12 Months, 0 Drinks: What Not Drinking Taught Me

January 16, 2020

A nice glass of red with dinner. A refreshing cocktail when you reach the beach on holiday. A cold beer after work to catch up with an old friend. A shot to celebrate a friend’s birthday. A toast with bubbly for your colleague’s promotion.

I don’t know about you, but to me it feels like alcohol has become the necessary ingredient to every occasion in our lives. If you’ve ever tried not drinking on a normal night out and faced a lengthy interrogation from your friends, then you know what I mean.

Imagine if you had just given up smoking and made it past your first month, and then you ran into an old friend who insisted, nay demanded, that you share a smoke. Seems odd, doesn’t it? Yet somehow drinking has become such a part of our lives that friends, family, and coworkers feel it’s their responsibility to make sure you drink alongside them.

It wasn’t until I experimented with teetotaling (and googled what that meant) that I really started to realize how implanted alcohol had become in my routine, and all the hidden costs I was paying to keep up with this habit. Now that I’ve done the accounting and seen life from the other side, my mind has changed.

On Christmas Eve, I finished my first year sans-alcohol. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, and honestly, I don’t think I’ll go back to drinking.

Here are just a few things I’ve accomplished since I stopped:

  • Designed and taught 10+ workshops on modern mindfulness and practical productivity, to audiences both here in London and in the US
  • Slept more (and better)
  • Completed a 4-month teacher training program for Search Inside Yourself — a mindfulness and emotional intelligence program born at Google — and became a certified facilitator
  • Worried less
  • Finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training and began teaching
  • Started dating a woman that I absolutely love and adore
  • Saved 4x what I did in the previous year and paid off another 1/3 of my student loans
  • Built up the courage (and the plan) to quit my job in 2020. February is my last month at Google, more to come on this soon :)

This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t have done these things if I didn’t stop drinking, but I definitely feel that it helped in many ways, both directly and indirectly.

This post isn’t meant to persuade you to quit drinking, or to rail on alcohol, but rather to share my own experience in the hope that it might inspire others to rethink their relationship with alcohol and perhaps help to shift the conversation we have with each other around drinking.

How did this all begin?

Back in 2014, I joined the Dry January fad. It was difficult, but it didn’t change my attitude towards drinking. Honestly, cutting out booze for a month was more an exercise in willpower than a real change in mindset. I basically stayed in every weekend and suffered through the four weeks waiting to join my friends back on the wagon come February 1st.

For the next few years, I tried Dry January on and off, but with little success in terms of changing my drinking in the other 11 months of the year. Yet each year, as January approached and I began to think about goals and resolutions for the coming year, I was faced with a nagging sense that drinking was holding me back in some way, but I couldn’t put a finger on it.

Yet something surprised me after completing the yearly ritualistic cleanse in 2018: I woke up on February 1st without the feeling of excitement and anticipation of breaking the fast with a cold beer. I actually didn’t want to drink, and so I didn’t, for about four months.

That’s when something changed in me. I started to really feel different, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Put simply, I felt fucking great.

I noticed I had a lot more time on my hands, especially on the weekends where I no longer woke up late and hungover. Instead, my Saturdays and Sundays were filled with exercise, reading, cooking, and relaxing.

It suddenly felt like I was able to do so much more of what I wanted to do. Which led me to realize something important: abstaining from drinking is not really about giving something up, it’s just a choice.

Beforehand, I was choosing to drink and sometimes suffer the consequences. Now, I was simply choosing other things, like waking up early and energized on a Saturday.

For some people, drinking is a choice they want to prioritize, and there is nothing wrong with that. For me, I want to prioritize other things in my life, simple as that.

What I’ve Learned

Stopping drinking taught me a lot of lessons about myself, and also about the world around me. Here are a few of the things I’ve observed in the past year:

  • I feel way better physically, and this is probably the #1 reason I don’t want to drink any more. I’ve never felt more energetic, calm, and focused. Not only is the absence of alcohol good for your body in its own right, I’ve found that I eat healthier, work out more, and sleep better without drinking.
  • I’ve won back a lot of time, especially on the weekends. I feel that life is too short to waste hungover or even just slightly groggy from a poor night’s sleep after drinks. I cherish the extra time I have as a result of not drinking.
  • I still have just as much fun as I used to, and none of the side effects. Sure, drinking can ease some social anxiety or make boring situations seem more fun, but I’ve learned that the need to drink to have fun is just in our heads. I still go out to bars, see live music, attend festivals, and everything else.
  • I have way less regret than I did when I was drinking. I hated that feeling of waking up hungover on a Saturday and then seeing some stupid text, or having to dwell on a dumb, drunken argument with a friend from the previous night. So many of my poorest decisions were taken while under the influence, and living without this crap gives me a lot of peace of mind.
  • I’ve saved a ton of money. It’s obvious to most people that stopping drinking will save you money, but I didn’t really realize how much money drinking cost me. Obviously you save money at dinners or bars, but there’s also knock-on savings from not grabbing that 2am snack or ordering delivery the next day when you’re too tired to cook.

Tips for Experimenting

  • Make one decision, not a thousand. This insight changed the game for me. For awhile, I was cutting back on drinking but hadn’t stopped entirely, which meant each night I had to negotiate with myself on whether or not to drink. Once I decided to forego drinking altogether, that decision was made, and I can’t stress enough how much mental energy this saved me over time. (Pro-tip: you can decide to forego drinking for a week, a month, or whatever works for you — it doesn’t have to just be during Dry Jan!)
  • Focus on today; don’t worry about tomorrow. It can be really hard to muster the willpower to stay sober for an entire month or year. Instead, forget about the future and just focus on today. Ask yourself, “Can I just not drink today?” and making that decision day-by-day will help you sustain the behavior for longer. It’s basically like breaking a big decision down into a bite-sized chunk.
  • Tell your friends. I probably would have benefited from doing this earlier. For one, it takes a lot of energy to keep explaining your choice, which you can save if you get ahead of it. Additionally, friends can offer a truly valuable support network, and you’re more likely to follow through with a goal once it’s made public.
  • Find your (new) signature drink. It’s easy to think that there is nothing worth drinking at a bar but booze, although this is certainly not true. I’ve found that having some type of drink not only soothes others’ anxiety about you not drinking, but non-alcoholic drinks also can be delicious. My go-to is normally a club soda with lime.

Last Call

Ultimately, the most important shift that happened for me was a change in thinking that I was “not drinking” and “abstaining” from something, to a realization that I was actually choosing better alternatives for my life. I am choosing to spend my time, money, and energy in other places.

Thinking about this always brings to mind the quote from Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is of course, how we spend our lives.”

This idea reminds me to remember all the other things I choose to do instead of drink:

Choosing more peaceful early mornings.

Choosing to spend my weekends at a museum or reading a book.

Choosing to spend my money on travel, or invest for my future.

Choosing to be more accountable for my actions and live life with less regret.

I don’t know if this will be a forever thing for me. Mostly I think it will be. The more of my life I live clean, the less I feel that alcohol adds anything worthwhile. But I can’t deny that I miss certain elements of drinking, whether it’s a beer after a day of skiing or having a glass of wine at a nice dinner.

The only thing I’m certain of is that change is constant. I’m happy with this change in attitude, behavior, and lifestyle. But who knows where I’ll be in a year or ten.

I hope that if you’ve ever felt like giving drinking a break, for a little or a long while, that you feel empowered to do so, and that your friends and family will support you.

Good luck!