Structure in Recovery

Why do people emphasize the importance of structure in recovery? Is structure the end goal or just a way of getting into recovery? These are commonly asked questions, especially when looking at the pros and cons of different programs. Questioning structure is also a common response that people may have when they first enter a recovery environment. A person might ask, “Why do I have to attend all these group meetings?” or, “How come we do this activity at the same time every day?” Discussing the role of structure in recovery means looking at the root of what addiction is and how to best stay on a path to recovery.

Addiction has effects on a person’s behavior and thinking that ripple out into every part of their life, from family and relationships, to education and work, and other kinds of social activities. To put it in simple terms, addiction can make it hard to prioritize and follow through on anything other than getting and using our drug of choice. As a result, it chips away at the social bonds, habits, and lifestyle a person has built up over their lifetime. It creates new habits and compulsions that feel stronger than old ones. That’s essentially how life under addiction becomes disorderly, unstructured, and messy.

Entering recovery brings many changes and challenges to our lives. Especially early in the process, we may feel a bit overwhelmed. It seems that everything about our “old” life must now become different. Establishing new routines and patterns can help us structure our time. Planning for these better choices is a great way to address this challenge. Routines can help create positive new habits that can serve long-term by helping maintain sobriety and help create a more healthy and balanced lifestyle.

Routine introduces the elements of rhythm and habit into our daily lives. Rhythm is important because the body has its own natural, synchronized rhythm system (sometimes referred to as “the body clock”). Our bodies are “set” to work better when our sleeping, eating and exercise habits are consistent. Reinforcing this process proves that our minds flourish on systems of pattern and habit. Because they have so much information to process, our brains depend on habit to help us regulate many common daily processes. Think how overwhelming it would be if we had to consciously attend to each and every experience that occurs in our lives, from brushing our teeth to the steps involved in driving a car, and we can understand why the use of habit and routine is necessary.

Having set rules to follow also reinforces the importance of structure. We all have different rules to follow whether they’re from work, family, or law. In our addiction, we tend to make up our own rules or rearrange the rules to what we think they should be. In recovery, we have an opportunity to learn to follow these different rules, whether we agree with them or not. If we do not learn to change our routines and habits to follow these rules, negative consequences can happen.

The Scientific View!

Science supports the idea that habit and routine are important, especially in early recovery. A NIH report on early abstinence and risks for recovery (An Individual Drug Counseling Approach to Treat Cocaine Addiction: The Collaborative Cocaine Treatment Study Model; 1999) states that “structuring one’s time is an important aid to recovery. Having definite plans and staying busy helps the recovering addict to avoid having excess free time…” The report further explains that “unstructured time can lead to boredom” and increases the risk of returning to old (unhealthy and risky) patterns. But structured routines help you feel more in control; they give you a sense of having taken responsibility for making positive changes; and they help you build confidence. The NIH report suggests the use of daily and weekly routines help to establish healthy new patterns.

Your daily routine may include these activities:

  • Consistently waking up at a certain time every morning.
  • Making time for daily exercise.
  • Planning and cooking healthy meals.
  • Regularly attending a sobriety support group and fellowshipping with other sober peers.
  • Taking time for self-care.
  • Taking time for creativity (ie: arts & crafts)
  • Establishing a chore schedule to keep your living space clean and organized.
  • Keeping a personal hygiene routine.
  • Going to school or work.
  • Developing a predictable childcare routine (if applicable).
  • Keeping a daily journal or other creative writing time.
  • Learning new things/skills.
  • Preparation for work day (or other, if day off).
  • Hobbies or family time.
  • A good sleep schedule.

Your weekly routine might include some of these activities:

  • Exercise schedule (if other than daily).
  • Attending support group meetings.
  • Learning or practicing a new skill (ex: meditation, yoga).
  • Socialization (with supportive, non-using friends or family).

Setting each of these things in motion isn’t always easy and it will take a lot of effort, planning, and organization. But, getting started is the hardest part. Eventually, these things will become daily habits and the structure of your day will become an essential part of your recovery. Prioritizing each of these things will support a lifestyle of recovery daily while you gradually adjust back into society as a high-functioning sober individual.

Keeping your Balance

We often hear or read about the need for our lives to “be in balance.” What that means is that we need order, rhythm and harmony in all areas of our lives. So you should carefully consider just how much time you will devote to each of the activities and responsibilities that make up your daily and weekly routines. Eating and sleeping are necessities; still you do control the amount of time you spend on these activities. And you control when and how the activities take place. (For instance, sometimes cooking and eating will coincide with socialization time.) By consciously and deliberately scheduling our time, we can make sure that we include all the healthy, helpful habits and routines needed to assist in sobriety, and also eliminate large gaps of “free” time that might encourage us to slip back into old, unhealthy patterns.


This post revised with Chanlyut.