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4 Ways to Be More Conscientious

4 Ways to Be More Conscientious

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as an addictive personality. Substance use disorders afflict the outgoing and the shy, the kind and the mean, the curious and the conservative. However, there is one personality pattern that research shows is more common among people with substance use disorders: high neuroticism and low conscientiousness. These are two of the big five personality traits most commonly used by psychologists, the other traits being extraversion, openness, and agreeableness.

Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions and it’s highly correlated with mental health challenges and substance use issues. 
Conscientiousness involves things like being goal-oriented, organized, responsible, and law-abiding. Even people who are high in neuroticism are less prone to substance use issues if they are also high in conscientiousness.

As fundamental personality traits, these are both slow to change, but since conscientiousness is the trait most directly related to behavior, it’s the trait you have the most control over. The following tips can help you be more conscientious and thus strengthen your recovery from addiction.

Avoid Black-and-White Thinking

If you’re a creative person, a non-conformist who likes to find your own way, you no doubt hear things like “law-abiding, organized, achievement-oriented,” and so on and think, “No thanks.” You may imagine turning into some kind of conformist, validation-seeking automaton. That belief can be a major barrier to positive change.

Don’t worry, no matter how hard you try, that will never be you. In being more conscientious, we’re not talking about overhauling your personality; we’re talking about turning up one particular dial from about two to about four. The idea is to boost your conscientiousness just enough that you’re not so vulnerable to your own destructive impulses.

Get Clear on Your Priorities

One major characteristic of conscientious people is that they’re highly organized. They have a schedule and a to-do list and they stick to them. If you’re currently low on conscientiousness, you probably won’t have much luck trying to jump straight to a schedule broken down into 15 or 30-minute blocks. Instead, start by organizing your day according to your priorities.

Each day, or even the night before, identify the things you must accomplish and then prioritize them. So maybe you have a 12-step meeting, a therapy session, and work as your top three. There are probably some other things you could do, and perhaps some things you want to do and you may get to those or you may not.

Before you do anything else, schedule your priorities and work everything else in around them. That way, you won’t get distracted by “urgent” things that won’t really improve your quality of life.

Set Relevant Goals

Another common characteristic of the highly conscientious is that they are goal-oriented. Setting goals and working toward them consistently is often difficult for the conscientiously challenged. Goals feel constrictive. You have to work on them even when you don’t feel like it and besides that, you may set a goal today that you don’t care about tomorrow. Sometimes just setting a goal ignites a determination deep within you to do the exact opposite. So how do you deal with it? 

One solution is to set process goals. Instead of setting a goal that’s SMART--specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound--identify the direction you want to go and work on developing behaviors that take you in that direction. For example, if you want to be a rockstar, make sure you practice your instrument at least 30 minutes every day. If you want to stay sober, identify the behaviors that will lead to that result, and make them part of your life. 

It’s especially helpful if you can associate your long-term goals with your core values. For example, “I want to stay sober because I care about my family’s happiness.” Then, whenever you have a decision to make, you can ask yourself, “Does this take me closer or farther from my goals and values?” If it takes you closer, then go for it.

Create a Healthy Routine

Related to the points above, creating a healthy routine will significantly boost your conscientiousness. Routines have two major advantages: First, any routine, even a terrible one, will reduce uncertainty. Uncertainty is a major source of stress and anxiety in life and if you kind of know what to expect from day-to-day, you manage those feelings a little more easily.

Second, a healthy routine is an easy way to automate healthy behaviors. Instead of having to decide all the time if you’re going to have a healthy breakfast, if you’re going to exercise, if you’re going to attend your 12-step meeting and so on, you make them regular parts of your day so that you just sort of do them on autopilot. You don’t have to exert much willpower once those routines are set. 

Creating a healthy routine is another challenge altogether. Start with your top priorities for the day, as noted above. If you’re recovering from addiction, these should be elements from your recovery plan. You may already have a head start on some of them if you’ve completed an inpatient treatment program. Otherwise, start with one or two anchor points.

For example, you might get up at the same time every day and you might go to a 12-step meeting at the same time every day. Then you can start building other things around these two. So maybe you get up and exercise right away, perhaps walking for a few minutes until you’ve formed a solid habit. Then start adding other elements directly following previously established anchors. The idea is that you want to go from one thing to the next, like stepping stones. 

Since conscientiousness is a personality trait, it is slow to change. While a low-conscientiousness person will never magically turn into the most goal-oriented, focused, and responsible person around, they can gain more control over their lives. The keys are to keep your values in mind and make consistent efforts. You will also have a bit of a tailwind since conscientiousness tends to increase slightly with age.

At The Foundry, we know that recovery from addiction isn’t just about abstaining from drugs and alcohol, but rather about making the kinds of changes that allow you to take charge of your own life and live in a more connected, meaningful way. That’s why our holistic program focuses on growth in every area of life. To learn more, call us today at (844) 955-1066.

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