreck all of this for yourself. You can decide just not to do it. In which case you’re going to be left with a hangover the next morning, probably some feelings of recrimination and whatever.
So I’m going to talk a little bit about how to recover the next day, but I’m just going to tell you that, just knowing that the Fuck It Button is there reduces the likelihood that you will use it.
It’s really important if you’re dealing with a big behaviour change thing. And for some of us getting through an evening without having a drink is going to feel like a big thing. It’s really important to recognize that while you have that kind of shiny intention, you can fuck it up. Psychologists would describe that as mental contrasting – that you can see how it goes when it goes really well. You can also see how it goes when it goes really badly. You can use that information together and that can strengthen your resolve to make the thing go well, to make sure you follow through with your plans, to make sure you remind yourself of your intention.
Every time you hit the Fuck It Button, there’s an opportunity to learn if you decide to take it. So once you’ve got through your hangover, it’s useful to think back. Think back through the questions, where was I when this stuff happened, who was I with? What was I drinking? You get some clues out of all of that stuff that you can then incorporate into plans for the next time around. But you can only do that if you decide not to be mean to yourself about the fact that something went wrong, nobody is perfect. You are going to fuck up at some point, you are going to hit the fucking button. You can recover from that and have another go.