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Keeping Recovery on Track: Pay Attention Intelligently

In the introduction to this series on how psychological research provides insights into how to keep recovery on track, I mentioned the concept, now established, that our brains process information and create behavior in two modes.

In automatic mode, our behavior in response to situations, thoughts and feelings occur pretty much automatically. Behaviors we engage in in automatic mode are akin to what we often call “habits”—behavior we do without thinking, over and over again. Addictive behaviors, because they tend to be repeated frequently over time, are very prone to become automatic, or what psychologists have called “functionally autonomous,” referring to the fact that when the right cues are present in the environment or inside the individual (thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc.) the behavior just occurs, no thought, no plan, no conscious intention, it just happens!

The other mode in which our brains process information and create behavior is the controlled mode. In controlled, processing our conscious awareness plays a major role. We have to think about the inputs (external situations or internal ones such as emotions or physical feelings) being processed or the behavior we are doing. Controlled processing occurs most frequently in situations where we are learning a new behavior or skill. In controlled mode, we are consciously engaged with the situation and our behavior, and intentionally trying to shape our behavior to fit what is going on around or within us. In my first article, I used the example of learning to drive a car.

The bottom line is controlling previous automatic behaviors is often hard!

How does all this apply to keeping recovery on track?

When people first begin attempting to change a highly automatic or automatized behavior, they need to expend significant attention and focus on identifying the situations in which control is needed and actively implementing that control. This process has been found by researcher Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, to require significant mental energy. According to Dr. Baumeister’s research, exercising self-control, or what most of us call “willpower” takes away mental resources from other activities, sometimes to our detriment. In fact, Baumeister and his students and colleagues have shown that the exercise of conscious self-control actually depletes the levels of a primary brain fuel—glucose—in the self-controller’s blood stream!

Baumeister has likened willpower and self-control to muscles that can tire and become weaker if they are overused.-Frederick Rotgers

Baumeister has likened willpower and self-control to muscles that can tire and become weaker if they are overused. Although the willpower and self-control muscle can be strengthened through practice, initially using too many conscious control resources (even if they are not directly related to changing behaviors such as substance use) leads to a weakening of the muscle. In the case of substance users trying to sustain reduced use or abstinence, this can lead to resumed or increased use.

What’s a person who wants to change his/her substance use to do?

Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions

Researchers have found a seemingly simple, yet highly effective process to help people automatize the implementation of new behaviors. This process, developed over the past 25 years by researchers Gerd Gollwitzer and Gabrielle Oettingen at New York University, is called Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII). In MCII the individual first pictures a goal—say, “I want to drink no more than three drinks on any given occasion.”

That’s easy for most of us, as we develop goals for ourselves all the time. The next step (the “contrasting” part of MC) is to systematically think about the barriers one might encounter to actually being able to drink no more than 3 drinks on any occasion. Who, what, where and when will barriers occur? In 12-step treatment terms, what are the people, places and things that will get in the way of reaching my goal?

Once the individual has identified barriers, then begins the second part of the process—developing very specific Implementation Intentions (the II of MCII).

I want to drink no more than three drinks on any given occasion.

Implementation are very specific statements of the form, “If such and such happens, then I will do a specific behavior.” So, in our example, the individual might develop the implementation intention of, “If I have had three drinks at a party already and my best friend offers me another one, then I will say firmly, ‘no thanks, I’m OK.’” Now this sounds kind of simple and simplistic, but Gollwitzer, Oettingen and their colleagues have shown that when people engage in this process of MCII with respect to even difficult behavior change goals (losing weight, quitting smoking, changing diet, etc.) they dramatically increase the likelihood that they will actually do the behavior in the Implementation Intention.

The person no longer needs to use limited mental, controlled or conscious resources to trigger the behavior indicated in the [Implementation Intention].-Frederick Rotgers

How does this work? Gollwitzer and Oettingen have shown in their research that what Implementation Intentions seem to do is to automatize the behavior specified in the II. That is, the person no longer needs to use limited mental, controlled or conscious resources to trigger the behavior indicated in the II.

So, the II makes the new behavior a bit more automatic, thus reducing the impact of willpower or self-control muscle fatigue that could lead to failure to implement the desired new, but not yet fully automatic behavior.

Now, it’s pretty clear that MCII is not a panacea, and it does not work for everyone in every situation. Nonetheless, it has been shown to be a powerful process that can be incredibly useful to people trying to implement and maintain difficult behavior changes. Give it a try yourself, and see how it works. Feel free to contact me with your experiences at

In my next Keeping Recovery on Track article, I’ll address staying motivated and the role of multiple goals in the process of recovery. Stay tuned!

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