How Dry January Actually Affected My Work
Each December, like most people, I consider ways I can make the next year better.
Call them resolutions or what you will—mine have ranged from ditching processed foods to committing to make my bed daily. This year, though, I gave up drinking.
Resolutions are a contentious subject. Most of us have a love-hate relationship with them, while others just plain hate them, period. Last December, after reading numerous articles about why no one should make resolutions, I considered whether to make 2016 the year of "do whatever." But then, the week after Christmas, I landed on this Refinery29 article about giving up alcohol for a month.
I'd been a loyal reader of Elletra Wiedemann's food-centric articles on R29 for awhile, and her Dry January article took the same real talk approach as the others. Wiedemann made no attempts to downplay just how many glasses of wine she had weekly, nor does she guarantee that you'll experience moments of epic clarity. She does, though, offer several nuanced and unexpected observations about sobriety, personal relationships, and self-worth, all of which she gleaned from just saying no to regular Manhattans. I knew i'd found my start to 2016.
Before we dive into what happened, let me clarify: the following are not life lessons, although I got some of those too. Weidemann does a bang-up job covering the personal, emotional, and social implications of Dry January, and you should read them. But this is a site about careers, and believe me Dry January affects those too. In fact, it was a shock to discover how much the experience spilled beyond the confines of my personal life.
Ready for the sobering details? Great. 31 days of zero booze:
MADE MORNING MEETINGS EASIER
Let’s start with maybe the most obvious change: the experience of waking up.
Is it easier to breeze into the office at 8am and jump straight into your morning meeting if you weren’t out until 1 a.m. the night before? And is it easier to concentrate when you don’t have a dull headache from last night's booze-logged, sugar bomb margaritas?
Yes. Yes, it is. Next.
AND HARD DAYS HARDER
It’s a simple decompress, that 6pm glass of wine. Uncork, pour. After a long and stressful work day, finding alternative ways to release tension meant thinking more—which is exactly the last thing you want to do at that moment.
Giving up booze will force you to reframe the way you approach your routine and alter your current habits, and often, it's won't feel very nice.
Just know that once you figure out some alternatives, making non-alcoholic decisions won't feel as frustrating. I’ll save you some of the trouble with some suggestions: Epsom salt baths, face masks, warm apple cider (the best sub I found for red wine on a cold night)—oh, and changing into my vintage silk kimono. Something about changing out of your work clothes as soon as you get home just works.
After a long and stressful work day, finding alternative ways to release tension meant thinking more—which is exactly the last thing you want to do at that moment.
YES, IT MADE ME PRODUCTIVE—JUST NOT IN THE WAY YOU’D THINK
Before starting, I read all these Dry January articles about how, at a certain point, the alcohol fog lifts and suddenly you have this unexpected mental clarity that drives you to create, create, create and the world around you is suddenly jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring and you're a renaissance woman with glowy, glowy skin and a mind on fire...
I never experienced that.
I wouldn't call it a total loss, though. The thing about drinking, especially when you’re single, is that you do a lot of it. Meeting friends or dates at bars is just another Tuesday night. It’s one of the ways you ensure that you don't feel like the only living beings you talk to all day are your coworkers, cats, and houseplants.
But when you’re not going out as often, you’ve got hours—and I mean hours—of extra time, and there are only so many episodes of Master of None and Transparent. So here’s what I did instead:
- finally made a real, game-changing budget (keep an eye out for that article next month)
- started running again
- organized my work inbox and
- organized my entire kitchen
- prepped and packed roughly 90% of my work lunches
- got the February editorial calendar done two weeks early
- updated my portfolio site, and
- (get this) made an actual networking date with my former boss/mentor
And yes, I patted myself on the back.
MADE ME REALIZE THAT THINGS THAT SEEM HARD, MAY NOT ACTUALLY BE HARD
Before January 1, I had some secret concerns that I’d discover that without a buzz, I was a boring conversationalist or, worse, find I was unable to actually make it through the month. I come from a family where food and wine are an integral part of our lives (think: food critics, sommeliers, chefs), and I firmly believe the experience of sharing a bottle of wine at dinner brings everybody closer. I wasn’t exactly downing handles of Jack Daniels before going cold turkey, but I was drinking a glass or two of something most nights.
Turns out, switching to Pellegrino at dinner or a virgin Bloody Mary at brunch wasn’t a big deal. I don’t mean to imply Dry January isn’t hard—everyone’s different, and I definitely had my moments. Ultimately though, it just wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
Discovering my expectations were misaligned was empowering, mainly because the realization doesn’t just apply to the liquor cabinet—it calls into question every assumption I’ve made about big ideas, goals, and plans.
All those projects I’ve considered but ultimately avoided because I assumed they were too all-consuming or difficult? It’s time to revisit them, and I will. This year. That right there is more than enough reason to make starting 2016 sober totally worth it.
Take the risk, try something different, maybe ruin everything, expect and embrace the criticism, try something else, repeat.
GAVE ME THE HEADSPACE TO READ SOME “CAREER ADVICE”
Quotes intentional. It takes a lot for me to get into books in the motivational genre, which may sound a little odd given my profession. I’ve never read the Power of Now. And while I read Lean In, I sort of wished I’d just skimmed the Cliff Notes.
But aversion aside, I did find time to read some books that are (for me anyway) so much more motivational than most career advice books. Try them if you feel like a change of pace. In no particular order, I:
- reread my favorite E.B. White essays about working in publishing in New York
- and Joan Didion’s essays about L.A. (try Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album)
- finally finished Kim Gordon’s autobiography
- poured through an obscene amount of articles on Brain Pickings (try this, this, or this),
- inhaled Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, and
- started (but have yet to finish) Hilton Als's White Girls.
Arguably, Dry January made me a little more cultured than I was last year.
FORCED ME TO ADDRESS MY FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING
I have a very real case of social anxiety. You know, the kind a doctor diagnoses. People are often surprised to hear this because I’m so outgoing. But everything comes at a price.
Psyching myself up to walk into a room full of people requires a lot more energy than it does for many people, and it’s taken years of practice. Don’t even get me started on picking up the phone to call a client.
Pushing myself regularly and often makes it easier. So do some other coping mechanisms, some of which may not be the healthiest. Starting in my early 20s (OK, maybe my late teens—sorry, Mom), I discovered the beautiful ways a drink could help with nerves when I was at a party full of unfamiliar people or—arguably more intimidating—vaguely familiar acquaintances who I wanted to know better. Warning bells, anyone?
It's not that I get thrashed every time I meet new people. But even the act of having a wine glass to hold—rather than worrying about whether it looks weirder to have my hands at my side, in my pockets, or crossed or whether I should shake someone's hand when introduced—soothes me. Going alcohol-free made me hyper-aware of those nerve-racking moments—and forced me to relearn how to deal with them.
MADE ME ACTUALLY REEVALUATE MY LIFE GOALS (AND SET A NEW ONE)
When David Bowie died, I know at least three people who went straight to their liquor cabinets. Zero judgment. But without that option available to me, I went straight to The New York Times. Every edition that week had some article about Bowie, and I read them all while most people were sleeping off hangovers. The best was this interview he gave in 1998 about art, which the NY Times thankfully decided to republish in memoriam.
What does this have to do with my career? It led me to this quote, which produced the single most inspirational moment of my month:
"When I hit 1987, it just seemed that nothing worked for me musically. I’d lost the plot…[Now] I find I’m bearing in mind how people respond to the art...I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. But I went into it with my eyes wide open. I expected ridicule — and I got it."
I'll leave you with my 2016 professional mission, care of David Bowie, care of Dry January:
Take the risk and try something different, maybe ruin everything, expect and embrace the criticism, try something else, repeat.
All in all, I'd say it was a successful month.
* * *
Did you try Dry January? What did you discover about yourself, your work, or your goals?