How can 80 percent of recovery be pointless? This sounds terrible to most people, but if you look at your own experience in alcoholism recovery you will likely find that it is true.
Only about 20 percent of your efforts in recovery really help you to stay clean and sober.
The problem is, it is difficult to know which efforts are effective unless you pay really close attention!
Pareto’s principle and addiction recovery
There is concept known as “Pareto’s law” which states that, in nature (and in most things) that 80 percent of the results come from only 20 percent of the inputs. Now this is not a hard and fast rule or anything but it is just a concept that you will see over and over again if you care to pay attention to things.
For example, if you are reading recovery literature, then 80 percent of the actionable advice might come from only 20 percent of what you read. In other words, there is going to be a lot of fluff that does not result in direct action in your life. Only about 20 percent of what you read translates into real world action. So in effect you have to seek out the hidden gems in order to get actionable advice.
This is just a principle, it is not a certainty of any kind. Your experience may differ from these numbers a great deal. Maybe you will find that your ratio is quite different than 80/20. But if you start to just observe things in your life then you will see Pareto’s law pop up over and over again….where 80 percent of your results seem to come from only 20 percent of your efforts.
It is a fascinating principle, because it shows us just how inefficient we can be sometimes. What if we were to remove the superfluous 80 percent that is not really helping us? What if we were to focus exclusively on the 20 percent of our efforts in recovery that actually produce real results?
So what are the 20 percent of efforts that result in successful sobriety?
In order to use this concept in the real world you have to pay attention.
This means increasing awareness.
One way to do this is by incorporating some form of meditation into your life on a regular basis. Now you might think that meditating is a waste of time because you are basically just sitting there doing nothing, and not even sleeping. But if you meditate for a few minutes every day then it will help you to get a better pulse on what is really going on in your life. If you skip the meditation then your awareness will not be as sharp, so you can not make as many useful observations about yourself and your life. Meditating turns down the noise for a moment so you can get in touch with what is really going on.
Note too that you don’t have to meditate a certain way. You can experiment. It doesn’t have to be seated quietly in the lotus position with candles lit. For example, I use distance running as my meditation. I am sure some people would disagree with that concept but it seems to work for me.
So the first thing you want to do is to start paying really close attention to your life. What is working for you? What is working against you?
We all have a set of goals in recovery. Sometimes one of our goals is actually counter-productive to the other goals. It works against them. If this is the case then you will experience stress and friction in your life. If you have your head in the clouds then you will not notice this friction. If you are practicing awareness though you will be able to pick up on this problem and then take action to correct it. Most of us were oblivious to many of our problems in active addiction. The new trend in recovery is to pay attention to our potential problems and to fix them immediately.
If you are new in recovery then you have probably gone to treatment, been exposed to AA meetings, and generally been overwhelmed with suggestions. This is what I am really talking about when I refer to Pareto’s principle. If you add up all of the suggestions and actions that people suggest that you take in early recovery, that is 100 percent. Now what I am saying is that there is no way that you can do everything that is suggested to you–it is simply not possible. There is not enough time in one day to do everything that is suggested in early recovery. This is because different things work for different people in recovery, and when you first get clean and sober you are being bombarded with suggestions from everyone. Just go to a single AA meeting and tell them it is your first meeting ever, and just see how many different suggestions you get. You will be overwhelmed. You will say to yourself “how can ever do all of these things that they are suggesting I do?” They are all trying to get you to take massive action, because they remember what it was like when they finally got sober, and how hard it was for them. So they throw lots and lots of suggestions at you.
In the end you will find that you cannot do 100 percent of what is suggested. And what I am saying is that you really only need to do about 20 percent of it. The problem is, you don’t know exactly which 20 percent will keep you sober.
Therefore you should proceed mindfully. You must approach each suggestion with a truly open mind, but be quick to reject it and move on if it is not serving you well. This takes discipline.
I can tell you what the 20 percent is that works in my life. The problem with that is that your ultimate path in recovery is going to be different than mine. I can assure you of that. I know this because I have peers in recovery who I have compared to my own recovery. For example, one of my close friends is very much into sponsorship and AA meetings. These things make up most of his 20 percent that actually keep him sober. He has discarded 80 percent of the other suggestions that he got in early recovery. And some of those things that he discarded are things that are in my 20 percent, things that are very important to my own sobriety. A good example of this would be exercise. My friend does not find it important to his journey, while I find it to be vital.
We each discarded roughly 80 percent of what was suggested to us. But the 20 percent that we kept for ourselves differs from each other. We have found two unique paths in recovery, because different things work for different people.
Finding your daily practice that leads to successful recovery
When you are seeking your 20 percent you should focus on daily habits.
Habits are powerful. They are like multipliers for your recovery.
If you can establish a daily habit that serves you really well then this is incredibly powerful for your recovery.
And if you can replace a bad habit in your life with a positive habit then that is even more powerful.
Essentially this is what recovery is all about. You take bad habits (self medicating, alcoholism, addiction, etc.) and replace them with good habits (spirituality, physical health, emotional balance, etc.).
My belief is that you should focus almost exclusively on habit formation in early recovery.
This will be a process of experimentation.
As I indicated, when you first get into early recovery you will be bombarded with suggestions.
“Go to 90 meetings in 90 days.”
“Get a sponsor and call them every day.”
“Read the Big Book every day and other recovery literature as well.”
And so on.
You will get lots and lots of suggestions.
My advice to you?
Take each suggestion that you can, knowing that only about 20 percent of what you do in recovery is going to keep you clean and sober. The other 80 percent will be “sort of helpful to you but not really.” And that is OK. It is all worth the effort.
But what you want to do over time is to identify what that 80 percent of useless stuff is. And this requires honesty. You have to be honest with yourself, and give things a fair chance to work in your life.
For example, when I started with the habit of distance running, it was not very much fun at first. I could have easily concluded that exercise was part of the useless 80 percent if I had not given it a fair chance. Luckily I stuck it out long enough to the point where the benefits became enormous for me.
The same thing is going to be true of nearly every concept you encounter in recovery. If someone says “go to meetings” and you go to one single meeting and declare that they don’t help you, this is not a fair assessment. You have to be reasonable. Give the suggestions a chance to work in your life. This is what I mean by “being honest” with yourself. You have to give things a fair trial.
On the other hand, once you determine that something is not helping you, cut it ruthlessly and move on quickly. I learned this lesson when I finally figured out that the daily meetings were actually holding me back in some ways and that I could make better use of that time by connecting with others in recovery online (hence what you are reading here, to some extent).
So what you are really doing is finding a series of positive habits in your life.
This takes time and patience. You have to give each suggestion a fair trial and evaluate it fully.
They have a saying in traditional recovery that is very fitting here, and is good advice in general. That saying is: “Take what you need and leave the rest.”
Most people pay lip service to that phrase, but do they really do it? I found that I was not really leaving the rest, I was trying to attend meetings (for example) just to keep up appearances and keep others happy. This made no sense because it was part of my 80 percent that was not producing real results for me.
Today I have what I would call a “daily practice” that is a bunch of positive habits. These are the things that I have learned over time that really help me in my recovery. These daily habits make up my 20 percent of what really works for me in sobriety. If I were to go back to early recovery and try to take all of the suggestions that I hear, it would fill up my entire life and the new stuff I added in would represent about 80 percent of my efforts.
But here is the key:
We are never going to be 100 percent perfectly efficient at finding the exact 20 percent of things that are most effective for us in sobriety. There will always be some room for improvement. And this is why the recovery process never ends. Because there is always something more to learn about ourselves, always something deeper to explore.
For the rest of your life in sobriety, you should always be questioning the things that you do each day, asking “how is this affecting my sobriety? Is it making it stronger, or weaker?” And so on. Thus you can continue to grow stronger in recovery even after many people would suspect complacency.
How to live an effortless life in addiction recovery
The effortless life takes effort. How is that for an oxy-moron?
I am not quite there yet. I probably never will be.
But I will say this much:
My life today is a whole lot smoother than it was when I first surrendered to alcoholism. Things are easier. There is far less drama. I experience far less frustration.
My life has become more and more “effortless” because what I have done over time is to automate my efforts.
I have automated the actions I take which really help my recovery the most.
I have found the things that work for me in recovery, and I have made them into daily habits.
So I don’t question or wonder if I should go for a jog today. There is no issue there, no question at all. I simply do it out of habit. It is a non-issue. I don’t quibble over it or say that I feel tired and maybe I should skip it today. I don’t do that. I simply go jog, because that is part of my routine. I have established this habit and in doing so it has strengthened my recovery. I jog whether I want to or not.
At some point in the past, I made a decision. I evaluated the exercise idea, I evaluated how much it was helping my sobriety, and I realized that this was part of the 20 percent. So I made it permanent. I turned it into a habit. Now it is part of my regular routine. There is no question about it, I simply do it.
Does jogging still require effort? Yes, in a way it does. But it takes much less effort because I have turned it into a habit.
This, I believe, is how you can live an effortless life in recovery.
1) Raise your awareness. Pay attention. In particular, pay attention to what is truly helping you in recovery, and separate it out from what is just superfluous. Some recovery suggestions will not be helpful to you. That is OK. Identify them by increasing your awareness.
2) Figure out what 20 percent of recovery suggestions and concepts (exercise, prayer, meditation, daily meetings, step work, sponsorship, etc. etc.) is really helping you to stay sober. In doing this, you will also identify what is the 80 percent that doesn’t really do much for you.
3) Eliminate the 80 percent. Just drop it out of your life.
4) Create habits based on the 20 percent of things that truly help you. Go beyond the daily AA meeting. If you need help with this then use the concept of “modeling.” Find someone who is successful in recovery who also finds this thing important to recovery, and then ask them how they implement this as a daily habit. This is how sponsorship really works.
If you create positive habits based on the things that really keep you sober, then your life will become much more effortless. You will no longer have to struggle in order to do the things that keep you clean and sober. You can automate them, so long as you pay close attention and are willing to learn about yourself.
Are your efforts wasted in recovery?
So you get clean and sober and you go to rehab. Then you go to AA meetings. Or maybe you find a different path.
Early recovery is a whole slew of suggestions. People tell you what to do, and you try to do it. There is a lot to take in, a lot of information to process. You try to do it all. It is overwhelming.
Ten years later you can look back at your first year in recovery and realize that you were thrashing around a bit, trying to figure out what really works. You look back and realize that 80 percent of what they told you in early recovery was actually wasted. You only needed about 20 percent of the suggestions.
But that is OK. This is how it has to be, because not all of us respond to the same things. Not all of us travel the same path in recovery.
So your efforts are not really “wasted” in early recovery. The 80 percent of suggestions that you ultimately ignore are only pointless for YOU, but they might help someone else. And that is OK.
The key is that you are seeking. That you are paying attention. That you are focusing on the 20 percent that really applies to you and your own sobriety.
This is an iterative process that lasts for the rest of your life. I have found that after over a decade of sobriety, I am still trying to learn more about myself and what is really helping me in my recovery.
Not only that, but things will change and evolve over time. A strategy that you used in early sobriety may become stale for you after a few years. Continue to evaluate what is really helping you. Do not cling to a failing strategy just out of some weird loyalty or sense of obligation. If something is not serving you, drop it.
In the same vein, continue to explore and take suggestions. Never say to yourself: “I know what works for me and therefore I don’t need your help.” This is the wrong attitude! Instead, explore what is working for others as a continuous line of inquiry. I am still fascinated to find alternative paths among people in recovery. Because in my own journey, it was discoveries like this that led me to find my own 20 percent. I “borrowed” ideas from the examples of others, and used them to my own benefit. Never stop seeking this sort of growth, or this sort of opportunity. If you cut yourself off from learning these lessons from other people then you are only hurting yourself.
What has your experience been like in early recovery? Do you feel like your efforts were wasted? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!