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Pickup Sticks: What Goals to Tackle First in Recovery

When you were a child, you may have played the game of pickup sticks. Popular because it was an inexpensive way to entertain children, as well as teach them skills of coordination and mental agility, pickup sticks was part of many an American household back in the 1960s and for several decades thereafter.

The basic principle of the game was to hold all the sticks together on end and then let them go. Where they fell presented a complex tangle of interwoven sticks. The object of the game was to pick them up, one by one, without dislodging the rest of the sticks or in any way moving them out of position - by even a fraction of a hair. To do so meant disqualification.

What does this have to do with goals to tackle in recovery? Let's look at it.

Life Seems Like a Tangle

When you first enter recovery, it's all kind of a blur, isn't it? You're faced with so many different choices, each compelling in their own way, that you wonder what you can possibly do that's best for you. Worst of all, you haven't a clue what you're supposed to be doing first - as if there ever even was a primer on this sort of transition.

The good news rests within that tangle of emotions and circumstances and new rules and schedules. It may not seem so, but your life is now about to take a decided turn for the better.

Of course, it is all up to you and what you ultimately decide to do. But there's even more good news about figuring out what goals to tackle first in recovery. Once you begin, you're already on your way. It's no longer going to be a mystery, since you'll have some experience under your belt and have some point of reference to make decisions about additional goals from here on out.

Just like those scattered pickup sticks, some of the goals will look like easy pickings. They're off by themselves, not touching or impinging on anything else that's too important. You may be tempted to go for them first.

This could be the right strategy - or not. How do you decide? Let's delve a bit deeper into choice of goals and which ones to go after first.

Goals For Some Quick Wins

Who doesn't need some quick wins in their column when it comes to accomplishments in recovery? There isn't a human being who's now sober who didn't long for that first achievement in recovery. They may not have consciously analyzed their beginning days in recovery this way, but that is, in fact, what was going on.

Recovery experts and long-timers in the rooms of recovery recommend that newcomers try to take it simple and slow. Don't be in such a hurry to do everything that you think you want to - at least, not right now.

There are basic things that you can do that will help you secure some easy wins. These include making it a priority to attend one 12-step meeting every day for the foreseeable future. For now, don't worry about the "90 meetings in 90 days" mantra that's often mentioned in 12-step groups. Just concentrate on finding and going to a meeting every day this week. Then, do the same thing next week.

course, if you need to go more often than once per day, there's nothing wrong with that. Whatever helps you get stronger and feel more confident in your new life of sobriety is what's best for you.

Here's another one that you may wish to try early on: repositioning your mindset. What do we mean by that? Well, for many individuals in the first few days, weeks and months of sobriety, the tendency is to look upon their life as one of deprivation, of hard work, little if any fun, lack of satisfaction - in more ways than one. But this kind of thinking is a sure prescription for making excuses not to do what you know you need to for your continuing progress in recovery.

Perhaps a better way is to re-orient your thoughts to construct a more positive outlook on everything you do, every situation you encounter, every experience you have. This does, however, take some doing. It's not necessarily going to be automatic, but it is easy enough to begin. When you find negative thoughts creeping into your head, give yourself a talking-to and tell yourself that there's another way to look at this, and that is from a positive perspective. Maybe it sounds silly or you may think it doesn't work, but what you're actually doing is programming your mind to think in a more constructive manner, one that is much more beneficial to your continuing sobriety than purposely sticking with gloomy, negative thoughts.

How about having a plan to make new friends? This one is similarly easy to get started with. All it really takes is for you to put yourself in situations where you will encounter new people - like at the aforementioned 12-step group meetings, for starters. While this may not seem like the highlight of your day, at least you'll be in the company of people who share the same goal of recovery as you do. Go to enough meetings and attend several different groups and you're bound to strike up conversations with and find something of common interest in several people you meet.

These three suggestions may give you some ideas on how to accumulate some quick and easy wins in recovery. But what about those goals you feel are really important to your recovery? How do you get started on those and, most important, how do you decide which ones to tackle first? We'll look at those next.

Separating Goals into Workable Pieces

Remember the analogy of the cluster of pickup sticks? How in the world are you ever to be able to disentangle those sticks - or your complex and intertwined recovery goals - without everything coming apart?

The answer is to take it slow and have a workable plan, separating your goals into pieces of the larger scenario that you can reasonably attack one at a time.

This is easier said than done, as anyone who's attempted to do can attest. But the gist of the concept is that it is much easier to go for something that is more achievable in a relatively short period of time than to try to do too much at once. When you attempt numerous projects or try to achieve too many goals at the same time, your attention, focus and drive are scattered. You waste energy and don't give one project, task, issue, problem or challenge the time it needs to get it done right.

Try separating one item into various components. For example, if an item or goal on your recovery list is to figure out how best to overcome cravings and urges and make use of the most effective strategy, instead of becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude of the idea, look at the different pieces that go into coming up with the appropriate strategy or technique for you.

What's first on the table? If you lack knowledge, then getting information should be at the top of your to-do list. Research cravings and urges on self-help recovery websites. Talk it over with your 12-step sponsor or bring it up in group meetings. If your home group has various seminars or workshops, suggest this as a discussion topic - if it's not already scheduled. Look for self-help group literature, brochures, and discussion groups online and so on, anything to accumulate as much information as possible on the subject.

Next, read everything you can and really try to absorb it. Jot down suggestions or ideas about techniques that have proven effective for others. Keep a small notebook handy or key in notes on your smartphone when you hear solutions others rave about in meetings or during one-on-one discussions with fellow group members.

After you have a number of potential solutions or strategies down, go through them and assign them a priority rating, one through 10, for example, with one being the most likely to work and 10 being the least likely to work - in your opinion, given what you know about yourself and your situation.

Look over your assigned priorities and see if the ones numbered one through five are something you think you could use to your advantage. Are there items you can combine to be more effective? Do you feel comfortable getting started with one or more of them? Once you make this determination, it's time to act upon them. Pick one or more and begin to use them. Write down how effective they are (or not) and revise your recovery toolkit (the strategies that work for you) to incorporate successful techniques.

See? In this way, you've taken a complex and difficult issue, broken it into manageable parts, and diligently worked through them one by one to arrive at what is ideally an achievement of the goal to successfully overcome cravings and urges.

Do this for each and every goal that you have or create for your recovery list and you will no longer need to worry about what to do first. You'll have a plan, and a workable one at that.

Pick Out Something You Like

Everyone needs to be motivated in order to get going on anything. This applies as much to individuals in recovery as it does to anyone else - perhaps even more so, since when you're in recovery, you're trying to recapture or re-establish a healthy lifestyle after some period of substance abuse, addiction, process addiction and/or mental health disorder. Putting things back together in your life and adopting positive and sustainable behaviors requires a lot of time and effort.

Why not pick out something you like and get working on it? Make sure that it has at least some tangential link to your recovery, since that's what you're likely to want to focus on at this time. When it's some activity or project that you're drawn to, you're more likely to be motivated to go through the steps and do the work - which may be difficult - to achieve the outcome you desire.

How can this relate to recovery? Let's take a simple example - not simple in the sense that it's inconsequential, but simple in the fact that it's easy for anyone to comprehend, quite possibly a common problem to newcomers to recovery.

After many months and/or years of feeling less than healthy due to addiction or abuse, being able to get up and enjoy the outdoors might be a goal that's worthy of inclusion in your daily to-do list. Give yourself a proper head start on the day by fueling up with a good breakfast. No just gulping down a quick cup of coffee and heading out the door. Take the time to savor your food and, if you find that tough to do, just eat slowly, counting your bites like your mother taught you to do when you were a child. That way, at least your digestion will be improved and you'll have energy to continue on with your day.

Next, go outside and breathe in the fresh air. Take deep breaths into your lungs, hold it for a few counts and then exhale through your mouth. Now, look around you. Look at things you see with a keen eye, noting the details of leaves, the colors of flowers, grass and birds. Listen to the sounds and take in the various smells - of freshly-cut grass, of fallen leaves, of flowers, someone's cooking down the block, and so on. In this way, you're tuning up four of your five senses, sharpening them, making yourself more aware of the beauty and diversity of nature around you.

Now, if you are physically able, take a walk in your neighborhood or to a nearby park. It doesn't have to be a long walk, or necessarily a brisk one, at least to begin with. You can always build up your stamina and step up your pace on subsequent days. The point is to get started on a regimen that you can do each day, every day.

What does this have to do with your recovery goals? It helps get you started doing a healthy routine, one that assists you in regaining and/or strengthening your health, sharpening your mental abilities, galvanizing your motivation, and jumpstarting your energy and enthusiasm for tackling more goals on your recovery list.

There are many other examples of doing what you like that you can probably think of after reading this. Whatever they are, highlight them and see how you can incorporate them into your routine. If you like or love to do something, you'll want to do it more often. If it's good for you and makes you a stronger, more self-confident person, then it's also good for your recovery.

It's certainly worth a try, especially when you are at the crossroads wondering what goals to tackle first in recovery.

Analyze, Revise and Recreate

Any kind of goal-setting agenda has to take into account what worked and what didn't. This is part of the analysis phase that's required in any workable long-term plan. Whether it's in business or in the household or in recovery, all plans need to be looked over and revised according to results and expectations.

After a period of time, say, six months, look over what you've accomplished on your list of goals. Pay special attention to the ones that you succeeded well in - perhaps the ones where you made the most significant gains (to you). There are reasons why you were so successful in attaining these goals. Try to determine what those reasons were, for this will help you to revise your goal list to incorporate either more of these strategies, to broaden what you already have, or to help strengthen other action plans for goals that you haven't been as successful at achieving.

What about those goals where you've either not been at all successful or have had less success than you'd like? Maybe they are no longer workable goals. Maybe they are goals that you've already surpassed or don't apply any more. Perhaps they are goals that are more long term, ones that you need to put further out on your recovery timetable, ones that you may need additional training or experience or level of expertise in order to attain.

After your analysis and revision, take the time to craft some new goals. Maybe you've found that your interests are now taking a new direction. It's time to widen your sphere of interests to include this new area. See how you can take advantage of what appeals to you to make some new goals for yourself. Then create an action plan for how to achieve them.

See, goals to tackle first in recovery isn't such an impossible task after all. Take it slow. Give yourself time to think about what you're doing, what you've done, and what you're going to do. Incorporate some fun. Take good care of yourself. And keep right on going. This is a growing, building, learning process - the journey of recovery. It is also an exciting and ever-changing journey of self-discovery.

Posted on August 10th, 2012

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