Every day, I have a routine. I wake up, start a pot of coffee, and check my calendar to see what I have scheduled for the day. I usually spend about an hour or two just having my coffee and reading news or browsing social media on my phone. Then, I take a shower. My shower is my cue that it’s time to stop messing around and start my day.

My schedule varies wildly from day to day, but one thing I have learned since I got sober is that I need to keep a consistent routine for my own sanity. I do this with a combination of my calendar, to-do lists, and certain things that I build into my everyday routine: I get up around the same time every day, I make sure I shower and dress, and I write a to-do list every morning. Every appointment I have goes on the calendar, and often I will schedule a set time to complete critical tasks on my to-do list.  

Deanna Jordan Crosby, an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT), a Licensed Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LAADC), and a PsyD, helps clients set routines early in recovery. “The first thing we do is come up with a schedule,” Crosby says of her work as the clinical director of a treatment center. “We actually plan it out. I like to color coordinate my schedule and we write out a schedule for everything they’re going to do all day every day for the first week.”

Crosby says that setting a routine early in recovery helps manage anxiety and depression, and helps clients find ways to work around urges to use substances. “As far as neuroplasticity is involved, our brains are like a record so there’s a groove for the things that we’re used to doing,” she continues. “If you make a groove in a record and you put a needle on it, it goes straight to the groove.” In essence, setting a routine helps reset the brain. When clients exit treatment, she has them schedule the whole first week down to the hour as part of their discharge planning. Since many people are lacking structure when they enter treatment, she believes that establishing a routine from the start is critical to success.

Crosby says that setting a routine early in recovery helps manage anxiety and depression, and helps clients find ways to work around urges to use substances.

Crosby herself has 31 years of sobriety and still manages her life with a calendar, electing to use a digital calendar that is synched up to both her phone and her computer. She says, “It’s synched up with my phone and it’s all color-coordinated. Work stuff is in green, my recovery is in orange, my time with my partner is brown, and my time with my family is dark orange. I can look and easily see what’s missing, like personal time that’s dark blue.” She also recommends incorporating self-care activities into your routine, such as “a meeting [or recovery activity] every day, some kind of exercise [even just a walk around the block], and something to do with your family.”

In early recovery, many of us are unaccustomed to having structure but having a routine has benefits for getting ourselves into better habits. According to research, a daily routine is associated with lower stress, better habits, better health, productivity, and focus. If you are in early recovery, and you don’t have a consistent schedule already, you can start by:

  1.     Consistently waking up and going to bed at the same time every day.
  2.     Following Crosby’s advice and putting all your daily tasks into your calendar.
  3.     Scheduling your recovery activities, like meetings, therapy, and meditation.

If you’re working, you will clearly want to schedule your work time into your calendar. But if you’re not working, you can still book yourself solid with other meaningful tasks. If you’re looking for work, you can schedule time to update your resume and apply to jobs. Adding journaling into your daily routine can be therapeutic and a meaningful way to focus on recovery. And don’t forget leisure!

The reason you want to set a routine is to balance all your daily activities, including your leisure time. When I was in treatment, we had a leisure coach who worked to help us ensure that we made time for leisure after leaving. If you, like many of us with substance use disorder, can’t remember what you like to do you can start by keeping it small. Do you like walking? Reading? Watching TV? You can put all of that into your leisure schedule.

Early recovery can be a precarious time for many, but establishing a routine for yourself can set you up for success. Being mindful of your time and your schedule eliminates downtime in your schedule and can be your first layer of protection against cravings. Boredom is an enemy in recovery, and you also want to make sure that you are building habits that will keep you accountable.

Finally, since we are still largely affected by COVID-19 lockdowns, it is especially critical to get yourself into some form of a routine (even at home) because it can alleviate the long days of being home without much to do. If you take the time now to keep yourself intentional and set a good routine for yourself, it can be a saving grace throughout your recovery. 

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