While it is widely accepted that substance use disorders and behavioral addictions are complex psychosocial/spiritual conditions and not just bad habits, I believe that incorporating insights from the highly studied topic of habit change can be a boon for anyone desiring recovery.

In earlier blogs we examined the habit loop: cue, trigger, craving, response, reward. In Atomic Habits, author James Clear breaks each component of the loop into digestible pieces and gives specific ideas for leveraging the achievement of maintaining a desired habit.

Make It Easy

The 3rd law of habit change speaks to the response phase: make it Easy. Just as all recovery programs emphasize the importance of changing persons, places, and things, Clear agrees that you cannot overrate the impact of one’s environment in the creation and maintenance of any desired habit.

If you want to stop eating junk food, make it easy and keep it out of the house. Out of the car. Out of your office. If you want to stop drinking alcohol, make it easier and keep it out of your home (if possible).

Change Your Routine

Change your route if driving past a certain stop is a trigger. I recall a patient from southwest Virginia who told me on payday that he could stop at 40 places on his way home to spend his entire paycheck on pills! Which he often did prior to his accelerated opioid detox* at the Coleman Institute.

One patient told me she really struggled with fixing dinner when she stopped drinking because that’s when she would open her first bottle of merlot, turn up the tunes, and “sink into the drink” while cooking. Her way of dealing with this for several months was to pick up healthy, prepared meals, and just stop cooking. She even chose to stop listening to certain songs because of the strong triggers they evoked. In short, she changed her routine and her environment.

Twelve step meetings abound at happy hour. Find one that’s convenient for you and before you get home, give yourself the chance to unwind and be with others who share the same goals for sobriety. You don’t have to love every meeting you go to; it can suffice as another notch in the not-drinking/using belt.


Creating the Desired Outcome

Clear distinguishes behaviors that will create an outcome with behaviors that become mired in preparation, the difference between being in motion and being in action.

While I am a staunch believer in utilizing all appropriate tools to assist in developing coping skills when a person releases their grip on an addictive substance or behavior that has delivered them from anxiety, depression, loneliness and other kinds of suffering, I frequently see patients who have read all the literature about substance use disorder and can describe pharmaceuticals like a walking Physician’s Desk Reference. Many have gone — and then discounted — recovery meetings for various reasons. They love the planning, strategy, and talking about not using or drinking, aka motion behavior, but they are short on the action side of behavior.

Implicit in creating a new habit is actually doing it. You need to get your reps in; you need to actually not drink or not use.

Make Drinking/Using Difficult

The inverse of law 3 to extinguish an unwanted behavior is: make it Difficult. How can you make drinking/using difficult in your own life?

Several of my patients have been ‘helped’ with this by being required to have car breathalyzers attached to their vehicles, or being required to show up at a moments notice for a urine drug screen with serious consequences for a dirty specimen. If you haven’t experienced legal issues, what about committing to a daily check in with a sponsor, a partner, or a friend? Just as you find ways to make not-drinking or using easy, consider actions that will make the same behaviors difficult.

As a new habit becomes more and more internalized, one moves from simply having the goal of changing a habit, to actually changing their very identity. From “I will not drink for 90 days” to “I am a person in recovery”. Over and over again in my many years as a medical addiction professional, I have been privileged to witness extraordinary outcomes for people who have chosen the opportunities inherent in a life of sobriety.

If you are exhausted from being in the motion phase of your addiction and are ready to proceed to the action phase, give us a call at 877-773-3869. Our outpatient detox services are available 365 days a year.

This is the fourth post of a five-part series. Check out the other posts in this blog series here.
PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 5

Joan R. Shepherd, FNP


*An accelerated opioid detox can help a person get off oxycodone products, hydrocodone products, hydromorphone, fentanyl, kratom, heroin, methadone, or buprenorphine, to name several.