promises promises

How to Change Without Willpower

Photo: Photo Illustration by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty

It’s a new year! Time to reinvent yourself. Maybe you want to save more money, get fit, date better, eat better, use your phone differently, or drink less.

I have tried most of these. And the hardest one — drinking less, after years of trying to do just that — ended up being the easiest, in the end. The key, for me, wasn’t finding a way to handle temptation or desire. It was uprooting the desire to drink in the first place, and replacing it with an entirely new belief.

This can work for any resolutions. If you can convince yourself of a new belief, the desired behavior changes will follow, without an iron willpower. If you step toward a new way of thinking, the new way of thinking will step toward you.

I had tried to stop drinking a couple times. And I tried to drink “less” for, I don’t know, a decade. It didn’t work. I lasted six days once, 21 days another time (a mostly dry January).

I loved alcohol, it was my friend. It made me happy, it made things funny, it was relaxing. It was what I did, it was what I was good at. It was part of my personality.

I also knew that it was making me slow, fat, and mean. Numb. I was hemorrhaging money, I had no real plans or hopes for the future, I hated looking in the mirror. I had stomach issues, my skin was terrible, my periods were all messed up. Every day felt the same, and it felt in general like I was staring at the ground. I was hiding how much I drank, spreading the truth out so no one knew all of it. No one knew me.

So I believed both that I loved drinking, and that it was ruining my life.

For me, it changed the day — the morning, the hour — that I realized, finally, that I no longer loved alcohol. That it wasn’t making me happy and ruining my life, it was just ruining my life.

I don’t know why it happened the day it did. It was a totally nondescript day. It didn’t coincide with the new year, or dry January, or any of those other times when we’re supposed to reimagine ourselves. I just woke up one day in May of 2016 feeling like, “Nope, a new thing is going to begin, and I don’t know what it is, but this phase is done.” It was as if my heart opened, like a clam, to spit out one belief and await a better one.

I think what happened is that I finally, actually wanted to change. Wanted to believe something new. To become a nondrinker rather than trying to have it both ways. I didn’t want to drink less, or to drink like a “normal” person, I wanted to be done with the whole thing entirely.

Maybe what happened is that I was ready to be ready. I wish I knew better how to spur readiness, but I think it can be nurtured on both sides with good reading material.

I don’t know if my desire to be done with alcohol would have held up on its own. Maybe it would have faded in a few days or weeks. But I’d ordered a book about how to stop drinking, months earlier on a whim. It was Allen Carr’s Stop Drinking Now, which cost $12. I had owned it for six months, but I hadn’t felt ready to read it until that moment. I read the book in one afternoon, it gave me a new way of thinking about alcohol, and I became a nondrinker. This sounds a little spacey, but it feels like I finally stepped forward, by being open, and then the book met me halfway, giving me a perspective I couldn’t unsee. It’s been 2.6 years, and I haven’t wanted a drink since.

I know this one particular book won’t speak to everyone, but there are other books, other people, other things to believe. Find someone you trust who did something you admire, and figure out what they believe. Books are a great way of making this happen.

For me, it was like ripping out a root (“alcohol is fun”) and swapping in another one (“alcohol is a scam”), and then a whole new kind of garden began to grow. After years of feeling stuck, ramming my head against the same wall as I got drunk, was hungover, did nothing, got drunk, was hungover, did nothing, everything started to move so fast.

I started exercising, I started drawing, I started knitting, I got interested in nutrition, I lost weight, I fell in love, I started a new side career, I said a lot of stupid shit (soberly), I disappointed myself, I made myself proud, I was lazy about work, I had a sad breakup, I had a bunch of awkward hangouts, I feel closer to people, I feel further from people, I can’t get anything right, I get so much right, I feel lonely, I feel alive, I’m ashamed, I take risks, I recognize courage better, I started working at the Cut, I’m finding new sources of laughter. Not all of it has been great, but most of it has.

There was no willpower involved. When you believe a new thing, you don’t need a lot of effort. It’s the believing that relieves you of worrying about endless tiny decisions that eat away at sanity and attention, constantly testing your will. Should I tonight? What about tomorrow? Does this count? What about special occasions? What if it feels like I’m disappointing people? It seems pointless to me to try to make changes with willpower alone. Gritting my teeth through regular life seems so bleak and all-consuming. So hard as to be almost impossible. I like the idea that willpower works as more of an emergency brake than a day-to-day tool. Something you hope to use once or twice, but not for long-term changes.

Last night in the shower, I was thinking about this essay, which I’ve been trying to write for weeks. I was thinking about that $12 book I bought on Amazon and a dramatic way I might phrase what it had done for me. “I got my whole life back for twelve dollars.” That’s too simple. I don’t know how exactly the pieces fell. It cost a lot to get me to the point where I was ready to read the $12 book with an open heart and mind, but still I’m amazed at how it all went down. I try to be jokey and light and calm about most things, but this truly amazed me.

For me, it felt like for a brief moment, on a random Thursday, my real self peeked out from between the clouds, asking for something else. “We’re going to die,” it was saying. “Give us something better to believe.”

How to Change Without Willpower