With Sober October just around the corner, thousands of us will again be attempting to give up booze for a month. But what are the best ways to wind down at the end of the day when alcohol is off the menu? Here are 17 ideas to get you started.
1 Find a new ritual to switch off. “It is important to mark the change in the day – where work ends and your life starts – especially if you are working at home,” says Laura Willoughby, the co-founder of the mindful drinking community Club Soda. “But that does not have to mean an alcoholic drink. Often it has become the time where we do most of our incidental drinking – we open the fridge at the end of the day without really realising.”
Because you are making up the new ritual, it can be anything you like: having a bath, cooking a meal from scratch, changing your shoes. One of the most obvious is to schedule a brief walk to separate working from home from just being at home. It mimics the gear shift of a commute, without the associated stress.
2 Adopt the closest non-alcoholic alternative. When it comes to not drinking, like-for-like substitution is the simplest route. “You can simply replace your favourite alcoholic drink with an alcohol-free version,” says Willoughby. “All the supermarkets have a great range, from spirits to beers.” The substitution need not be that specific – it is the ritual that counts. “I also find freshly squeezed lime and soda can fool my body into thinking I’m having a drink,” says Philippa Perry, a psychotherapist and the author of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read.
3 Adopt a wholly different non-alcoholic alternative. Alcohol-free versions of common tipples, while better than they used to be, still leave something to be desired. But a non-alcoholic cocktail you have never tried before – one you have to learn to make – won’t come wrapped in disappointment. Again, it is about the ritual – the time, the trouble, the mixing of ingredients.
Camille Vidal, a cocktail creator and the founder of La Maison Wellness, has developed a cocktail specifically for Macmillan Cancer Support’s Sober October campaign: the Tropical Green is a mixture of passion fruit juice, cucumber juice, agave syrup, orange blossom water and kombucha. But her personal favourite is one she calls Peach Me I’m Dreaming: 0.5% alcohol sparkling wine, peach puree and vanilla essence.
4 Think about what your body is asking for. As the Club Soda community points out, drinking is often a habitual response to a need we have not taken the time to articulate. You could be hungry, thirsty or just tired, in which case eating a snack, drinking a glass of water or going to bed a bit early will produce the result you require. This is probably worth thinking every time you want a drink – Sober October or no.
5 Breathe. The NHS recommends a simple breathing exercise that can relieve general stress, while sitting or standing, in under five minutes: with your feet hip-width apart, breathe in slowly and steadily, as deep into your belly as is comfortable, counting to five if it helps. Without pausing or holding your breath, let the air flow back out at the same rate. You can do this in your car before you go inside for the night, so no one has to know.
6 Leave your screen behind. It is not uncommon to finish work, stand up from your computer, pour yourself a stiff drink and then sit straight back down in front of the same screen. Essentially, you are spending your evening exactly the way you spent your day, only slightly buzzed. Make a change and engage with the world on a new plane. Talk to people on the phone or, as a last resort, in real life.
7 Read a book. This may seem obvious, but reading and drinking are not compatible activities – any pages you get through while completely sloshed will have to be re-read the next day before you can move forward. Reading and ever-lengthening evenings, however, are totally compatible, making this an ideal pastime for the first few days of Sober October. People always complain about not having the time to read. Here comes loads of it.
8 Listen to a book. Audiobooks offer private distraction on public transport, but they can also make for a companionable shared listening experience. Pull off your headphones, plug in a speaker and spend half an hour listening together.
9 Eat sugar. It is common for a period of abstinence to re-awaken a dormant interest in sweets. That is because you are being deprived of the sugar in the alcohol – a small glass of white wine contains the equivalent of a teaspoon and a half. “You may find your sweet tooth increases as your alcohol intake reduces, so don’t be afraid to hit the chocolate instead in the short term,” says Willoughby. “You can deal with sugar once you are happy with where your drinking habits have got to.”
10 Eat everything else. Alcohol is sometimes seen as an appetite suppressant, when really it is an appetite gratifier. According to Drink Aware’s online calculator, there are 182 calories in a 4% pint of beer and 216 in a 4.5% pint of cider. Depending on how much you drink, a month off alcohol could offer you an opportunity to eat more food yet still lose weight.
11 Reduce your caffeine intake. This may seem a harsh sort of double abstinence, but if you drink a lot of coffee during the day then that first glass of wine after work is probably helping you climb down from a caffeine high, just as your first cup of coffee clears away the cobwebs left by the previous evening’s drinks. With one half of the equation missing, you will require rather less of the other.
12 Change your schedule. If there are triggers for alcohol that correspond to the cocktail hour, just shift them. “Got into the habit of having boozy after-work Zoom calls?” says Willoughby. “Move them to lunch or even breakfast, when drinking alongside chatting seems less acceptable and a cup of tea seems normal.”
13 Exercise. If you have an exercise routine, you might want to think about re-scheduling it so it falls across the cocktail hour. If you don’t have one, get one. The shortening days of October may limit your options, but even half an hour of stretching will profitably use up the time it once took to finish your first G&T – and you will feel almost as good at the end of it.
14 Take up a hobby. Now is the perfect time to start an online language course, or take up knitting, painting or pottery – anything to keep your brain in gear and your hands busy. When October is over, you will want something to show for it.
15 Listen to music. In fact, listen to one specific tune: a 2016 study found the ambient track Weightless by Marconi Union to be the most relaxing of 16 tested. It was intentionally crafted for relaxation purposes – it starts at 60 beats a minute, gradually slowing to 50 – and your heart rate should eventually match its rhythm as long as you can be in the same room with it for the whole eight minutes. Good luck.
16 Tidy up. A clean living space is a restful space. Since the start of the pandemic, it has been easy to let things slide – more of us are working in our kitchens, fewer of us are inviting people over and life seems too precarious to waste time making a bed. But imposing order is an easy way to create calm. Even taking the time to put your work stuff away at the end of each day will make a big difference.
17 Watch early evening TV. This one is last because it sounds so uninspiring, but that does not mean it is no help. “It’s fun watching Pointless followed by House of Games and shouting the answers at the telly,” says Perry. “Sober Richard Osman is marvellous company at drinks time.”