Although author James Clear makes it, well, clear—that addiction is not just someone’s “bad habit”, I think it totally makes sense for people in recovery to utilize some of the concepts he captures in his best selling book, Atomic Habits.

Clear has taken the topic of habit creation, broken it down to bite-sized pieces, and gives discrete suggestions for any of us attempting to create a good habit or eliminate a bad one.

3 Tiers to Habit Formation

A profound concept introduced early on in his book is the idea of a 3-tiered awareness of new habit formation. The first level is to simply aspire to reaching a goal such as I will run a half marathon. The goal is clearly stated. Actions to follow can easily be applied to achieving it.

The second, deeper level is to change systems. This involves carefully scrutinizing one’s current habitual behavior, then re-organizing, re-arranging, re-structuring the environment to achieve success toward the achievement of the goal. So, for running a half marathon, the systems changes may include:

  • having two pairs of excellent training shoes
  • committing to a running partner
  • keeping the shoes, socks, and other running necessities prepped and ready at all times
  • having great music or podcasts saved just for the runs
But it is the third and deepest layer of habit formation that caused me to think about my patients, acquaintances, friends, and family who are in recovery. This deepest level of habit formation comes when the identity itself is changed. Now, instead of the goal being to run a half marathon with all the systems intact—at this deeper level, the person thinks of himself as a runner.


Habit Can Become Addiction

When does a person in recovery cross this rather magical line? From my perspective, it is different for everyone. All people who have a substance use disorder, whether to opioids, alcohol, cocaine, pot, benzos—or a behavioral addiction, have unique stories and paths. These behaviors and substances allowed people to escape the suffering of anxiety, depression, boredom, and various levels of traumatic experiences, at least until the substances and behaviors became the cage rather than the key to freedom.

So even though James Clear, or any author who is an expert on the science of behavioral change has plenty to offer all of us, people with substance or behavioral use disorders will likely need additional counseling.


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Habit Strategies in Recovery

If a person seeking recovery and sobriety would like to apply Clear’s strategies to helping them change their relationship to an addictive substance, how would that look?

Clear lists 4 stages necessary in habit formation or as he refers to it, the habit loop:

  • Cue
  • Craving
  • Response
  • Reward
The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response. The response provides the reward, which satisfies the craving, and ultimately becomes associated with the cue.

As he breaks down each step of the habit loop, Clear has suggestions for intervening at each level. Following are the “Laws” he has come up with for creating a good habit, and the inverse of each law to break a bad habit.

To Create a Good Habit
The 1st Law: Cue - Make it obvious
The 2nd Law: Craving - Make it attractive
The 3rd Law: Response - Make it easy
The 4th Law: Reward - Make it satisfying.

To Break a Bad Habit
Inversion of the 1st Law - Make it invisible
Inversion of the 2nd Law - Make it unattractive
Inversion of the 3rd Law - Make it easy
Inversion of the 4th Law - Make if unsatisfying

In blogs to follow, I will look at each law and see how our patients might be able to apply these as part of their recovery program. In the meantime, if you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to opioid pain medications, heroin, fentanyl, methadone, buprenorphine, or alcohol and are considering sobriety, give us a call and learn about the programs the Coleman Institute for Addiction Medicine provides. Please call us at 877-773-3869.

This is the first post of a five-part series. Check out the other posts in this blog series here.
PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5

Joan Shepherd, FNP


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