A Yale psychologist reveals the simple trick he used to finally quit drinking for good
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- Psychologists agree that behavior change is hard.
- Replacing an old habit with a new one can help your brain break out of unwanted patterns.
- A psychologist at Yale once made a simple change to his evening routine that helped him quit drinking for good.
Humans are creatures of routine.
Scientists agree that about 40% of what we do every day is thoughtless. There’s a term for the actions triggered by daily, repetitive situational cues: habits. The more practice you have doing something, the less effort it takes. That’s how our actions become more efficient and require less mental energy, enabling us to avoid reasoning through every moment and action of the day.
Habits change how our brain works, shifting activity from areas of the brain connected to decision-making and memory like the prefrontal cortex, to unconscious patterns of cue and response that operate out of our awareness.
Yale psychologist John Bargh told Business Insider that about 15 years ago, he got tired of one of his own habitual behaviors: having an end-of-day drink.
“I was a functional drinker” Bargh said, “but I wanted to change.”
The tipping point, as he writes in his new book, “Before You Know It,” was a long drive home from Tennessee to New York. Bargh hopped in the car at 8:30 that morning and told everyone that he planned to complete the 900-mile journey in 12 hours flat — a fun, speed demon’s challenge.
When he rolled triumphantly into town around 8:30 p.m., he headed straight to the local liquor store to grab a bottle of wine before the shop closed at 9.
“That night as I was having a glass of the wine I had just bought, it dawned on me why I had been so determined to get home by 8:30,” he wrote in his book. He realized in that moment how powerful his drinking habit had become — it was strong enough to change his daily actions without any conscience effort on his part.
“When I realized the real reason I wanted to get back by 8:30, the power of my need to have something to drink that weekend, I was somewhat shocked,” he wrote.
What Bargh doesn’t reveal in his book is the simple behavioral trick that helped him quit drinking and stay sober for over 15 years.
He did the traditional liquor cabinet purge, but something else actually made the difference: “Tootsie Pops got me through it” he said.
Every time Bargh wanted to reach for a drink (and there were many, especially in those first weeks), he sucked on a lollipop instead. It wasn’t a punitive move — behavior changes that are rooted in fear and regret don’t typically work. Instead, he was indulging in a little sugar high and having some fun. He got the idea from a friend who suggested that his wine-drinking habit might be, in part, a sugar craving.
“I substituted something else to do with my hands and my mouth instead of drinking,” Bargh said.
He even incorporated a new game for his cat into the change.
“I’d wad up the wrapper and toss it, and my cat was like Derek Jeter,” batting the little papers around, he said.
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It can take anywhere from a couple weeks to more than 250 days to form a new habit. But as habit expert Wendy Wood from the University of Southern California says, “it’s easier to maintain the behavior if it’s repeated in a specific context.”
Switch a concrete, time-triggered old habit for a new ritual, and you won’t have to rely so much on self-control and will power to achieve your goal. It becomes automatic.
After about eight years of the sugary pops, Bargh eventually gave them up. He just didn’t want them any more. And now, he said, he doesn’t really need to swap anything in for his former evening drink.
“It’s not like I have to resist temptation,” he says.
It’s just a habit.