5 full weekends. The best college football bowl games. The NFL playoffs. I really enjoy a good winter beer. Dallas culture is basically based around drinking...
The list could probably go on and on but these were all things I didn't fully consider when I decided to do this thing called Dry January - a.k.a. no booze for a whole month. Like most people, I went on the December holiday bender, so I figured my body could use a little detox. If there's one month for such an audacious and utterly heroic undertaking, January seemed to be as good as it gets…it's cold outside, there's not much going on, everyone is coming off the holiday hangover and motivated to get a good start to the new year. It made a lot of sense so I figured I'd give it a shot.
There were moments of struggle but I made it...all 31 days. Just a guess, but I'd probably equate the feeling of accomplishment to reaching the summit of Mt. Everest.
Was it difficult? Not really…once you get past the first 29 days the rest is a breeze.
Wasn't it boring? I'd say one especially terrifying version of Hell would be spending eternity as the only sober person in a world full of drunk people.
Glad its over? Yeah, but I'm very glad I did it. Of course there are the obvious reasons why it was beneficial, but this is going to be about exploring some of the non-obvious stuff.
I'll start off by acknowledging that drinking on the weekends is something I've done with fairly regular frequency for roughly a third of my life. For the better part of my adulthood, it has been a regular hobby of mine, or maybe better put, something like a social habit.
Habits (i.e. doing things on a regular basis without really thinking about it) are kind of weird. Weird because once they're set, they're sort of a part of your identity. Most of the time it's just small stuff. For instance, I identify as a teeth-brusher, therefore I don't have an internal debate with myself every morning about whether or not I'm going to do it. I just go on auto-pilot because long ago it was imprinted as something I do. A lot of things we do are like this, which makes sense because we didn't evolve to sweat the small stuff. We had to focus on important things like hunting down a buffalo for lunch or responding to a text without sounding like an idiot.
We're all vaguely aware that we have certain habits and we probably think we understand their cause/effect relationship (i.e. good habits are good for us, bad habits are bad, neutral habits are…neutral). The problem is that it's often not that simple. Obviously bad habits have bad consequences and we should try to limit them, but what if the habits that we think are neutral (or even good), actually have insidious side-effects that we're not fully aware of?
Example - for basically my entire life, I consumed at least 1 glass of milk per day (with cereal, in a protein shake, as a drink with dinner, etc.). I drank milk because I thought it tasted pretty good. I drank milk because the dairy industry led me to believe it was healthy/important for bones and muscle growth.
But probably more than any other reason, I drank milk simply because it was something I had always done. My dad always drank milk so I always drank milk. It was just one of those habits that I didn't really give much thought to.
Also for pretty much my entire life, I suffered from chronic sinus congestion. When I was young I went to the Allergist and they rubbed a bunch of weeds all over my back to test what I was allergic to. Shockingly, my body broke out in reactions. "Yep, just as we suspected…you've got seasonal allergies. Yikes, looks like all the seasons actually. We really recommend you come back here and get an allergy shot every few days, but here's an anti-histamine that you need to take every single day for the rest of your life. It should help a bit but basically you're just gonna have to deal with it." And 5 year old me was like, "Oh okay, well this seems pretty shitty…but such is life!" And that was that.
Flash forward to a few years ago - after experiencing some digestive issues post-college, I began experimenting with my diet in an attempt to alleviate some of my symptoms. I saw mostly marginal improvements as I tried reducing things like grains, sugar, and processed foods. Then I got to dairy. Between milk, cheese, and ice cream, it was a true staple in my diet. And for good reason:
Fact #1: All the best foods have cheese in them
Fact #2: Bones that don't receive daily milk is where chalk comes from
Fact #3: Cookies.
Begrudgingly, I started slowly reducing dairy from my diet. It was hard and I was not very good about sticking to it…until I started seeing some results. In terms of digestion, my body seemed to be feeling and working better. The real surprise though (which took me a little while to connect the dots), was that my sinuses seemed to be clearing up. I wasn't sure if it was because I was consuming less dairy or if it was just a coincidental relief in my "seasonal" allergies, but I felt like I was on to something. I pushed the accelerator a little harder and completely cut every type of dairy for 2 full weeks without exception. I felt great. And I continued to feel great as I kept going after that.
There's no doubt it sucked at first. Temptation's a bitch and I'm not saying I have anything close to control over it, but I am at least more aware of what it does to me. That's an important revelation. I now know that among other things, no dairy = less "allergies" = less congestion = better breathing = better sleep = more energy = higher quality of life. That's a powerful chain of effects and pretty strong motivation.
So limited dairy. At first it was inconceivable. Then it was inconvenient. Now it's one of the best decisions I've ever made regarding my overall health.
Here's the point - habits need to be questioned and evaluated from time to time. If it wasn't for temporarily axing a habit that I considered healthy, I would have never discovered that it was actually a root cause of a variety of health issues. This isn't a dairy smear campaign, but it turns out the hormone-laden calorie bomb that transforms 80 lb. baby cows into the size of smart cars in less than a year does weird things to some people. In hindsight it seems obvious to me, but for a variety of reason it just wasn't.
So towards the end of 2015 I was doing a lot of thinking about this kind of stuff. What other habits do I have in my life that could be influencing major aspects of how I feel? What are some comfort zones that I'm stuck in that are preventing me from growing? Why do I do some of the things that I do? *Knock on wood* things are going very well for me but I think life should be about constantly finding ways to make it even better. I decided that 2016 was going to be about shaking things up a little bit…making some "rogue moves" if you will. There was the big stuff: leaving a very cushy job, embarking on a wacky entrepreneurial endeavor, and likely going back to school later this year to completely change the trajectory of my career. However, I also wanted to do some smaller scale things that would hopefully challenge me in less obvious ways. Maybe I would discover some other harmful habits that I didn't realize I had or maybe I would just build some new beneficial ones.
So back to the point of this post...old Dry January. Basically January was the first of 12 month-long personal challenges that I'm committing myself to. It was a great one to start with and I'll highlight some of the things I learned in Part 2 (this is already a bit long). Tomorrow will be Day 1 of Veggie February - a grueling month-long experiment with going vegetarian. Next up will be Meditative March. The rest of the year isn't set in stone but I have a number of other potential ideas (they won't all be so hippy…though hopefully I can continue coming up with some sweet names).
Anyway, this is where I'm going to end Part 1 of this post. If you've made it this far you obviously have some interest in health, self-improvement, or like me, you just have some time on your hands. In any case, I want to challenge you to take an introspective look at your life and think about something you could do this upcoming month (just 29 days) that might have a beneficial impact. Start small - it's not a resolution and it's not about deprivation. It's just a short-term experiment which may or may not work out. I found that detaching from it in that way makes it much easier. Veggie February made sense for me but if that's not your thing there's roughly a million alternatives you could try. If you want some ideas I started a google doc here (feel free to add to it). If you decide to do a month-long challenge, tell people about it…it helps. Good luck and let me know how it goes!