Three months, zero alcohol, surprising results!

Brad Hopkins, Director, Infrastructure & Projects Group

Personal drinking habits are an unusual topic to kick around with colleagues. The magic little liquid holds a cherished position in corporate Australia – its ubiquity and impact on our work environment is rarely spoken of.

I have never been regarded as a big drinker and I never thought of myself as having a ‘drinking problem’. Despite this, I was challenged by a friend to tackle three months without alcohol and I finished this stint in May 2017. Now I’ve decided to do another three months, and I’d like to encourage others to have a go. My motivation is old fashioned curiosity – the original stint was so surprising that I’d like to see what might happen next.

So what can you expect if you join the experiment? I am sure it will vary dramatically by person but I have described a few of my own surprises below.

One month is a good start…. but longer is better

I had quit alcohol for a month once before but was persuaded to try a longer three month stint this time around. The longer break was recommended by a friend, Chris Raine, of Hello Sunday Morning or HSM. HSM’s mission is to provide tools and support to help people assess their relationship with alcohol. The thing I like about this organisation is that they don’t tell you how much you should drink, they just help you learn something about yourself and your habits.

For me the first month was largely occupied with self-congratulations and predictable outcomes – I lost some weight and saved some money. Far more interesting things happened in months two and three. With time my concentration began to improve, my stress levels declined and my sleep improved.

Why did these changes take so long to materialise? Research on the impact of long term, low-level drinking is patchy at best. Some theorise that alcohol, even a small amount of alcohol, has a neurological impact which alters our brain long after any hangover abates. Recent studies shows that drinking small amounts of alcohol (e.g. 14 units per week) over extended periods is linked to changes in the brain and poorer long-term cognitive function.

Although the research is scant, I find it hard to imagine something that has such a significant impact on our brain in the short term (drunkenness) not having a some cumulative impact (concentration, sleep, mood) in the longer term. These longer term impacts could take time to abate once we stop drinking.

Successful people drink less than you think

For the first two weeks of my sobriety it felt like corporate Australia was awash with booze – I counted no less than twelve work related drinking opportunities across fourteen days. Friday afternoon drinks, lunches celebrating arrivals, departures and successes, boozy nights out with clients or colleagues. In the corporate world all of these events provide shared experiences that strengthen our relationships. Alcohol helps people bond at a fairly low cost compared to more thoughtful alternatives.

As I talked more about my sobriety, people shared stories about their own drinking habits and I discovered a lot of non-drinkers and highly disciplined drinkers lurking in the shadows of corporate Australia. Many of these “well considered” drinkers were highly successful business leaders and entrepreneurs who had turned away from alcohol for a variety of reasons.

Some of these people had well evolved strategies for avoiding alcohol without being conspicuous about their abstinence. They would accept a drink and hold it as a prop, do the rounds at functions and exit early or restrict themselves to half a glass of wine nursed through an evening. These are the tips they do not teach you at graduate training.

Concentration is king

In the second month my concentration began to improve dramatically and the modern curse called “distraction” finally departed. Despite digging through the research, I haven’t been able to uncover why my concentration levels jumped. The cause is probably multi-faceted and I suspect that sleep is a big part of it. Alcohol is a notorious disrupter of sleep – although it helps us drift into sleep, the sleep is less restorative and more prone to interruption. My sleep gradually improved until I was getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night in the second month.

Frankly the reasons didn’t concern me as much as the outcome – I was delighted with my new cognitive superpowers. I had one of the most productive and successful periods of my career.

Moods matter

The modern workplace revolves around our ability to think and interact with other human beings.  Our reality as modern workers is that our mood directs much of our approach to people and problems. Mood can skew how you approach somebody, or indeed whether you bother approaching them at all. Whether you are calling on your emotional intelligence or solving a problem, having some control over your mood seems important today.

Any level of hangover, even from one or two drinks, makes me a little bit grumpy. For me alcohol was a handbrake and encouraged a mindset that was muted and homogenous.  As the experiment continued my moods shifted to a place which allowed me to engage more fully with the people and circumstances around me.

Stress less

Like many of us, my job is stressful and it probably always will be. As my dry spell wore on I realised that the glass or two of wine shared with my wife over dinner was actually a way of dealing with a stressful day.

It turns out that alcohol is a terrible antidote for stress and anxiety. Recent research shows that, for some people, being stressed reduces the impact of alcohol resulting in more drinking to achieve the desired result.  Drinking causes short term relaxation but reduces our ability to manage stress. For me abstinence made me better at dealing with and responding to stress at work and at home. I was harder to rattle and recovered more quickly.

The next step?

I am going to dive into a further dry spell and I would be keen to support anybody else who wanted to come on board for 1-3 months without alcohol. It is not easy, particularly when habits have been entrenched over many years. Whether your own challenge is work stress or Friday night socialising there are good strategies for dealing with this. Get in touch if you would like to give it a go!

14 thoughts on “Three months, zero alcohol, surprising results!

  1. Hi Brad, Yep, I gave up alcohol in April. I feel like I get 5% more out of life and work. Sadly, I do feel like I have to explain why I am not drinking. My answer now is “I don’t like it”. It is so nice to go out and not risk losing the insightfulness that alcohol is notorious for! Not to mention the saving on taxi fares, as, other than going out into the city, I can pretty much always drive now.

    1. I agree! Having to constantly justify yourself to people at work functions was one of the more surprising outcomes. Some of the cultural norms around non-drinking are very entrenched, like “you can’t trust people who don’t drink”. It will change in time but for now the best thing you can do is to arm yourself with strategies for responding to people. There are some great strategies which I am happy to chat about.

      There is a great app called Daybreak where you can get tips on dealing with specific situations. I’m trying to get a KPMG wide licence for Daybreak and will let you know! The HSM newsletter is also a great source of tips – https://www.hellosundaymorning.org.

  2. Nice work Brad! I’ve found to be a much better father and husband sans alcohol – so that’s enough reason for me to try and avoid it. (the health benefits are obvious).

    When I do have small quantities though, getting it out of your system is key. There’s no such thing as too much water in my opinion and some exercise.

  3. Very interesting Brad. To test my self discipline I have given it up as a New Years resolution and so far so good. It’s been quite hard from time to time. These times are when I’m stressed (but I’ve said to myself that’s no time to have a drink anyway) and after a day or hard physical work. Its becoming a bit of a badge of honor. I’m uncertain what will happen at 1201 am Jan 1. I’ve thought about keeping going. In terms of focus and concentration I’ve not noticed a big change but certainly have on Saturday and Sunday morning. I’ve lost weight and my skin is much better. The reaction of family and friends is interesting. Some don’t like it at all which is a reaction I’m trying to resolve. Good luck. Tim

    1. Hi Tim, great job giving it up for so long! that is inspiring.

      If you are looking for strategies to deal with family and friends there is a great app called Daybreak. I’m trying to get a KPMG wide licence for Daybreak and will let you know! Daybreak has a service where you can contact them via a messaging tool for help with specific situations. I contacted them to help with starting drinking again, similar to you 1 January situation and they had some good advice on how to start again without slipping back into old habits. Good luck and let me know if I can help!

  4. Brad, great article and I totally agree. We unintentionally exclude many people by organizing work and social functions around alcohol. Strangely, we feel that we have to explain why we’re not having a drink – shouldn’t it be the other way around?

    1. I agree that the work environment needs a lot more thought – changing the default away from alcohol would benefit both employers and employees.

      One of the challenges is that alcohol is a very cheap way to get people spending time together and bonding. Other alternatives take more effort but you can find cost effective alternatives if we think about it. In a couple of weeks we are going for a bush walk instead of doing Friday drinks. It felt like an unusual thing to suggest to the team but people were keen!

  5. Great article Brad. I did the Febfast last year and just kept it going. I think I did everything better as a result… Thanks for sharing!

  6. Katherine Meagher

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    I reckon we’d be a more inclusive firm – and society – if we found and encouraged some of those ‘more thoughtful alternatives’.

  7. Hi Brad

    I did a “No alcohol” in September. This was purely to test my willpower. I must say, I was impressed with myself. We had so many family & work functions in September that I was truly challenged & enjoyed challenge all the more. The hardest thing for me at the time was trying to find a non alcoholic drink that wasn’t sickeningly sweet. Hats off to you for another three months.

    1. Fantastic Jacqui! i completely agree on the lack of decent non-alcoholic drinks – it is definitely a gap in the market. My preferred drink became tonic water with some form of fruit plopped in. It felt sad at the start but by then end it was a real pleasure.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story Brad, really interesting and inspiring. I started “Ocsober” this week, am thinking I might need to stretch it out to the end of the year…..

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