Why stay dry in January when you can moderate your drinking all year by counting units? Richard Cheeseman raises a glass to his drinks diary.
How dry was your January? If you quit alcohol on the 1st but were back on the bottle after a couple of weeks, don’t worry – you were in good company.
According to Drinkaware, more than a third of us break our New Year’s resolutions to drink less. The charity names stress, financial problems and work worries as factors driving people back to the grog.
It is a miracle anyone can make it through the grimmest month of the year without a whiff of the hard stuff. I have done it several times, so I know the feeling – like having an itch you cannot scratch, while all around are scratching theirs. Yes, you have a clear head, sleep better and feel smug, but there is something missing.
And let’s face it, going dry for a month is a pretty drastic way to cut down. Like any crash diet it is fine while it lasts but is not real life, and can trigger a massive rebound. After a month on the wagon it is only human to think: “whoopee! Now to make up for lost time”.
Which is not to say that some people don’t benefit. Katherine Brown, Director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “Evidence suggests dry January may lead people to drink less in the longer term. It is likely that making a point of cutting out alcohol allows people to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol and think about breaking habits of frequent drinking.”
However, that has not been my experience over the years; spending January in orbit around Planet Abstinence usually led to splashdown in an ocean of booze come the 1st of February. I’d been good for a month and had earned my reward – and by heck no one was going to stop me enjoying it. All the units I had dodged in the first month of the year fell like rain in months two and three, and dry January was followed by Soaking February and Sodden March. So much for long-term benefits.
Then, in 2011, I discovered an alternative. During a routine health check the nurse asked me how many units of alcohol I drank each week on average. This had me stumped. It could not be fewer than 15, but could be twice that number. As a dedicated social drinker of 30 years’ standing I had never counted, but at that moment I decided to start – partly out of curiosity and partly from a vague feeling that, at nearly 50, it was time to pay more attention to what I poured down my throat.
That evening I created a drinks diary. My first entry on Friday 18th February 2011 was: beer 2.5 units; wine 5.5 units. Keen students of the Government’s guidelines on alcohol will notice this is precisely double the recommended daily maximum for a man. And it is lesson one of keeping a drinks diary – you cannot help but notice this kind of thing. It is important not to feel guilty about it, but you should take note.
Each week I carefully recorded every unit of alcohol that passed my lips. This sounds tedious but I quickly got into the habit, and it is a remarkably effective way of cutting back. After a few months, the sheer weight of evidence had me easing off the booze accelerator.
There are a couple of in-built mechanisms that help. Firstly, recording units every day is a chore, so the natural thing is to do it once a week, usually on a Monday morning. And here is lesson two: if you cannot remember all your units from the previous seven days you may have had too many. However, that’s an incentive to keep a more careful count the following week, which almost inevitably leads to lower consumption.
Secondly, there is a hobbyist element to keeping the diary – checking the number of units in a particular drink, seeking out lower-alcohol alternatives, and getting a kick from seeing the consequent reduction in units imbibed. This sounds sad, but it satisfies the inner train spotter and, most importantly, provides an incentive to cut back.
Finally, every 12 months there is the intense fun of calculating your grand total for the year. After I had been keeping my diary for two years I discovered the pleasure of trying to beat the previous year’s total. This year I am on track to average 12 units a week, down from 13 in 2013 and 14 in 2012.
I set up my drinks diary as an Excel worksheet, and am still using it four years on. This is fine for me, but a pen-and-ink diary would work just as well. There are also off-the-shelf formats out there, such as the free mobile app available from Drinkaware and the iPhone and desktop trackers from NHS Choices. These are relatively sophisticated tools and offer supporting information such as the number of units and calories in specific brands of alcohol.
Personally, I have never bothered tracking calories but can clearly see, and measure, the benefits of reduced calorific intake. In the first two years of my drinks diary I gradually shed about a stone and a half and am now the same weight at 52 as at 21. Exercise accounts for some of that weight loss, but the hundreds of unquaffed units are, I suspect, the main cause.
When I started my drinks diary I assumed I would lose interest after six months or a year, but now I’ll probably never stop. It has become a habit and I know it helps me keep my drinking within bounds all year – not just in January.
Why does it work? Because it is a gradual and forgiving process that does not require a heroic effort once a year. It keeps me honest, as there is no denying those units adding up in the beer, wine and spirits columns.
February is the best time to start a drinks diary if you have cut down the previous month, because the health benefits are fresh in your mind. It is a view supported by Elaine Hindal, CEO of Drinkaware: “We encourage people who do ‘take a break’ or cut down, to use this as an opportunity to change their behaviour and, where necessary, moderate their drinking over the longer term.”
In case you are wondering, yes I do still enjoy alcohol as much as I used to. I just do not bother with all the worthless units I used to chuck back at the end of an evening’s drinking. I did not enjoy them anyway, and they were always the ones that gave me a hangover.
If I had a personal booze motto, it would be: “drink what you want but know what you’re drinking”. If you stick to this dictum you will more than likely cut down in the long run, and January will become just another month in your calendar of sensible drinking. Your turn to feel smug while others struggle to stay dry.