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The Importance of Routine in Early Recovery

A black woman sitting a table by a window with a planner and computer in front of herPhoto credit: Daniel Thomas via Unsplash

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 drinking my coffee and reading the 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 widely from day to day, but one thing I have learned is that having a consisten routine in early recovery is helpful for maintaining my own peace of mind.

Even though my responsibilities might fluctuate from one day to the next, I make sure my mornings start out intentionally: 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. “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.”

How Routines Make a Difference in Early Recovery

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. In essence, setting a routine helps reset the brain.

“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.”

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.

Though scheduling down to the hour might not be necessary for everyone in early recovery, it is really helpful to at least set a morning and evening routine to bookend the day with intention.

How to Set a Routine

In early recovery, many of us are unaccustomed to having structure. Many of us fell into the habit of drinking to deal with everything from stress to celebratory events. Habits are born out of repetitive action, most of which we don’t even think about anymore, which means building new routines will take intentional effort.

Crosby who has 31 years sober, still finds value in managing her time with a calendar.

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.”

Using a calendar is a great way to see everything clearly. Many of us moved from one activity to the next, not realizing when our bodies were telling us to slow down. A lot of times, we ignored our emotions and kept moving through our days without checking in. This is where a calendar can make a difference. You can actually schedule in time for self-care, recovery, and mindfulness.

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.     Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day.
  2.     Using a calendar to list out your daily, weekly, and monthly activities.
  3.     Scheduling your recovery activities, like meetings, therapy, and meditation.

If you’re working, it might be beneficial to schedule your work times. If you’re not working, but actively looking for a job, consider scheduling time to apply for active listings, update your resume, and write cover letters.

Making Time for Self-Care and Fun

When it comes to recovery, self-care, and leisure, it might make a difference to block out times for these things as well, even if you’re only looking at five minutes of mindfulness at a time. This way, you’ll get used to checking in with yourself.

One of the reasons 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 for fun, you can start by keeping it small. Do you like walking? Reading? Watching TV? You can put all of that into your leisure schedule.

Recovery gives us the opportunity to rediscover what lights us up and makes us happy. We have the space to explore new hobbies and retry old ones. In the beginning though, getting started might feel odd. This is where scheduling in time for leisure, fun, and self-care really makes a difference. It might keep you from floundering or getting stuck in inaction. And finding what brings us joy is an important part of recovery.

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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. It also helps you build a more intentional life, one in which drinking fails to serve a purpose anymore.

About the Author

Nia Norris

Nia Norris is a reporter in Chicago, IL who writes about culture, public policy, and inequities within our society. She has contributed to Parents.com, Romper, Kirkus Reviews, and Next City.

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