Do you want to change a habit?  How I Stopped Drinking More Than 100 Grams of Diet Soda a Day (For 40 Years) and Started Drinking Water Instead

Do you want to change a habit? How I Stopped Drinking More Than 100 Grams of Diet Soda a Day (For 40 Years) and Started Drinking Water Instead

Do you want to change a habit?  How I Stopped Drinking More Than 100 Grams of Diet Soda a Day (For 40 Years) and Started Drinking Water Instead

We are what we do, and habits underlie most of our behavior — so much so that at least one study shows that we tend to confuse the reasons for doing certain things, adding cause and effect. to know from our actions.

Simple example: Many people say they drink coffee because they are tired and need a pick-me-up, but often the ’cause’ turned out to be habit. (Think of “I need coffee to get going” versus “when I wake up, I always have a cup of coffee.”)

In business terms, that might be checking email first, because you want to “make sure there are no more fires to put out,” even though it would be much more productive to start your day differently. Or hold a meeting every Monday to “set the week” even though most meetings are a total waste of time.

Or, in my case, six to eight bottles of Diet Mtn. Dew every day for the last 40 years.

The problem? Habit

First of all, I’m not saying caffeine is bad. Research shows that a cup of coffee can significantly improve your problem-solving skills. Other research shows that coffee can improve brain function and delay aging. As Inc. colleague Geoffrey James writes, a large-scale study shows that people who drink a lot lot of coffee tend to live longer than those who don’t.

The problem is I hate coffee.

But no soda, which is a shame, given that a 10-year study of more than 260,000 people found that people who drank more than four cans of soda a day were 30 percent more likely to become depressed than those who didn’t drink soda.

The bad guy? Apparently artificial sweeteners.

But that’s not why I decided to drink less soda. I didn’t use caffeine as a pick-me-up, although it clearly was.

Drinking soft drinks was a habit. That’s what I drank. I woke up, drank soda. Ate a meal, drank soda. Exercise at home, drink soda. I went to soft drinks out of habit.

And out of necessity, since caffeine withdrawal headaches are screaming. However, I could handle that situation: I just had to get enough Diet Mtn. Dew at hand.

Except when I travel. That meant either grabbing a few bottles in the evening for the next morning, or getting up in the morning and sometimes wandering the streets looking for an open supermarket. That was a pain, but not such a pain to bring about a change.

One day our son said, “I wish you didn’t drink so much soda.”

And for some reason I thought, “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t.”

The solution? Don’t think of change as a ‘diet’.

The problem, of course, wasn’t kicking the “soda” habit. Soda was just the delivery vehicle. The problem was that I got myself off three or four decades of extremely high caffeine intake.

I could have limited myself to a certain amount of soda per day; instead of six or eight bottles, maybe five. Or four. But what if I hit a few early in the day and then was “out” by mid-afternoon? In that case, headache city was my likely destination.

Or what if I decide to mix decaf with caffeinated soda? That would of course reduce my caffeine intake. Logistically, that seemed like a hassle, especially when you weren’t home.

That’s the problem with any kind of “diet.” Diets are restrictive. Diets force choices that can be difficult to make, especially in certain situations.

Rules, on the other hand, do not require willpower. Since I start every day with a protein bar, I decided that I would always drink water for breakfast: that was the rule. To make things easier, I’ve harnessed the power of choice architecture and always kept a bottle of water next to my laptop.

Easy? Absolute. But here’s the thing: I drink because I’m thirsty. I was so used to my caffeine intake that I never felt a boost. (However, I felt tense if I drank too much.) Water quenched my thirst, so I eventually stopped drinking soda to make up for the water I drank.

I still drank the same amount of liquid, but now it was water.

And I didn’t get a headache.

Then extend the rule.

Within a few days, I decided that I should always drink water for lunch as well. Why not? Business went well.

In addition, I became more and more accustomed to the taste of water. I used to drink water, but I didn’t “like” water. It seemed bland. Tasteless. Meh. But since I had the bottle of water on my desk, I left it there and occasionally reached for it instead of soda. (And I refilled that bottle, instead of taking a new one every time, because it was easier to keep track of how much water I drank, and it gave me a mental boost every time. Stupid? Sure. But effective.)

And here’s the thing: I didn’t choose to not drink soda at those times. That would make it a diet — basically choosing to avoid a negative — and diets are worthless. Diets force you to limit yourself. Drinking water occasionally was a positive choice, and positive choices are always easier because they make us feel good about ourselves.

Self-denial requires willpower. Feeling good about yourself strengthens yourself.

Again, no diets. Just rules.

Over time, I extended the rule to every meal. And since I tend to drink after every bite of food — yet another habit — that meant my soda intake dropped dramatically. Which meant my caffeine intake had dropped dramatically.

Which meant I could drink a lot more water between meals, without getting a headache.

And within about a month — that sounds like a long time, until you compare it to the 40 years when I basically only drank soda — I was down to less than a bottle of soda a day. Now I average half a bottle or so.

That must be good for my health. Even if it wasn’t, I don’t have to worry about soda being available anymore. One less thing to think about? I’m always up for that.

Why didn’t I go cold turkey? That was never the intention. The point was to drink less soda. The rules I made and the habits that came from them made that possible.

Besides, there’s a danger in trying to be “perfect” at anything. Perfection requires a degree of accuracy, focus, and sometimes self-denial that can be extremely difficult to sustain.

However, habits are easy to maintain. Habits do not require perfection. Habits do not require willpower. We just do what we do, often without thinking.

Sometimes that’s a good thing; often this is not the case.

But if you use a rule instead of a diet to change a long-standing behavior, it’s a lot easier to replace a bad habit with a positive one.

Even a habit that was 40 years in the making.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not’s.

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