How to Cut Down on Alcohol, Even If You Don't Want to Quit Drinking

There is such a thing as boozing in moderation.
A sink full of beer cans, bottles and snacks. Photo by Bob Foster.
Photo: Bob Foster

When 22-year-old Jake noticed that he was drinking five to six days a week, he initially didn’t see any problem. “Nights out would make up probably two of those days, and the rest would be the odd pint at the pub or can from the fridge at dinner,” says Jake, who asked to remain anonymous for fears of not being able to get a job.

He'd just finished uni, so for him this level of drinking was pretty normal. “We used to regularly neck whole bottles of wine in first year,” he says. But after noticing that he was feeling regularly low and fatigued, he decided it was time to cut down. 


Jake’s story isn’t uncommon. 24 percent of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the recommended guidelines and 27 percent report binge-drinking on their heaviest drinking days. But those numbers don’t mean that those same people are hugely concerned, or planning on quitting. 

For many social drinkers like Jake, going sober isn’t necessarily what they want to do immediately – drinking occasionally might be a fun part of hanging out with their mates. But they also don't want to get absolutely black-out or end up destroying their health. 

So is it possible to reach a happy medium? Probably not if you consider yourself an alcoholic – in which case going sober is probably your best course of action. But for everyone else? Here are some tips on cutting down. 

Stop people pleasing!

After getting called “boring” approximately seven times, it might feel easier to just have those five drinks after work before deciding to DM your most fanciable friend that he “looks a bit like Brad Pitt in The Big Short but in a sexy way”. But people pleasing often just results in you doing things you didn't want to in the first place – including getting on it. 

Rosamund Dean, Grazia editor and author of Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, describes herself as a lifelong people pleaser and said it had a knock-on effect on her drinking.


“One of the biggest reasons for young people [drinking] is their social life,” she says. “I know all too well the feeling of trying to have an alcohol-free evening, then a friend says: ‘Come on, it’s my birthday!’ You’re much less likely to veer off course if you have a proper plan in mind.” 

In other words, ask yourself if what you're doing is actually what you want to be doing or what someone else wants you to do. If it’s the latter, then skip it. But if you do end up going out then…

Set yourself a drinking limit and stick to it

Waking up with a violent urge to vomit and your phone battery on three percent is a solid indicator that you can’t say the precise amount you drank last night. Professor Mark McDermott, a lecturer at the University of East London and an expert in health promotion and behaviour, says that formulating a plan before a night out is really important when it comes to cutting down. 

“This means creating a strategy: specifying when, where and how much you will be reducing your drinking,” he explains. “It could involve being selective about specific events where you allow yourself to drink a pre-specified number of drinks, such as birthdays and key events. This will help reduce casual binge-drinking.” 

Learning about alcohol units is an easy way to stick to a limit. “Knowing your measurements and units will allow you to keep track of how much you’re consuming in one sitting or week,” explains McDermott. “Try to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread across three days or more.” For context, 14 units is about six pints – so it’s not all bad!


Find an alcohol-free drink you actually like

Sometimes, we just want the “vibe” of drinking. You can actually achieve that with non-alcoholic drinks. So cutting down could be a perfect opportunity to embrace the fact that Shloer actually tastes way better than real wine… even if the last time you drank it was on New Years' Eve at age eight (yes, this was the first time I pretended to be drunk). 

Dean says that finding an alcohol-free alternative that you genuinely like is a great way to break the pattern of heavy drinking. “There are so many more options now than the days where, if you weren’t drinking, your only choice was a tepid orange juice or bleak watered-down Coke,” she says. 

“So check out what drinks are available at your planned venue before you get there. If you know they do a nice kombucha or botanical soda in advance, you’re less likely to panic at the bar and order a beer out of habit.”

Ask yourself if you're drinking out of boredom

As lockdown taught many of us, it's easy to drink when it feels like there's shit all else to do. But we're not in lockdown anymore, baby! There are other things you can do to pass the time instead. There’s a whole world out there!

Addiction specialist, CEO of Burning Tree Programmes and recovered addict Peter Piraino says it can be helpful to ask yourself if you’re drinking simply because you can’t be bothered to plan anything else. “Often times, alcohol can be used as a time killer,” he says. “If alcohol is not negatively impacting your life but you would like to reduce your consumption, I would recommend seeking other activities aside from drinking which bring you joy.” 


So instead of going to the pub on a Sunday as default, do something weird and unexpected (paddleboarding? Petting baby goats?). It might be more fun than sitting in one spot and filling your body with liquid.

Go easy on the pre-drinking

Pre-drinking is obviously very tempting, especially when you realise that a glass of shitty Chardonnay at the pub is the same price as an entire bottle from Aldi. But if you want to cut down, pre-drinking less is an easy way to do that. Arriving to the function completely off your face isn't a huge vibe, anyway. 

“It is not recommended to load up before you go out with pre-drinks,” adds McDermott, “And never drink on an empty stomach – this will slow the way your body absorbs the alcohol.” So yeah, have a proper meal before you go out if you don't want to risk slurring your words after three glasses. 

Be mindful of your friends’ drinking habits

You probably have mates who will be fine and normal about you cutting back. But chances are you’ve also got that one friend who won’t be satisfied until you perform “Love Is a Losing Game” for the entire beer garden. This can make social situations tricky to navigate – so be picky about where you go, what you do and who with. 

“You probably have friends who would happily join you for a booze-free brunch,” says Dean. “So would your friends be up for meeting for a walk, a yoga class or a mooch round a gallery rather than always going to the pub?” 


Dean adds that you don't have to cut out your big drinker mates though. There are ways around it. “We all have hardcore friends who only want to drink,” he says. “If you want to keep them in your life, then do the stealth option: When it’s your round, get a tonic and pretend there's gin in it. Or get a bottle of wine with dinner – they’ll drink most of it without even realising.”

Remind yourself how shitty alcohol can make you feel

Having a couple of drinks can be fun. But having so many that you wake up feeling like your body is literally decomposing from the inside out is not fun at all. And no one likes that hangover dread where you're sure that everyone secretly thinks you're a freak and hates you. Not drinking so much means that you actually feel good. It's magical!

McDermott says that regularly overdoing it can have serious implications for your mental wellbeing. “It is important to realise that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant – in moderation, it can help with being relaxed in social interactions. In excess it can render an individual unconscious,” he explains. “The amount you drink will impact your physical and mental health, so it is vital to be mindful of how much you consume.”

Don't beat yourself up if you slip up

We'd all love to be the type of person who rises at 6AM, drinks kombucha, quickly writes a book and then goes for a refreshing hike – all before midday – but for most of us that's not realistic. So if you wake up after a night of knocking back tequilas and behaving like a goblin, you don't need to make it worse by drowning in self resentment. Shit happens and we move. 

“If you drink more than you planned to and wake up with a hangover, it’s so easy to feel defeated, as if alcohol has won,” says Dean. “But just remember that those evenings happen to us all and see them as an opportunity to learn your triggers – so that you can better deal with them in the future.”