How to Actually Pull Off a Dry January

Grab your kombucha or your favorite flavor of club soda. The experts are here to help you stay sober (and social) this Dry January.

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Maybe you've been drinking one too many vodka sodas after work, filling your wine glass more often than your water glass during dinner, or sipping on a spiked hot cocoa every time the temperature dips below freezing. Whatever your drink of choice, it's very possible that you're indulging more than usual, and all those beverages are getting the best of you.

If so, you're not alone. This feeling has sparked the popularity of Dry January, a 31-day alcohol-free challenge to get your consumption habit back on track. While it's usually a New Year's challenge due to the prevalence of alcohol overindulgence during the holidays, you can do it at any time of year. From improved sleep to better eating habits, most people will start to see the health benefits of cutting booze in just two weeks, says Keri Gans, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist. And that's just one of the reasons to try the challenge.

Why You Should Consider Doing Dry January

Dry January isn't just about "resetting" your body and "detoxing" from all the liquor you've downed in the past year — it's about exploring your relationship with alcohol without a long-term commitment. "If a program like Dry January (or another alcohol-free challenge at any time of year) attracts and engages people who are 'sober curious' or fall anywhere on the 'gray-area drinking' spectrum before they reach rock bottom — or simply worsen their relationship with alcohol — then that's a great thing," says Laura Ward, a certified professional life and addiction recovery coach. (Gray-area drinking refers to the space between the extremes of rock bottom and every-now-and-again drinking.)

"What so many people don't realize is that they don't have to hit rock bottom before they begin evaluating their relationship with alcohol — whether they cut back or stop drinking entirely," says Ward. "Society has normalized alcohol, so this is an opportunity to see what it feels like to remove it," she explains. Even if you don't think you drink too much, Dry January is an opportunity for anyone who imbibes to find out if a part of their relationship with alcohol is worth re-examining and changing.

"The big lesson is: You don't need to have a problem with alcohol for it to be a problem in your life," notes Amanda Kuda, a holistic life coach trained in supporting gray-area drinkers. "If you've been sensing that alcohol is holding you back in any way, Dry January is a great first step to further exploration," she notes. Maybe the pounding headaches you get after a long night at the bar are hurting your performance at work or your partner gets annoyed when they have to be your designated driver — even these small consequences of drinking are good enough reasons to try sobriety. (Note: If you experience or suspect that you suffer from alcohol use disorder, Dry January might not be the best fit for you. "Don't use it as a way to avoid getting professional help," says Kuda.)

Research has found that Dry January can lead to long-term changes in drinking habits, too. Dry January participants drank, on average, one day less per week the following August, and the frequency of being drunk dropped 38 percent, from an average of 3.4 days per month to 2.1 days per month, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the University of Sussex.

How to Have a Successful Dry January

If you've decided to put a cork in your drinking habits and take a closer look at alcohol's role in your life, you first need to set yourself up for sober success. Here, a step-by-step guide to crushing Dry January, according to Gans, Ward, and Kuda.

1. Build your toolbox for Dry January success.

Dry January is so personal that there isn't a rule book for it, but there are a few tools that can be valuable for most people starting the challenge.

  1. Remove all alcohol from your living space and workspace.
  2. Find an accountability partner, such as a friend who's also taking on the challenge or even your social media followers.
  3. Tack a calendar up on your wall, and every day you've succeeded in not drinking, check off a box or draw a symbol, recommends Kuda. You can also write in a positive behavior for the day, such as powering through an intense workout or finishing a new book, for a visual representation of your success, she adds. (Or try one of these goal-tracker apps or journals to help you monitor your progress.)
  4. Take some time for self-reflection by grabbing a journal and assessing your current relationship with alcohol: When was the first time you became aware of alcohol? When was the first time you drank? How does alcohol benefit you, and how does it harm you? How did you get to this alcohol-free place in your life? When you're craving a drink at any point during your Dry January, look back at the answers you've written down and reflect on them, recommends Ward. This practice will help remind you of why you went sober in the first place — and what you hope to achieve from doing so.
  5. Plan your comebacks for when friends and acquaintances ask why you aren't drinking. Before hitting the clubs and asking the bartender for a glass of their finest ginger ale, you may need to devise a script to repeat when those in your social circle try ordering you a drink. Something as simple as "Hey, I'm actually not drinking right now — I'm doing Dry January — but thanks for the offer!" will do the trick, says Kuda. Still, "some people get intimidated by your lack of participation in drinking culture," she adds. If you ask for someone's support, and they continue to pressure you to drink, cut off the conversation and walk away, suggests Kuda. (Hosting or attending a party? Arm yourself with these healthy mocktail recipes.)
  6. Set some social boundaries, determining which activities and places are Dry January–friendly and which will test your ability to stay sober. "Once you're in the thick of it [like in a bar, club, etc.], you start to realize how much you've relied on alcohol as a social buffer," says Kuda. "If you don't think you have the willpower to white knuckle it, don't go," she suggests.

2. Change the way you think about going sober.

Switching from a boozy social life to a sober one also requires a shift in your mindset. Instead of focusing on what you're giving up for Dry January, which can make you feel deprived, think about what you're gaining from the challenge, recommends Ward. To change your way of thinking, start a journal. Create daily gratitude lists, and write down feelings you had throughout the day and thoughts you can't seem to get out of your head.

Most importantly, stay present: Make the decision to stay sober each and every day. Instead of telling yourself, "It's January 1, and I'm going to get to January 31 without a drink," which can feel overwhelming, think "Just for today, I won't drink," recommends Kuda.

a person sitting at a table and journaling

3. Spend time self-reflecting.

To figure out the underlying reason for your drinking — even if you do it moderately — you need to step back from the social scene and get introspective: What were you using alcohol for in your life? Was it to morph your personality? Ease your social anxiety? Avoid uneasy thoughts, feelings, or just plain boredom? With these prompts, you'll start to understand how alcohol might have been preventing you from developing personally, says Kuda. You'll then be able to find alternatives for alcohol and devise solutions for your problems other than reaching for the bottle.

4. Go out with a game plan.

While you're participating in Dry January, preparation for socializing is key. Always bring cash with you — when you're out to dinner with friends and the server brings one check, you'll be able to pay for your portion only (and not everyone else's beers). To maximize the amount of high-cognition time you'll have with people who will be drinking, try arriving at the get-together early and leaving early, suggests Kuda. Once people start getting rowdy, taking shots, or moving from the restaurant to the bar next door, take that as your cue to hit the road.

Use these boozy events as an opportunity to think about the people you surround yourself with and the events you participate in. "Is it just everybody getting around to drink, or is there value in that setting? Is there something valuable in those friendships, or is it just the alcohol and nothing else?" says Ward. Taking a close look at your social life may help you reconsider your priorities and promote personal development.

three friends bowling at a bowling alley

5. Find new ways to stay social (but keep your old activities, if you can).

Yes, you can still maintain your normal social activities without booze this Dry January. Order a virgin bloody mary while you're out to brunch, or sip on a handcrafted mocktail or a non-alcoholic beer while listening to live music. If these drinks are totally unavailable, grab a simple seltzer or club soda with lemon or lime — it looks like a vodka soda or gin and tonic, so it'll feel less awkward when you're around people who are drinking, says Gans. (Proof it can work: This woman pulled off a Dry January even though she reviews Miami bars for a living.)

If bars are a trigger for you, curling up on the couch with a Netflix rom-com isn't the only way you can spend your nights. Use your sober experience as a chance to get out of your eat-drink-sleep routine. "Instead of going to a Thursday night happy hour, go to a yoga class," says Gans. Take yourself back to your childhood with a round of bowling or get out all of your anger with axe throwing, go for a run in the park or ride your bike to all of the ice cream joints in the neighborhood.

6. When you're tempted to drink, have an exit strategy.

When you're surrounded by friends shotgunning beers at a tailgate or taking shots at a karaoke bar, you might be enticed to join in. But instead of grabbing a drink and calling it quits, "when the going gets tough, press pause," says Ward. "What you do in a pause is up to you: maybe you call a friend or your mom, change locations, get a glass of water, or ground yourself by meditating or reading. If you pause long enough to change what you're doing, by the end of the pause, the urge will have passed," she explains.

Once you're out of the situation, ask yourself why it was so unbearable to be in that environment sans drink, says Kuda. If alcohol is noticeably absent from whatever you're attempting to do sober, decide if it's acting as "an exclamation point on something exciting that has happened or a numbing mechanism," says Ward. There are so many other ways to celebrate or escape, so find a booze-free alternative that works for you.

three people cheersing with alcoholic drinks at a social gathering

7. Don't let a slip-up ruin your Dry January.

Even if you give in to the vodka soda that's been teasing you all night long, accept the choice you made in that moment and stick with your Dry January challenge. "You're trying to rewire a decade or more of social imprint that you need this thing in your life," says Kuda. "It's a chemical response — you have a craving for alcohol — so recommit if you have a slip-up. Don't throw it all to hell. Get back on your plan and keep going," she encourages. As Gans says, "success feeds success," so while it might be unbearably difficult to turn down a margarita at the beginning of the month, it will only get easier.

8. When Dry January is officially over, keep going.

After enduring 31 days of booze-free living, your first instinct might be to pour yourself a celebratory glass of wine — but try holding off on raising a glass for now, recommends Kuda. "I firmly believe that 30 days is not enough to reset your system, or help your relationship with alcohol, or detox your body," says Kuda. "This is a pattern that's likely been reinforced for a decade or more, and you can't undo all that social conditioning in 30 days," she explains.

If your Dry January has actually felt good, try adding on another 30 or 60 days to the challenge, and see where that takes you. But if you've been kicking and screaming your way through the month, "take a much closer look at your relationship with alcohol and dig a little deeper — it could be a signal that this is a very unhealthy relationship," says Ward.

If you decide you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol after Dry January and want to stop drinking, rehab and 12-step programs aren't your only options, says Ward. You can steal bits and pieces from programs such as This Naked Mind, SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery, Women for Sobriety, and One Year No Beer and custom-build your own recovery. Or, you can meet with therapists and coaches or participate in SHE RECOVERS, which has retreats, group programs, and coaches across the globe who host monthly, in-person sharing circles.

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