Decisions to quit or set new limits on drug use or change other problematic behaviors (such as gambling, overeating, shopping excesses, etc.) often last about as long as New Year’s resolutions, which is to say, not very long. They start the same way—with a serious concern and desire for change—but all too often end in disappointment. At the start of a new year, it seems as though half the country has vowed to lose ten pounds and go to the gym. Then we eat a few salads and skip a few desserts, but never lose weight. We join a health club but stay glued to the couch. People either can’t get started or fall back into old habits, right away or over time.
In order to achieve greater success in changing behavior, it’s important to understand the reasons for failure. On the surface, they all appear to be about follow-through. The decision to change is sincere, so the problem must be lack of willpower or a poorly executed plan. A closer look, however, reveals that the roots of failure often lie in flawed decision-making.
Here are four factors in the decision-making process that undermine success in overcoming drug and other behavioral problems, as well as recommendations about how to avoid these pitfalls. Although the examples are about drugs, these factors can apply to a wide range of problematic and addictive behaviors.
A Desire to Change, Not a Decision
Sometimes a “decision” to change is more a wish for things to be different than a call to action. There’s an important distinction between wanting things to be different and making a commitment to actually bringing about change.
Wanting is a desire or even wishful thinking, as in, “it would be a good idea to change” or “the smart thing to do.” This might be a passing thought or could even rise to the level of an actionable impulse, leading to at least a short-term effort to do things differently.
Committing means taking a stand and deciding to put in the substantial effort required to succeed in starting and sustaining a change process.
People often casually say “I decided to change” because it sounds so sensible. They mean it but haven’t really made a commitment.
I remember a young client who said he realized that excessive marijuana use was causing a serious problem in his life and that he was going to stop smoking it. He meant business. “What would you do,” I asked, “if I offered you a lit joint right now?” He responded immediately, without hesitation and clearly without much thought: “I’d smoke it in a minute.” He wanted to stop but hadn’t really decided to do so.
Recommendation #1: Don’t confuse either a desire for things to be different or an impulse to change with a commitment to action. Ask yourself: Am I just mouthing the words? Have I really thought about this? Is this a serious decision? Am I ready to dedicate myself to this challenge?
Be careful not to plunge ahead based on wishful thinking.
Someone Else’s Decision
People sometimes decide to quit or cut back on their drug use as a response to pressure from the courts, employers, and other people in authority, or from important persons in their lives such as romantic partners, spouses, or family members. Understandably, they make their decisions in order to avoid punishment or other negative consequences. They recognize that courts can incarcerate or limit freedom. Employers can fire or suspend employees. Romantic partners can end relationships.
External pressure in the form of applied or threatened consequences is a powerful force that can motivate a sincere decision to change. The trouble with externally motivated decisions is that when you make them, you feel like you’re doing it for someone else. You do it because others insist, without necessarily thinking it through for yourself. You comply, but your heart isn’t in it. Worse still, you see yourself as caving to pressure. This makes for shaky decisions, easily upended. People are less committed and much less likely to persevere with decisions they feel were imposed upon them than with ones that they made for themselves.
Recommendation #2: If external pressure is a determining factor in a decision to quit or set new limits on your drug use, it’s important to take ownership of the decision. You don’t have to agree that you have a problem with drugs. However, you do have to acknowledge that you have a problem with someone in a position of authority or a loved one that involves drugs, and for that reason, you are making a change.
Here’s how the reasoning goes, for example, with someone facing court-ordered drug testing:
I don’t think my level of concern about my drug use would necessarily lead to a decision to do anything differently. I’m not quitting (or setting new limits) for that reason. However, I do think I have a problem with the courts and it is therefore my own decision to do something about that. I am choosing to change because my freedom and job are more important to me than my desire to continue using drugs. It doesn’t feel good to be pressured, but this is truly my decision and in my best interest. I’m going to adhere to it.
People begin to think about reducing their drug use when they become aware of significant harm from it. They want the harm to stop, so they set new limits or quit. They’re serious about these harm-based decisions and feel committed to them.
What they often fail to recognize is that they’ll also lose the benefits of their drug use. So, for example, if they used drugs when they felt anxious or sad or angry, that coping mechanism will go away. If they used drugs to fall asleep at night, that sleep aid will be gone. If they used drugs when they were feeling bored, that recreational option will be lost. Most people derive multiple benefits from drugs and will face significant losses.
Maybe if they knew what they were losing, they would be less willing to quit or set new limits. If that were so, they would probably be better off thinking more deeply about their decisions before plunging ahead with them and making half-hearted attempts to change that probably result in failure.
Without an understanding of what they are losing, people who make harm-based decisions cannot prepare for life without drugs, or with less of them. Often they are blindsided by urges and eventually relapse when they find themselves in situations that had triggered drug use in the past. For example, a young woman made a strong commitment to quit because she wanted to regain custody of her daughter. She had used drugs to counter insomnia but relapsed during her third straight night with little sleep after tossing and turning in bed for several hours. Had she recognized that she was giving up a “sleep aid” when she quit, she would have had an opportunity to prepare for sleepless nights and consider other options for overcoming this problem.
Worse still, she was confused by this setback. She thought she had made a firm decision to quit using drugs, yet now relapsed within a short period of time. She considered herself a failure and lost confidence in her own ability to make changes. Her decision was firm, but unfortunately not fully informed. This compromised her ability to succeed in her follow-through.
Recommendation #3: Make sure you consider the benefits you derive from drugs and understand that these benefits will be lost if you quit or set new limits. Recognize that you are making a sacrifice and be sure you have thought it through and are willing to let go of the benefits. Without an awareness of what you are “giving up,” you cannot make a fully informed decision to change or prepare for life without drugs, or with less of them.
More Than Willpower
People need willpower to overcome drug problems. But it’s not enough. The conditions of life have a way of wearing down resistance to urges and impulses. People need to find other ways to satisfy the needs that were formerly satisfied by drugs, or else learn to live with unmet needs. Generally, this involves learning new life skills and solving important problems.
For example, individuals who used drugs to avoid angry outbursts probably need to solve some of the problems that make them angry, plus learn other ways to express their anger or cope with it. Those who used drugs to fall asleep at night have to figure out what keeps them awake. They may need to learn about and practice better sleep hygiene, learn behavioral strategies for dealing with insomnia, and perhaps determine if anxiety is the culprit and, if so, learn other ways to cope with it.
Almost always there are multiple reasons for problematic drug use and multiple life issues that require effort to change. Short term, willpower might suffice. Long term, it won’t.
Recommendation #4: In making decisions about drugs, consider the other changes that will be required to live well without drugs (or less of them) and sustain long-term success.
Oftentimes the root for failure in behavioral change has more to do with the quality of the decision than the follow-through. Instead of rushing to proclaim you are making a change and diving unprepared into turbulent water, invest more time in the decision-making process. Be sure it is your own decision and that you know what you will lose, that you are aware of the effort required to succeed, and that you are firmly committed to the change. Slowing down the rush will allow you to make a fully informed decision, give you an opportunity to prepare for what lies ahead, and provide a greater probability of success.