Many studies have found that two of these traits–neuroticism and conscientiousness–are especially relevant to addiction risk. Neuroticism is the tendency to feel negative emotions like anxiety, depression, irritability, self-consciousness, and self-doubt. People who score high in neuroticism have a greater risk for both mental illness and substance use. Neuroticism is best addressed in therapy, however, regular exercise and adequate sleep can help moderate it.
Conscientiousness, on the other hand, is protective against substance use issues, even for people who score high on neuroticism. Conscientiousness is essentially the ability to do what’s best for you in the long term. People high in conscientiousness tend to be goal-oriented, organized, self-motivated, and responsible. They see substance use as unappealing because it interferes with their goals and responsibilities. Since conscientiousness is a personality trait, it won’t change a lot but you can improve it a bit and that will help you stay sober. Here’s how to do it.
Approach change with the right attitude
We see things through the lens of our own temperament. If you’re relatively low in conscientiousness, the thought of becoming more conscientious may not be that appealing. You may have an image of a conscientious person as someone who is wound a bit too tight, who is a slave to popular opinion, who won’t deviate from their schedule, and is generally consumed by perfectionism. The good news is that if you’re on the low side of conscientiousness, there’s very little risk you will turn into that person. Instead of thinking of it as changing your personality, think of it as expanding your capacities. By making an effort to be more conscientious, you won’t suddenly lose your ability to be spontaneous or cope with surprises but you will get a little better at doing the things you need to do.
Tackle one challenge at a time
Conscientiousness isn’t one big thing. It comprises the sub-traits of self-efficacy, orderliness, dutifulness, achievement-striving, self-discipline, and cautiousness. We are all better at some of these things than others, and there is likely one weak trait that is causing you the most trouble. For example, maybe you have very little self-discipline. You might tell yourself you’re going to get a salad with lunch instead of fries but somehow you always end up getting the fries–and cake too. So your first goal might be to increase your self-discipline. Set an achievable goal for yourself in that area and track your progress. If your problem is unhealthy eating, you might decide to eat at least one serving of vegetables every day and allow yourself one slice of cake on Friday. Fundamentally, self-discipline is about doing what you intend to do rather than finding an excuse at the last minute so any goal that requires you to follow through on your intention will help.
Don’t expect that you can get the important things in order overnight. You may even struggle to use a calendar at first. If that sounds like you, try creating systems instead. Start by building routines that give structure to your life. A good place to start is to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. This improves your sleep, which also improves your self-control. It also helps to establish a regular schedule for your daily activities.
As for organizing your life, start by writing things down. Ideally, you should write them in a calendar but just making a to-do list on any available piece of paper is a step in the right direction. Just writing things down helps you remember to do them. Keep your list someplace handy to remind you of dates and times. As you get better at it, refine your system to be more efficient.
Keep your promises
A big part of conscientiousness is keeping your commitments to others. This could be anything from just showing up to appointments on time to big promises like staying sober and everything in between. Start small by just being on time. There are two keys to punctuality. First, give yourself more time than you think you need. We always imagine tasks will take less time than they actually will. The best guide is to ask how long something has taken in the past. So don’t say to yourself, “If traffic is light, I can be there in 20 minutes.” Just assume traffic won’t be light and give yourself 40 minutes. Second, remember that keeping your promises is something you do for other people. There may not be an obvious penalty for being a little late or flaking out on a commitment but you’re creating a burden for someone else. Have some compassion for the other person and keep your promises. It gets easier the more you do it.
Clarify your values
Finally, clarify your values. Knowing what’s most important to you can motivate you to stick to long-term plans despite short-term discomfort. For example, many people decide to get sober because they’re hurting their families with their substance use. By keeping in mind that you value your family, you are more able to make the tough but right decision. This is the key to the higher power of AA and to some forms of therapy, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. It’s not that making good decisions is easy but rather that you have clear motivation to do something hard. Writing about your values and why they’re important–an activity called self-affirmation–has been shown to increase people’s willpower and help them make healthy choices. To clarify your highest values and let them guide you.
It’s important to keep in mind that conscientiousness is a personality trait and it won’t change quickly. You have to make a persistent effort and focus on the things that will make the biggest difference in your life. The good news is that conscientiousness tends to increase as you get older and there’s even a bit of a jump around age 25 as your brain fully matures. At Hired Power, we can help guide you through the whole recovery process, including supporting you after treatment with services like sober monitoring and sober companions, who help you apply the lessons of treatment to everyday life. To learn more about our services, explore our website or call us at 800.910.9299.