I’m working on developing a new habit. It’s a very simple one. I’m learning how to clean up after I eat.
For some of us, that’s pretty basic, but as someone who has had ADHD and sensory issues my entire life, my attention gets easily distracted. When my plate is empty or my tummy is full, my brain says “You’re done! Now go do something else.”
And throughout my life, my tendency to prematurely launch to the next task at hand has led to some pretty catastrophic problems.
The Inestimable Damage of a Bad Habit
Too often, I'll get up from the table and start doing other things. I come back to my kitchen for dinner, and look at the counter. Getting ready for dinner now means washing everything related to lunch. I also saw that I'd left the mayo and sandwich meat out. Spoiled($).
Suddenly, getting dinner ready seems huge and overwhelming. I'm angry with myself about leaving the food out. I'm hungry. Looks like dinner is drive-thru.
Then comes the morning. The kitchen mess is worse than yesterday and it’s going to be a busy day: dental appointment, errands, and projects are due. I shrug and we hit Chick-Fil-A ($). No time to deal with things later, either, so it’s going to be an eating out night, too ($$). In the back of my mind, I realize groceries are going to waste ($$).
What Happens Next
I can make this go on for over a week before I have no choice but to take a couple of hours to de-catastrophize my kitchen.
After a few days of this, another problem develops. I’m running out of money. I’m using resources that should be going to other places.
There have been times where a week like this means a couple of months of juggling categories to get things back on track again, including adding late fees onto my bills($).
I can’t even begin to contemplate the amount of food and money I’ve wasted over the years.
For some people, it’s not food, it’s paying the bills, getting to sleep at night, or going to the grocery--or all of the above. It’s amazing how a simple habit that takes 5 minutes can save so much time and stress.
The Way to Change a Habit
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear describes how habits develop.
In our day to day life, we encounter cues--an event that we respond to. In my story above:
my cue, a messy kitchen. A cue triggers a craving--a desire for stress relief. My response--eating out, brings relief, at least temporarily. Relief is the reward.
Cue → Craving → Response → Reward
A habit is formed when the cue happens often and the response brings a strong enough reward.
Those of us struggling with addictions know this cycle well, but every living creature deals with this routine every day.
Habits are generally good things. Having routines in our lives means that we don’t have to devote mental energy to every aspect of our day. It’s just something we do. A habit is a bad thing when our response to the cue is something that doesn’t actually solve the problem, or worse, brings harm.
A Simple and Effective Way to Create a Habit
Developing a new habit or breaking one can be a lot of work. There’s a key principle to understand. You can address the habit at any of the above stages: Cue, Craving, Response, or Reward, but one of the easiest places is at the Cue stage.
If you want to begin a habit, you create a new cue. If you want to break one, you change the cue or make it invisible.
That’s one reason why many choose a residential program for starting their recovery. They remove themselves from their regular life cues that lead to substance use.
Tie a New Cue Something You Already Do on a Regular Basis
One of the biggest challenges with building a new habit is making it happen. James Clear recommends tying a new habit to something that you already do. Studies have found one of the most important factors in developing new habits isn’t motivation, knowledge, or willpower--it’s clarity.
Start with an implementation intention. This is a simple statement that structures what you do:
“When I finish [OLD BEHAVIOR], I will [NEW BEHAVIOR].”
So for me, “When I finish eating, I will put my dishes in the dishwasher.”
You can even do something called “habit stacking.” Habit stacking is creating a chain of behaviors based on this above formula.
“When I finish eating, I will put my dishes in the dishwasher.”
“When I finish putting my dishes in the dishwasher, I will put away my meal prep stuff.”
“When I finish clearing my meal prep stuff, I will wipe down the countertop.”
I know I’m going to eat a meal, so that is the anchor for everything else. I’ve outlined the steps so I don’t have to decide what I’m going to do next. It’s all laid out. I don’t have to think about it anymore.
How Habit-Building Relates to Recovery
Addiction, mental illness, and executive functioning disorders--like my ADHD, go hand-in-hand with each other. They all contribute to difficulties with daily life-functioning. We tend to struggle with getting things done, and we also struggle with keeping things going. We also tend to lean on stress-relief options that don’t really solve the problem.
While you are in treatment, there is a lot of hard work to do. You will be doing a tremendous amount of thinking and emotional processing in therapy. Creating systems like habit stacking for handling the basics lets you put your energy where it belongs--the recovery process.
As you’re preparing to re-enter your life, we work together to understand your cues and figure out how to deal with them so that you can either avoid or reshape the cues that trigger your substance abuse.
But also, learning how to balance the basics sets a good foundation for the rest of your life. Putting routine issues on automatic lowers your stress. You can devote your energy to bigger issues, keeping problems from spiraling out of control.
Spring Gardens Recovery Works with You to Create Your Habit Foundations
That’s why any good recovery program includes real-life skills as part of your treatment plan. Be careful. Some programs only give lip-service to this. At Spring Gardens Recovery, we believe setting up good habits and life skills are an important part of your recovery.