By Haley Kennedy, Recovery Coach – 9.10.2021 – “Your life does not get better by chance; it gets better by change.” — Jim Rohn
Recovery means taking our lives back and although it is challenging, with knowledge, commitment and support we learn to replace our old destructive habits with new, healthier ones.
I think we can all agree that change is tough; it’s difficult to stop doing the same things we’ve always done, simply because we’ve always done them. But routine is the most powerful tool to reinforce habits. The more regularly we do something, the more likely we are to stick with it over time. Considering it takes 21 days (about 3 weeks) to create a new habit and 90 days (about 3 months) to make it a permanent lifestyle change, remember: repetition, repetition, repetition.
“You cannot change your future, but you can change your habits and surely your habits will change your future.” — Dr. Abdul Kalam
Habits are formed and maintained through a repetitive pattern referred to as a “habit loop” that consists of three steps:
— a cue: trigger/event that prompts us to initiate the habitual behavior
— the routine: the habit itself
— the reward: the benefit or pleasure we gain from doing the behavior
The first step towards developing healthy habits is knowing which areas need improvement – what maladaptive behaviors did you previously engage in/are you currently engaging in? For those in early recovery, some of these behaviors are obvious — drinking to the point of blacking out on a near-nightly basis, overdosing on heroin, stealing prescription medication from grandma’s medicine cabinet… These are all habitual behaviors that no longer suit us. Dig a little deeper and focus on things that are more specific to you. Do you tend to fall back on unhealthy habits whenever you have a bad day? In order to change bad habits, we must identify what they are and why they developed in the first place. If you tend to use a substance when you’re upset, ask yourself why; chances are you turn to substances as an unhealthy coping mechanism in hopes of eliminating (or at least forgetting about) uncomfortable feelings. Eventually the “coping skill” of substance use turns our priorities upside-down making it challenging to function day to day. Building healthy habits can truly transform our quality of life: ensuring we’re focused on the future and keeping us fortified against possible triggers.
It’s essential to remember our “why” (the reason we keep working on building a better life) while making small changes on a daily or weekly basis because it is what will keep us going even if/when we experience setbacks. Think about the big picture — where you are today, where you would like to be in the future, and why that shift is important to you. Create a vision for your ideal life and write it down in words, with doodles, or in any other form of expression. Putting goals down on paper helps us to envision our future and becomes a great reference tool during trying times. Visualize achieving the goals. What it will feel like, look like, sound like.
We might feel that our vision for our lives is grandiose, humble, or both. Growth is a process — start simple and work up to bigger things; think of the smaller, more humble achievements as kindling for the metaphorical fire. Eventually, we can take a moment to look back on where we came from and acknowledge our growth as we’ve completed some of those smaller goals and get a needed boost of
motivation to tackle the more significant ones. Start with where you are today and decide ONE small goal to get you ONE step closer to your vision. For example, instead of going to the bar after work try an alternative like taking a yoga class or going to the gym. Continue to write down goals as you move forward and focus on those incremental improvements to avoid getting overwhelmed. Throughout the goal writing process, be honest with yourself about what you want and why; bonus — this is a great way to lay a foundation for integrity as well. Then take a look before you start implementing changes to make sure you have realistic expectations. Is your goal a challenge yet achievable? Do you have the time and resources needed to achieve your goal? If not, where can you get help? Will it be easier to stay on track if you have someone to hold you accountable? An example of unhealthy habits that work against our efforts in creating healthier ones are lack of sleep, stress, and an inactive lifestyle; with a conscious awareness we can see where we might face a setback. If that happens, instead of giving up — recognize it, give yourself grace, and get back on track. Any “failure” is a teachable moment; go into it with compassion and self-respect.
Now, we want to create routines, instead of relying on willpower, to support us in achieving our goal. The idea is to set up routines that make it easy to say “yes” to the healthy choices and “no” to the unhealthy. Are there certain times of day or circumstances when we’re more likely to give in to the habit we’re trying to change? Take the example of the person who stops by their favorite bar after work and drinks in excess… Rather than driving past the bar and forcing themselves to resist the urge to stop for “just one,” it would be easier to simply take a different route home from work.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” — Socrates
Often, merely stopping an old habit won’t be enough to quit it forever, that’s why we focus on replacing it with a new one. Like, someone going straight home instead of to the bar after work… this person could go to a yoga class instead, or the gym, or a poetry reading, or an art class… Whatever activity you choose to replace the old habit, make sure it is the kind of healthy fun that you personally enjoy.
If you have a lapse in judgment or give in to a craving (which is likely to happen, at least once) quickly forgive yourself and return to your healthy habits. Lack of willpower, especially when tired, hungry, or stressed, doesn’t mean we’re weak; it means we’re human. We might fall down, but we don’t have to stay down. Every day we will face the choice to continue in the right direction or abandon the course. It’s easy to decide that we’re going to overcome our substance use, especially in the beginning when we have a strong desire to fight through withdrawal and any discomfort we feel. But the real challenge comes when our motivation decreases. We have tools in the toolbox we can depend on — asking for help will always increase our likelihood of success. Again, getting help doesn’t equal weakness — it merely means we recognize when a job would be easier with another set of hands. By reaching out for help — from a friend, a sponsor, a therapist, a treatment program — we’re more likely to achieve our immediate goal and pursue our next destination.
Eventually one day you’ll notice you have arrived; you continued to set and accomplish smaller goals until you achieved the big picture you were ultimately after.