How To Change Your Life

How To Change Your Life

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Do you want to change your life for the better but don’t know where to start? Each year, many people intend to make important changes in their lives but don’t start because of fear.

Instead, they continue going down the same uninspiring path, feeling stuck and unsatisfied, lacking a sense of purpose.

For those who start making changes in their lives, these changes are difficult to maintain as the burst of short-term motivation fades away.

As a counselor, I’ve helped many clients start making changes in their lives through evidence-based methods. This article is a practical summary of the best approaches I’ve discovered, designed to help you start living the life you want. In short, change requires the following steps:

  1. Honor your desire for sameness
  2. Develop a vision
  3. Identify your “why”
  4. Start taking small steps
  5. Identify unhelpful thoughts
  6. Accept difficult emotions 
  7. Build helpful habits

By following these steps, you’ll be able to start changing your life and build long-term motivational momentum.

Talking to hundreds of clients over the past year, in addition to delving deep into the academic literature on motivation, I’ve developed this process of change. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and there are no guarantees, this process can significantly increase the odds of success.

Honor Your Desire for Sameness

Have you ever tried to change, then felt guilt or shame when not following through?

Popular self-help messages on social media often push for change, as if it’s the only option, and failure to take action means you’re weak, lazy, or not good enough. Although well-intentioned, these messages are often toxic and counterproductive, reinforcing shame and unhelpful self-critical thoughts.

As an addiction counselor, I help people change but realize the need to meet people where they’re at, honoring their reasons for not changing.

Staying the same does not mean you’re a broken or deficient person. Instead, sameness is a form of self-protection. This self-protection can even be viewed as a form of self-compassion.

Many people fear hoping for something different because they don’t want to feel the potential disappointment of not achieving it. Hoping for something more also raises the expectations others have of you, resulting in fear of judgment if you don’t follow through.

Change can be pretty scary if you’ve lived through past disappointments or judgmental comments from others.

Rather than beating yourself up for not changing, a self-compassionate attitude toward your sameness helps you recognize your actual reasons for not changing.

Honoring someone’s desire for sameness allows for an open, non-judgmental exploration of these reasons. Without acknowledging these reasons for sameness, they operate in the background unconsciously, creating a conversational tug-of-war. As Peter Senge says:

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.”

People are often doing their best with the resources they have. They don’t need more shame; they need compassion. Experiencing compassion helps people develop compassion for themselves.

When you can have compassion for yourself, you can start to explore your reasons for sameness non-judgmentally within the context of your reasons for change.

The great humanist psychologist Carl Rogers illustrated this when he said:

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Hoping can be scary. When we hope for something more, we are confronted by something we lack. Faced with the uncertainty of achieving this desired change, it raises one’s expectations for oneself and the fear of potential disappointment if we cannot make this change.

Staying the same is an understandable form of self-protection. We don’t resist change because we are lazy; we resist change because of fear.

Rather than making fear into an enemy, we can honor our fear. When our mind says, “are you sure you’re ready for this?” it’s doing something it was evolutionarily programmed to do.

Resisting fear means resisting change. Noticing our mind is trying to protect us, we can open up to fear and assess the information it is giving us. Like the check engine light in a car, our emotions are a source of information. And like the check-engine light, it can sometimes only indicate a minor risk.

When we turn toward difficult emotions, we can uncover any useful information they are providing us, assess the relevant, realistic risks, then choose to move forward when we’re ready.

Hoping for change can provoke fear. Without acknowledging this underlying process, it operates in the background, lowering our expectations of ourselves and what we aspire toward.

Changing your life is a lot like writing. If you’ve ever sat in front of a blank page, tasked with writing something important, you’ve probably felt this sense of angst.

As I write this, my mind is coming up with a handful of other things I should probably do instead. Each sentence takes concerted effort because I know it’s important, and because it’s important, it’s scary, and I constantly want to stop and do something else.

Writing creates a sense of vulnerability, exposing my ideas to an audience whose uncertain reception provokes fear of judgment. Imposter syndrome sets in, and my mind tells me to play it safe. Who am I to be sharing my ideas?

The desire for self-protective sameness has to be overcome with each sentence, uncertain what I’ll say next but trusting it’ll come.

Like writing, authoring your life draws on the same fears and insecurities. Actively deciding to change requires this active stance toward your life.

The freedom to write and express yourself comes with the responsibility of showing up. In life, the freedom to change comes with the responsibility to author that change.

Freedom is something we all want, but we spend most of our time trying to escape from it. Freedom induces fear. Constraint is comfortable.

As a college instructor, I knew students hated writing essays without detailed instructions about the topic, page length, and formatting.

With complete freedom to write what you want, it’s difficult to start, and when you do, you’re constantly wondering if you’re doing it right.

When deciding to make a change in life, we’re called to take authorship of a situation without a detailed instruction manual. We’re called to step into the unknown and risk letting ourselves down.

We can put down the pen and stop writing when we need a break. Although this is an understandable form of self-protection, it doesn’t come without risks.

When we stop writing, we risk missing out on joy, passion, meaning, and purpose. We miss out on offering the world something uniquely ours.

If you’re not ready to step out on a limb, that’s okay too. Authoring your life is not a moral question. You’re not wrong, bad, or flawed if you choose sameness. As the song by the late Nightbirde goes, “if you’re lost, we’re all a little lost, and that’s alright.”

We can move forward with compassion from ourselves and others.

As I was writing this section, I didn’t know where it would go, but as I wrote, it became easier. Like life changes, the initial dread of the blank page fades as motivational momentum grows with each step forward.

If you resonate with this and want to learn more about why hope induces fear, I highly recommend checking out the book, How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t) by Ross Ellenhorn. There are many powerful insights in this book and you can even listen to the audiobook version for free if you haven’t yet signed up for Audible’s trial.

Develop a Vision

Before making a significant change in your life, you need a vision of what you want. The problem is that many people haven’t stepped back from their day-to-day busyness to clarify their vision.

When asking people what they want, their first answer is usually “to be happy” or “to have peace.” When asking what they want to do, it’s usually something like, “to make a lot of money,” “to help others,” or “be the best version of myself.” Although these are part of the vision, they are often too vague to provide a sense of direction.

Clarifying your vision requires developing a specific understanding of what your life would look like, where you would be, who you would be with, and what you would be doing. How would you be earning your income? How would you be helping others? What does the best version of you do on a daily basis?

Taking this into consideration, here is a useful technique called the “dare question” in solution-focused therapy:

If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?

If a general answer comes to mind, consider the following questions:

What small thing would you start doing today or tomorrow?

Once you’ve started to see some progress, what would it allow you to do?

What would look different in your life if you could do this?

Here’s another way to clarify a general vision. If your general vision is to “be happy” and “help others,” here is an example of how you could make it more specific:

When were moments you’ve been happy while helping others in the past? What were you doing? How were you specifically helping another person? Who would you like to help in the future? How would you be helping these individuals? If you knew you couldn’t fail, what risk would you take that would eventually allow you to do this?

These questions would usually occur over an hour-long solution-focused counseling session, with an emphasis on practical next steps for today or tomorrow.

Although it’s best to consider these things in dialogue with another person or a counselor trained in this approach, you can also consider answering these questions in your own journaling.

The purpose of this exercise is to develop a clear vision of what you want, providing motivation and a sense of direction when making changes in your life.

If you’re still having difficulty developing a vision, continuing to dwell on it does not necessarily get you closer to figuring it out. Instead, I would emphasize taking action in ways that are practical for your current lifestyle.

We often hear the phrase “find your passion,” but what does it really mean? How do you find it? What if you’re too busy with practical day-to-day responsibilities to simply drop everything and go on a whimsical treasure hunt?

Throughout the years, I’ve realized you can’t necessarily find your passion by thinking about it. You find it by trying things and developing skills over time.

For example, my passion for psychology didn’t begin before I started to learn about it. It grew as I developed more understanding and skill in the area. The key is doing.

As Cal Newport states:

“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”

This approach to passion emphasizes putting in the work rather than making it about vision boards and fantasy.

The Latin origin of passion is “pati,” meaning “suffer,” and the word gained popularity in Christian theology, referring to the sacrificial suffering of martyrs.

In the sixteenth century, passion began to refer to sexual love and a sense of strong liking or enthusiasm, seemingly the opposite of its original use. Although passion can still refer to pain and suffering – as seen in The Passion of the Christ – today, the word mainly conjures strong connotations of pleasure and desire.

Both aspects of passion need to be understood before applying it to practical issues, but we often emphasize the pleasurable aspect without recognizing the other side.

Instead of trying to “find your passion,” try letting your passion find you. This could mean experimenting with a hobby, volunteer role, or side-hustle. The key is not to overthink it, pick something you can practically integrate into your routine, and stick with it long enough to develop some skill. If it’s still not for you, perhaps try something different.

In summary, you can develop a vision through some contemplation, but experimenting with different hobbies and interests allows you to explore practical ways to start fostering further motivation if you haven’t yet begun taking action toward change.

This experimental approach also allows you to start taking action toward change without having to figure it all out first. As you start taking action, unforeseen opportunities may even arise, allowing you to further explore areas you may not have considered at first.

Back to the previous question: what small thing could you start doing today or tomorrow?

Identify your “Why”

Identifying your reason for change is a critical aspect of motivation. Without having a clear reason why you want to make a change, you’ll likely fall back into old patterns when faced with an obstacle.

In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl recites one of my favorite quotes by Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

This means having a compelling sense of why we are doing something motivates us to figure out how to overcome the obstacles.

By clarifying your why, you can operate with strong intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation, which is relatively weak. In simple terms, intrinsic motivation means you’re doing something because you genuinely want to, while extrinsic motivation requires being compelled by an external reward or punishment.

Intrinsic motivation is powerful and long-lasting, whereas extrinsic motivation is short-lived. For more on the distinction between these two types of motivation, see my article on how motivation works.

One way to know if you’re operating from intrinsic or extrinsic motivation is to notice how many “should” statements you use when talking about your vision. If you say things like “I should go to the gym more often,” you’re likely operating from an external sense of obligation rather than having a strong internal reason why you would want to do so.

If you notice you may be operating from a “shoulds,” try asking yourself what you actually want. For example, if you say you should go to the gym more often, do you actually want to? If not, what made you want to incorporate more physical activity into your life?

This last question delves into the “why,” bypassing the “how” for now. After evoking a person’s “why,” I’d pivot back into the “how,” coming up with various alternative ways to incorporate physical activity in a way that is rewarding for them.

Now consider your own vision regarding changes you want to make in your life. Why do you want to make this change? What about this change is important to you? How would this change allow you to be the type of person you value?

When you clarify your “why” and your underlying values, you gain a sense of purpose and direction, despite the obstacles.

One way to clarify your “why” from an existential perspective is to imagine yourself at the end of your life. Imagine you have done the things you want to do and have been the type of person you want to be. What things would you be proud of? What would you have done? What type of person would you have been?

This exercise comes from the insight of the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when he states:

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Imagine you are at a funeral.

A close friend of the deceased steps up to the pulpit and proceeds with the following eulogy: “He was a highly organized and independent, a skilled communicator who could work well with others, detail-oriented, and was able to work efficiently in a fast-paced environment, increasing profits by 10% each quarter…”

You would be startled by this friend who completely neglected what actually matters.

Rather than a eulogy, it would look as if the friend were speaking on behalf of the deceased for a postmortem job interview.

But if these things don’t actually matter in the end, why do we spend the majority of our time focused on building these resume virtues while neglecting the eulogy virtues?

Values can be found in three major areas of life: moments of sweetness, moments of pain, and role models. These values exercises are adapted from The Big Book of ACT Metaphors:

When clarifying one’s values by looking at moments of sweetness, think back to a moment where you felt alive and engaged. Notice the details of this moment. What were you doing? Who was with you? What did you feel?

Slow down and see if you can emotionally connect to what you value about this moment. This same exercise can be applied to painful moments, pulling out values by noticing what was missing in those moments.

Values can also be found by looking at one’s role models. Pick a person you admire. What qualities of theirs do you admire?

Slow it down, emotionally connecting with the aspects of this person you admire. Now consider what values come from these qualities. Some examples might be compassion, creativity, genuineness, and selflessness.

Now, how might you be able to live by these values yourself?

Living in alignment with our values provides motivation in addition to psychological flexibility when obstacles arise. Values are different from goals because they don’t have an end-point.

Values serve as a compass, giving you direction, even when the end-goals cannot be met. This is an essential aspect of motivation because you do not have control over the end goal. You only have control over how you choose to approach the task at hand.

Victor Frankl highlights this fundamental ability to choose one’s valued way of being:

“The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Choosing one’s own way of being fulfills our human yearning for a sense of purpose and direction. When this direction relies on your values, it does not necessarily require an end-point. This is particularly useful if you haven’t been able to develop a clear vision, as emphasized in the previous section.

Start Taking Small Steps

When beginning to make a change in life, it can feel like you’re at the bottom of a mountain, stairing up at the monumental task ahead. Although the whole journey may take a significant amount of time and effort, each step is a relatively insignificant and simple part of the broader process.

By focusing on each step rather than the whole journey, it makes the processess feel much more manageable. Over time, motivation grows as you develop momentum toward your vision.

This process is what I call “motivational momentum.” Although I’ve touched on it briefly in the first section, this section goes deeper into the power of taking action through small steps.

The psychology behind this is simple: the more you do something, the more you want to do something. For example, for persons struggling with an addiction, the more they engage in the addiction, the more they crave it.

Many people can relate to this in terms of physical exercise. It is pretty challenging to start exercising if you haven’t done it in a while, but over time, you start to actually crave it. For some people, not exercising can eventually become harder than exercising if you’ve worked your way up to a long-term daily habit.

This is why taking action is such a powerful motivational component of change. Early on in the change process, massive action may not be feasible and motivational momentum is still low, so I like to start with small steps instead.

When I first meet with a client, they may not be ready to start taking action, but for those who are ready, I look at how they can make small changes right away.

Aside from motivational momentum, taking small steps allows you to more easily overcome the fear and subsequent procrastination associated with making big changes.

Now consider your own vision for change. What small thing can you do today or tomorrow?

If nothing comes to mind, set the bar even lower. The key is to try something new rather than overthinking it beforehand.

It is easy to procrastinate when living in your head, hoping for some ideal time to take action.

“I’m just not ready yet… what if I fail?… am I an impostor?

This is the realm of perfectionism. When your desire for competence becomes distorted, you constantly question whether or not you are ready to take action. Impostor syndrome can take over, and you feel like you are a fraud.

When stuck in a state of analysis paralysis, we stall our efforts to take meaningful action toward what matters. So how do you get out of your head and build behavioral momentum? The key is building habits into your daily routine. As Aristotle stated:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The most effective way to build new behaviors is to slowly integrate new patterns of action into your daily routine.

Beyond contemplation of one’s strengths and abilities, self-confidence is built in practice by seeing evidence of own abilities.

Consider things you have already completed. What steps have you already taken toward your goals? If you haven’t taken any direct steps, are there any indirect things you may have done in preparation to take action?

If you have not yet taken any actions, consider one small thing you can do today or tomorrow that would likely get you slightly closer to your goal.

By completing a task, you get the reward of a small win. Getting this small win increases your motivation to complete the next task, leading to greater rewards as you build trust in yourself.

Some people find it helpful to create checklists of the small tasks they want to complete in a day. The smaller the task, the more you can add to your checklist. Each time you check off a completed task, you get a sense of accomplishment, leading to further motivation.

Another benefit to focusing on small tasks is that it keeps you from feeling overwhelmed when tackling everything all at once.

This is why the popular 12-step phrase, “one day at a time,” has been so powerful for many people in recovery. If one day at a time is too much, try focusing on one hour at a time or one moment at a time.

Avoiding procrastination through small steps means letting go of perfectionistic ideals and accepting imperfect circumstances.

Here is a relevant metaphor from The Big Book of ACT Metaphors:

Imagine you are waiting for a train to go somewhere special. There are two trains indicating they are going to your destination. The first train looks odd, dirty, and uncomfortable, while the second one looks clean, comfortable, and luxurious.

You excitedly choose the second luxurious train, anticipating the trip ahead as you wait to board. The first train then leaves, and another odd-looking one going to your destination pulls up.

You keep waiting for the luxurious train all afternoon, but it never leaves the station, while the other trains continue to come and go.

This metaphor highlights how perfectionistic concerns keep us from taking the next step.

Like the question I asked at the end of the section on developing your vision for change. What small thing can you do today or tomorrow?

Identify Unhelpful Thoughts

As you start taking steps on your journey toward change, your mind will put up many roadblocks.

“You don’t deserve it… you’re not good enough… you’re being selfish… you can’t do it anyway.”

Change requires identifying these roadblocks and effectively getting around them.

Identifying these mental roadblocks requires getting in touch with the unhelpful thoughts that pop up throughout your day.

I use the term “unhelpful thoughts” because it is often unhelpful to try to debate their validity. These thoughts are often quite sticky and do not necessarily go away by debating them.

For example, have you ever tried to change a friend’s mind about politics by debating them? If so, how does that usually go?

To avoid the mental tug-of-war with your unhelpful self-critical thoughts, there is another way around the roadblock. Here’s an exercise:

Consider the vision of what you want. What are you doing? Who are you with? Where are you?

After getting a sense of what this looks like, imagine you are getting the opportunity to live this vision tomorrow. What do you feel when faced with this opportunity?

Do you feel excitement, fear, or a combination of both? Knowing you will be able to live your ideal vision tomorrow, would you have difficulty sleeping tonight? If so, what would be on your mind?

If there is any fear, what self-critical thoughts pop into your head?

Are any of the following previously listed thoughts coming up?

“You don’t deserve it… you’re not good enough… you’re being selfish… you can’t do it.”

Next, take out a piece of paper and a pen.

Pick a common critical phrase your mind tells you, like one of the above, and write it in the middle of the page.

Now hold that page in both your hands and try to push it as far away from your body as possible. Notice how this takes away your ability to use your hands for other things. In addition, the longer you try to push it away, the more painful it becomes, as your arms get tired.

This is equivalent to the way your mind becomes preoccupied with unhelpful thoughts, interfering with your ability to do the things you enjoy. As your mind continues to be preoccupied with these thoughts, you become mentally exhausted.

Now take this piece of paper and put it on your lap. Although you now have increased contact with it, you can use your hands and save your energy for other things.

You can have this thought, but it doesn’t necessarily have to affect your ability to move forward.

Now put the paper back on the table, and above the self-critical phrase, write the following: “I’m having the thought that…”

How does this change your relationship to the thought?

Next, above that, write “I’m noticing…”

Now, read the series of statements together.

For example: “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough.”

How do you feel reading this version of the statement compared to the original one?

Many people report feeling lighter. The reason is that this phrasing allows you to step back from your self-critical thought and see it as just a thought rather than a fact about reality.

Rather than holding this piece of paper tightly in your outstretched arms, you can fold it up and put it in your pocket. Although it is closer to you and not necessarily going away, it is relatively harmless.

Increasing contact with unhelpful thoughts while disconnecting from them as facts about reality gives us the freedom to focus on what matters.

Accept Difficult Emotions

Ever notice how avoiding pain also requires avoiding joy?

When making a change in your life, uncomfortable emotions are pretty common. The problem with avoiding unpleasant emotions is that it limits us from also experiencing pleasant ones.

For example, a person may avoid feelings of love and intimacy out of a deeper avoidance of the potential pain if the relationship does not work out. Another example could include avoiding putting out a piece of your work out of fear of judgment. Avoiding this potential pain, it’s easier to continue along a safe path, even if it is unfulfilling.

When we tell ourselves we need to avoid painful feelings, we also begin to avoid positive experiences that could potentially lead to a painful outcome.

Here’s a great metaphor from the ACBS website:

“Imagine what you’re doing with these (thoughts/distressing memories/feelings) is like fighting with a ball in a pool. You don’t like them, you don’t want them, and you want them out of your life. So you try and push this ball underwater and out of your consciousness. However, the ball keeps floating back to the surface, so you have to keep pushing it down or holding it underwater. This struggling with the ball keeps it close to you and is tiring and futile. If you were to let go of the ball, it would pop up, float on the surface near you, and you probably wouldn’t like it. But if you let it float there for a while, with your hands off, it would eventually drift away and out of your life. And even if it didn’t, at least you’d be better able to enjoy your swim rather than spending your time fighting!”

What difficult emotions might be holding you back from taking action?

What addictive behaviors or substances could you be using as a form of avoidance?

In your own experience, is this getting you closer or further from the things you want?

Is the short-term comfort even worth it?

Beyond just working with your unhelpful thoughts, it is also important to slowly and intentionally expose yourself to situations that may trigger difficult emotions.

I’ve often heard people say they try to avoid their triggers. Although this can be helpful when avoiding triggers that cause craving, it is unhelpful when avoiding triggers associated with a fear response. For example, if you want to stop using alcohol to cope with anxiety, it is helpful to avoid having easy access to alcohol, but it is unhelpful to live in a bubble, avoiding any situation that can trigger anxiety.

Avoiding things that cause anxiety further reinforces the danger of the thing causing anxiety. The avoidant behavior trains your brain to believe this is something that must be avoided.

A major part of treating anxiety is a practice in behaviorism called “exposure therapy.” This means slowly exposing an individual to a fear-inducing stimulus over time while equipping them with the mental tools to overcome the fight/flight reaction.

What small thing can you do to bring up a manageable amount of discomfort?

As you imagine yourself doing this thing, notice any emotions arising. What are you feeling in your body right now? Take some time to hold space for these feelings. As you breathe in, imagine you are opening up space for these feelings in your body, inviting them in.

Many people fear that coming into contact with it makes it more real. In reality, avoiding it doesn’t make it any less real. If you find yourself standing on quicksand, resisting and struggling doesn’t make it any less dangerous. If anything, you’re more likely to sink. Instead, laying down on the quicksand (increasing contact) is the safer route, allowing you to increase your weight distribution across the surface of the sand.

Accepting difficult emotions does not mean giving up. Instead, it means increasing contact with the perceived threat so that it has less power over you.

Our emotions are a source of information. By numbing ourselves to difficult emotions, we cut ourselves off from a significant source of information, like ignoring the check engine light in your car. The light indicates something needs to be attended to, and without attending to it, the problem can become worse.

Avoiding our emotions compounds the problem, like avoiding a simple oil change can result in significant engine damages, costing you more in the long run.

Although avoidance feels rewarding in the short term, is it really worth it?

A tiger metaphor by Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), seems fitting here:

Imagine you adopted a cute young tiger cub. It wanders through your home like a kitten, and you notice it won’t stop purring loudly. The only way you can make it stop is to feed it red meat. Over the months and years, you keep doing this so that it will leave you alone. Eventually, the tiger is several hundred pounds, requiring whole sides of beef to feed its insatiable hunger. Rather than a cute purr, the tiger roars ferociously for its meat. You are terrified, so you keep giving him the meat so he will leave you alone. The more you feed it, the larger it gets, and the more trapped you become.

Next time you use your avoidance method of choice, bring some mindful awareness to the experience. Is this worth it? Is this experience worth all of the work? Is it worth all of the damage? Without needing to engage in self-judgment, simply bring mindful attention to whether it’s worth it.

Build Helpful Habits

Habits make progress easier because you can operate on auto-pilot rather than having to make decisions all the time.

Each decision throughout the day depletes some willpower. The more decisions you need to make, the less willpower you have left to make smart decisions. This is Roy Baumeister’s psychological concept of “decision fatigue.”

The psychology of decision fatigue can be seen in grocery store checkout isles. Having to make several decisions while you shop, you have less willpower leftover when checking out and are more likely to buy the candy bar impulsively.

Therefore, to optimize willpower, consider ways to reduce the number of decisions you make in a day.

Although we cannot function without making decisions, many of these decisions are unnecessary. Having to decide whether or not you’ll go to the gym each day takes up unnecessary willpower. So how do you reduce your decision-making load?

Creating habits allows you to make fewer daily decisions, allowing you to use willpower more efficiently. Rather than constantly choosing each meal, moment to exercise, and time to sleep, having a routine allows you to flow between tasks in your day on relative autopilot.

Living on autopilot can be detrimental if you’ve built unhealthy habits, but it can be helpful when intentionally structuring your day based on healthy things you want to incorporate.

The key here is to start small and slowly add things into your daily routine. Large disruptive changes to your situation make it less likely to stick over time. Long-term change starts slow, building motivational momentum over time, based on small intentional changes.

If you want to create your own customized set of next steps, consider trying the SMART principle.

This goal-setting method allows you to focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals. Each goal is not an end-point but a step on the path toward your long-term goals.

Here are the aspects to consider when creating a SMART goal:

Specific: Is this a specific goal, or is it too broad?

Measurable: How would you measure progress toward this goal?

Achievable: Is this a realistic goal?

Relevant: Is this meaningfully connected to your values?

Time-bound: What is your timeline/ deadline for this goal?

Conclusion

This article provides a blueprint for making a significant change in your life. Although there is considerable psychological evidence underpinning each of these change processes, I’ve emphasized the need to take action rather than just learning about the techniques.

The first step requires accepting your fear of hoping for something more. Change is scary. It requires raising your expectations for yourself, potentially letting yourself down, and deciding to author your own life rather than continue as usual.

Although we can have compassion for this desire for sameness, we can realize its dangers. When we decide not to take action, we risk missing out on something that can add richness to our lives.

When getting caught up in the auto-pilot of sameness, we often neglect to ask ourselves what we really want in life. Developing a vision of what we want allows us to aspire to something more. If you can’t develop a clear enough vision, continuing to dwell on it often does not help. This is why experimenting with change by taking small steps is necessary.

Although the mountain of change can seem intimidating, focusing on small steps allows you to start taking action immediately rather than figuring it all out beforehand, making the process far less overwhelming.

Rather than simply being guided by “shoulds” and “musts,” it’s important to foster an inner compass guided by your values. By focusing on your reasons for change, your motivation is founded on internal factors rather than being dependent on external factors.

Many unhelpful thoughts will arise throughout the change process, telling you you’re not good enough, asking if you’re sure you’re ready. Noticing these thoughts and unhooking from them allows you to refocus on what matters.

As difficult emotions arise, it is tempting to resist them. Instead, we can make space for them, accepting they will be there until we gain familiarity with the new territory.

Building habits allows this change to be sustainable in the long term. Slowly integrating these new habits into your current routine is an easy way to build motivational momentum through small steps.

Although this article is quite long, I plan on breaking it down into small actionable steps in an upcoming program. If you’re interested in helping beta-test any developments in this program, feel free to sign up here for updates.

How to Stop Online Gambling

How to Stop Online Gambling

If you are trying to stop online gambling, you are not alone. Over the last couple of years, there has been an explosion of online gambling. As shared in my article on online gambling addiction, this trend has accelerated riskier gambling since it’s constantly accessible from your phone or computer.

As a certified gambling counselor, I’ve helped many clients stop online gambling. Accessible 24/7, many people find themselves unable to focus on other things, constantly thinking about gambling and trying to win back losses. Craving time alone to gamble, it can affect your relationships, sleep, finances, and overall mental health.

In this article, I provide some practical ways to stop online gambling so you can regain control and start living the life you want. Here is a quick summary:

  1. Decide if online gambling is worth it
  2. Self-exclude from online betting sites 
  3. Replace gambling with other activities 
  4. Address the root causes of your gambling
  5. Seek the support of a gambling counselor 

I’ve developed these strategies over several years of working within a casino doing problem gambling prevention, helping people who are struggling with their gambling, in addition to working within a hospital setting, providing residential support to persons recovering from problem gambling.

Although gambling functions like any other addiction, there are some important distinctions to consider. Hopefully, this article helps you make sense of the unique features of problem gambling, in addition to providing some valuable tools to help you gain back control.

Decide if online gambling is worth it

Deciding to stop gambling ultimately comes down to whether or not gambling is worth it. Even when it’s clearly not worth it monetarily, many people continue to gamble because it’s not about the money.

Here are some common reasons people continue gambling:

“Gambling makes me happier.”

Even if you know you are spending more money than you are getting back, you may justify continued gambling based on its ability to make all of the world’s problems go away temporarily. Using gambling to escape is one of the most common forms of gambling, especially among those who use games such as online slot machines.

Although many people in the early stages of problematic gambling may believe it makes them happier, this illusion is often shattered when their lives become unmanageable. Gambling offers a false promise of happiness, just like it offers the false illusion of control and false hope for a better future.

“I can make money gambling.”

I have heard this several times from persons who engage in professional forms of gambling where a significant amount of skill is involved. For example, tournament poker allows players to gain a slight mathematical edge on one another, making it a game of both skill and chance.

The first question I would ask is whether or not your gambling is actually profitable. Do you keep a balance sheet, closely tracking your wins and losses? Are you treating your gambling like a business? If so, and you are profitable, I would still even ask if it’s worth it.

Is this amount of money worth the roller-coaster of stress? Is it worth risking your closest relationships? Is it worth the constant lying, the loss of integrity, and the constant preoccupation?

What do you truly value in life? Is gambling getting you closer or further away from that?

“I’ll be bored if I stop gambling.”

Many people looking for gambling support can’t imagine their lives without it. By this point, gambling often becomes a full-time job. Spending so much time gambling, other hobbies and interests go by the wayside.

Although gambling may feel like the only form of leisure activity currently, I’ve seen many people adjust to an enjoyable life outside gambling. It may take some brainstorming at first, but given time, it is possible to rekindle old hobbies and find new fulfilling activities to engage in.

This fear of boredom is common in all addictions, so if you’re interested in learning more, check out my article 16 Reasons Being Sober Is Worth It. Many of the lessons apply to gambling as well.

Is it worth it?

Try bringing your attention to the actual experience of online gambling. Bring your attention to the work involved in it. Notice the effort required to incorporate it into your life. Perhaps you have to hide certain things, plan around it, or think about it constantly. When I talk to clients about this, I often find myself saying, “wow… that sounds stressful!”

Is this experience worth all of the work? Is it worth all of the damage? Without engaging in self-judgment, bring mindful attention to these aspects of the experience.

When deciding whether gambling is worth it, I highly recommend checking out Alan Carr’s book, The Easy Way to Stop Gambling.

After seeing the power of his approach, I often recommend the audiobook versions of his texts to my clients to listen to while driving or cleaning. His books have a way of making the addictive substance or behavior seem highly unappealing by the end of the book. If you are still gambling, this is a great book to start with.

Self-exclude from online betting sites

If you’ve decided you’ve had enough and need to stop. This is the next step.

This is an area unique to gambling addiction. Unlike bars and liquor stores, you can ban yourself from casinos and block yourself from gambling sites.

Although this does not entirely fix the issue, it makes it more difficult to access online gambling and therefore increases the odds of stopping.

There are two ways to block yourself from online gambling: 1) self-exclusion from individual gambling platforms, and 2) using blocking software. Ideally, you can use both as a way to maximize effectiveness.

Self-exclusion has a different process, depending on the online gambling platform. You can do this by looking around the account settings or searching Google for “how to self-exclude from x platform” (replace “x” with the name of your gambling site/ app). If this is not an option, simply deactivating your account is another route.

Once you’ve self-excluded/ deactivated your account, you can install an application that blocks gambling sites on your phone or computer.

Bet Blocker is a free service that blocks all gambling-related content and can be installed on your computer or mobile phone. Gameban is a more premium paid version of this service.

Some people may want to go a step further and consider getting a non-smartphone or a phone without access to the internet. Since gambling is now accessible everywhere, merely having a smartphone can be a strong trigger in early recovery. If taking a break from your device is not feasible, the options listed above may also work.

Another way to make gambling less accessible is to consider your access to funds. Simply having easy access to extra money can be a significant gambling trigger. Therefore, it can be helpful to consider the following questions:

Are you able to open up to someone in your life who can take control of the finances right now? Can you cancel credit cards or limit withdrawals from your debit account? Can you talk to a financial planner and consolidate all of your debts into a single payment?

Addressing each of these areas allows you to limit your access to gambling so you can start focusing on things that matter in your life.

Replace gambling with other activities

Once you’ve decided to cut out gambling, it is essential to consider healthy replacements. Since gambling can take up a significant amount of one’s time, self-excluding and blocking it from your phone or computer can often result in boredom, fuelling the desire to return to gambling.

Blocking yourself from gambling is a short-term solution, requiring this next step to entrench long-term motivation and commitment to change.

Consider the types of things you would like to do if you didn’t have gambling in your life.

If something doesn’t immediately come to mind, consider things you once enjoyed but stopped doing when online gambling started to take over your spare time.

Some people incorporate hobbies they once enjoyed, spend time with people they haven’t seen in a while, start going for walks, or incorporate more exercise in their life. The key is that you find this replacement activity genuinely enjoyable.

What small thing would you start doing today or tomorrow?

What would look different in your daily life once you’ve stopped gambling?

Once you’ve started to see some progress in your financial situation, what would it allow you to do?

Address the root causes of your gambling

As stated earlier, when gambling becomes an addiction, it is often no longer about the money. Gambling is often used to escape from deeper issues such as stress, anxiety, boredom, or loneliness.

Due to the ease of access, online platforms make it easier to use gambling to cope with underlying issues such as anxiety and depression.

According to a survey by the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC), anxiety and depression are significant factors contributing to high-risk gambling. As shown below, persons with severe depression are almost five times more likely to engage in high-risk gambling. 

Typical depression symptoms such as low mood, apathy, and social isolation are barriers to accessing in-person venues. With online gambling, persons with severe depression can maintain round-the-clock access to gambling while in the comfort of their own homes.

RGC’s survey found that gambling to cope with depressed moods was a significant risk factor for problematic gambling:

“…67.6% of those who gambled online because it helps when feeling nervous or depressed were high-risk gamblers. [They have] 7.4-times the risk of problematic gambling, relative to other gambling motives.”

Recovering from an addiction to online gambling requires long-term work on underlying issues.

For a summary of some common therapeutic ways to overcome these underlying issues, you can check out a section in another one of my articles on overcoming addiction here.

This is the most challenging aspect of recovery to tackle on one’s own and often requires the support of a professional counselor who can identify and address these underlying issues.

Seek the support of a gambling counselor

If you want to gain back control over your gambling, reaching out for support significantly increases your odds of success.

I often hear people say they’ve tried to reach out for help but don’t feel understood. Although general mental health and addiction professionals may be helpful, many people do not realize there are dedicated gambling counselors who specialize in this specific area.

As a Certified Gambling Counselor, I’ve worked in problem gambling since 2016, in the front lines, helping persons from the time of self-exclusion within the casino, to long-term residential treatment, and now as a private practitioner, helping clients across Canada and the US.

Reaching out for support can be difficult. Many people wonder, “will it work for me?” and “what if things never change?” In early recovery, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Luckily, long-term change is quite common, with the proper support. If you don’t know where to start, reach out for a free consultation, and I can help guide you through the process.

If you are starting to think gambling is no longer worth it, I am currently accepting new clients residing in Canada or the US.

Send me a message below to request a free 15 min consultation, or click here to learn more.

Contact for a free consultation:

Procrastination Is Not Laziness

Procrastination Is Not Laziness

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Many people blame themselves for being lazy or not having enough willpower to complete the important things they want to do.

Popular self-help messages further reinforce this perspective on procrastination, merely telling people to try harder, hustle, or get more willpower. Although these things might be necessary, this advice does not resolve the core issue.

Procrastination is the result of fear, not laziness. Persons procrastinate due to perfectionistic concerns, basing their self-worth on external validation of their performance. Tackling important tasks induces fear of inadequate performance and further potential damage to one’s self-worth and sense of competence. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors and how they contribute to procrastination.

What causes procrastination?

According to Temporal Motivation Theory, the root cause of procrastination includes:

  • Low expectations of your competence 
  • A low value placed on the task
  • Difficulties with impulse control
  • Lack of an immediate deadline 

In other words, procrastination results from perfectionistic concerns about one’s performance, low interest in a task, having several distractions, and no immediate deadline.

Saying someone is “lazy” is actually a lazy explanation of human behavior because it does not consider the various underlying factors driving it.

The word “lazy” implies the person just needs to use more willpower, but as I shared in my previous article, willpower is overrated.

Although willpower is a vital ingredient in behavior change, it is far from the only ingredient. Like baking a cake, you can’t simply throw flour in the oven and neglect all of the other parts of the recipe.

Like being a lazy baker, providing lazy explanations of human behavior only leads to disappointment. Therefore, let’s consider all of the elements involved in procrastination and how to overcome it.

How to overcome procrastination

To overcome procrastination, consider the following:

  • Focus on progress, not perfection 
  • Clarify your “why”
  • Reduce the need for willpower 
  • Set small goals 

By focusing on each of these areas, you increase the odds of completing a task rather than procrastinating.

Focusing on progress, not perfection, allows you to overcome the perfectionistic tendency to worry about not doing the task well. It’s easier not to start a task than to risk criticism for not doing it well enough. This is particularly relevant for persons who are highly driven and base their self-worth on their performance.

Clarifying your “why” allows you to gain a broader sense of purpose regarding the task. For example, my motivation to continue writing this article is based on the value-orientated drive to serve others through my work.

Reducing the need for willpower means removing any distractions from your environment and creating habits that make it easier to complete the task. I have a complete description of how to do this in my article here.

Setting small goals refers to creating several regular short-term goals rather than just relying on a long-term goal. For example, if you want to finish writing a paper in a week, you can break it into smaller goals and aim to write one section per day.

Is procrastination an addiction?

As an addiction counselor, human motivation has been a core focus in my work. Understanding someone’s motivation to use addictive substances allows me to work with these underlying motives and increase motivation to change.

Although procrastination is not technically considered an addiction, it shares many traits with addictions, including the following:

  • Short-term relief at a long-term cost
  • Loss of control
  • Craving distractions 
  • Compulsive behaviors

Procrastination can be like an addiction to not engaging in a specific task.

Short-term relief comes when a person procrastinating avoids fear by not engaging in a task that provokes perfectionistic fear. This comes at a long-term cost of not completing the task and may also result in harm to many areas of someone’s life.

Loss of control is experienced when procrastinating since a person begins to feel even less competent to engage in the task the longer they put it off.

Craving distractions may come in the form of immediately wanting to do something else when faced with the object of procrastination. For example, when sitting down to write, I seem to immediately feel hungry or want to check my emails.

Compulsive behaviors are things we feel compelled to do, despite their lack of relevance to our goal. For example, many people compulsively clean their environment rather than engage in an important task.

Procrastination has many overlaps with addiction. Even though procrastination is the absence of action, it involves several alternative actions that serve as distractions, providing short-term relief at a long-term cost to one’s work, relationships, or personal health.

Conclusion

Procrastination is not about laziness. Instead, it is about not having the right motivational ingredients. Throughout this article, I’ve summarized some key lessons from Temporal Motivation Theory, a leading theory of procrastination. I’ve also provided practical steps you can take to stop procrastinating.

If you want to learn more about motivation, I highly recommend my more in-depth article on the topic here: How to Find Motivation.

If you are trying to help someone else who is struggling with motivation, you can check out my article here: How to Motivate Someone.

If you’re curious why I’m not a big fan of willpower, you can check out my article here: Why Willpower is Overrated.

I hope this has been a helpful overview of procrastination. As always, feel free to leave a comment down below. You can also reach out to me directly here.

How Addiction Counseling Works

How Addiction Counseling Works

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As an addiction counselor, I specialize in human motivation. Although every form of counseling needs to consider the role of motivation, it is especially relevant when dealing with addiction.

If you struggle with addiction, you may find yourself continually returning to a substance or behavior, despite the negative impact on your life. Like a war in your head, you try to control the craving but end up giving in, telling yourself “this time will be different.”

Despite rational evidence to the contrary, you feel emotionally driven to give it another try. As your sense of control fades, and it’s no longer a form of entertainment, you start to wonder why you’re continuing it and how you’ll ever be able to stop.

Addiction counseling works by intervening in the motivational processes that drive the addiction. It helps address underlying issues, unmet needs, and fosters a sense of self-efficacy through a collaborative planning process. 

Let’s take a closer look at how addiction counseling works and what makes it unique.

What is Addiction Counseling?

Addiction counseling is a collaborative conversation about behavior change, focused on meeting a client where they are at, building trust, motivation, and effective coping skills to navigate everyday life.

According to the transtheoretical model of behavior change, addiction counseling involves the following areas:

  • Stages of change
  • Processes of change
  • Levels of change 

Stages of change” refers to a person’s readiness to change. There are five stages:

  1. Pre-contemplation (not thinking of change)
  2. Contemplation (thinking of change)
  3. Preparation (planning for change)
  4. Action (doing the change)
  5. Maintenance (making it habitual)

Addiction counseling is unique due to the high level of motivational ambivalence. This means clients may want to change and don’t want to change simultaneously. It is important to recognize this fact and meet a client where they are in their current change stage.

Processes of change” refers to the actual intervention. This means delving into the specific factors driving the person’s behavior.

Although these factors vary depending on the person, I explore some common processes in my article on How to Stop an Addiction. This article is quite comprehensive and links to other articles I’ve written, breaking down how each specific process works.

Levels of change” refers to the level of focus, from micro (present/ individual) to macro (long-term/ societal) levels of complexity. Here are some of the levels of change from micro-focus to macro-focus:

  1. Current situational factors
  2. Cognitive factors
  3. Interpersonal factors
  4. Systemic familial factors
  5. Long-term societal factors

When working with a client, I consider a holistic picture of the client’s present stage of change, the processes of change relevant to their situation while determining the most appropriate levels of change to focus on at a given time.

Although this sounds highly technical, it is going on invisibly in the back of my head. At the same time, I hold space for the client to share their experience as I guide the conversation through specific questions before collaborating on the next steps.

Approaches to Addiction Counseling 

There are many different approaches to addiction counseling, and depending on the counselor, they may specialize in one or more of the following techniques.

Building on the previous section, these approaches are part of the “process of change.”

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing is the foundation of addiction counseling. It is distinct because it was developed by psychologists specializing in addiction rather than the other approaches that generally originate in treating anxiety and depression.

Motivational interviewing is uniquely powerful because it directly targets ambivalence, the core motivational process in addiction. This means it helps facilitate a client’s progression through the stages of change listed above.

In short, motivational interviewing is a collaborative conversation style that builds a therapeutic relationship, evoking the client’s own reasons for change. Most of it involves active listening and empathetically holding space, guiding the conversation toward the client’s own strengths, resources, and reasons for change.

On the surface, motivational interviewing merely looks like really good listening, but there are quite a few technical things going on that should be largely invisible if done right.

If you want to take a look under the hood at the nuts and bolts of motivational interviewing, I’ve written a pretty comprehensive article on it here: How to Do Motivational Interviewing.

Although this is a powerful approach to addiction counseling, it does have its limitations.

For clients struggling with anxious thoughts or depressed moods, other treatment approaches are required to target these underlying issues.

Cognitive-behavioral approaches

Cognitive-behavioral approaches are a gold standard for treating anxiety and depression. These approaches delve into the specific unhelpful thoughts causing painful emotions, resulting in addictive behaviors.

These approaches look at how one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected, developing insight around distorted beliefs at the root of maladaptive coping behaviors.

Mindfulness approaches 

Mindfulness approaches have also acquired a significant evidence base in the addiction field. These approaches can range from classic mindfulness meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), or mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness-based behavioral approach I specialize in due to its high level of process-based compatibility with motivational interviewing.

In short, ACT fosters behavior change through six psychological change processes: 

  1. Acceptance, 
  2. Cognitive defusion 
  3. Present moment awareness
  4. Self-as-context
  5. Values
  6. Committed action.

Although ACT was initially developed for panic disorder, it is ideally suited to addiction counseling because it targets unhelpful thoughts, like cognitive-behavioral therapy, and fosters motivation through its values and committed action processes.

For a practical deep dive into each of these ACT processes, I wrote an article here that goes through each of them, offering explanations, metaphors, and exercises.

Solution-focused approaches

Solution-focused approaches are particularly relevant in short-term counseling or single-session counseling. It is highly goal-oriented and focused on setting this goal early in the session.

Focusing on the present and the future rather than the past, this approach is particularly useful for getting quick results. Rather than spending a lot of time discussing why something has happened, it focuses on how you can move forward.

Over the last year, I’ve been developing an appreciation for this approach. Doing single-session counseling as part of my employment for a national counseling service, I have 50 minutes to get results for a client I will likely never talk to again.

I see too many people spending months in therapy without seeing results. Although someone dealing with an anxiety disorder may feel motivated to return to counseling each week, hoping the next session will finally unlock some kind of relief, this results-delayed approach is highly unmotivating when it comes to addiction.

If the client isn’t seeing some kind of short-term benefit from counseling, taking practical steps toward a bigger, better offer on the horizon, the addiction starts to seem like a better use of funds. This is why solution-focused approaches are a useful addition to an addiction counselor’s toolkit.

A solution-focused approach is also highly compatible with motivational interviewing because it draws out the other person’s strengths, past experiences, and resources to collaboratively problem-solve regarding the next steps.

Narrative therapy

Narrative therapy is another helpful approach to addiction counseling because it targets unhelpful stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. This is relevant to addiction since it is a highly stigmatized issue.

Many persons with addiction carry a great deal of shame, particularly if they grew up identifying as someone who always followed the rules, needed to succeed, or focused on others at the expense of themselves. A narrative approach specifically looks at identity narratives that may be holding someone back from self-compassion or self-care.

Spiritual approaches

Spiritual approaches are another powerful emerging area in the addiction field. Although I do not favor a particular religious tradition in counseling, a client’s spirituality can be a vital source of resilience and motivation.

There is also emerging evidence on the power of psychedelic substances in treating addiction, and it is an area I am interested in moving into when regulations allow them to be used in clinical settings.

12-step approaches

12-step approaches to addiction are the foundation of recovery culture. Focused on abstinence, this approach facilitates acceptance of one’s powerlessness over the addiction, providing a structured framework of steps for recovery. This approach has also been a widely-available source of peer support.

Although some people are drawn to it more than others, the consistent benefit I’ve observed among clients is the sense that they’re not alone. Since connection is the opposite of addiction, this approach provides a strong social component not offered in individual counseling.

It is important to note that the 12-step model is technically a form of peer support and not a professional counseling approach, but its lessons and language can be integrated into professional counseling.

Although I am not experienced with the 12-step approach, I am a big fan of the serenity prayer, often used in this approach. If you are interested, I wrote a psychological breakdown of it here: The Meaning of the Serenity Prayer.

Conclusion

Like mental health counseling more broadly, addiction counseling works by helping clients work through underlying pain and develop healthy coping skills so they can start living the life they want.

A counselor specializing in addiction brings a keen awareness of human motivation, in addition to experience working with clients in ways that further foster this motivation.

If you want to learn more about motivation, I highly recommend checking out some of my other articles on the topic:

How to Find Motivation

How Does Motivation Work?

How to Motivate Someone

Why Willpower is Overrated

For a more in-depth look at my counseling toolkit, you can check out my article here.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to reach out here or leave a comment under this article.

Why Willpower is Overrated

Why Willpower is Overrated

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Willpower is overrated.

I know this sounds controversial, but it is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit for the past decade.

As an addiction counselor, former personal trainer, and avid writer on the topic of motivation, I’ve seen how most people assume willpower is the key to success. Although it can be helpful, I think it’s highly overrated.

Popular self-help media messages depict strong willpower as the key to overcoming adversity and achieving success. We often hear words like “grind” and “hustle,” making it seem like the only thing stopping you from being a super fit billionaire is your willpower.

Although willpower is necessary, the concept is overrated because it neglects the psychology of motivation. Merely focusing on willpower ignores external factors, unmet needs, one’s core values, and the power of motivational momentum through small steps. 

As described in my article on how to find motivation, there are many ingredients involved in motivation beyond just willpower. By neglecting these other ingredients and relying on willpower alone, you may find yourself having difficulties maintaining long-term motivation. This often leads to beating yourself up for not having enough willpower, further reducing your level of motivation.

Let’s break down the psychology of willpower, then connect it to the broader psychology of motivation. I’ll then explore practical steps to help you stop relying on willpower and start getting the results you want.

What is Willpower

According to a summary by the American Psychological Association, willpower can be defined as the following:

  • The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals
  • The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
  • The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
  • Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self
  • A limited resource capable of being depleted

In other words, willpower is the ability to forgo short-term gratification for a long-term benefit.

Although there is some debate regarding the nature of willpower, leading willpower researcher Roy Baumeister defines it as a limited resource.

This means willpower can be depleted. Like a phone battery, the more you use it, the faster it depletes. Regaining willpower requires recharging it over time. Unlike simply plugging in your phone, your willpower can be recharged by not facing as many situations where you need to use it.

Recharging willpower is easier said than done. From getting out of bed in the morning, resisting those candies at work, sitting through a boring meeting, then driving past your favorite fast-food restaurants on the way home, daily life constantly draws on your willpower.

Willpower is overrated because it is a finite resource, and when it is your only tool, it quickly depletes, leaving you vulnerable. Like going on a five-day hiking trip without a physical map, compass, battery backup, and expecting to rely on your phone’s GPS the whole time, you’ll likely be food for the bears.

How to Use Less Willpower

As an addiction counselor, I work with clients on how to use less willpower rather than more. If willpower were enough, the client would have probably already figured it out. Having yet another person lecture you about willpower is the last thing you need.

This approach does not diminish the need for willpower altogether. Instead, it recognizes willpower as a valuable finite resource that must be carefully managed.

This approach makes recovery feel much easier than trying to “white knuckle” your way through every day, constantly feeling exhausted for having to resist a particular substance or behavior.

So how do you use less willpower? Here are the main areas I consider when working with my clients:

  • Meet your physical needs
  • Remove environmental triggers
  • Plan ahead 
  • Create habits 
  • Observe cravings
  • Find your “why”
  • Reframe the benefit of the behavior 

Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas so you can apply them to your own goals and increase the odds of success.

Meet Your Physical Needs

Without fueling yourself physically, everything in your day takes a lot more willpower. From waking up in the morning to doing work throughout the day and trying to resist urges along the way, everything is more difficult.

Like waking up to your phone only having a 25% charge, you’ll have a difficult time getting through the day, especially if you need to use it a lot.

The three main areas to consider regarding meeting your physical needs are sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. 

As a former personal trainer, it is tempting for me to delve into specific requirements for each area, but as an addiction counselor, I know that will be unhelpful. Most people know a few small things they could change to make a significant difference in these areas.

The key here is progress, not perfection. We often try to figure out the perfect diet, exercise routine, or sleep schedule, giving up when we fail to live up to these perfectionistic standards.

Since the goal here is to use less willpower, striving for perfection only uses more willpower. Like getting your phone battery to 100% each night, but having to keep your screen on all day at full brightness, running every app, the effort becomes counterproductive.

Rather than trying to do it perfectly or not do it at all, consider small practical changes. For some people, it means focusing on carving out extra time for sleep. For others, it might mean replacing a sugary beverage with an alternative.

What one thing can you change that would have the most significant impact on your physical health? Then, what is the easiest way you can incorporate this into your routine?

By having a stronger physical foundation, your willpower burns much more efficiently throughout the day, making everything easier.

Remove Environmental Triggers

Environmental triggers are things that remind you of a behavior you want to discontinue. In most cases, it’s impossible to remove all of them, but like meeting your physical needs, sometimes “good enough” is better than perfection.

When it comes to environmental triggers, the three main areas to consider are people, places, and things.

Other people have a powerful influence on our behavior. A 2008 study found that among smokers, persons were 67% more likely to quit if their spouse quits and 36% more likely to quit if a friend quits. The same researchers conducted another study in 2007, finding a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if a friend becomes obese.

Although this does not mean we should cut out anyone who isn’t perfect and be alone forever, it might be worth considering the influence of those around you.

In my work with clients trying to stop an illicit substance, it can often mean cutting out some individuals or distancing themselves from others. When it comes to managing alcohol use, it usually involves having personal boundaries with certain people, letting them know your intentions so that they don’t bring wine when you invite them over.

Certain places can also be an environmental trigger. For example, are you having to drive past your favorite fast-food restaurant every day? If you are trying to stop drinking alcohol, are you ready to be in environments where alcohol is present?

The key is to consider what places are putting an unnecessary strain on your willpower and what alternative places might be better for now. 

Another area to consider is the things you can change in your environment. Simply having a specific temptation in sight can be a constant drain on your willpower. If you constantly have to resist that glass jar of cookies on the counter, it might be worth keeping them in the pantry. Still too much of a drain on your willpower? It might be worth keeping them out of the house altogether.

This is particularly useful in addiction counseling and does vary depending on the strength of the addiction. For someone who has been addicted to crystal meth—probably the strongest psychologically addictive substanceit is nearly impossible to maintain abstinence if it’s still in your environment.

For other things like alcohol, cannabis, and gambling, it’s nearly impossible to remove all triggers since we live in a culture full of constant reminders.

The purpose of managing environmental triggers is to reduce the load on your willpower, not complete avoidance. Trying to avoid all triggers can also be counterproductive if it uses more willpower to think about it constantly. 

What one thing can you change in your environment that would remove a significant strain on your willpower?

This one thing does not even need to be related to the behavior you are trying to change. According to Baumeister’s research on willpower, depleting it in one area translates to depletion in all areas. For example, if your goal is to go to the gym in the evening, you’re less likely to go if you’re depleting your willpower all day resisting the chocolate cake sitting on the table.

Willpower is a finite fuel, and it is important to use it as sparingly as possible. Assuming you can’t remove all environmental triggers, let’s delve further into ways you can plan for riskier situations so that you can use less willpower.

Plan Ahead

Planning for riskier situations allows you to use less willpower because you do not have to use mental energy when it’s more difficult.

Working with clients, this is a major part of relapse prevention for persons in early recovery. For example, if someone has decided to stop drinking alcohol, we would plan for how they will manage situations at an upcoming event where alcohol is present.

Whatever the situation, picture how it might look. Who will be there? What will they likely do? In the past, what would likely happen?

When planning ahead, here are some things to consider:

  • Are you ready to even be in this environment at this point?
  • What alternative environment might be less risky?
  • Who will you associate with?
  • What will you say or do when a temptation arises?
  • Do you need to communicate personal boundaries beforehand?
  • How will you communicate personal boundaries?
  • What unexpected risks could arise?
  • How could you maintain accountability?

Beyond planning what to say or do, it may be helpful to build accountability into your plan.

For example, if you don’t want to stay out too late, you can schedule a meeting for the following morning. If you want to go to the gym, you can schedule a time to meet a friend there. Or, if you don’t want to consume alcohol, you could offer to be the designated driver.

Like everything in this article, it’s about managing risk. No amount of planning can guarantee a specific outcome. Maybe you don’t say the thing you wanted to say, encounter an unforeseen risk, or stay too late and miss the meeting you scheduled the next morning.

Again, it’s about progress, not perfection.

Speaking of progress, let’s look at how you can create incremental progress over time, using as little willpower as possible.

Create habits

Habits make progress easier because you can operate on auto-pilot rather than having to make decisions all the time.

Baumeister’s concept of willpower involves something called “decision fatigue.” This means each decision throughout the day depletes some willpower. The more decisions you need to make, the less willpower you have left to make smart decisions.

The psychology of decision fatigue can be seen in grocery store checkout isles. Having to make several decisions while you shop, you have less willpower left over when checking out and are more likely to buy the candy bar impulsively.

Therefore, to optimize willpower, consider ways to reduce the number of decisions you make in a day. 

Although we cannot function without making decisions, many of these decisions are unnecessary. Having to decide whether or not you’ll go to the gym each day takes up unnecessary willpower. So how do you reduce your decision-making load?

Creating habits allows you to make fewer daily decisions, allowing you to use willpower more efficiently. Rather than constantly choosing each meal, moment to exercise, and time to sleep, having a routine allows you to flow between tasks in your day on relative autopilot. 

Living on autopilot can be detrimental if you’ve built unhealthy habits, but it can be helpful when intentionally structuring your day based on healthy things you want to incorporate.

The key here is to start small and slowly add things into your daily routine. Large disruptive changes to your situation make it less likely to stick over time. Long-term change starts slow, building motivational momentum over time, based on small intentional changes.

In the previous section, we discussed removing unhelpful triggers. But when it comes to building healthy habits, you’ll need to incorporate helpful triggers into your environment.

Here’s an example of a morning routine filled with helpful triggers:

  1. The multivitamin next to your toothbrush triggers taking it after brushing teeth. 
  2. The book next to the coffee machine triggers reading a chapter while drinking coffee.
  3. The gym clothes out on dresser triggers putting them on, which triggers morning exercise.
  4. The pre-prepped healthy/ tasty meal container in fridge triggers post-workout meal. 
  5. Specific tabs pre-opened in your browser trigger the type of work you had prioritized
  6. The water bottle on your desk triggers regular hydration 

Intentionally adding triggers into your environment to create healthy habits allows you to offload the need to constantly think about healthy decisions, making them much easier and natural throughout the day.

The trick is to incorporate one thing at a time, adjusting the trigger or habit, if necessary. This is a process also referred to as habit stacking, where you build new habits by stacking them on top of old ones. This process takes time and patience to figure out what works for you.

“Change might not be fast, and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”― Charles Duhigg

Like everything else in this article, it’s about progress, not perfection. Sometimes it’ll work; other times, the new habit won’t quite fit. Rather than the more common all/nothing approach to behavior change, it is important to have compassion for yourself throughout the process.

Observe Your Cravings

When faced with cravings for a particular substance or behavior, it is tempting to resist them, telling yourself, “No! Don’t think about it!”

Unfortunately, “what you resist persists,” as stated by the great psychologist Carl Jung.

For example, if you try not to think of a purple elephant, you’ll most likely keep thinking of a purple elephant.

But really, try to stop thinking of a purple elephant!

If you keep thinking of it, something terrible will happen.

So it’s very important that you stop thinking about it.

Are you finding it hard not to think of the thing you’re resisting?

This is especially relevant when it comes to resisting everyday things we are trying to stop doing. For example, if you are trying to stop drinking alcohol and are constantly resisting the thought of drinking, it only allows the thought to persist even stronger.

So what is the alternative?

Resisting your cravings makes it more likely you’ll quickly burn through all your willpower then act on them when they continue to persist. Accepting the cravings gives you the freedom to choose how you want to act. 

Like being in a constant tug-of-war with your cravings, the harder you pull, the harder it pulls back. Caught in this battle, you find it hard to focus on other things that matter in your life. You can continue to white-knuckle it indefinitely, but the cravings keep you trapped.

The craving has power over you until you decide to drop the rope and refuse to participate in the tug-of-war.

Here is a quick way to take an observational perspective toward your craving rather than a resistant perspective:

  1. Where are the specific sensations in your body associated with this craving?
  2. Describe the specific characteristics of the feeling as if you were a researcher analyzing its unique features. 
  3. How would you describe it if it were to have a color or texture?
  4. Bring your attention to the breath, and with each breath in, make space in that part of your body for the craving. 
  5. Feel each inhalation of air holding space for the craving, allowing it to be there.

Once you’ve observed and accepted the craving, you are freer to make a values-oriented decision on how you want to act.

Many people fear that coming into contact with it makes it more real. In reality, avoiding it doesn’t make it any less real. Like if you find yourself standing on quicksand, resisting and struggling doesn’t make it any less dangerous. If anything, you’re more likely to sink. Instead, laying down on the quicksand (increasing contact) is the safer route, allowing you to increase your weight distribution across the surface of the sand.

Here is a visual example of this metaphorical process:

The end of that clip has another relevant counterintuitive metaphor: closing the distance between yourself and an assailant can decrease their power.

Acceptance does not mean giving up. Instead, it means increasing contact with the perceived threat so that it has less power over you. This is the basis of exposure therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), two of the most powerful techniques used in the field.

For more on how to do ACT, you can check out my article here.

Find Your “Why”

Having a reason why you’re deciding to change is a core ingredient of motivation. Since willpower is about resisting things, it can be uninspiring.

Consider this example: what goal is more inspiring? 1) Not consuming alcohol this evening or 2) spending quality time with your family? Although both are compatible goals, the former focuses on what you’re not going to do, whereas the latter focuses on what you want to do instead.

A 2020 study on new years resolutions finds that you’re more likely to stick to goals focused on what you want vs. goals focused on what you don’t want:

“Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals.”

When talking to a client who says they want to stop drinking, I mentally classify that as only part of what they’re looking for. I’ll usually pivot from this avoidance-oriented goal by asking the following types of questions:

  • You don’t want to do x, so what do you want?
  • If you could stop doing x, what would that allow you to do?
  • What matters to you/what’s important to you?

These types of questions facilitate discussion around approach-oriented goals, which are far more inspiring, giving a source of motivation that is deeper than willpower.

Willpower is used to obtain avoidance-oriented goals, whereas values-based inspiration provides a deeper source of motivation, drawing you forward. 

As Friedrich Nietzsche said:

“One who has a ‘why’ to live for can endure almost any ‘how.’”

We often get stuck dwelling on the how without giving enough attention to why we want something.

This is common among individuals who use a lot of “should” statements. When I start to hear a lot of “shoulds,” I’ll go back to the questions I posed above until the “should” becomes a genuine “want.”

For more on how to find motivation, you can check out my article here.

Reframe the Behavior’s Benefit

As an addiction counselor, one of the most common things I’ve come across is glorifying the substance or behavior beyond its actual reward value.

Although drinking, gambling, or a substance may have once been a source of entertainment, many people in a state of addiction do not find it fun anymore. Instead, it can feel like enslavement.

In my article on what addiction feels like, Stephanie describes her experience in the following words:

“The pleasure is actually short-lived. It happens when we use but only lasts a few minutes. We feel the warm hug or the rush the substance gives us, but five minutes later, we feel nothing except the need/ want for another dose. We feel the self-hate, and that compels us to find the next dose to make that go away.”

It can be helpful to remind yourself of the difference between the perceived benefit and the actual benefit of something you are trying to stop doing. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What does this behavior do for you?
  • Is this perceived benefit a fact, or is this a glorified perception?
  • What need are you trying to fulfill with this behavior?
  • What are some more effective ways to meet this need?

When getting down to the reality of someone’s unhealthy behavior, they often start to describe it in less glorified ways. Listening to the stories of horrific three-day cocaine binges, constant concealment and deception, blackouts, financial strain, and mental clutter, I find myself saying, “wow… that sounds stressful!”

Emphasizing these elements of the behavior allows you to reframe the meaning of the behavior.

For example, instead of gambling = fun, we look at the person’s actual recent experiences, demonstrating how this thought is often based on an outdated perception of the reward value. When reframing the meaning of the behavior based on their own reality, we often come to the answer, gambling = stress.

By reframing the meaning of the behavior, willpower is not necessary. Willpower is only needed when resisting something desirable, so when you reframe the meaning of the behavior as something undesirable, you naturally don’t want to do it.

One of the best series of books on this anti-willpower approach is Alan Carr’s Easyway. After seeing the power of his approach, I often recommend the audiobook versions of his texts to my clients to listen to while driving or cleaning. His books have a unique way of making the addictive substance or behavior seem highly unappealing by the end of the book.

Although he does not have a book for every substance, here are a few options:

The Easy Way to Stop Smoking

The Easy Way to Control Alcohol

The Easy Way to Stop Gambling

The Easy Way to Stop Smartphone Addiction

The Easy Way to Stop Emotional Eating

Although he takes a while to get into the main content, repeats himself a lot, and uses outdated references, I highly recommend his work because it is quite powerful and has changed millions of lives.

For more on how to stop an addiction, you can check out my article here.

Conclusion

Throughout this article, I’ve made the case that willpower is overrated. In the addiction field, they call this “white-knuckling” your way through behavior change. Working with clients on behavior change, willpower generally only lasts so long before a person falls back into preexisting habits.

Rather than relying on willpower alone, I’ve covered various other tools designed to conserve willpower so that you can get more of what you want without having to live in a constant state of resistance.

Here is a quick recap:

  • Meet your physical needs, so everything feels easier
  • Remove environmental triggers that sap your willpower
  • Plan ahead so you can use less willpower in risky situations
  • Create habitsso you use less willpower from decision-fatigue
  • Observe cravingsso you’re in a state of non-resistance
  • Find your “why” so you are inspired toward a bigger, better offer
  • Reframe the unhealthy behaviorso you naturally don’t want it as much

It’s more complicated than simply “having more willpower.” Telling someone who is struggling to just “try harder” oversimplifies the psychology of behavior change, adding additional shame and blame to someone who is likely already struggling with it. 

Long-term change comes from minimizing risk in many different areas through self-care, intentional preparation, and other cognitive tools such as acceptance and reframing. 

Hopefully, this has been a helpful exploration of why using willpower alone is overrated, offering practical strategies on what you can do instead. Feel free to reach out here, if you have any questions, or leave a comment under this article.

How to Stop an Addiction

How to Stop an Addiction

On the go? Listen to the audio version of this article here:

As an addiction counselor, I’ve spent a lot of time helping people stop an addiction. Although everyone’s recovery is unique, I’ve seen some common themes regarding what allows people to gain freedom from addiction.

In this article, I summarize and integrate all of the best research and therapeutic methods on addiction recovery. It is a comprehensive approach that can be started on your own but may require the support of a professional or peer support group.

Throughout the article, I point to many additional resources, so it might be helpful to save the links or take notes on the resources that fit your situation, so you can explore them later on.

So how do you stop an addiction?

  1. Address the physical addiction
  2. Address the psychological addiction
  3. Ask yourself if it’s worth it
  4. Minimize the need for willpower
  5. Maximize intrinsic motivation

Each of these factors allows you to decrease your reasons to continue an addictive substance or behavior and increase your reasons to change.

While struggling with an addiction, you may find yourself on a motivational seesaw, like the image below. Caught between wanting to continue and wanting to stop, many people experience moments of mixed motivation, feeling pulled in two different directions.

On the one hand, the addictive substance or behavior provides relief of physical or emotional pain, while on the other hand, it keeps you from living in alignment with your values.

My collogue Stephanie describes this battle in the following way:

“Addiction feels like a war in your head. You know what you’re doing is hurting you but can’t stop. It’s like watching a bad movie you are the star of. You want to yell “stop” at the screen, but it does no good.”

People may tell you to “just stop,” but you’ve probably already told yourself that many times. If this approach worked, you would have likely stopped long ago. So what is the alternative?

In my work with clients, I uncover the underlying causes of the addiction, treat these underlying causes, and build motivational momentum.

After years of working with clients one-on-one, I’ve decided to create a summary of my approach, so the lessons can reach a broader audience and help more people who are trying to stop an addiction.

Let’s get started.

Address the Physical Addiction

When talking to a client about stopping an addictive substance, the first thing I consider is the potential physical dependency. In simple terms, this means determining how their body might react in the absence of the substance.

This is particularly relevant for individuals who are using a substance daily. If someone is binging on weekends, they may experience a hangover, but this is different from physical dependency.

Physical dependency occurs when your body adapts to the presence of a substance. Over time, your brain and body start to rely on the substance to feel normal, and abruptly stopping a substance can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Working in a withdrawal facility as a chemical dependency counselor, I learned a lot about the various factors to consider when assessing and monitoring clients. These general guidelines are intended for educational purposes and I would advise you to seek the support of a medical practitioner for advice on how to proceed.

Here are some things to consider if you have been using a substance daily:

Alcohol/ Depressants

When your body adapts to the presence of alcohol, its ability to stay relaxed on its own decreases. When stopping, it produces a rebound effect whereby you can become highly anxious and physically shakey, perhaps even leading to seizures. Alcohol and other depressants such as benzodiazepines are considered the most dangerous substances to stop for this reason.

For more on this topic, see my article: What to Expect From Alcohol Withdrawal.

Opioids/ Painkillers

These are the most painful substances to withdrawal from. When your body adjusts to being numbed and sedated, stopping the substance produces a rebound effect whereby persons can experience extreme pain, irritability, inability to sleep, in addition to a number of other flu-like symptoms.

For more on this topic, see my article: What Does Opioid Withdrawal Feel Like?

Stimulants

These often come with more mild withdrawal symptoms compared to alcohol and opioids. When your body adjusts to the constant stimulation, stopping produces a rebound effect whereby persons can feel extreme fatigue. This is particularly relevant when stopping crystal meth due to its potency. Although the withdrawal is not necessarily dangerous like alcohol or painful like opioids, it can result in a great deal of fatigue.

You can read more about crystal meth addiction in my article here.

Cannabis

It is difficult to characterize this particular substance since many people don’t experience withdrawal symptoms, while others do. Irritability, difficulty sleeping, or a general sense of malaise may be associated with stopping cannabis.

Main lesson

When stopping any substance, consider the potential physical withdrawal symptoms and seek appropriate medical support or the services of a withdrawal facility.

The main question I ask potential clients to determine their withdrawal risk is whether or not there have been days recently where they have not used the substance. If so, I ask them to describe what those days are like. Since withdrawal symptoms generally set in fairly quickly after stopping a substance, a day of not using the substance usually makes these physical symptoms fairly noticeable.

If the potential client cannot recall a time when there was a gap in their use, I advise them of the above information and to seek support from a medical professional.

If you can go a day or more without using the substance and do not notice significant physical symptoms, it is time to address the psychological aspect of the addiction.

Address the Psychological Addiction

Many people experience psychological addictions without having a physical dependence. If you don’t use a substance daily, or if you struggle with a behavioral addiction like gambling, there may be no physical withdrawal.

The psychological aspect of addiction comes from an attempt to cope with underlying emotional pain such as stress, anxiety, depression, or boredom. The substance or addictive behavior provides temporary relief at a long-term cost to one’s health, relationships, and general wellbeing.

Addictive substances or behaviors are commonly used to cope with unmet needs or past trauma.

Unmet needs commonly include the need for a sense of connection, purpose, and sense of control in one’s life. Past trauma or other adverse experiences can make it even more challenging to meet these needs because it can cause anxiety, mistrust, depression, or cognitive distortions.

Identifying the source of the psychological addiction is generally the goal of my initial sessions with a client. Once we identify the underlying issue, we then focus on treating it.

Since each individual requires a slightly different approach, giving a specific “how to” in this section is difficult, but here are some general things to consider.

Developing Self-Compassion

This is one of the most common areas I continually focus on. Since there is a stigma around addiction, people often internalize unhelpful self-critical thoughts about themselves.

Throughout your day, notice how often you have thoughts like, “I’m stupid, I’m incompetent, I’m worthless, I’m unworthy, I’m a burden, I’m broken, I’m unlovable, or I’m not enough.” This is just a quick summary of the most common ones I hear on a daily basis in my work with clients. If your mind frequently goes to one or many of these places, you are not alone.

Many of the people who struggle with these thoughts are often the most compassionate people in their interactions with others. Drawing on this natural strength, here is an exercise to develop self-compassion:

Imagine a time you’ve struggled with these unhelpful self-critical thoughts about yourself. What was the specific situation? Where were you? When did it happen? What self-critical thoughts came up? If you have a moment, take some time to imagine yourself in this situation.

Now consider someone in your life who you care for. Who is this person? Imagine they come to you describing the same situation you described above, saying the same self-critical thoughts about themselves. How would you respond to that person? What kind words might you offer them?

Now, look back at yourself struggling in that situation. Imagine looking at yourself in that moment of struggling. Notice the pain on your face or the invisible pain underneath. Imagine you could walk up to yourself at that moment. What kind words might you offer yourself?

Would if you could talk to yourself like the person you care about? How might this be a more helpful way of talking to yourself when you face difficult situations in the future?

If self-criticism and lack of self-kindness is a major theme for you, I’d recommend checking out Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff, PhD, for more on this topic.

Noticing Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Another common approach to addiction treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Beyond just noticing self-criticism, CBT allows you to see how your thoughts about the world create your experience of reality.

I’ve listed some of the most common ones in the following chart:

Which one of these unhelpful thinking styles particularity stands out to you? Can you imagine a specific situation where this type of thinking dominated your reality? What particular thoughts were going through your mind at the time? Now that you consider the facts about the situation, how realistic was your perception at the time?

A common scenario includes thoughts about why someone didn’t text you back. Can you recall a time someone didn’t text you back? What kinds of unhelpful thoughts did you have about the situation? Did you jump to conclusions about the other person’s motives? What is a more realistic way of looking at the situation?

As you become more aware of these unhelpful thinking styles in your everyday life, it changes your experience of yourself and the world. Being able to step back and take a more realistic perspective can be a helpful way to reduce anxiety and depression since your thoughts affect your emotions.

If you are interested in learning more about this approach, I recommend the book, Feeling Good by David Burns MD.

Practicing Acceptance

In 12-step recovery, a common phrase is to “accept what you cannot control.” This comes from the Serenity Prayer, which I’ve written more about here.

Do you find yourself spending a lot of time and energy on things you cannot control? This might mean worrying about things in the future, dwelling on things that have already happened, or trying to control others who don’t want to be controlled.

With all the mental energy spent on these things, the overthinking problem-solving mind runs on overdrive. Many people turn to substances to get out of their head or turn off their brain.

Practicing acceptance is a way to ease off the mental gas pedal and stop trying to gain a sense of certainty in uncertain situations beyond one’s control.

One way to do this is to practice using the phrase, “maybe yes, maybe no,” when your mind tries to answer an unanswerable question. Another practical exercise is the leaves on a stream guided meditation that can be found here.

These techniques are taken from my primary therapeutic modality, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I’ve written a comprehensive summary of this technique here.

If you are interested in reading more about this approach, I recommend checking out Act Made Simple by Russ Harris MD.

Although I point to various self-help tools in this article, the best way to optimize your chance of a successful recovery is through the support of others.

Addiction thrives in isolation and recovery brings us back into connection with ourselves and others.

If you want support overcoming the psychological aspects of an addiction, I recommend connecting with a professional in the field.

If you are located in Canada, I offer virtual addiction counseling. You can reach out to me here for a free phone consultation.

If you are looking for a specialist anywhere in the world, I recommend using the Psychology Today therapist directory here. You can filter practitioners by their location, specialty, and types of insurance coverage. Also, many offer a free phone consultation, so you can talk to a few different practitioners before committing.

If you are looking for a flexible, inexpensive virtual option, you can check out Better Help here. Although they don’t accept insurance, they have low costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily until you find the right fit.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help since the quality of counselors is not consistent.

Since the quality of the therapeutic relationship is critical, I recommend seeking out another practitioner if you are not feeling supported. I wrote an article on things to consider when seeking therapy here.

Ask Yourself If It’s Worth It

Addictions are an attempt to solve a problem. The substance or addictive behavior solves the problem in the short term, causing even more problems in the longer term.

Although this may be true in the earlier stages of an addiction, many people start to realize the addiction doesn’t even adequately solve the short-term problem anymore. In fact, they may even begin to dislike the experience of it.

For example, walking through a casino, you’ll often realize many people are not necessarily having fun. I’ve heard similar experiences with substances as well. When the thrill wears off and the usage becomes habitual, the experience can become generally unrewarding.

Tipping the motivational scale away from the addiction requires bringing your attention to the experience of the addiction. Bring your attention to the work involved in maintaining the addiction. Notice the effort required to incorporate it into your life. Perhaps you have to hide certain things, plan around it, or think about it constantly. When I talk to clients about this, I often find myself saying, “wow… that sounds stressful!”

Next time you use your drug of choice, bring some mindful awareness to the experience. Is this worth it? Is this experience worth all of the work? Is it worth all of the damage? Without needing to engage in self-judgment, simply bring mindful attention to whether it’s worth it.

One of the best series of books on this area of motivation is Alan Carr’s Easyway. After seeing the power of his approach, I often recommend the audiobook versions of his texts to my clients to listen to while driving or cleaning. His books have a way of making the addictive substance or behavior seem highly unappealing by the end of the book.

Although he does not have a book for every substance, here are a few options:

The Easy Way to Stop Smoking

The Easy Way to Control Alcohol

The Easy Way to Stop Gambling

The Easy Way to Stop Smartphone Addiction

The Easy Way to Stop Emotional Eating

I recommend reading only one of his books since each is a variation on the same approach. Also, he can take a while to get into the main content and repeats himself a lot. With this in mind, I highly recommend checking out his approach because it is quite powerful and has changed millions of lives.

Minimize the Need for Willpower

Willpower is overrated.

If you’ve tried to stop an addiction, many people have likely said, “you just need more willpower.” You’ve probably even told yourself, “I just don’t have enough willpower.”

As an addiction counselor, I don’t talk about willpower a lot because it is one of the weakest forms of motivation.

In the recovery community, relying on willpower is often referred to as “white-knuckling it.” You can even visualize what this feels like. It’s the sense of constant withholding, restricting, and inner tension.

Willpower is overrated because it is temporary. When it is the only tool, you’ll be able to abstain for a period of time, but you’ll likely go back to the substance or addictive behavior, perhaps even more than before.

For example, food becomes even more appealing when you’re on a diet. Like a dieter sitting next to a buffet, willpower steadily depletes, and binging becomes more likely.

Willpower can be used to get you through a difficult moment, but there needs to be a broader plan.

When discussing this area of recovery with clients, I often look at three major triggers: persons, places, and things.

The least risky way of proceeding is to radically change all of these areas. This could mean you stop spending time with people involved in the substance, avoid places where you use the substance, and remove the substance from your immediate surroundings.

Although completely cutting out all triggers is the safest way, it’s sometimes not practical and necessary for all persons. This is something I collaborate on with each client, based on their situation.

When it comes to alcohol, the most common thing to consider is its availability in the home. It’s much easier to abstain from alcohol if you don’t have it in your immediate surroundings.

When it comes to gambling, removing triggers is often much easier, since there’s usually an option to ban yourself from the casino or online service. This process is commonly referred to as “self-exclusion” and policies vary depending on your location.

When it comes to illicit substances, the most common thing I inquire about is a client’s access to dealers. Limiting access can often entail deleting numbers from your phone or limiting contact with specific friends.

Although there are various ways one can restrict one’s access to triggering things, it is not always realistic to completely remove every trigger.

When you can’t avoid a person, place, or substance, planning for triggering moments can minimize the need for willpower. For example, if you are planning on attending a wedding but want to abstain from alcohol, it would be helpful to imagine how the day might go. Play the potential night like a movie in your head. Where will you be? Who will be around you? What will you be drinking instead? What would you want to say if someone offered you a drink?

Planning for these moments allows you to operate based on a mental template rather than having to make moment-to-moment decisions while in highly triggering environments. Having to make frequent decisions is a major factor in willpower depletion. Planning simplifies the process so you can focus on what matters instead.

If you want to read the best book on this topic, I recommend Willpower by Roy Baumeister PhD. Otherwise, I highly recommend checking out my article on Why Willpower is Overrated.

Maximize Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is composed of three main ingredients according to self-determination theory:

  1. Autonomy (sense of control)
  2. Competence (sense of progress)
  3. Relatedness (sense of belonging)

Gaining a sense of control

The best way to start gaining a sense of control is to consider what you want and start taking small actions toward it.

Many people get used to operating on autopilot based on a series of “shoulds” and social expectations. In my work with clients, I often point out when someone is using a “should” statement, asking them if this is something they “want.” “Shoulds” take away our sense of control, whereas “wants” empower us.

In addition to uncovering genuine desires, I do quite a bit of values exploration with clients. By clarifying core values, you gain a sense of direction and purpose, knowing you are operating based on principles that are important to you. Like a compass, it does not give you complete control over the journey, but it does give you a sense of control over the direction.

Gaining a sense of progress

This is the sense that you are progressing in a skill or progressing toward a goal. If values are the compass, goals are destinations along the path. Rather than focusing on one large goal, it is helpful to break it into several smaller goals. This allows you to gain more frequent motivational rewards along the way.

In my work with clients, I often break down goals into small commitments. We look at small things they can do today or tomorrow, making it easy to begin the change process.

Consider small things you can do today. In the recovery community, they often say, “one day at a time.” This makes the change process less overwhelming. If focusing on one day at a time is too much, you can even consider using the phrase, “one moment at a time.” The only question you need to ask yourself is, “What is the next thing I want to do?”

Another important aspect of gaining a sense of progress is recognizing when you’ve stuck to your commitments. I frequently point this out to clients, providing validation that they stuck to their commitments. I often zoom out, recalling the recent past and offering perspective on how far they have come.

In short, make the process into a series of small tasks and take the time to appreciate small wins along the way.

Gaining a sense of belonging

As a former sociologist, I have a significant interest in the power of social connection. I’ve written about my passion for the study of social connection here and the impact of isolation on addiction here.

As shared in that article, addiction is fundamentally rooted in social disconnection.

Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, recognizes this in the statement:

“We consider addiction a disease of isolation…”

Johann Hari echos this sentiment:

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.”

Bruce Alexander is also a major advocate for this perspective with his famous Rat Park Study.

If you leave the rat with drug-infused water and regular water, the rat will continue taking the drug until it overdoses.

The rat park study did the same experiment but took the rat out of isolation, putting it into rat park, a large rat amusement park with the company of several other rats.

Rather than overdosing on the drug-infused water, the rats in rat park moderated their consumption, balancing it with the regular water.

Although there has been some debate regarding the replicability of this experiment, it demonstrates the power of social connection to treat and prevent addiction.

12-step recovery and other peer-support groups can be huge catalysts to social connection. 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are free and widely available. They build social support into the program by encouraging members to get a “sponsor”—a mentor who has been through the steps and can provide support and guidance in your recovery.

If you’re interested in accessing virtual peer support, you can check out In The Rooms. They offer a wide range of virtual peer-support meetings on various specialized areas of addiction.

Local AA meetings can be found here.

Local NA meetings can be found here.

Local Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meetings can be found here.

If you are interested in trying a non-12-step form of peer support, I recommend checking out Smart Recovery. You can find local meetings here.

Many people with an addiction feel alone in their struggle. They may feel like they are the only one going through it, blaming themselves for not being able to stop.

The shame of self-stigma adds to the sense of isolation, making it even more challenging to recover. If this article resonates with you, just know that you are not alone. There are millions of individuals going through different situations with similar themes.

Connecting with a peer support group is a great way to gain a sense of connection and improve the chances of long-term recovery.

Conclusion

If you or someone you love is trying to stop an addiction, I hope this brief guide can help.

In short, it is important to first address any potential physical addiction with a medical practitioner or withdrawal facility. Next, the psychological addiction needs to be addressed by getting support for unprocessed trauma, adverse experiences, anxious thoughts, or unmet psychological needs. Addressing these physical and mental factors reduces the underlying pain.

In addition to minimizing the underlying pain, it is also important to maximize one’s motivation by clarifying one’s reasons to change and making incremental progress with the support of others.

By minimizing the underlying pain and maximizing the reasons to change, long-term recovery is possible and quite common.

Although the majority of people do recover from an addiction, it often takes a few tries. It gets easier over time, but it still requires ongoing attention. Like beginning an exercise routine, it can feel uncomfortable at first, but you build motivational momentum over time.

This guide is a general framework of the areas I consider while helping clients, but each individual’s recovery may look different. This is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all guide to recovery. Instead, it is intended to highlight specific areas that might be relevant for you, pointing you to further resources for more information or support.

If you want even more information on specific issues related to addiction, I’ve written over ninety articles here.

Here are a few of my favorites:

How to Find Motivation

Underlying Causes of Addiction

How to Heal From Emotionally Unavailable Parents

How to Stop Overthinking and Start Living

How To Heal Your Relationship With Food

7 Ways to Stop Gambling and Save Money

Why We Are Addicted To Social Media: The Psychology of Likes