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Planning for a Successful Recovery. A Stage of Change.




Addiction recovery is difficult. We can't just meander through the obstacles, figuring it out as we go. We need an effective plan.


A successful recovery begins with successful planning. Success seldom blooms from haphazard commitments to abstain. Murky plans break the hard earth for the strangling weeds of justification, moving us closer to failure. Whether our goal is to quit smoking, heroin, or gaming, a well-written plan provides the framework to succeed.


Planning is dull. Working through the potential hazards frightens before the journey has even begun. Planning requires facing the nasty truths of the hard work ahead. Perhaps, the discomfort is why so many skip planning, jumping directly to detox, only to return more broken than before.


Planning requires facing the nasty truths of the hard work ahead.


Addiction is the worst sort of demon, even when cast out, he waits in the shadows, timing his return, and when an opening is presented during a time of weakness, the addiction storms forward with more force than before. Intricate preparation paves the way to the grand blessings of recovery, preparing defense against these momentary vulnerabilities.


Most struggling addicts prefer not to think of the greyness of in-between land—the barren fields between detox and normalcy. The arid journey between these two points, however, is where the battle is won—or lost. After detox, life must be met in full force. The extent of damage sustained from the addiction comes into view. The painful reality must be processed without an intoxicating escapes that soften hard realities.


“He who fails to plan is planning to fail.” ~Sir Winston Churchill


Carlos DiClemente, known for his stages of change research, wrote that, “The main tasks of the Preparation stage are (1) making and strengthening a commitment adequate to support the attempt to change and (2) developing a plan for action that is sound, reasonable, and feasible for the individual to implement. Action plans lay out what is needed for this individual to successfully quit or modify the addictive behavior.”


The plan becomes the lifeline. The safety rope to grasp when the mind is tossed by the demons of maladaptive responses. When bombarded by anguish, the mind defaults to habit. Waiting to plan until looming failure has grasped the mind doesn’t work. Habitual behavioral protections step in, take over, and lead down the same path, the same sorrows, the same destruction. We need a plan to prepare for this. In the popular book Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explain that we have two internal systems. One is a ‘planner’ and the other a ‘doer’. The two systems are often at odds. The planner—future thinker—prepares and the doer reacts. For the planning side to prevail, it must accurately predict the doer’s side’s behavioral pushes that emerge during moments of stress and prepare by planning effective escape routes. Thaler and Sunstein warn, “when self-control problems and mindless choosing are combined, the result is a series of bad outcomes for real people” (2009, location 748). Habits, even maladaptive ones, have benefits. We incorporate habits to free cognitive load. Habitual behaviors relieve both cognitive load from thinking and emotions. Jeremy Dean explains that, “the reason is that habits, through their repetition, lose their emotional flavor” (2013, location 144). To break a habit, then, is both cognitively and emotionally demanding. (See Softening the Pain of Change).



Often hopes to change rely on the elusive characteristic “willpower.” This strength of character, often referred to in American culture, is faulty. No one has an indomitable will. (SeeDelay of Gratification). Our cognitive energy available for changing trajectories must be strategically employed. We can’t face the addictive powers only armed with willpower. Our work during the contemplating stage (SeeContemplating Change) and the concrete plan established during the preparation phase mitigates the mismatch between addictive drives and character strength.


An efficient plan has some common ingredients.  

  • A measurable goal

  • Reasons the goal is important

  • Resources necessary to achieve the goal,

  • Specific steps that must be taken

  • Potential threats


Many hopeful changes never stand a chance. The goal is vague with no measurable markers for progress. For example, when the goal is to quit smoking, we can’t just say, “I want to quit smoking.”


A specific goal would look like this. “I want to smoke my last cigarette November 30 and go the remainder of the year without smoking.” The specificity clearly defines success and failure. If on December 5, the smoker lights one up, the failure is easily recognized. The relapse then can be reflected on instead of justified, leading to an improved plan and strengthened resolve.


DiClemente believes that having a starting date suggest s a readiness for change, “Planning also requires some concrete details, like setting a date or taking specific steps. In studies of smokers, one important indicator of an individual's readiness to actually make an attempt to quit smoking was whether he or she had set a date for cessation”


We are distracted during the heat of battle. We need reminders why once we deemed change necessary. Rehearsing the reasons for change provides motivational energy. During the contemplative stage, the reasons to change out-numbered the reasons to continue to addiction. We must continue to make these reasons salient, giving them a prominent space in our thoughts. Writing the reasons powerfully motivates during struggle. Our mind slyly desires to rehash the decision when challenges intensify. We subconsciously dredge up told arguments for escape, giving unneeded weight to justify relapse. Written reminders provide momentary sparks to continue forward, even if that spark is for just one more day. We can fight a new battle tomorrow.



​Addiction and the accompanying shame often drive us into hiding. We hide failure and disguise our worlds. We lash out at reminders of insufficiency. Yet, recovering alone is a fool’s game. Many prepare for failure more than they plan to succeed. Afraid of the shame from another failure, hopeful recoverees hide the goal from those most capable of lending support. In an odd twist of maladaptive thinking, they plan to fail.


Wayne Dyer poignantly warms about these faulty thoughts. He teaches, “While part of our thoughts probably wants to protect us from the disappointment of failure, it keeps us stuck in an excuse driven life”


CHANGE PLAN WORKSHEET - https://smartrecovery.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Change_Plan_Worksheet.pdf


Lining up resources is a critical step. Can we do it on our own? Do we have a supportive place to stay? Is there community or medical resources available? Everything matters. Our environments are full of resources to help and temptations for failure.


This plan must be built around personal knowledge about ourselves. Our early haphazard attempts provide valuable information. Through this knowledge, we can plan specific steps and identify likely threats. For example, if drug use occurs on weekends with a certain friend, then the plan to quit drugs should include how the temptation of socializing with this same friend is going to be managed.


Not every plan works—at least not cleanly. We will never perfectly identify every threat or predict every weakness. Life will take our plans, chew them up and knock us on our ass. However, we can plan for this.  DiClemente reminds, “however, development of a realistic plan with the commitment both to follow through on that plan and to revise the plan as needed are critical elements for successful behavior change”


We must plan to revise. We must learn from the experience of change. Allen Wheelis, in his refreshingly short book How People Change, wrote, “the more we change, the more possible it becomes to see how determined we were in that which we have just ceased to be” (1975, p. 84). Change starts with an exact plan, but that plan must be flexible, as we learn more about ourselves, and the process, the more confidence we gain in our ability to affect the desired change.


As we openly journey down the difficult path of change, yearning for something better, while discarding the habits limiting our potential, we become courageous agents of change, setting an example to others. Hopeful others can see our new life—the colors where greyness once lived. We planned, courageously fought, and succeeded. We creating the bright future that was once only part of our dreams.​​​

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