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5 Steps to Prioritize Your Recovery Goals

Life is all new now that you’re in recovery. It’s all about a second chance, an opportunity to create a new direction in your life that you may never before thought possible. You may already be brimming with excitement and hope for the future – but don’t be disappointed if these feelings don’t come right away. After all, you’ve just come through a difficult period of active treatment and you may still feel a bit uncertain for some period of time. Looking ahead, you wonder how you’ll be able to put together a workable action plan for your recovery – or flesh out the one you began toward the end of your treatment. Take it in stages. Here are 5 steps to help you prioritize your recovery goals.

1. Set Aside Some Planning Time – It’s hard to make plans if you’re constantly distracted by appointments, work or family schedules, going to your continuing care therapist or attending 12-step meetings. The fact is that you need to schedule time to devote to putting together your recovery goals. You need think time, dream time (to identify what it is that you’d really like to accomplish going forward), and time to create short- and long-term goals and the action plans to go along with them.

Resist the temptation to just get right to it with a piece of paper and pen or sitting at the computer. Do that and you’ll likely wind up looking at a blank page for an inordinate amount of time or giving up in frustration. One suggestion is to go to a quiet place that’s distinctly separate from your home or work environment. This could be a bookstore, library, a community park or nature reserve, or in the car by the side of a lake or stream. Wherever you feel comfortable being by yourself for an hour or so at a time will work just fine.

What should you do? How do you set the tone, so to speak, to get yourself in the mindset to think about the future? First, allow yourself to just be in the moment. For some in recovery, being alone with their thoughts is a bit scary – until they practice doing it. Think pleasant thoughts, things that you find most enjoyable – like being with your family at Christmas, going on vacations, sharing laughter, helping your children learn how to ride a bike or play ball. Let your mind drift toward what you wanted to do when you were a child – the dreams you had about what you wanted to be when you grew up. Do you still have any of those dreams? You can jot down notes or ideas as they come to you, but right now you’re only jumpstarting your creativity. You’re not yet in the active planning stage.

After a few such sessions, you’ll start to crystallize thoughts and ideas about what you may want to do in the months and years ahead. Certain things may keep coming back or you may begin to elaborate on a scenario in which you find yourself actually doing one of these things. This is your consciousness taking over where your subconscious began. While you sleep, your subconscious sifts through various items from the day. That’s why, if you have a question – such as what do I really like best: working with my hands, teaching children, solving complex math equations, etc. – ask it of yourself before you go to bed. Your mind will start creating solutions and you may wake up with the answer. It doesn’t always work, but it does often enough to be worth trying.

Continue to set aside planning time. The more concrete the ideas are that keep occurring to you, the more likely they are to represent what you really want to do with your future in recovery. Write them down as they come. Don’t worry about where they fit yet or what you need to do to achieve them. Just write them down.

2. Investigate What It Will Take – As you accumulate a few goals, take some of your planning time that you’ve scheduled and research what it will take to move forward with some of these goals or ideas. So that you’re not overwhelmed, work on one idea at a time. You could begin with an easy one, a short-term goal that is both reasonable and readily attainable. This may be something like being on time for work every day for a week – or getting there early enough to share coffee with a colleague. It could be taking your daughter out for ice cream after her piano lesson or setting a date to take your mom to brunch after Sunday church.

If it’s easy to do, it’s a good suggestion to make these your first priorities. Nothing succeeds like success, and you need some successes under your belt during the early part of your recovery. Think of them as gold stars or base hits – or whatever recognition strikes a chord with you. The idea is that you set yourself a goal, work toward achieving it, and succeed in completing it.

And, when you complete a goal, mark it down as a successful achievement.

While you’re working at your daily planning session – yes, you should set aside some time each day for this – as you identify what it will take to work toward some of your longer-term goals, write those steps down as well. You may, for example, want to go back to school to start or finish a degree, take some classes, learn a particular skill that will allow you to move up the ladder at work or branch out into a new field. You may need to apply for financial aid and there are steps involved in that which you’ll need to investigate. Factoring in time to go to classes will also be important and needs to be considered. Will you require transportation, books, tools, or a recommendation? Is there a study group or trade association or union that you could join? Jot down everything that you think of or find out about during your research that will help you achieve these goals.

3. Include Family Members in Your Decisions – While putting down your goals is very much a personal responsibility and tailored toward your future in recovery, nothing happens in a vacuum, nor should it. Be sure that you include your spouse and loved ones in your decision-making where appropriate. Some of your goals will undoubtedly be very personal, but the person closest to you (your spouse or partner, for example), should be kept in the loop. Not only does this help keep them informed, but it also works to solidify the relationship, to potentially help rebuild the bond between you that may have become strained during your addiction. The support and encouragement of your loved ones is one of the most important elements of your continuing recovery.

There will be times when you aren’t able to achieve as much progress as you like. You will feel down, taken aback, possibly even a failure. The support and encouragement of your loved ones who know your goals and dreams will be invaluable in helping you to keep focused and motivated toward achieving your goals in recovery.

In addition, your family members can help you to see what’s most important in your goal-setting. It is often hard for recovering addicts to see too far down the road. They’re so busy trying to get through today without slipping back into their old habits that it consumes a great deal of their energy. Your loved ones can help put things into perspective – with a kind word, a loving embrace, and suggestions that you may not have thought of. This makes prioritizing your recovery goals a whole lot easier. Shared enthusiasm will do that.

4. Basics First, Then Slowly Build – Speaking about the actual prioritization, how should you approach that? Recovery experts recommend that you consider your basic needs first. In Abraham Maslov’s hierarchy of needs for a person’s self-actualization, physiological (hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.), and safety/security (keeping yourself and those closest to you safe and out of danger) are the first two levels. If, following your completion of treatment, you return home to an environment of deprivation, foreclosure, drained bank accounts, barely enough food on the table to provide sustenance for the family, your first priorities will necessarily be to address these family responsibilities. You will need to go back to your job if you still have it, or find another job as soon as possible. Once you get your family obligations taken care of, you can then start working on additional priorities.
The next two levels involve belongingness and love (affiliating with others, sharing love), and esteem (to achieve, gain competence, acceptance and recognition). Your family helps provide the former, and working toward accomplishment of your goals helps promote the latter.

Cognitive needs (to know, understand, and explore), and aesthetic (symmetry, beauty, and order) come next. Self-actualization is need number 7 (finding self-fulfillment and realizing your potential), and self-transcendence is need number 8 (connecting to something beyond yourself or helping others to achieve their potential). For a more in-depth explanation of Maslov’s hierarch of needs, do a Google search or check out the following (//

During the various stages or levels of needs, the individual in recovery will seek various forms of assistance. These include coping, helping, enlightening, empowering, and edifying.

What does Maslov’s hierarchy of needs have to do with prioritizing your recovery goals? It’s a simple way to look at how your goal-setting will change as you take care of your immediate priorities and then move forward from there. It may be instructive in clarifying which is which. Using the hierarchy of needs relative to recovery, you can see that the more you progress in the levels, the more self-confident, self-fulfilled, and self-transcendent you will become.

5. Give Back When You Are Able – Will you ever be finished working on your recovery goals? Life is all about living, and there are always things to plan for. Think of your goal-setting as an ongoing life process. It is one that you will never be done with – nor should you be. Without goals, there is no motivation or purpose. You can’t look outside yourself and your immediate worries, concerns, challenges or difficulties if you don’t have long-term goals. You always need to be striving for something on the horizon – even if that is somewhat nebulous at the early stage of your recovery.

When you do achieve a fair measure of success in achieving some of your short- and long-term goals, it is a testament to the strength of your recovery that you begin to give back. To help others in the pursuit of their goals is one of the hallmarks of a successful recovery. No, you won’t be fully immersed in helping others for a good period of time after you’ve completed treatment. Don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself concentrating on more immediate goals. Remember the hierarchy of needs. You have to take care of basic priorities first.

There will come a time when you are ready to give of yourself – to take the call of someone new to recovery that is in need of a friend who understands, for example. You may wish to volunteer at a 12-step program during a job skills training workshop or help a newcomer work on creating a resume, prepare for a job interview, brush up on communication skills – or become a sponsor yourself. Usually, this takes place after a 1-1/2 to 2-year period of successful recovery. By that time, you’ve become comfortable with your routine, have created, refined and practiced your coping strategies, achieved many short- and some long-term goals, and are able to turn your focus outward instead of the inward focus of your early recovery.

While we’re on the subject of 12-step groups, consider these individuals your strong allies in your recovery – from now on. While they are not your blood family, they very well may become your extended family in the sense that they are always there for you, understand what you have gone through and will go through, are nonjudgmental and only want to provide you with the encouragement and support you need to continue in your recovery. Like you, they are committed to sobriety. In your prioritizing of recovery goals, make participation in 12-step groups an ongoing goal. Consider it maintenance, fulfilling social needs, and ultimately, self-transcendence. Remember, staying sober and free of addictive behavior involves a conscious choice, a genuine commitment, dedication, and hard work. It is also something that no one in recovery can do alone. Take advantage of the readily available support that awaits you in 12-step groups. It is one of the soundest decisions in your prioritization of your recovery goals that you can make.

The Future is Yours

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that you are working to create your own future. This is not about the future of your spouse or children or the friend since childhood. Each person is responsible for crafting his or her own destiny, shaping the direction they want their life to take. If, while you are working through your prioritized goals in recovery, you find that something isn’t working out the way you thought, or you have surpassed your initial goals, feel free to change them. Eliminate goals that are no longer viable, or that hold no interest, or simply are getting in the way of goals that you now identify as more desirable.

You will also find that you will be presented with new opportunities in the months and years ahead. Some of these, you can’t even imagine now. That’s to be expected. The point is that you keep your options open, your mind willing to accept change, and the readiness and enthusiasm to recognize and embrace new paths as they become available. None of us has a crystal ball. We can’t see the future. But we can be optimistic, face life with a positive attitude, and realize that we can achieve our full potential.

In short, the future is yours. Shape it as you desire – and continue to refine your vision from this day forward.

Posted on June 14, 2010 and modified on April 28, 2019

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