Getting out of a rut and the 12 steps

I received an inquiry from a person who read the last article on making resolutions. He wanted to know how to get out of a rut. He recently recognized that he was in one, and didn’t know how to change it. A rut, as it’s used here, is “A habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.”

He shouldn’t feel alone. It’s hard to get out of a rut, because we created it ourselves. At one point in our lives, the behavior that we are engaged in seemed like a good choice. So we did it again and again and again. A habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up”. An additional psychological definition is “an automatic reaction to a specific situation.” So there’s not too much actual thinking going on here, just repeated behavior.

I helped a man quit smoking just by getting him to think a bit. He really wanted to quit. Personal inner motivation is the first requirement for getting out of a rut or breaking a habit. You have to sincerely want to change. You become a captain of a ship that may be tossed a bit at sea, but you are at the helm, and have determined to get it into port.

What we did was go back in his memory to his first cigarette. He smoked with a few friends to be accepted by them. That appeared as a good choice to him. He wanted friends a lot. I told him that I completely understood his choice.

I asked him if he felt that he still needed to smoke cigarettes to have friends. He didn’t. So the truth was that he didn’t need cigarettes any more. What was perhaps a forgotten psychological habit was now a conscious understanding: “I don’t need cigarettes to have friends.” We then discussed how he makes and keeps friends now.

Sadly, no one knows the addictive power of nicotine, alcohol or drugs until they use them repeatedly. So as he smoked more and more, he became addicted. If you’re addicted to cigarettes, and want to quit. Just stop. About 10 percent of people who try tobacco don’t get physically addicted to it. They’re called “chippers.” Hopefully, you’re one of them! The other 90 percent need to know that the actual physical cravings are gone in about 72 hours — three days! Can you hold the ship steady for three days?

What remains are the psychological habits that keep the behavior going.

“I always have a cigarette first thing in the morning, or after a meal, or when I get stressed, etc.” 

We have to get our minds over the matter. There is help.

Someone dear to me received his six-month sobriety honors in Alcoholics Anonymous. This represents years of work from going to “I don’t have a problem” to “maybe I have a problem” to “I have a problem.” to “I need help with this problem” to “I’m solving this problem.” 

I am so very proud of all the starts and restarts, and the humility of admitting mistakes, and the refocusing forward. We all need to change our behaviors at some time in our lives. Sometimes, it’s of our own choosing, and sometimes the universe seemingly kicks us into it, by removing something or someone we love, or giving us a difficult challenge.

Millions have climbed out of the alcoholic rut to live amazingly creative, loving, and productive lives. If you have an actual addiction, The 12 steps might help:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

My husband Joshua was a substance abuse counselor for 21 years. He says that AA has shorted the first three steps to, “I can’t. He can. I think I’ll let Him.”

The steps are simple, but not easy. Joining a group will help you change quicker, and make the journey more fun. I personally have a little difficulty with step No. 6. I would change “defects of character” to “misunderstandings about how to behave.” We can learn to choose correctly, and alcoholics aren’t defective people. I think that Bill and Dr. Woods, 12 Step creators, would probably agree. The human race progresses, and so does our understanding.

A behaviorist way to change the psychological habits can be found at:

A flowchart from “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg guides you through three steps.

1. What is the cue or trigger that first makes you want to indulge the habit? He suggests that you pay attention to the time, who was around, where you were, what you just did, and what emotions you are feeling. As you keep a record, one will show up repeatedly, and that is your cue.

2. What is the craving that you think your habit is satisfying? To de-stress, or bring yourself up when you are feeling down? Feel more confident? Test it by substituting another reward. If it removes the craving, then that’s what you really want. If it doesn’t, try another. Keep experimenting until you find something new that satisfies the urge.

3. Insert the new routine that removes the craving, the next time you are triggered. Duhigg suggests that you even write down the new formula as:

“When _____cue______, I will _______new routine_____, because it provides me with ____ reward_____.”

You can use this for different behaviors that might be in a rut. Author and teacher of mine Isabel Hickey stated, “The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.” 

If your daily routine starts to get boring, mix it up! Look for something new on the menu. Introduce yourself to a new person at school or work. Practice talking a little more, or listening a little more with your friends. Take an unusual class. Hike a new trail, or an old one with new friends.

In both of the solutions offered, the first task is to know yourself… what works and what doesn’t. It’s a good way to start a new year! Many blessings to you.

Annaleah Atkinson is a volunteer with Hale ‘Opio Kaua‘i, a support group for teens and their families. Email your questions or concerns to


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