Last Updated on November 29, 2023
**Dry January is a trademark of Alcohol Change UK. Sunnyside is not affiliated with Dry January and this article is meant to be an educational resource.**
The difference? Dry(ish) January doesn’t push total abstinence as the only way to reset. You read that right: You can still enjoy alcohol while trying to cut back.
Cutting back for good means changing the habits that lead to reaching for a drink. And if you partner with Sunnyside for Dry(ish) January, you’ll get the guidance and encouragement you need to replace bad habits with good ones.
The pay-off? Better health at the end of January. But first you need to understand how habits form. Then you can focus on changing them.
What is Habit Science?
Habit science is the study of how brains “rewire” to make certain behaviors feel automatic.
Everyone knows bad habits are hard to break and good habits hard to adopt. The reason? This rewiring process takes time.
Neuroscience Behind Habits
Habits begin to form when the brain connects a certain action, like having a drink after work, with satisfaction. (Thank dopamine for that feeling of satisfaction.)
The part of the brain that manages this process, the basal ganglia, doesn’t care whether having a drink is helpful or harmful. As long as drinking produces dopamine, it’s worth doing.
The basal ganglia do their thing unconsciously, rewiring your brain in the process. Over time, the act of reaching for that drink becomes something you rarely think about. You just do it. That’s a habit.
It takes another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, to step in — consciously — and sound the alarm that a habit is negatively impacting an area of life. At this moment, the decision to change a habit can take hold.
And yes, rewiring the brain against the habit takes conscious effort.
Changing a Big Habit with Micro-Habits
Say you’ve been having a drink or two every day at the same time for several years, and one day decide to cut back. It can often take as much time to break the habit as it took to form it.
Many specialists believe success means starting small and keeping track of wins and losses.
James Clear, in his classic book Atomic Habits, writes that “breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”
It’s much easier to remove a powerful oak branch by branch than all at once. Similarly, tackling a daily drinking habit by cutting out one day each week might be easier than quitting cold turkey.
How Long Does It Take to Create a Habit?
Clear writes, “On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact.” Of course this estimate can vary from person to person.
Deciding to break one habit and start another often takes more than mental effort. It takes encouragement and reinforcement.
If the goal is to drink less, communities like Sunnyside help you set reduced weekly consumption goals. It uses SMS to remind members to monitor their number of drinks and encourage them to keep going if they slip.
Psychology of Habit Formation
Chemicals like dopamine drive the formation of habits, but so does basic human psychology. For example, if you have imposter syndrome, you might start biting your nails to deal with the stress stemming from that identity. Unconsciously, biting your nails becomes a habit.
For James Clear, forming a new and better habit requires a shift in identity, not just a change in routine:
“To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself.”
Sure, you need to start with a goal: “I want to drink 5 glasses of wine per week rather than 10.” But Clear argues you have a better shot at making this goal a lifetime habit by saying to yourself, “I want to become a healthier person by living a more balanced life.”
In support of this new,”healthier” identity, suppose every Monday you replace that after-work drink with a walk around the block and a can of green tea. If you enjoy this experience and start doing it consistently, eventually not taking that Monday walk will feel strange.
You’ll replace the habit of drinking on Mondays with the habit of exercising, improving your overall health. And once you have Mondays under control, try adding Tuesdays.
The Need for Dry(ish) January
Because habits are hard to break, Dry January is challenging for many participants. One slip, and many will feel a sense of shame and maybe give up altogether.
And if a participant stops drinking for the month but resumes their usual alcohol consumption in February, was the challenge truly successful? Any progress made on improving health or changing habits quickly goes away.
But can a Dry January that is a bit more damp or “Dry(ish)” for some participants still be helpful?
When the university sent out a one-month follow-up questionnaire to participants in their study group, “81% of those who were abstinent in January felt more in control. 67% of those who were partially abstinent felt more in control” (my italics).
So drinkers who mindfully work to reduce consumption can still benefit without going completely dry. But going Dry(ish) still requires a plan in order for new drinking habits to form.
Behavioral design expert Nir Eyal agrees,
“Forming a habit requires first sticking to a routine. To do that, make time in your schedule, expect and learn to cope with discomfort, and find ways to pre-commit to the task.”
For one Dry(ish) Sunnyside user, setting a routine around reduced drinking led to success: “So many dry days! My birthday is in January but I still stuck to my goal of cutting consumption in half via thoughtful planning for what days I did and didn’t want to indulge.”
Sunnyside conducted a survey of members that partook in a Dry(ish) January and found that:
- 83% experienced fewer binge drinking days
- 80% felt a sense of accomplishment
- 78% gained more control over their drinking
- 73% saved money
- 64% experienced more energy and focus
- 63% slept better
- 62% experienced better overall health
- 60% improved their mental health
- 59% had a better mood overall
- 56% relied on alcohol less in social settings
- 54% improved their productivity
- 46% saw improved fitness habits
- 43% improved their eating habits and diet
- 35% experienced improved family and relationship dynamics
- 31% noticed better skin
- 29% lost weight
Health Implications of Excessive Drinking
Dry(ish) January is a great opportunity to reflect on excessive drinking’s impact on your physical and mental health. For many it’s a sign of an alcohol use disorder that requires professional help. But it’s also important to recognize that excessive drinking is habit-based.
Alcohol, thanks to the dopamine that floods the brain when you consume it, can soon become the go-to solution for stress. Whenever a financial or social problem creates discomfort, alcohol offers the temporary relief you seek.
Over time drinkers need more alcohol to achieve the desired relief. But when alcohol consumption becomes excessive, it leads to these problems:
- Learning and memory problems
- Increased depression and anxiety
- Emotional extremes (anger, sadness)
- Various cancers
- Liver and heart disease
How Habits Feed Into Excessive Drinking
One of the best examples of how habits form is the COVID pandemic. It forced a massive change in people’s routines. These new routines created new stress triggers, which in many cases turned occasional drinking into the habit of excessive drinking.
Usual outlets for relieving stress, like going to the gym or spa, were no longer available.
According to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “nearly two-thirds of the participants reported that their drinking had increased compared to their consumption rates prior to COVID-19. Reasons for this increase were increased stress, increased alcohol availability, and boredom.”
Take the boredom trigger. For many, having a drink filled the time usually spent going to the gym. As the pandemic dragged on, reaching for that drink became a reflex.
Many drinkers turned to Sunnyside to help them reduce consumption by finding healthier ways to deal with these triggers.
For Sunnyside founder Nick Allen, the a-ha moment was when he realized he could track drinks the same way “many of us track exercise, steps, calories and carbs to improve our health.”
Tracking drinks made it easier to set consumption limits. Once hit his daily consumption limit, he was more motivated to find other ways to deal with alcohol triggers that popped up before bed.
The Problem with a Full Dry Month
In 2019 Alcohol Change UK analyzed the 21,715 Dry January participants who entered consumption data into their app each day of the month. 11,111 participants, or 51%, were able to abstain the entire month. Does that mean the remaining 49% are alcoholics? Well, no.
The reality is Dry January has the potential to do more harm than good for many drinkers:
- Dry January might set the drinker up for heavier consumption in February, to satisfy January’s built-up cravings.
- With a focus on abstinence, one slip might cause the drinker to ditch the entire process and give up all attempts at moderation.
- One slip might also lead to a feeling of failure and the shame that goes with it. The drinker might consume more heavily to deal with these negative emotions.
The idea that slipping up in one’s pursuit of abstinence is a sign of failure goes all the way back to Alcoholics Anonymous. Chapter 5 of A.A.’s Big Book (1939) has these words for those who can’t “recover,” or stay abstinent:
“Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”
Sunnyside created Dry(ish) January to encourage healthier consumption without the judgment and shame associated with many abstinence programs.
Setting the Stage for Dry(ish) January
For many drinkers, Dry(ish) January is a better gateway to longer-term moderation than Dry January.
Dry(ish) January starts with your moderation goals, not a one-size-fits-all program that might scare you away from taking that first step.
One 2023 Dry(ish) January participant set a goal to abstain for certain days of the month, not quit cold turkey. And she succeeded:
“So many dry days! My birthday is in January but I still stuck to my goal of cutting consumption in half via thoughtful planning for what days I did and didn’t want to indulge.”
Sunnyside’s Dry(ish) January challenge lets participants choose total abstinence as a goal, but welcomes a shift to a more realistic option in case of a slip. According to Sunnyside’s 2023 Dry(ish) January study, “only 38% of participants who committed to going fully dry in January didn’t drink the entire month.”
Know Your Why For Drinking
You have a better chance of reaching your Dry(ish) January goal if you figure out why you drink. Then you can better isolate your drinking triggers and find alcohol-free ways to react to them.
Here’s just a few drinker types. Do any apply to you?
Boredom leads to a desire for some type of stimulation. And for many a drink is the quickest way to get that stimulation.
Dry(ish) January strategy: Use the month to pick up that new hobby you’ve been considering. Rather than reach for a drink when you get bored, work on the hobby instead.
Depressed drinkers use the momentary lift from alcohol to soothe feelings of depression. Unfortunately, alcohol use and depression reinforce each other, which can lead to an unhealthy dependence.
Dry(ish) January strategy: Whenever feelings of depression prompt you to reach for a drink, use that trigger to reach for a journal instead. Write down why you feel depressed and brainstorm healthy ways to deal with those feelings.
Regular drinkers consume daily or frequently, without necessarily having alcohol use disorder. They might be successful and fit, but not realize that regular drinking is impacting their sleep and focus.
Dry(ish) January strategy: Attempt to build sober days into Dry(ish) January, and see if your sense of well-being improves.
Social drinkers consume mainly when they’re out with friends. Socializing means drinking, and it can become a habit.
Dry(ish) January strategy: Rather than going to a bar, try meeting friends at home and enjoy non-alcoholic cocktails.
Alcohol’s calming effect makes it a quick fix for stress drinkers. But when stressful situations become more frequent, reaching for a drink can become an unhealthy habit.
Dry(ish) January strategy: When you experience stress during Dry(ish) January, schedule days where you do deep-breathing exercises instead of drinking.
Whichever type of drinker you are, the goal is to become a “mindful drinker.” These individuals have a good understanding of how drinking affects their life and strives for a healthier balance.
The Role of Planning
Once you consider your drinking triggers, map out your Dry(ish) January drinking schedule.
The goal is to moderate, so first take stock of the number of drinks you have each day. Then use a community like Sunnyside to set consumption goals for each week of the month. Sunnyside will customize a plan for you, which you can adapt to fit your daily schedule.
Sunnyside will send texts reminding you to enter your daily drink totals, and send motivational tips to stay on course. It’s a bit like adding business meetings to Google Calendar so you don’t forget them.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, argues it’s much harder to achieve goals without a plan: “Research has shown that people who track their progress on goals like losing weight, quitting smoking, and lowering blood pressure are all more likely to improve than those who don’t.”
Actionable Steps Based on Habit Science
Identifying your drinking type and planning for reduced consumption are important first steps for a successful Dry(ish) January. But then the real work of sticking to that plan kicks off. These habit science-backed tips will help you do just that.
Analyze Your Self Talk
Your Dry(ish) January mindset can boost your chances of success.
Say you approach your consumption goals for the month as a chore, where you say to yourself, “This will be so tough. I hope I don’t slip up.”
What if you reframe the challenge and say, “What a great opportunity to get healthier. I know I can do it with Sunnyside’s help”? That mental shift can give you an edge.
A 2020 study of Korean athletes found that “statistically significant differences were observed in the correlation of self-talk with effort value, fun and interest, and competence.” By “competence,” the study means that athletes performed better with positive self-talk. The same might apply to habit development.
Even speaking some positive self-talk out loud can motivate you to stay on track and avoid those extra drinks. When you experience a drinking trigger, say out loud, “I will not have that drink. I am more powerful.”
This self-affirmation functions as a type of reward. And it can result in changed behavior. A study in a prominent neuroscience journal found that “increased activity in reward/valuation regions during self-affirmation was associated with decreases in sedentary behavior following the affirmation intervention.”
Don’t forget the role starting small plays in shifting habits. Even with positive self-talk, it’s probably not a good idea to schedule a marathon a month after you’ve taken up running.
The goal should be to start with a mile, and once that’s comfortable, try two. B.J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, recommends this approach: “There are only three things we can do that will create lasting change: Have an epiphany, change our environment, or change our habits in tiny ways.”
Dry(ish) January follows Fogg’s lead. The decision to quit cold turkey for Dry January after drinking regularly might be too ambitious a goal for many participants. They might stop before they even start.
With Sunnyside, drinkers can set more modest micro-goals like reducing consumption days and still realize health benefits. One 2023 Dry(ish) January participant even found sobriety more enjoyable than drinking:
“Two major things for me: I’ve come to realize my limits AND!!! I’ve come to enjoy being sober more than drinking. Of course, I still enjoy the buzz, but I now have such an appreciation for my energy without the alcohol that I have more reasons to say no than to say yes.”
Of all participants, “those who chose a ‘damp’ or moderation-based challenge reduced their alcohol consumption by 22%.”
Aim for Consistency Over Perfection
Even when your goal is to go damp rather than dry, success depends on practicing your micro-habits consistently. Keeping a micro-habit one day is like adding $10 each month to a 401K. The effort compounds, and soon the basal ganglia will recognize the new habit.
But consistency can be a challenge. It’s reasonable that you’ll stumble occasionally as you work to change your habit. As long as you use the lapse as a moment to recalibrate your efforts, the lapse isn’t a sign of failure. James Clear puts it well:
“Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees. Your work was not wasted; it is just being stored. All the action happens at thirty-two degrees.”
Here are some tips to maintain consistency:
“Trick yourself” into staying consistent.
Part of tricking yourself is knowing what type of drinker you are. If you’re a Stress Drinker who works from home, keep a bowl of healthy snacks like almonds and dried fruit on your desk.
When stress triggers an urge to drink, reach for the bowl. The snack will give you that shot of dopamine, and you’ll be less tempted to head to the kitchen for a drink.
Change your routine.
A favorite restaurant might be your go-to spot for socializing with friends. But if it’s difficult to avoid alcohol consistently at the restaurant, suggest a different spot for your meet-up.
Try meeting for a walk after work followed by a potluck dinner at your home. Lock any alcohol in a closet and enjoy sparkling water with lime instead.
Track your progress.
When you partner with Sunnyside for Dry(ish) January, you’ll receive daily SMS and email messages reminding you to track your progress
Tracking keeps you honest about your progress. And even if you slip, Sunnyside helps you see your progress. You’ll get a weekly report of “total drinks saved, nights of great sleep, and calories avoided.” These affirmations can motivate you to remain consistent.
Be kind to yourself if you stumble.
If you’re not kind to yourself during Dry(ish) January, or think that one lapse equals failure, you’ll never reach your goals. The goal is consistency, after all, not perfection.
Sunnyside celebrates small victories and responds to lapses not with judgment but with a celebration of what you have accomplished.
Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them
It’s tempting to think that Dry(ish) January is less challenging than its Dry sibling because you’re not completely abstaining from alcohol. The reality is a bit different.
Even when the goal is to drink less, you’ll still find yourself in situations where you’ll want to drink more than you’ve planned. The trick is to anticipate and manage these situations to keep your goals on track.
Urges to drink get more intense when you face certain triggers in everyday life. The path to Dry(ish) January starts with seizing control of the time gap between cravings or triggers and your response to them.
Here’s a few examples:
Work and Relationships
Many of the triggers associated with work and relationships stem from the routines of everyday life.
- The workday ends at 5 pm for most people. The clock striking 5 is a trigger to kick back, even if the day was free from stress. In the work-from-home era, that desire to kick back can trigger a walk to the kitchen to grab a beer.
- Date night often means a dinner out. And dinner out might be the trigger to order cocktails then a bottle of wine.
Mental Health Issues
Chronic stress and moderate to severe depression are medical conditions requiring evaluation by a professional. But they’re also drinking triggers, which can worsen these issues.
- Alcohol can offer quick but temporary relief to work- or relationship-related stress.
- Even though alcohol is a depressant, it’s an easily accessible distraction from feelings of sadness.
One of the greatest triggers of alcohol consumption is peer pressure. When you’re in a group of six friends, and five of them order cocktails, it can be uncomfortable to order a club soda with lime.
Triggers stemming from social pressure can feed work-related and mental-health triggers:
- Social anxiety is a common trigger. Reaching for a drink can make parties more enjoyable.
- When work parties revolve around alcohol, you don’t want to explain to your boss why you’re having a soda.
As we’ve seen, breaking a bad habit involves “resetting” the brain. Because this reset doesn’t happen overnight, relapses are inevitable. The key to overcoming relapses is to understand why they happen.
Changing a habit involves willpower. Once you recognize the trigger that drives you to reach for a drink, it takes mental effort to do something else instead.
One psychologist, Dr. Roy Baumeister from Florida State University, claims that “willpower can be temporarily drained, which can make it harder to stand firm the next time around.” You resist a drink one day, but succumb the next.
The willpower drains because your brain still craves the satisfaction from the drink you didn’t have. To manage your brain’s chemistry, and change the habit, you must substitute another satisfying behavior for that missed drink. This is the best way to cope with alcohol triggers.
One of the best ways to manage triggers is to avoid the situations where they pop up. When avoidance isn’t possible, defuse triggers with these healthy coping mechanisms:
Drink something else. One habit replacement to curb alcohol use is swapping that beer for another satisfying beverage. When triggers strike, have a pitcher of green tea or water with lemon standing by.
Not only will these drinks provide a hit of dopamine, you’ll feel a bit more full after consuming them. That full feeling will subdue alcohol cravings even more. Another idea is to stack another pleasing activity on top of the water or tea, like listening to your favorite podcast. You’ll compound the satisfaction, further pushing alcohol cravings to the background.
Change your environment. Another psychology hack is changing the settings of routine tasks that set you up for alcohol consumption.
- If you work from home, and your end-of-day routine is popping a bottle of wine, try working two days each week from an area coffee shop. Make your end-of-day treat a decaf mocha latte.
- If book club means heading to a wine bar after work, try meeting for an early Saturday brunch instead. Substitute orange juice and coffee for wine.
Be open about your moderation attempts in social situations. If you can’t escape alcohol in social situations, resist peer pressure by owning your commitment to cut back. Fewer people will try to offer you a drink or wonder why you’re abstaining.
Have an accountability partner. Before Dry(ish) January begins, find an accountability partner who’ll let you reach out in situations where cravings are particularly strong. You’ll distract yourself from the craving and get affirmation for resisting.
Measuring Progress for Dry(ish) January
Because Dry(ish) January doesn’t ask you to stop drinking, it’s important to track your drinks to gauge the success of your moderation efforts.
Tools for Tracking and Moderation
Besides tracking your drinks, it’s easier to crush your Dry(ish) January goals with the support of a community. Here are two partners that offer both.
Sunnyside Dry(ish) January Challenge
Sunnyside is a popular Dry(ish) January partner because it lets participants personalize their monthly consumption goals. It also provides encouragement, not judgment, if a drinker slips.
Here are Sunnyside’s key features:
- A 3-minute quiz where you set high-level goals. These include “drink fewer days of the week” and “eliminate heavy drinking days,” plus others.
- The ability to log your daily drinks with a few taps.
- Daily SMS and email reminders to log your drinks. In a recent study, “75% of participants cited Daily Reminders from Sunnyside as a daily interaction that helped them hit their goals.”
- Weekly reports that show you the amount of money saved and calories avoided from your reduced drinking.
- Anonymous access to inspiration and support from Sunnyside members and coaches.
The Moderation Management program asks that you start journaling “to help learn how your problems with drinking occur.” From there you decide whether a 30-day period of abstinence or moderation is right for you. It offers a self-test for even more insight.
Moderation Management offers an online community for support, including a private Facebook group. It also links participants to professionals if they cannot moderate their consumption.
Celebrate the Small Wins
And even if you feel shame from slipping on the way to achieving your goal, the Sunnyside community helps you get back on your feet. Here’s how it works:
- With the Sunnyside iOS app, respond to daily prompts asking you share wins or moments of gratitude.
- See how other members respond, and offer support to those struggling. Respond publicly or privately to the member.
- Interact in real time with coaches with more specific concerns.
Books and Courses for Habit Change
As you prepare for your Dry(ish) January journey, here are some helpful resources on understanding and changing habits:
- Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (New York: Avery Publishing, 2018). Available at JamesClear.com.
- Eyal, Nir. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life (New York: BenBella Books, 2019). Available at NirandFar.com.
- Fogg, BJ. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything (New York: Harvest, 2021). Available at TinyHabits.com.
- Fogg, BJ. Free 5-Day Program to Build Habits.
Build Better Habits This Dry(ish) January with Sunnyside
If alcohol plays a role in your daily or weekly routine, cutting back for Dry(ish) January might seem daunting. But with insights from habit science and help from a partner like Sunnyside, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.
It starts with not having that second glass of wine on a Monday night. As James Clear writes, “After the first domino falls, you can use the momentum to do a little more.”
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