Habit & Structure

A habit is something repeated enough that it is done easily and automatically with little effort or even conscious thought.

Bad Habits

Most people have some bad habits. Some simple examples of habits or habitual behaviors are:

  • Tics. Nervous twitches might be neurological, but they also may be psychological and habitual.
  • Affectations. Habitual behaviors, like saying “You know?” after you speak, are very common.
  • Addictive behaviors. Drug addiction used to be called a “habit.” Actually, addiction has only a little to do with habit. The model of habit is inadequate to describe the constellation of behaviors we see in addiction.

However, you may have addictive behaviors that continue into recovery largely from habit. Examples include heading to the bar or refrigerator as soon as you get home, or eating in front of the TV.

Helpful Habits

Many habits are actually beneficial. Here are some examples of how habits can work against or for you:

  • Tying shoes. Have you ever tried to explain how to tie a shoe to a child? Unless you are an experienced elementary school teacher, it may be difficult. Tying shoes is habitual for most people, so you have forgotten exactly how you do it; you just do it out of habit. Try making the first loop with your other hand sometime!
  • Driving to work. Things we do habitually, if they are helpful things, save energy because we don’t have to think about them. If you drive the same way to work each day, you probably don’t have to put much effort into remembering where to turn. You may even surprise yourself sometimes by realizing that you weren’t aware of much while you were driving -- perhaps your mind was on something else.

You can become so “automatic” while driving that you become unsafe. Some people describe this type of situation as a “blackout,” which it might be. More likely it is normal (though perhaps somewhat reckless) concentration on something else (or even nothing — a trance state) while your habits try to take care of you.

Extinguishing Them

Habits aren’t that difficult to change, if you have no vested interest in maintaining them. For example, suppose you change jobs. For ten years, you drove to a certain intersection and turned left. Now you have to go to the same intersection but you must turn right to get to the new work place.

For a month or so it will take a conscious effort when you get to that intersection to turn right instead of left. But before long, you will find that your automatic reaction will increasingly be right instead of left. The old habit is dying through lack of use, and a new habit is taking its place.

Many months after the habit is extinguished, you may find that out of the clear blue, you suddenly turned left instead of right. This is a normal phenomenon, which can be demonstrated by laboratory rats. It just means that new habits will replace old habits fairly quickly, but the old habit will not die finally until after many months of disuse.

If you are an eating addict, you might have a habit of accepting snacks offered unexpectedly, whether at a party or at a grocery store. This habit will work against you for several weeks, and you must be conscious of it. It is not unusual to pop something in your mouth before you even realize it, and then have to find a discreet way to spit it out. Yet after several months of not eating between meals you may find you have declined an offer without even consciously considering it. A new habit has begun to work in your favor.


Like habits, structure can work for you or against you. In recovery, structure is the framework of habits, rules, beliefs, attitudes, and other factors that anchor experience and give it meaning.

Many addicts are defiant if they don’t get their way. They respond to too much structure with rebellion. This is why AA makes such a point of emphasizing that the Steps are suggestions only. Try to stuff them down an addict’s throat, and you will quickly discover how much energy the disease can muster.

On the other hand, without enough structure, there are too many decisions. You could become overwhelmed and exhausted, with a “lost” feeling.

Balance for You

The important thing is to find a balance that you can live with, that works for you. This will be somewhere between excessive structure and not enough. Examples might include an eating plan or other moderation plan, meetings, and sponsor involvement.

Eating plan Some eating addicts find success in more structure in a eating plan, while others need less. Too much rigidity encourages obsession and rebellion, while too little may be inadequate guidance for moderate eating, and might lead to increased cravings and poor weight management.

Meetings What types, how many meetings a week do you need? Again it depends on your particular needs, and whether meetings are actually available in your area. Generally, especially in early recovery, we would recommend one or two too many rather than a meeting or two not enough. It is possible, however, for people to overdo even meeting attendance.

Sponsor involvement Some people prefer a sponsor that gets very directive and very involved in their lives; others like one that gives very gentle suggestions and does more listening. Recovery will do best with a compromise that works for you.

Habit & structure, see also: Affirmations, Behavior, Character defects, Control, Defenses, Dichotomous thinking, Diet mentality, Eating plans, Half-measures, Halfway house, Meetings, Mental aspects, Priorities, Psychological problems, Relapse prevention, Service & giving, Sponsorship, Therapy & treatment.

Updated 8 Nov 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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