Episode 34: Practice and Habit Building in Early Recovery

Episode 34
Practice and Habit Building in Early Recovery
Finding Motivation and Crushing Resistance

Our habits shape our destinies. We are what we repeatedly do.

Your brain is lazy. That’s not a personal indictment. My brain is lazy, too. In fact, all of our brains are lazy. Evolution engineered us that way for energy efficiency, and our biological tendency towards laziness is a direct result of our brains’ ongoing quest for survival. Actions that give us a neurochemical reward are shifted from our prefrontal cortex (the center of decision making, and also a gluttonous resource hog) to the basal ganglia, where they become habits (which we perform without much conscious thought, thus saving energy).

This resource-management system works well…until it doesn’t. As all addicts know, our neurochemical reward and pleasure system can be hi-jacked, with devastating consequences to every area of our lives. Behaviors that generate a quick and easy short-term reward can be easily hardwired into habit, with great cost to our physical health, our psychological well-being, our relationships, and our society. What’s more, the behaviors that lead to our continued growth and evolution, and to real happiness (as opposed to the short-term neurological counterfeit version), can feel incredibly uncomfortable, or even downright painful. Thanks, evolution.

Changing our habitual behaviors is one of the most challenging things a human being can do. But change, we must. Our survival depends on it. So how do we use what we’ve learned about our brains and our behaviors to our advantage, turning the tables on addiction and becoming the best versions of ourselves?

It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to voluntarily engage in an uncomfortable behavior, even when we know that behavior will ultimately lead to a better life. And when our limited supply of willpower is depleted, we fall back on our habits. Or, as the the Greek poet Archilochus (and the Navy Seals) say: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

The key, then, is to train. Or, as we say at Integral Recovery, to practice. We use our willpower strategically by channeling it into creating new habits.

Changing our habits takes practice.

Changing Habits in Recovery

When we’re used to low-effort, high-reward chemical substances, pushing ourselves to do hard things, is, well, hard. And in the battered stage of early recovery, when we don’t have all our resources at our disposal, beginning and maintaining an Integral practice can feel more grueling than “Hell Week”. Our lazy brains, enthusiastic at the beginning, struggle to find the drive to get started and the grit to continue when things get tough.

Willpower, it turns out, is biologically expensive. And through practice, we can develop more. This determination, this grit, is an invaluable skill. But in early recovery, our brains and bodies aren’t functioning optimally, and our willpower supply is even more limited and less reliable than normal. Willpower’s most important job is to plant the seeds of good habits.

As Charles Duhigg detailed in his excellent book, The Power of Habit, all of our habitual behaviors, from opening our inbox to brushing our teeth, from exercise and meditation, to using drugs and alcohol, all follow a predictable cycle known as the habit loop:


When a familiar trigger occurs (like an audible chime, a time of day, the presence of a certain person, or an unpleasant emotion, to name a few), we immediately follow that cue with a well-worn behavior or thought pattern. And for performing that activity, our brains release a spurt of pleasurable neurochemicals as a reward, strengthening the pattern and increasing our likelihood of performing the same behavior again and again.

Early recovery, when the practices are the hardest, is also when the practices are the most critical. We break our addiction, in part, through behavioral substitution. We turn the tables on our addicted brains and get them to work for us by getting our neurochemical rewards from somewhere else. Somewhere that will transform our lives and set us down the path to discovering the best of ourselves; to seeing what we can contribute to the world, and to discovering our infinite potential to do so.

The Integral Recovery practices are hard. Especially in the early stages. The practices require us to challenge ourselves and to push ourselves to then beyond the edge of our capabilities. And in doing so, we grow. We feel the neurochemical and psychological rewards of our effort, which, with repetition, allows us to form and strengthen the neurological pathways of our new habits as the old ones wither and die. That’s how transformation happens.

There’s a reason that practice is the core of the Integral Recovery model. And there’s a reason that the specific dimensions of mind, body, spirit, and shadow, are the foundation of that practice: Exercise, meditation, shadow work, critical thinking are the most powerful change agents for rebuilding our bodies, brains, emotions, and souls. These four practices give us the most leverage for changing our lives, allowing us not only to recover from addiction, but to evolve and grow in ways we never imagined we were capable of.

Integral Recovery asks you to do something difficult because Integral Recovery, as an idea and a movement, believes you can. And even if you don’t believe it yet, IR will believe it for you.

An addict, almost by definition, can’t do this thing alone. A recovery coach, a therapist, an accountability partner, a close friend, or Facebook group, can act as your auxiliary ego, lending you strength and giving you accountability. And while you can (and I strongly encourage you to) utilize whatever systems, apps, spreadsheets, or other methods you prefer to keep yourself personally accountable, it’s often not enough. Addicts…well, we’re incredible gifted at rationalizing. That’s why, in early recovery, we need to make ourselves accountable to someone who won’t let us say “no.” And, over time, our new behaviors become a part of our identity. The practices become habits. We move from “this is unbearable” to “this is uncomfortable”, to “I am unstoppable.”

As Lao Tzu reminds us, the journey starts from where we are. Becoming who we must be is hard. It’s a never-ending challenge of consistent evolution. It’s the work of a lifetime. And it’s well-worth the effort.

Episode Resources:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Integral Recovery: A Revolutionary Approach to the Treatment of Alcoholism and Addiction (SUNY series in Integral Theory)
The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions-More Inclusive, More Comprehensive, More Complete
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Second Edition
Profound Meditation Program
Profound Releasing
Stealing Flow: Complete Brainwave Suite for Flow State Mastery (iAwake Technologies and Doug Prater)
Deep Recovery – a guided meditation from iAwake Technologies

In this episode:

[1:32] What are the challenges of getting people into Integral Recovery? What are the obstacles to practice? Are they different for people at different levels of addiction?
[2:34] How do we light a fire and get people started with recovery and practice when all four essential lines of development have been seriously neglected, sometimes for years? How do evoke interest and convince someone of the value of admittedly challenging practices, like yoga, meditation, lifting weights, or writing poetry?
[3:58] Analyzing our motivations and reframing our incentives for practice: Looking for immediate rewards and benefits of practice instead of contemplating the nebulous, distant, future benefits. The future is abstract, the present is concrete. By discovering and getting clear about the immediate rewards of our effort, we disarm our objections and temptations far more effectivel than by delaying. What are the intrinsic rewards of practice in the moment?
[5:28] The art of returning to the practices we enjoyed before our addictions – rediscovering our love of music, art, athletics, and challenging ourselves
[7:12] The power of using a coach or a therapist as your auxiliary ego when you’re having trouble motivating yourself or keeping yourself on track.
[7:58] The importance of leading by example, and following those who walk their talk. Why having a coach or counselor who’s there in the trenches with you, doing the work, sweating through their own limitations, engenders inspiration and respect.
[8:15] Asking a series of clarifying questions, with a therapist (and/or in your journal) to clarify the immediate rewards of doing a challenging activity now instead of putting it off.
[8:38] The fundamental human drives, according to Tony Robbins (and based on Freud) that govern every behavior, decision, and action are to move toward pleasure and/or away from pain. With this in mind, we ask ourselves: What about this action would feel good right now? What pain would it relieve right now? Getting clear about our motivations, knowing our short-term “why”, can help us overcome lethargy, fear, uncertainty, doubt, and resistance.
[10:15] The brain’s built-in negativity bias, and how this evolutionary trait once protected our survival. Finding our “positive motivations” can include “removal of the negative. What, for example, is positive “in the moment” about doing shadow work? Removing the pain of difficult emotions, repressed trauma, and other troubling material that governs our lives isn’t fun in the moment, but the relief that quickly follows the discomfort is worth the effort.
[12:05] For our purposes, “early recovery” is the post-detox phase, lasting often our first year or two of sobriety, where we establish the foundations of our life without addiction. It’s critical, during this time, to find the appeal of the practices so that we can establish good habits, which in turn contribute to recovery’s success.
[12:45] Though our practices can be incredibly uncomfortable while engaged in the act, the effects that immediately follow (particularly in “individual interior” and “individual exterior” quadrants far supersede the initial pain and resistance. The auxiliary ego of a coach or therapist, or an accountability partner or group, can work wonders in supplying the initial incentive to move forward through the initial pain.
[13:45] The empowerment and self-esteem development that comes from doing hard things and overcoming our resistance, especially when the behavior is repeated regularly. Over time, this begins to shift our identity: “I’m a person who meditates.” “I’m a person who exercises”.
[14:50] Recovery, as an idea and a movement, hasn’t always been inspiring, so we need to create a vision of hope and inspiration to empower people and to get them excited about the potential and the transformation that await.
[15:11] John “motivational interviewing” technique, (outlined in detail in the book Integral Recovery: A Revolutionary Approach to the Treatment of Alcoholism and Addiction): Begin by getting clear about “What’s good about this” – for example: “What’s good about drinking?” It’s critical, during this investigation, to be honest with yourself (or your coach or counselor) and not just give the answers you think they want to hear. These “good aspects” and perceived benefits may fall into physical, sensory, mental, psychological, or social realms of pleasure.
[16:40] Next, we examine the negative aspects of a given behavior or habit in the same dimensions and with the same honesty. Finally, we evaluate where we stand, on a scale of 1-10, in terms of giving up the behavior after having examined both its positive and negative consequences – its pleasures and its pains.
[18:28] Using the motivational interviewing technique to examine where we stand regarding each of the Integral Recovery practices, especially during the early stages of sobriety when we’re establishing our foundation.
[19:38] Avoiding the trap of willpower depletion by setting “implementation intentions” and making our decisions about practice ahead of time. When we plan our workout schedule, or choose or meditation tracks, and lay out all the necessary equipment ahead of time, we decrease the “activation energy” needed to start the behavior when the time comes.
[20:40] The other benefit of pre-planning is that it positively reinforces our emerging identity as “a person who exercises” or “a person who meditates”.
[21:35] What’s the single most important thing in early recovery? Practice. Practice is your number one, most critical, full-time job. Practice is the foundation upon which everything is built: Not just our recovery, but our lives, our families, our livelihoods, and our contribution to and experience of the world. And whatever is so important that it’s keeping you from practice? Well, without practice, you risk losing it all.
[22:00] Sometimes, we need to take the boot camp approach: “Suck it up and do it anyway.” Yes, practice is hard. Just do it. You’re tired, but do it. You’re not feeling it, but do it. You’re busy, but do it. Taking extreme ownership of our lives teaches us just how strong and how resilient we are. (No one said building grit was easy.)
[22:30] Because after you’ve done it for a while, it gets easier. You rebuild your integrity. You rediscover a sense of hope.
[22:50] Almost by definition, an addict can’t do it alone. Get the support you need.
[23:12] Due to the action of certainly stimuli on our neurochemistry, some addictions are more difficult to break than others. In a world of artificially intense stimuli pushing our dopamine behind what evolution prepared for us, recovery can be an uphill battle.
[23:50] There’s a high correlation, in psychology, between the felt sense of ambiguity, and anxiety. Thus, when designing our practices, planning our workouts, laying out our clothes, etc, ahead of time, we reduce our anxiety, which not only makes us more likely to practice, but decreases our chance of relapse.
[25:15] Doing everything we can possibly do to ensure the successful building of new habits is absolutely essential in order to overcome our tendencies to return to our powerful unhealthy addictions. When we build new habits, we’re building new connections between our neurons. The old ones (our addictions) gradually wither, but they’re superhighways that take time to erode.
[26:30] Using systems of personal accountability, like apps to track our habits, to complement the support and accountability of a community or coach. Doug recommends the “don’t break the chain” habit strategy, which, as the story goes, comes initially from comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
[28:12] Breaking a habit is far more difficult than establishing a new one. Therefore, we need to, rather than going for “just not doing”, we need to replace it with another behavior. By planning out what these behaviors will be, ahead of time, we’re more likely to do them when it matters. Develop a series of “if, then” statements for habit substitution.
[29:42] Because of the effects of drugs on our dopamine system, we can’t expect our replacement habits to replace the effects of drugs in an immediate, neurochemical way. Thus, we need to consider, when choosing our replacement habits, our longer-term values and sense of real meaning and fulfillment. Further, we can strengthen our drive to stick with our new beahviors by asking what our addictions were taking away.
[32:22] The power of addictive drugs can be powerfully illustrated by the stories we hear shared at meetings, and the things we observe if we that lifestyle for long enough. Here John shares a powerful and graphic example our addiction’s ability to overcome our judgement.
[35:12] Behaving in such ways, under the controlling fist of addiction, can destroy our sense of self-esteem and our self-worth. As we rebuild our lives, we can rebuild this self-esteem and self-worth by rediscovering our values. Getting clear on our “why” can be a powerful motivator in recovery, and in any endeavor that requires tremendous effort, strength and courage. And when we’ve lost our faith in our ability to impact the world and live our purpose, continuing to focus on the core practices rebuilds and strengthens our belief in ourselves and our ability to affect the world. Practice teaches us what we’re made of.
[36:58] Practice is hardest in the beginning. We need to look deep within to discover our weaknesses, our Achilles Heels, and make plans to deal them and overcome them when they inevitably arise.
[38:00] Get the help of a coach. Contact us to learn more. Download the Integral Recovery Starter Kit. And Join our community on Facebook.


If you enjoy the show, please subscribe in iTunes and write us a review! This is what helps us stand out from the crowd and helps people find the credible advice they need.

10/27/2017, 40:10, 27.58 mb (Audio)


  1. Angela on October 31, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    A lot of great practical info here, Thanks guys.
    I like John’s phrase ” Make your life practice-centric”. And his emphasis that especially in early recovery, we should have our daily integral recovery practices be our number one priority above all else.

    I wish I could afford a personal coach on a daily basis. I like the idea of having a peer support buddy , where we each have our own goals and we check in daily to listen and encourage each other on the daily doing of our practices. I did that once a few years ago with a fellow eating disorder recovery friend and it was immensely helpful. It was also satisfying to help someone else. I think this daily peer support could really make a difference for those of us who struggle just getting going on a daily practice. I think peer support works best for people who already have a sense of WHAT to do but are having a hard time sticking with a plan. (in addition to support for practice, the buddies can practice building relational skills of listening without judgement, giving encouragement and affirming to another and much more).🤸‍♀️

    The hardest part of sticking with daily practices is planning for it in my schedule. It used to be difficult deciding WHAT to do, (which exercise plan, which meditation etc) Now I feel clear about that. My schedule is such that I work extremely early so doing practice first thing in the morning is not an option. Then after work, the 10,000 things clammer for my attention. I do manage to do my practice most days now but, peer support would be even better. Anyone what to set up a one-to-one peer support with me for our integral practice? We could check in daily via email and weekly we could Skype…..🧘‍♀️🧘‍♀️

    The emphasis on creating an automatic ritual or routine of your practice, that includes already having decided what you will do. That is great advice. I’ve incorporated this to a degree sticking with a couple of tracks for meditation, using the same track of Tibetan bowls music for the 10 or so minutes before the practice starts to cue me. Having the same sitting location and stool and the same sequence of meditations. I also like to do the same sequence of exercise at the gym for the first part and then the second part is more flexible. The beginning part of the routine is more important to have the same, because that is what gets you going. Once engaged and I have an easier time doing the rest.

    My dear friend Peg said to me years ago when I was struggling with quitting my eating addiction…she said “If you are going to say ‘no” to something what are you going to say “yes” to? She recognized that I was trying to say “no” to my addiction without having anything positive to replace it with. Such a wise friend she is.

    I like Robert’s idea of coming up with a way to track, daily, the 4 dimensions of IR practice, tracking the shorter term goals and the distinct pleasures which are immediate results of the practices, so we emphasize and reinforce this. This being especially important for those early in recovery.

  2. Angela on November 1, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    In this podcast (#34), Bob brought up the idea to create a way to track, on a daily basis, the 4 dimensions of the Integral Recovery practice (mind,body,spirit, shadow). The idea being that practice is hard to do, especially in the beginning, and usually not pleasant. So if I understood what Bob was suggesting, one could have a tracking sheet to daily note how your practice, for each dimension:
    enhanced pleasure, and/or
    reduced pain.

    This would be tracking the small immediate improvements resulting directly from engaging in our practices, thereby enhancing a positive association with the doing of practices.

    Focusing on long range benefits might not give us the motivation to do our practices right now, because the reward is so far off. But there are nearly immediate small rewards to doing practices.

    I want to do this. I think it would be pretty easy to just have a grid with dates and space to write what I experience in terms of enhanced pleasure or reduced pain from doing my practices.

    I’m motivated to do this for another reason – to build my self esteem and savor small successes. In the podcast, Doug also pointed out that as we do our practices and succeed at doing them day after day, we rebuild our self esteem because of the accomplishment and seeing progress. I have recently became aware that even though I have been doing my Integral Recovery practices for many months I usually don’t experience a sense of accomplishment or a rising in self esteem. I have observed that I have a pattern of finishing my practice and focusing on what I DIDN’T get to (I always feel I didn’t do enough), or didn’t do as well as I envision. I do feel a boost in mood following exercise. And sometimes I experience a shift from anxious to relaxed from meditation. But my attention doesn’t savor that accomplishment. It is a life long mental habit to focus on what I didn’t do well instead of what I did do well. (this might be related to disguised shame “I’m not good enough” etc)

    Update: 3 days later:
    after only two days of doing my experimental tracking chart of small immediate benefits, of doing my 4 dimensions Integral Recovery practices, I am already experiencing helpful results. Focusing on the positive results in the present, while they are small results, got me unhitched from my automatic negative mental habit of “yah, but I didn’t do that and that” (I am never doing enough = “I am not good enough”). And in unhitching that automatic mindset I also increased the feelings of satisfaction, and pleasure in my small accomplishments. AND I felt more free and present for the rest of my day and other tasks. (more energy and more presence). 😀

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