Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sober Day #116: Willpower and alcohol

Just do it?

Easy for Nike to say!  Whoops, no, that's about exercise.  Just say no?  Oh, that was Nancy Reagan.  Just set down the bottle, stupid!  Oh, if only it were that easy!!

Those of us who've had problems with excess alcohol consumption know there is a constant inner battle between:  Today I won't have any wine, and:  OMG, I can't live through the rest of this day without wine.

Here's a simplistic example:  Suppose you love chocolate chip cookies, and there is a platter of delectable ones sitting next to you.

Scenario A:
      Situation:  You put no mental restraints on your eating patterns.
      Result:  You eat or don't eat a cookie, and there is no mental stress attached with either.

Scenario B:
      Situation:  You have told yourself No Sweets Today.  But they look so good.  You eat two.
      Result:   Immediate gratification, but after about 5 minutes, you start beating up on yourself for not keeping your agreement.  This may or may not lead to eating the rest of the platter.

Situation C:
      Situation:  You have told yourself No Sweets Today.  You sit there trying to ignore the call of the cookies.  After about 30 minutes, you can't stand the temptation any more, so you (a) put them down the garbage disposal (b) give them to the neighborhood children, or other.
     Result:  You've exercised a lot of will-power and you've won!  You feel tired but triumphant.

Here's the really crazy part!  Suppose you then serve people from each group a large bowl of their favorite flavor of ice cream.  Studies show that after an exercise like this, people from Group C usually eat far more of the ice cream than Groups A or B.

WhaaaaT?  Aren't these the people who just showed how well they could use their willpower in the Cookie part of the exercise?  How could this happen?

It turns out that Willpower is in finite supply in most of us.  You can't just endlessly count on using willpower to change a deeply in-grained habit.  The habit will win a significant amount of the time.  That's why we need a whole deep bag of strategies for helping us change our alcohol consumption.

(now we are veering into my personal opinion, rather that scientific studies).  I think that is what's so brilliant about Belle's idea of frequent small and large rewards.  In my experience, a pleasant reward sort of resets my willpower supply.  For example, suppose I've had a stressful day at work.  I arrive home, and regret that I've decided not to indulge in my old habit of a large glass of crisp white wine.  I know I've decided not to drink today, and I resist the urge-  but I feel a bit cheated, put-upon.

Then, however, I remember my rewards system, and have a large piece of my favorite chocolate cake, or indulge in alone-time in a luxurious bubble bath.  Suddenly, I feel taken-care-of, reset, ready to tackle the rest of the evening without that pouty/resentful feeling/look on my face.

If you dropped by my house, say, an hour later, with a bottle of my favorite wine to share-  by then, I'd be ready and able to say:  No, thanks, not today.  Would you like to try some of the fabulous iced tea I just made?


  1. one of my favorite tricks for saving willpower comes from reading the book 'willpower' by john tierney and roy baumeister, where they talk about how telling yourself you'll do something you want to avoid later rather than never saves on willpower. just wrote on willpower recently:

    1. Thanks, Mike! your posts are great- and I've put that book on my Amazon wish list, to tackle as soon as I get through the next 5 I already have lined up!!

  2. That's funny. 10 minutes ago I was reading a book, and was stopped in my tracks by a quote from a yogi/guru person: "Company is more powerful than willpower." I thought about when I was desperately short of willpower in the early days, when even treats didn't tempt or motivate me that much, and I took refuge in the company of sober bloggers. Company was so much more powerful than willpower then. Hope you're having an excellent day! X

    1. What a great thought, Sue! It's the oxytocin, I think- even with online connections. I'll have to look at the science behind this!!

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  4. Yep I'm with ya Carrie. Long soak in the tube = all rested and recuperated and no need for wine :) x

  5. It's all about learning new ways to recharge, isn't it?

  6. Right on spot! In my opinion, you can't force yourself to commit to something without putting yourself in a lot of undue pressure. However, that's largely all in the mind. With the right circumstance and environment, having to counteract a behavioral pattern like addiction can be possible.

    Scott McKinney @ Midwest Institute For Addiction


I'd love to hear about your journey, and hear your take on my journey. Comments are very welcome!!