At every age and every stage of life, a good routine is beneficial, if not outright necessary, to our overall health and happiness. By embracing a routine, we make the time we need to handle all the tasks of daily life as well as devote ourselves to taking care of our physical and mental wellbeing.
Without routine, we can begin to feel overwhelmed and out of control. This is especially true for those struggling with mental health conditions like depression, or traumatic stress disorder, as well as substance use disorder.
Studies have shown that daily routine can help to alleviate bipolar disorder, ease anxiety, ward off burnout, and prevent substance abuse and relapses. In short, those who create positive habits and routines are in the best position possible to make healthy life choices.
Routine and Recovery
It cannot be over stressed that a healthy routine is essential in recovery.
While attempting to embrace a totally new lifestyle, a routine offers stability, predictability, and reduces things like boredom. When our days and weeks are structured we gain a sense of purpose. A routine is a reliable tool to keep from falling in to old patterns and habits.
There are many benefits to having a routine in recovery.
- Gaining a sense of purpose
- Being better prepared for the unexpected and stressful
- Improved self-esteem
- Avoiding boredom
- Ensuring self-care
Some of the things that should be included when establishing a new routine are
- Sleep and wake consistency
- Planning for healthy meals
- Daily exercise
- Personal hygiene
- Work and/or school
- Recovery work and support
- Engaging in supportive social activities
- Making time for hobbies and interests (or learning new ones)
You may have family – spouses, children, parents – who need to be included in your routine.
Knowing the kinds of behaviors you want to have is a great start, yet requires repetition to truly implement.
We all know that habits can be hard to gain and hard to lose. This lies not only in the will but also in our brains. There is a real neurological component to habit creation.
Repetition creates strong connections between neurons. These connections are fundamental to forming a habit. Unfortunately, creating these pathways isn’t easy, especially as we get older.
When we are committed to improving our lives, we may become very determined, give ourselves a stern talking to, and dive into the new behavior we want to embrace – only to find ourselves going back to the way things were in short order.
This is not due to a lack of motivation or a deficit of willpower. The most motivated among us can struggle to form a new habit. The simple fact is that we often peter out before the neural pathways are firmly established.
This is where Habit Stacking can help.
What is Habit Stacking?
Most people have habits that they don’t even think about – things like: shower daily, brush our teeth, unload the dishwasher, or open the curtains.
We generally do these things without conscious thought. We wake up, head to the kitchen, and make a cup of tea or coffee. It’s not planned, or mulled over, or decided new each morning – it just is.
Habit stacking is taking one of the habits we already possess and “stacking” a new one on it. With this approach, we don’t have to develop the neuro pathways from scratch – instead we piggyback them. This gives us the advantage of using an existing pathway and putting us ahead of the game.
Some examples of how this might look are:
- If I have a morning coffee habit – I get my morning coffee THEN I will drink it while I pray, meditate, or journal
- If setting my alarm before bed is a habit – I set my morning alarm THEN I will gather any laundry and put it in the hamper
No matter the part of the routine that we are working on, there is likely a habit already in place to attach it to.
But what if there isn’t? For some in recovery, the old way was completely chaotic and there was no real routine or good habit to build on.
That’s okay! There are other things we can use to stack habits on. We can also associate habits with things that happen to us or are apart from us as well. Some examples of those might be the sun setting, weekly trash pick-up, the cat insisting she be fed at sunrise, or our phone chiming.
Like with Like
Choosing the right cue is essential. In our examples, above, we can see the connection between setting our alarm at night and picking up our clothes. We have just undressed. We are in our room. It makes sense to stack this habit here.
Habits that aren’t done daily can be stacked, too. If we want to clean out the refrigerator weekly, we may stack that onto taking the trash to the curb each week. The trigger is logical – there may be food that needs to be disposed of that we don’t want sitting in the trash can for a week and trash pickup occurs at the frequency we wish to clean out our refrigerator. If we add cleaning the fridge to taking the trash to the curb, we are ahead of the game with creating the habit.
As long as we attach a new habit with an established cue with the same frequency and a logical connection, we can succeed in making the changes we want to make.
Success Builds on Success
There are many ways to apply this strategy. The simplest way to do this, is by creating a list of your habits and another list of those things that occur outside of you (like sunrise or weekly trash pick-up.) When you want to establish new habits, use these lists to determine where best to stack them. Then you can make a note of your plan:
“When I [old habit], I will [new habit.]”
Once we master this basic formula, we can chain together multiple smaller habits, allowing us to use the momentum we gain to our advantage. Linking several habits together becomes a routine.
- Once I get my morning coffee, I will journal at my desk
- When I finish journaling, I will look through the mail and sort out any bills
- Once sorted, I will pay the bills
- After I pay any bills, I will look at my calendar and write out my to-do list
- After I make the list, will start with my first task for the day.
What started as a simple habit – getting a cup of coffee – can be transformed into a useful routine that can assist us with being productive and having clear direction for our days.
We can stack on the stacks and establish multiple habit chains: morning, afternoon, and evening, as well as weekend, weekly, and so on. Step by step, these stacks, these chains, become a routine that we thrive on.
Habit Stacking, especially when it leads to routine, benefits everyone, and it can be a real advantage for those seeking healing in the face of substance abuse or mental health disorders. Think about what habits you want your clients to stack or that you want to add to your daily routine. Things like exercise, attending self-support meetings, talking to a sponsor , practicing a daily grateful list, and being of service are all estimable acts as one navigates recovery
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health or addiction issues, reach out today. Help is always available.