The key to a successful "Dry January"

Salon spoke with the author with the "The Dry Challenge" about the benefits of a one-month sobriety campaign

Published January 1, 2021 5:30PM (EST)

The Dry Challenge by Hilary Sheinbaum (Photo illustration by Salon/Lisa Richov/Harper Collins)
The Dry Challenge by Hilary Sheinbaum (Photo illustration by Salon/Lisa Richov/Harper Collins)

People participate in Dry January, the one-month sobriety campaign, for many reasons. For some, it's a way to reconcile with overindulging in too much alcohol during the holiday season. For others, it forms part of a bigger New Year goal to choose healthier lifestyle habits, or improve one's mental health. Over the last few years, it's become more than a stern prohibitionist campaign, but rather a fun health trend that commences the start of each year.

But giving up drinking alcohol, in a culture that's centered around it, is no easy feat. It takes support from friends and family, discipline, and focus on the benefits, which often extend beyond the sober month, to succeed. One U.K. study showed that the simple act of not drinking for a month made people drink less the following year when they started casually drinking again.

The pandemic has changed people's drinking habits, as I've written about before, for better and worse. Regardless of your habits, you're likely to find ways to make a sober month a fun challenge with friends, rather than a slog, after reading journalist Hilary Sheinbaum's new book, "The Dry Challenge." Here, you'll find prompts, checklists, mocktail recipes, and more to keep you motivated during a sober month.

I spoke with Sheinbaum about her book and the lessons imparted. As always, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What inspired you to write this book?

About four years ago, in December 2016, I went to dinner with a friend in New York City. We caught up about everything — work, family and dating — and because New Years was coming up, we stumbled upon the topic of New Year's resolutions. My friend brought up this idea of Dry January. He explained the benefits and all of those things, but I changed the subject. It didn't appeal to me at all at first. At the time, I was a red carpet reporter and so at night, I would go to the red carpet and I would go to afterparties. Then, during the day, I was primarily freelancing within the food and beverage category.

Although I wasn't drinking at every after party or every night, my nights certainly had an alcohol element to them. My days included research about cocktails, beer and wine. On top of it, I was in my late 20s, in New York City and dating and single. There were just a lot of opportunities to enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail. A week later, it's New Year's Eve. I'm wishing all of my friends via text, Happy New Years, unless they're with me in the room because I was at a party. I wished my friend, Alejandro, a Happy New Year, and I actually initiated a Dry January bet.

The premise of that was that we both would give up wine, beer and alcohol for 31 days, and whoever won the bet would get to basically be taken to dinner by the person who did not succeed. There were no restaurants that were off limits. Long story short at the end of the month, I won the bet. My friend lost. I ended up winning a fancy dinner at a restaurant called Momofuku Ko in New York City's East Village.

Ultimately though, I really won so much more than that, because I realized after 31 days that my skin was clear, and my sleep was infinitely better. I had a lot less anxiety. I was just this ball of energy during the most gloomy, cold, rainy month of the year.

That's amazing.

So I went through this Dry January without a guidebook. I really had no plan either because I made this bet just moments before the ball dropped. But that first Dry January, I learned so much about how to talk to people about what I was doing and answer their sometimes invasive questions. I learned how to schedule events with friends, as silly as it sounds, that didn't involve alcohol, especially in a city like New York. The book is really a guide of how to do a Dry January. Certainly, it answers a lot of questions that were brought up and things that I experienced firsthand and even more, because I've now repeated the same challenge four times and I've done a ton of other sober months in between.

I love how part of your book provides a framework to succeed. I'm curious if you could share more about how you developed it and why this framework will help people have a successful Dry January.

Right. There are a lot of different elements of the book. There are definitely tips and there are worksheets, guides to help people see the differences because I think that on a day to day basis, you might not necessarily, for example, lose five pounds, but over the course of an entire month of not consuming alcoholic beverages, that can range from 105 calories each to 450 each, you're going to see a significant drop if weight lost, for example, is your goal. With that said, there are a number of different tests. For example, you can hide your alcohol, you can give it to a friend to hold onto, or you can literally pour it down the drain if that's going to help you succeed in a sober month.

Obviously, the last one is a bit more controversial. Depending on your other goals, there are statistics and tidbits that I think are very helpful too. For example, I know a lot of the times, especially being a working professional who's super ambitious, I often feel like I don't have enough time to accomplish everything that I want to in a day. One of the statistics that I use is that there's a UK survey that indicates the average adult spends about two years of their lives hung over. That's just the aftermath of drinking.

That's not even the hours that you spend sitting at a bar or sipping a cocktail or transporting to and from where you are, if you're traveling to a destination, it doesn't involve getting ready for a big event or even just to throw on some clothes and go meet your friends. That's literally just the recovery process. When I heard that, for example, I mean, two years of your life, you could get a master's degree, you could run so many marathons, you know what I mean? It just really puts things in perspective. I think that there's a lot of different information and depending on, I think whatever your current lifestyle is and what your goals are in life, there's really an argument for a lot of different people.

I love the worksheets. I thought those were really helpful. It's really powerful pointing out the economic impact of regularly drinking as well, specifically how you talk about even just drinking two or three nights a week for a decade can cost almost between $40,000 and $50,000.

Yeah, which is so much money.

Was it surprising to you to find these surveys and reframe what you lose when you spend all that time drinking?

On one hand, it's just so overwhelming to see it all in one place.


I think that it's no surprise, it's everywhere. We know what the risks of alcohol consumption are between health risks to potential accidents, et cetera, but I think when you see all of these things in one place and it connects with you as a being. If you have student debt that you're trying to pay off and you see a big number like that, you realize that that's where your money is going as well. I just think that all of these things in one place, it's really a powerful thing.

Definitely. I'm curious why you think Dry January has become so popular in the US. As we know, it started in the UK.

Yeah. I think that from my perspective, I feel like Americans are really for New Year's resolutions. I think that we as a country and a culture, get really amped up about upcoming years and making big plans — New Year, new you, starting over. I think that Dry January really embodies a lot of the usual goals that people set for themselves. For example, your Dry January can certainly contribute to losing weight. It can contribute to saving money. It can contribute to living a healthier life and really prioritizing, like I said, the time that you spend doing whatever it is that you want to do, but I also think that... I don't know. It rolls off the tongue too.

It's catchy.

Yes, and the same thing with Sober October, which is gaining in popularity. It might. It's too perfect to be true, but I think that that's a really big reason. I also think that for a variety of reasons, Millennials and Gen Z are certainly consuming less alcohol than previous generations. It makes it easier to give up alcohol for a month.

It seems there's a cultural shift happening around drinking, especially like you said, with Millennials and Gen Z and the younger generations. Do you think that this Dry January will be different because of the year we've had with the pandemic?

It's a great question. I think it's two-fold because on one hand, I've talked to a lot of people who have certainly increased their consumption over the past many months during the pandemic. I think a lot of people are now looking for a resolution that maybe they're not looking to 100-percent give up alcohol for the rest of their lives, but they want to wheel it back to a comfortable place. I think that Dry January is definitely an option to help people do that. I think that in past years, there were definitely more options for activities and things that people could get involved in that weren't based at home and certainly there were just more things that people can do to occupy their time rather than drink.

Then, also on the other hand, while people are consuming more in general, I think that there is a population of people who actually have drank significantly less since the onset of COVID-19 because there are fewer social opportunities.

I don't know what the demographic of this Dry January will be or how many participants, but I think that people are definitely aware of their alcohol consumption, especially this time of year going into the New Year. I hope that my book can serve as a resource and a reference for anybody who's trying it for the first time.

What do you think are the three most important pillars to having a successful Dry January?

Having any kind of support is really helpful. I think it's most helpful if you have somebody who is doing the challenge along with you. Now only can they offer you support, but they can be somebody who can relate to what you're going through— the ups, the downs, the goods. They are also there to plan activities with you if you're sheltering a place with them. Certainly, you can still communicate with them if they aren't within your COVID safe pod.

On that note for me, I really feel like I benefited from having a Dry January that was going on with a friend because it kept me motivated and it kept them motivated. I had something to look forward to at the end, besides all the physical and mental benefits that I reaped. It was certainly a nice little treat at the end. You want to make it fun, right? You want to make this successful for you. Dry January is not here to torture you or make you feel bad, or that sort of thing. It's really about now having a lot of time to wake up on a Sunday morning without a hangover and pursue your to-do list that you've wanted to do, whether that's going on a hike or catching up on a novel that you've been meaning to read or whatever it is. Dry January is really about repurposing the time that you would have spent drinking and certainly all over. That's my second one.

My third, I think I would say is maybe exploring other beverage options. If you find yourself with a full calendar of Zoom happy hours, or even real life events, for whatever reason, obviously at a socially distant and safe proximity, I think it's a wonderful opportunity to really expand your palate and see what else you like. If you're a beer drinker, I would definitely research non-alcoholic beers. They come in a variety of different styles and flavors and the same goes for non-alcoholic wines and non-alcoholic spirits. Even if you're not super crafty in your own kitchen, you don't want to mix your non-alcoholic cocktail. You can opt for ones that are already pre-made.

Certainly now more than ever, there are so many bars and restaurants that have non-alcoholic drinks, mixed drinks, not a tea or a soda, but actual bartender crafted, non-alcoholic cocktails on their menus and is different to non-alcoholic wines and non-alcoholic beers. Younger generations are adapting alcohol-free or alcohol-light lifestyles. I think that businesses are really adapting to those needs and to those customers, and Dry January is a great opportunity to try all of the different things and products out there.

This has happened to me before, while doing Dry January, where it's the middle of the month and I want to cafe or feel peer pressure at an event like a wedding where it's hard to be sober. What's your advice on how to overcome that moment?

I think this is really when your sober-month support squad can be very helpful — chime in and be your cheerleaders. You've basically made it halfway. It's almost over. The other part is that, for me at least, around week two, if not, a little bit sooner is when I already was starting to see some of the really positive changes and that was really motivating to me. Historically, I was a terrible sleeper and living in New York and just having an immense amount of anxiety, I just thought that that was my natural state, like sleeping five hours a night and just waking up in the middle of the night. As it turns out, that is not true. During my first Dry January and ever since, I sleep an average of seven to eight hours a night, which as you know when you get a full night's rest, you feel so much more energetic and positive and happy and everything just is a lot easier.

Obviously, we've had a very difficult and tragic year. If you're having a really terrible day and you slip up and you have a drink or alternatively, if you're celebrating something amazing like a once in a lifetime thing, like an engagement or a wedding, and you decide to have a drink, that is totally 100% okay. My suggestion would just be to call it a one-drink January, and the next day just start again, and end your month as you did the previous 14 days or 13 days or whatever date you're on.

I don't think that one drink is going to completely derail any progress you've made. Certainly having one drink within 31 days is an accomplishment too. I wouldn't freak out about it. I certainly wouldn't say that it's all over, but just keep in mind, you've made it really far. I would say in the worst case scenario, you can always start again, say, on February 1st. Anyway, my point is just don't get down about it. Just pick yourself up and start again. It's totally fine.

Correction: In a previous version, Salon misquoted Sheinbaum. She said "I wouldn't freak out about it" instead of "I wouldn't geek out about it." 

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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