How To Stay Sober and Improve Your Life
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I managed to stay sober for over two years. When I look back on the millions of times I tried (and failed) to quit in the past, I have a very good idea about what didn’t work. I could write an entire book on what NOT to do.
So what did? What’s the secret to staying sober?
I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure there’s not ONE answer to that question. Everyone is different. What works for you might not work for me and vice versa. But I do believe that there are some universal tools that can improve anyone’s chances of staying sober and having a pretty kickass life.
Here are three that I personally swear by…
1. Staying sober requires a complete mindset shift.
If you approach your sobriety from the mindset of, “even though I want to drink, I will fight the urge every day and hope it goes away,” I got some bad news for you.
Your brain isn’t designed to do that much fighting. Willpower alone will not keep you sober in the long term.
It’s the difference between being offered a drink and saying, “No thank you. I’m trying to quit” and “No thank you. I don’t drink.”
In the first example, you’re openly fighting and if I’m on the receiving end of that comment and don’t want to drink alone, I see an opportunity. You’re persuadable.
On the other hand, if you don’t drink – that’s the end of it. Maybe a little haranguing comes next, but you’ve identified as a person who doesn’t drink and that subtle difference in thinking is transformational.
Every time I fought the urge to drink, I usually caved. So I had to eliminate that dynamic and stop “fighting.” It’s an oversimplification of the problem if you think about it. Drinking isn’t akin to an itch that needs scratching. It can feel that way, but that’s all wrong.
Drinking is a symptom, not the problem.
Every time I tried to quit drinking by focusing on the drinking itself, I failed. Couldn’t do it. I had to learn to see the problem differently.
Please note that this is not a magic switch that makes it all okay, but it’s where you start. Instead of white-knuckling my days with thoughts of, “don’t drink,” I tried to get at the root of what made me want to in the first place.
Why do you drink?
I drank because I couldn’t stand anything about my life. My job made me miserable, I was lonely and desperate for a relationship, and I honestly didn’t like myself very much.
Drinking was my way of dealing with the fact that I hated my life.
As long as the underlying causes of your drinking exist, you will be on a continuous cycle of sobriety and relapse. Fighting the urge to drink and doing nothing else just adds to your problems.
This is why it is critical to go to therapy or counseling, join a program (if that works for you), and work on the painstaking task of forgiving yourself. You have to identify and fix whatever drove you to drink in the first place.
Once you do that, your whole relationship with alcohol will change.
I used to drink because I hated my life and was plagued by stress from a job I also hated. Neither of those things are true anymore so my desire to drink is basically zero.
Without using alcohol to relax (I have other methods for that), escape myself, or get over a bad day, what am I drinking for? To get a buzz that will inevitably lead to a congested nose and then a horrible headache the following day? No thanks.
That’s the big mindset shift I made.
I stopped pouring all my energy into worrying about alcohol and realized I had to change the conditions that made me want to drink. It doesn’t mean I kept tossing them back while I went to therapy.
Of course, in the early days, there was an element of willpower involved because every day I was looking for ways to distract myself from wanting to drink. Sometimes that’s what you have to do in the beginning. But it’s not a long term strategy.
That’s how you GET sober. It’s not the key to STAYING SOBER.
To stay sober, you have to do the emotional work. If you don’t, even if you miraculously manage to stay away from alcohol, you’re going to replace drinking with some other vice.
It’s a transferrable skill.
This mindset shift doesn’t just work for sobriety.
Replace “drinking alcohol” with any bad vice and it works the same. Whatever you’re doing – getting high all the time, binge eating, being sedentary, watching too much TV – the underlying problem is the same.
You’re using unhealthy behaviors to avoid dealing with something much deeper.
Once you refocus the energy away from the behavior and onto the underlying causes, you’ll stop trying to win the willpower battle and start doing work that will actually help you change your ways.
Resources For Mindset Shifts
Here are some tools that have completely reshaped my thinking about habits and my general approach to life. If you’re looking for some additional guidance, I recommend picking these two up.
Atomic Habits by James Clear – I am in love with this book. If you are like me and have tried to use willpower to solve any number of problems in your life, this book will be a balm on your slightly deflated soul.
It gives you clear, actionable, science-backed strategies for ditching bad habits and creating good ones. You ever read a book and think, “wow, my whole perspective in life just changed”? This book did that for me.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson – I’ve raved about this book before, but it remains a critical tool in my toolbox. The premise of this book is that the whole “positive thinking and pursuit of happiness” thing is actually making us more depressed and miserable.
We have a limited number of f*cks to give in this life, so the more discerning we are about them, and the more we accept some hard truths in this world, the happier and more fulfilled we will be.
Journaling – or as I like to call it, “taking out the trash.” (Kidding). All those thoughts swirling around in your head, driving you crazy, need a place to go. Writing is cathartic. Let it all out. Plus, all the cool kids are doing it so you might as well too.
Moving right along!
2. If you want to stay sober, you need to change your environment.
They say we’re products of our environment and that is absolutely, 100% CORRECT. The recovery community has a funny little take on this concept. If you hang around a barbershop long enough, eventually you will get a haircut. Ha!
Point? Your environment needs to reflect who you are trying to become. If it doesn’t, you aren’t going to succeed.
If you think you are going to quit drinking and change nothing else about your life, you are deluding yourself.
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about this at great length. He writes, “Your culture sets your expectation for what is “normal.” Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together.”
People do not evolve and grow in a vacuum. They surround themselves with people and environments that support what they’re trying to be, do, or achieve.
The opposite is also true.
Immersing yourself in a culture of drinking and partying is not going to help you stay sober. We both know what that’s going to do.
Get rid of what doesn’t serve you.
If you want to stay sober and improve your quality of life, you need to start with your physical environment. Is your house set up for your goals right now? Full confession – mine isn’t.
I’ve got Doritos on top of the fridge, peanut butter and jelly, cookies, biscuits – all the things I’m trying to avoid right now. Guess what I do?
You already know. I eat them! BECAUSE THEY ARE THERE.
So get rid of them.
I’m trying to be economical and because the half-eaten bag of Doritos is not a life or death situation for me like drinking was, I am going to finish the bag and not replace it. Same with any other item that is not serving my health goals right now.
You need to remove from your home anything that you are explicitly trying to avoid.
That seems really obvious, but look around right now and ask yourself, “What have I got in here that is setting me up for failure?”
You might be surprised just how much stuff you have that is preventing you from making the changes you want in your life. I’m not just referring to food or alcohol either.
Do you spend too much time playing video games, and yet your whole gaming console is out in the open, begging you to get online and play?
Claim you’re going to start going to the gym, but your trainers are buried somewhere deep in the back of your closet, while those delectable cookies are still in that bowl on the coffee table?
You get where I’m going with this.
Cleaning up your emotional environment
If your current tribe is still getting wasted and going about their life aimlessly, you need a new one. You can’t be around that energy. This isn’t easy. In some cases, it could be a spouse or close friend we’re talking about.
At the risk of sounding insensitive, you have one life, my dear. You have to do what’s best for you.
If part of your plan to stay sober is to get in shape, then you need to hang around people who prioritize fitness in their life. Join a gym. Make friends with the people in your classes. Go out with them to that new healthy food spot that just opened up.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, we are constantly trying to fit in with the people in our “tribe”. Scientific studies have shown that human beings will actually go against their better judgment and instincts in order to go along with what the rest of the tribe is doing. We are wired for conformity.
(Yes, even you.)
Find your people
If your tribe continues to drink, your sobriety is challenging the norms of the group. That’s not going to work for you (or them) long term. To be successful, you need to find a tribe with whom fitting in is actually good for you.
If your goal is to lose weight, you can’t tag along with your work bestie who likes to eat at McDonald’s every day for lunch. Sorry, my friend. Those days are done.
People who quit smoking and drinking or lose weight don’t succeed because they’re stronger than you. They aren’t. They succeed because they create environments that help them meet their goals and avoid environments that don’t.
My husband still drinks, but I don’t hang out with him very often when he does. All of my friends drink, but I don’t hang out with them when the objective of the social function is to get drunk. When I’m able to attend a party (it can be hard with a toddler), there might be drinking, but there will also be food, good conversation, and some other activity. Nobody is getting wasted.
I designed my life this way intentionally and it has served me well. I never feel like I’m missing out and I’m happy now, even if it means I had to let go of some other relationships that weren’t going to be good for me.
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3. Be very purposeful with how you spend your time.
In the past two and a half years, I’ve realized that my sobriety has very little to do with alcohol.
If I ever catch myself wanting to drink, I know it’s a red flag that something serious needs to be handled and my brain is trying to find a way to bury it.
Sometimes it’s obvious – like the night we had to take our daughter to the hospital because she was hyperventilating and coughing the worst sounding cough I’d ever heard in my life.
Sometimes it takes a little unpacking – like realizing I haven’t met my professional goals and my dwindling nest egg is causing some additional stress.
How you design and organize your day-to-day life will directly impact how you handle stress and find success in this world.
The power of planning
Staying sober requires actionable planning.
I rarely did any of that in my drinking days. Sure, I played make-believe in my mind while I drunkenly scrolled Facebook, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
You’ve got your life back. What are you doing to make the best of it?
At the risk of sounding like a self-help guru trying to sell you bunch of BS, I ask that last question because I have personally found that the greatest threat to my sobriety is stagnation.
Anytime I find myself going on autopilot and doing the same things day in and day out, other stuff starts to slip too. That’s when cravings are most likely to happen.
The more intentional I am with my day, week, month, and year, the further away I stay from drinking.
I think it’s because it gives me something to feel good about. Plus, scheduling your life out keeps you focused on what you’re trying to achieve which translates to less time dwelling on past mistakes and regrets.
It also helps me avoid time-wasting activities which I am VERY good at finding.
Start with your morning.
I’ve written about the value of morning routines, so I will keep this part short.
You have to do things in the morning that will set you up for success for the rest of the day. How you define success is entirely your prerogative. In the early days of my sobriety, success meant that I got from sun up to sun down without any personal crises.
Things will change as you do.
I used to start my mornings by hitting the snooze button five times and thinking up possible excuses for not going to work followed by more thinking about how much everything sucked.
That’s not a great start to the day, folks.
Now, the first thing I do is make my bed. After I get my daughter sorted, I meditate and either go to the gym or shower and brush my teeth and then get started with some writing and work.
My goal is to wake up around 5:30 so I can do more before my daughter wakes up, but I’m not there yet. Baby steps!
Schedule your free time
Now that you’re not getting wasted at happy hour, what ARE you doing?
The answer to that question can determine how successful you’ll be in sobriety and beyond. If you’re binge-watching Netflix and eating a mountain of nachos every day, you’ve not really improved much, have you? (Both those things sound awesome by the way.)
My ability to stay sober has been largely rooted in a constant desire to become better and actually doing things toward that end. This requires planning or else I will be joining you on the couch with those nachos.
I schedule out what I want to accomplish for my business each day because if I don’t, I’ll end up mindlessly hopping from task to task without doing anything truly significant. Kind of like driving without a roadmap.
I plan out meals ahead of time because I’m learning to be more financially responsible. My natural inclination is to add things to my basket and find uses for them later. The end result is a lot of sad, spoilt produce and takeout pizza.
I make sure I’m always learning a new skill.
That means carving out time each day to work on an online course I have stashed away, follow a tutorial, or do research on a particular marketing or design trend. And I read every single night before I go to bed.
Oh my god, you sound so boring!
But hey if you think so, then make plans that are more suited to what you’re trying to do with your life. If you’re trying to put yourself out there and be more adventurous, then go do that!
Seek out networking events. Book a skydiving experience. Whatever floats your boat.
If you’re a fitness buff, schedule when you’re going to the gym and register for a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder competition.
All I’m trying to say is that you need to fill your free time with healthy things that are driving you towards your goals. Even if your goal is to relax more and read some poetry – make sure you’re being intentional and WRITE IT DOWN.
Be specific about your goals and plans.
Don’t just say you’re going to read more. Choose a book, put in a place you’ll see it, and make it a part of your day. Put it on paper. I read for 15 minutes after dinner every day.
The WHAT is less important than the HOW. It’s about personal accountability.
I’ve been able to stay sober because I have things to do and I look forward to doing most of them (can’t win them all). You need to create similar conditions for your life.
And you can! With small changes, implemented consistently, every single day.