How To Set Goals Around Alcohol: Tips From a Ria Health Coach

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When attempting any kind of change within our lives, planning and self-reflection at the start of the process goes a long way. Making a change in your alcohol use is no different. Whether you drink heavily every day and want to quit outright, or you simply want to cut back on alcohol, reflecting on where you want to be—and how you’ll get there—is essential.

Below is a quick guide to setting recovery goals around alcohol, including how to identify what matters most to you, what approach will be most effective, and the smaller steps you can take along the way. We’ll also look at goal setting if you fall into the category of sober curious, and want to re-evaluate where alcohol fits in your life. 

What Is Goal Setting, and Why Is It So Important?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “goal setting” is defined as: 

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“The process of deciding what you want to achieve or what you want someone else to achieve over a particular period.”1

Making a decision about what you want to achieve sounds simple enough. However, when you begin to process your options, it can feel uncomfortable, or even overwhelming. This uncomfortable feeling we experience when faced with a change in thought, belief, or attitude is called “cognitive dissonance.”2 

Sometimes, we simply stop there, naturally feeling pulled toward our “comfort zone.” Due to cognitive dissonance, we may not even complete the work of goal setting. This can lead to us remaining “stuck” in unhealthy habits and processes.

However, if you can acknowledge the cognitive dissonance and seek support, it’s possible to move through the process of building internal motivation, and feel more confident both setting and meeting your goals. 

By identifying your recovery goals, you’ll have a clearer picture of what you want and need to accomplish in the big picture, as well as step-by-step along the way. This is crucial, because reaching one’s goals around drinking is a PROCESS and not a single EVENT. Simply put, it takes time. 

Which Goals Are Best for You?

Each person’s goals are unique, based on their own individual needs. For example, you may find yourself wondering:

  • Should I stop drinking completely, cold turkey? 
  • Should I taper slowly toward abstinence? 
  • Should I apply moderation and simply drink less in amount and frequency (i.e., only on special occasions)? 

There are no “shoulds” when it comes to goal setting in recovery. But it is beneficial to process and brainstorm what you’d like to accomplish around your drinking, and the role alcohol will play in your life. Here, the use of “SMART goals” is recommended to figure out what will work best for you.

SMART stands for:

  • Specific: Define your goal, use action words (i.e., who, what, where, and why), be intentional with the details, and write these down.
  • Measurable: Reflect on patterns and track your progress. Measurements can be done numerically, or via other forms of data to evaluate your growth. 
  • Achievable: Set yourself up for success by committing to do what is within your ability to do. Set small goals that are possible to accomplish to avoid overwhelming yourself with unrealistic expectations.  
  • Relevant: Make sure your goals align with your beliefs and values, and that it is something important to you that you want to achieve for yourself.  
  • Time-Bound: Give yourself a timeframe to accomplish your goal. Be careful to give yourself enough time, but not so much that you lose your motivation in the process. 

Applying these “SMART” principles will help you set attainable recovery goals that work within your individual life.

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Setting Long-Term Goals Around Alcohol

It’s beneficial to set both long-term goals for the time period of your choosing, and short-term goals along the way to help you reach them. 

In setting long-term goals, you may find it helpful to ask yourself:

  • What do I want my relationship with alcohol to look like in one year?
  • Where would I like to see myself with my drinking in one year?
  • What role would I like alcohol to play in my life, ideally? 

Once you are able to clarify your needs and wants in this area (considering the SMART principles while doing so), you can set your long-term recovery goals. It can be helpful to write these questions and answers down, and process them with another person whom you trust. 

Setting Short-Term Reduction Goals

As mentioned above, setting short-term goals is a necessary part of meeting long-term goals. These are the “baby steps” you will take toward where you want to be. These can take place over days, weeks, and even months, and are typically about reduction of some sort.

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While all of the SMART principles outlined above can be useful here, the achievable and relevant aspects are especially vital. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How quickly or slowly do I want to cut back? 
  • How much do I want to drink each day/week?
  • What are my ideal numbers regarding how many days I drink, and the amount I consume?

Some examples of recovery goals for the short term include:

  • Reducing the AMOUNT one drinks: “I will have no more than 4 standard units of alcohol during any drinking episode.”
  • Reducing the FREQUENCY one drinks: “I will have at least 3 alcohol-free days over the next week,” or “Over this next week I will not have my first unit of alcohol until after 6 pm and until after I have eaten dinner each day.”
  • Reducing HARMFUL BEHAVIORS that result from one’s drinking: “I will give my car keys to a friend or relative whenever I drink any alcohol, and no longer drive when I’ve been drinking—even if I’m only buzzed.”

These are just a few examples of useful alcohol reduction goals. However, make sure to track your own patterns, be transparent about them, and reflect on what will work best for you. You should also ask for feedback and support in setting and reaching your short-term goals—before and during the process of attempting them.  

Setting Sobriety Goals

If you are aiming for complete sobriety, you’ll want to set goals that support total abstinence from alcohol. Aiming for certain milestones (one week sober, one month sober, three months sober, day by day, etc.) and celebrating them in a special way can be helpful. You could also set a certain ‘deadline’ for being totally sober (such as a particular date/event/holiday).

Another way to set useful sobriety goals is to link them to specific events or situations that are meaningful to you. Ask yourself:

  • What are some things I’d like to be able to do while sober? (e.g., attending a wedding, vacation, or special event without drinking). Set a goal around an upcoming event like this, and reward yourself for staying alcohol-free during it.
  • What are some things I would like to get better at in sobriety? (e.g., improved communication with others, better productivity at work, being more present with my children, etc.) Set a goal within a specific time frame, or with certain individuals, that lets you measure your improvement at one of these skills.

Finally, finding your “why” in your decision to quit—including both internal and external motivations—is especially useful. This can serve as a catalyst for honing in on your recovery goals in general.

Setting Mindful Drinking Goals

What if you do not have an alcohol use disorder, but want to improve your relationship with alcohol nonetheless? It is certainly possible to set goals here as well. Try to focus on your behaviors around alcohol, what triggers you to drink, and how these things integrate with one another. Based on this, can you identify specific things you’d like to do differently?

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For those who consider themselves sober curious, or who simply want more awareness around their drinking, understanding and then applying mindfulness around alcohol use is helpful. Mindful drinking can include: 

  • Consuming your beverage more slowly
  • Limiting yourself to one drink per hour
  • Alternating with water or other nonalcoholic drinks 

An example of goal setting in this case could therefore be:

“I will alternate every alcoholic drink I have with water, and have only one alcoholic drink per hour, with no more than 3 drinks on any occasion, over the next month.”

Ultimately, assessing your relationship with alcohol and the role it plays in your life is helpful in and of itself. Completing a cost/benefit analysis (or a pros/cons list) can be useful too. You could compare your current drinking patterns and their impacts on your life vs. reducing or eliminating alcohol for a period of time. 

Support For Sticking With Your Recovery Goals

In closing, effective goal setting in recovery makes a huge difference in achieving change. The clearer you are about where you want to be, and the details of how you’ll get there, the easier it will be to stick with quitting or drinking less.

However, it’s important to recognize that the goal setting process is much more effective and thorough when done with healthy support. At Ria Health, our recovery coaches provide focused support on goal setting, and also act as your ally throughout the process of change. If you’re struggling to cut back on your own, book a call with one of our counselors to learn how we can help you along your journey.  

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Written By:
Kerri J. Reyes, MPH, LCDC
Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, Master's of Social and Behavioral Public Health and Bachelor's in Sociology. United States Air Force veteran with a cumulative 18 years experience in the behavioral health and addiction treatment field. Skilled and experienced with motivational interviewing, harm reduction, MAT, and person-centered approaches. Passionate about meeting people 'where they are' via providing education, advocacy, autonomy, and a safe space for exploring the same.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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