“People forget that environment is incredibly powerful for modifying behavior,” says John C. Norcross, author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions, who studies New Year’s resolutions and the ways in which people are motivated to change their lives.
Exercising willpower is only half the story; we also need to modify our environment. So if you’re trying to cut back on drinking, avoid situations—like parties or nights out with friends—that may tempt you into over-imbibing. Instead, invite friends to your home for dinner, where you can better control the amount of alcohol you serve (and drink).
1. Visualize the Behavior You Desire
Say you do go to a party: How do you stop yourself from overindulging?
“Spend a few minutes before the event visualizing yourself acting in the way you would prefer to behave,” says John McGrail, author of The Synthesis Effect: Your Direct Path to Personal Power and Transformation. Imagine yourself not going beyond your appropriate limit and walking out of the event feeling great, with a big smile on your face. Having pictured the desired behavior, your inner computer will choose that reality, making it much easier to drink less or not at all.
2. Replace the Behavior You’re Trying to Eliminate
Doing something you enjoy allows you to focus on action (playing tennis, for example) rather than inaction (not drinking).
“One of the real difficulties with the resolutions people make is that they’re negative resolutions,” says Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, an expert on willpower and motivation, and the author of Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done. “Instead, figure out what you can do today that’s fun and exciting and also will have the side effect of your not drinking.”
3. Exercise Your Memory
Give your brain a workout. “People who are impulsive have impaired working memory,” says Dr. David Sack, CEO of Promises Treatment Center in Malibu, California. This diminished memory leads to diminished willpower, too: They aren’t always good at planning out the steps they need to take to avoid temptation. Using memory exercises to boost your brain, though, can increase your ability to plan and improve your self-control, and thus your ability to say no to that second or third drink.
4. Avoid “All or Nothing” Thinking
Keep in mind that you’re really developing a new pattern of behavior, and no one does that perfectly the first time. “Slipups happen; you can’t beat yourself up over them,” says Reid K. Hester, director of the research division of Behavior Therapy Associates, LLC, an organization of psychologists that provides research and training on alcohol and drug problems, and creator of Moderation.org, which offers support to people who want to cut back their drinking. “At the same time, don’t give yourself permission to continue the behavior.” Think of your setback as a lesson: Use it to determine what you can do differently next time.