What is the 20 Percent of Information that Actually Helps You to...

What is the 20 Percent of Information that Actually Helps You to Get and Stay Sober?


If you have ever been new in addiction recovery, then you know what I am talking about when I talk about information overload.

Your first meeting in AA is one hour long or so. You will probably get advice in that meeting from at least 20 different people. If you really analyze all of the advice that you get then you will even realize that some of it is in conflict with each other. On top of this, they suggest that you start coming back to meetings every single day for the next 90 days straight so that you can continue on with the information overload.

Your job is to filter the information. The way it is set up is that anyone and everyone can give whatever advice they choose and just shoot from the hip. Everyone is telling you what worked for them in recovery, and what you might try if you want the same results that they got (staying sober, generally speaking). So you are left to try to filter the information for yourself. Not all of it is going to apply to your specific situation. They even have a saying for this filtering process in AA: “Take what you need and leave the rest.”

So your job is to filter the information that you receive in early recovery, but you also have to take action and make changes in your life based on what you are learning. But based on this overload of information, you really cannot try everything. You cannot take every suggestion you are given. There is not enough time in the day. But I think to some extent there is a pressure in early recovery for you to try to do this.

If you ask people in AA to narrow it down to the really important stuff, they will either tell you what made the biggest difference for them, or they will sort of point to the “black cloud theory.” (They don’t actually call it the black cloud theory, that is just my label here for the phenomenon).

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The problem with this is that the black cloud theory is not very helpful. It does not help you to narrow down your options and take action, because it does not really specify what is actually helping to keep you clean and sober.

So what exactly is this black cloud theory?

The black cloud explanation was never good enough for me

Ask someone in AA to explain how sobriety is produced in AA. Some will try to summarize all of the suggestions, steps, actions, and fellowship into one big explanation. Others will just sort of throw up their hands and say “Come to these meetings and start taking suggestions and your life will get better. Quit trying to dissect it so much.”

The black cloud is what happens in the middle, it is what actually produces sobriety. But it is obscured because there are so many inputs and suggestions.

So in other words, we want a specific output: we want sobriety.

So we go to AA and they make all of these suggestions to us: Go to meetings every day, get a sponsor, work the steps, get a higher power, pray and meditate every day, and so on.

Lots and lots of different inputs, and just the one output of either “sobriety” or “relapse.”

So what happens in the middle? That is the black cloud. Because there are so many suggestions to you in AA, and there are so many different “inputs” (or actions that are suggested for you to take), there is really no way to explain exactly how the sobriety is being produced.

If there were a way to explain it clearly, then we could eliminate all sorts of inputs. We could get rid of the onslaught of suggestions that are made in early recovery and just narrow in on the few things that we know produce sobriety. But they don’t do that. AA has not done that yet. The program remains complicated with at least 12 steps and all sorts of additional suggestions for meetings, fellowship, sponsorship, and so on. This is not a simple process. Early recovery is still full of information overload. No one has boiled it down to the few inputs that produce sobriety while eliminating the suggestions that are mostly useless.

If someone were to do that (figure out which suggestions are mostly useless) then we might refer to that as an 80/20 analysis.

Classic 80/20 rule explained

The 80/20 rule seeks to figure out which 20 percent of the inputs create 80 percent of the outputs.

Now this is not always the case with everything in life….but it is the case with a great number of phenomenon.

For example, you probably do 80 percent of your driving on 20 percent of the roads that you travel (which is why accidents always happen close to home, etc.).

You probably do 80 percent of your cooking using only the most basic 20 percent of your cooking skills.

So the 80/20 rule does not necessarily apply to everything, but if you look around in your life you will notice the concept popping up over and over again.

And I think traditional recovery is a good example of something that should take advantage of this rule, but which stubbornly ignores it in favor of information overload.

How the 80/20 rule applies to addiction recovery

The only problem that I see is that recovery is so incredibly subjective. What helps to keep my clean and sober may not work for you. Therefore the only way to really figure out the true 80.20 analysis for addiction recovery would involve collecting lots of data.

I don’t necessarily have lots of data. All I have are my own experiences in my own journey through recovery, and also the small amount of observations that I have made in other people. For a few years I lived in a long term rehab and then later I worked in a treatment center for about 5 years as well. So I have my own experiences and that handful of observations to go by. But I think it would be interesting for someone to really get out there and to try to collect a lot of data about what is really keeping people clean and sober.

So you might interview someone who is in recovery and has been clean and sober for several years now. Let’s say they started in AA after going through a detox center. But since then their recovery has changed and evolved. They use “different inputs” today than what they were using during the first 30 days of their sobriety.

Ask the person about their first 30 days in recovery, and if they remember the sensation of “information overload.” They probably remember it very well, and can think back to when they were feeling overwhelmed and trying to do all sorts of new things that were suggested to them (go to meetings, get a sponsor, etc.).

But today they have evolved from that point. They are clean and sober years later and they know what keeps them clean and sober now. They are stable in their recovery and chances are good that they are no longer doing all of those things that were suggested to them.

So what have they boiled it down to? What really keeps them sober today? Not the whole big list of suggestions that we all hear when we first get sober, but what they actually do and what keeps them clean and sober today.

If recovery follows the classic 80/20 rule, then this would mean that from all of that information overload they received in early recovery, they are only using about 20 percent of the information. And yet they are doing well in their recovery.

I believe that this is definitely the case for me in my own experience.

Narrowing down the inputs that I use in my own life

When I was in early recovery I tried to take all of the suggestions that I could. Maybe this is truly important. Maybe each person has to be overloaded with information in order to truly find what works for them. But my hope is that we could study the successful cases in recovery and narrow it down and eliminate a lot of the garbage.

One of the few inputs that has stayed with me all along is the concept of total surrender. I think that this is really important because it is the foundation of my abstinence. I know today that even taking one drink or one drug would be a total disaster.

There are a lot of new programs popping up lately that attempt to teach moderation to addicts and alcoholics. My opinion is that this is a mistake and a potentially deadly distraction from the real work of recovery. It is just more noise. Part of the 80 percent of information that is not going to help you.

But the 20 percent that actually does help you is what we want to narrow it all down to. For me, total abstinence and a commitment to sobriety is the biggest chunk of that 20 percent.

In fact, I had reasoned this out when I was in early sobriety and I was confused as to why they did not talk about it more in meetings. I guess it was just implied? Maybe I was being dense. But in my experience, it made sense to focus on my total surrender and my complete commitment to total abstinence. This was really important and I credit this focus for how I managed to get through my first decade of sobriety without a relapse. My peers were focusing on all sorts of different things at that time: sponsorship, higher powers, prayer, working through the steps, religious conversion, and so on. In the meantime I was focusing on the idea that I could not take a drink or a drug no matter what, at any cost, for any reason. And I wanted to set my life up in such a way that I would not feel tempted to do so.

What I figured out based on that one single input (commitment to total abstinence) is that I had to engage in personal growth.

This was about hope. I was not getting hope from all of those other inputs that were suggested to me. But I was getting hope when I made personal growth in my own life. When I set a goal in my recovery and I achieved it. That gave me hope.

Some of my peers were getting hope and feeling good about their recovery based on other inputs. For example, when I stopped attending AA meetings so frequently, my peers got worried about me and asked me what was wrong. They wanted me to come back to the meetings. Now at the time I did not have even half of the perspective that I have now (over ten years later) but I knew that sitting in meetings every day was not the right path for me. I knew that it was not part of the 20 percent of inputs that would keep me clean and sober. It was part of the “black cloud,” it was one of the many suggestions that are made to people in early recovery, but I was not getting much value out of it compared to some other actions in my life.

I started running on a regular basis and I have to admit that exercise is part of my 20 percent. I tried a great many things in my recovery journey and exercise is one of the few things that makes a real impact on my recovery. So I continue to do it. There are other benefits with running as well but to be honest I did not get many of those benefits when I first started exercising. In fact it took me at least six months to a year before I started to get most of those “other” health benefits (being in shape, losing some weight, feeling great after a run, etc.). When I first started running it was hard work and it was not much fun but I was amazed at how it seemed to boost recovery. Therefore I made a commitment to myself early in my exercising that I was going to keep doing it for the sake of my recovery. It just helped me so much that I could not ignore the results it was giving me.

How to find your own 20 percent

There are basically two ways to do this, or perhaps it is just that there really two steps in this process.

The first step is to experiment and try new things in your recovery (hence, the onslaught of information that you get in early recovery).

The second step is to ruthlessly eliminate that which is not helping you.

This is important and it is largely ignored in the world of AA!

I could not believe how people would overlook this simple concept. If it is not helping you then you need to chuck it out of your life so that you can make way for something new, for something that will make a difference.

My sponsor used to suggest that I go to meetings every day. I complained that they were not really helping me much and that I was not getting a lot out of them. He remarked at one point that “it is only an hour of your day, hardly a big investment, and it might be helping you to stay sober.”

It might be helping! That is not good enough for me. Why would I invest an hour each day into something that only might be helping? I want to figure out what is really helping me and then focus on it.

There is this attitude in early recovery that you should do anything and everything that might help you to get and stay sober. I can agree with this mindset when you have 3 days sober. But once you have 3 months, 6 months, 12 months sober….I start to question the fact that you should be investing so much of your time into something that “might be helping.” Just because a daily meeting “probably couldn’t hurt” does not make it a great use of your time in recovery.

I left the meetings eventually because they were part of my 80 percent. They were not a critical part of what kept me clean and sober.

But it took me at least a year to really admit this truth to myself, because so many of my peers were trying to convince me otherwise. I left the meetings over ten years ago and my life has been really amazing since then. Had I listened to the crowd without doing my own critical analysis, I am not sure where I would have ended up or what the results would have been (at the very least you probably would not be reading this website!).

So I had to take a step back and look carefully at my life, and at my recovery. The old timers in AA cautioned me against this; they told me that thinking too much about how it worked or why it worked would only lead me to relapse. They told me to sit down, shut up, and listen to the suggestions in the meetings.

But they were wrong. At least for me, they were wrong. I started thinking on my own (dangerous, I know!) and I figured out what the 20 percent of stuff was that actually kept me clean and sober. Then I pushed aside the 80 percent of my recovery that was not really helping me so that I could focus more on my own personal growth.

If you want to find your own 20 percent that actually helps you to stay sober, then you have to get really honest with yourself and do some experimenting. You also have to be strong against peer pressure because no one wants to see their friend abandon a program or something that they think is a universal solution. In other words, if you try to do your own thing in recovery, you will likely experience some resistance from your peers. They don’t like seeing people recover without AA. It threatens their recovery in a way that they will never admit to themselves (and therefore it is not worth talking about with them).

I admit that when I set out on this course of discovery that I did so very carefully. I did not just leave the meetings or sponsorship or the fellowship all at once. In fact I left it all very slowly and carefully, which was agonizing because of all the peer pressure. My peers thought that they were watching me slowly relapse. Of course the truth was that I am now sober over ten years later and many of them actually relapsed shortly after I “struck out on my own.”

If you want to find what is actually helping you in your own recovery then you have to sort of isolate the variables. Meaning that you may have to walk away from certain support systems for a short time in order to see how much you really need them. This is not necessarily a negative thing to do because if you figure out what you can cut out of your life then this gives you something that you can fill in with new positive experiences. So do not think of leaving something behind as being only negative–it is actually a strategy to make way for a new positive thing in your life.

For me, that new positive thing was most accurately labeled “personal growth.” I traded in the 80 percent that wasn’t really working for me (daily meetings, sponsorship, fellowship, AA literature) so that I could focus exclusively on the 20 percent that WAS working for me (surrender, abstinence, exercise, writing about recovery, etc.).

If you want to live a better life in recovery then you should try to do an 80/20 analysis and see what you can cut away from your life and what you can better focus on.


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