Habit (from Merriam-Webster.com): “A behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance.”
“An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.”
I remember a time in my mid-twenties when I was newly married with no kids and minimal responsibilities, save for my day job of freelance writing and editing from home. Most nights, at five o’clock, my best friend would come to my apartment and join me for a bottle of wine. Eventually, my husband would come home, and the three of us would finish the bottle and maybe open another one before we went out for dinner or drinks with friends.
This routine became as regular as brushing my teeth and continued for quite some time. Eventually, I started waking up with a fuzzy, out-of-it feeling, most likely from an allergy to the sulfites in the wine. I began working in an office, and I had to curtail my habit so I could function at work, but it was hard. The habit was so deeply ingrained and so pleasurable before the consequences set in that I chose to endure the hangovers for quite some time.
Like anything else, drinking can become a habit and move beyond the realm of relaxation and pleasure into something we just do — and something that becomes harder and harder to stop doing.
So how does this happen?
According to New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, every habit starts with a three-part process — a psychological pattern called a “habit loop.” In drinking terms, it goes like this:
First, there’s a cue. In my case, 5 pm was Happy Hour Time! My friend came over, and this told my brain to kick into automatic mode and let a certain behavior unfold…
The routine, or the behavior itself: the drinking, which gave me a…
Reward, or something your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” next time. In the case of drinking, the reward could be the buzz or the camaraderie. In my case, the reward was most definitely the pleasure of hanging out with my friend and my husband for hours, doing nothing else but chatting and laughing.
Duhigg explains that habit-making behaviors come from a different part of the brain than decision-making behaviors. Habits come from the part of the brain responsible for emotions, memories and patterns. When a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain has to work less and less and goes into a kind of sleep mode.
So what can we do to change or modify our habits? (I’m not talking about people who are ankle-deep in their addictions — they’d probably do better with detox and rehab.)
My guess would be to start with a disruption of habits. For example, if five o’clock is the cue for Happy Hour, try having five o’clock tea, or going for a five o’clock walk with a friend. If the reward is camaraderie, find another way to spend time with friends.
Here’s an interesting quote from Charles Duhigg: “The weird thing about rewards is that we don’t actually know what we’re actually craving.”
If you find yourself mired in habits, it might be best to work backwards and ask yourself, what is it I really want? Not an easy question to answer, but worth it. When I was sharing the bottle of wine with my friend and husband, what I really wanted, I think, was to make time slow down, to take a breather from doing things and process the day.
As Duhigg points out: “What we know from lab studies is that it’s never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure — that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change.
With regards to Alcoholics Anonymous, Duhigg writes:
…the reason why AA works is because it essentially is this big machine for changing the habits around alcohol consumption and giving people a new routine, rather than going to a bar or drink… It doesn’t seem to work if people do it on their own… At some point, if you’re changing a really deep-seated behavior, you’re going to have a moment of weakness. And at that moment, if you can look across a room and think, ‘Jim’s kind of a moron. I think I’m smarter than Jim. But Jim has been sober for three years. And if Jim can do it, I can definitely do it,’ that’s enormously powerful.
Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries.