Discipline in Recovery – Staying the Distance


You mustn’t let external experiences affect what moors you to recovery!

Would you pair the word “discipline” with the words “controlling” or “intense”? I certainly would and have. As a self-identified Type B individual, my concern regarding the practice of healthy discipline in my life has been non-existent. That is until I started working in substance use and mental health. Now I understand the need for small, impactful activities that build onto and into my values and goals.


A discipline is any activity that I can do by direct effort that will eventually enable me to do that which, currently, I cannot do by direct effort.  John Mark Comer



Discipline and Motivation

After the pandemic, many of us are still working to rebuild a schedule. Maintaining a healthy way of life can be hard when things seem uncertain. Instead of the fast-paced dance most of us do (the American hustle?), we might face empty spaces in our day. We might find that it is harder to call upon discipline and scheduling to complete our needed tasks. Motivation may be waxing and waning at inopportune times.


If you are pursuing recovery, you mustn’t let external experiences affect what moors you to that recovery. The value of creating a comprehensive recovery program cannot falter. The sun could start rising in the west and setting in the east, and recovery would still be the path to a healthy and rewarding daily life. Discipline can assist in keeping that hardline understanding and staying the distance.



First, let’s look at how we see motivation present in early recovery. The American Society of Addiction Medicine notes that individuals need to work to consolidate and enhance their motivation for change. They do this by gauging readiness and interest in changing. Are we ready to give up some of the people, places, and things in our life to support a more peaceful experience? Are we interested in what sobriety can offer?


Later into the recovery process, we see our Intensive Outpatient and Outpatient clients begin to experience positive motivators for change. Individuals have more clarity, sleep improves, relationships heal, and the days seem to get easier. Recovery ceases to be about cleaning up wreckage or avoiding further consequences. Recovery begins to take shape as life-giving and has a positive future. The motivations change and take on new life. This depends on what negative or positive energies are happening as a result of recovery.


Like anything in life, motivation is cultivated through avoiding things we don’t want and pursuing things we do want. We need ups and downs to keep moving on our uniquely valued path.


discipline and motivation

A disciplined schedule or mindset does not waver.


In contrast, discipline isn’t subject to changes in our experiences and environments. We could be waking up with feelings of anhedonia (lack of pleasure) or other Post-Acute Withdrawal symptoms and no motivation. Our family could be driving us insane as we juggle homeschooling children, working, and trying to practice self-care simultaneously. But a disciplined schedule or mindset does not waver.


It might get creative – after all, flexibility is the key to overall health – but it does not compromise on the items that matter most. Discipline does not mean doing everything perfectly. Or even being 100% successful in our weekly schedule. It means keeping a diligent eye on the small things we identify as healthy (emphasis on healthy!) and needed practices in our lives. When we do this, we commit to healthy practices regardless of outside influences.



Disciplined schedule or mindset does not waver!

In my experience as a clinical therapist at the Sanford Outpatient Center, most people have 3-5 items they need to accomplish weekly to keep their recovery on track. But don’t fear! These mooring lines to recovery can be quick and effective. For example:

  • Attendance in 12-step meetings
  • Appointments with a therapist
  • A group therapy session
  • Early morning run, walk, or stroll
  • Healthy eating practices


Deep breathing a couple of times a day could take only 20 minutes of the week. Walking the dog can be combined with exercise for three hours a week. Or even listening to a recovery podcast on the way to work because it’s a good use of time. Discipline should be nurtured and encouraged in congruence with motivation. Motivation is often a great bonus that stays consistent as a result of building a disciplined mindset. For example, the more I exercise because I know it is good for me, the more likely I am to feel motivated to do so because of the positive effects.


A disciplined mind leads to happiness; an undisciplined mind leads to suffering. Dalai Lama XIV


The above quote has profound implications for our work at Sanford Behavioral Health. Part of our promise is to prepare our clients for an inspired life in recovery. At Sanford, residents work hard, dig deep, and find the resourcefulness, strength, and compassion that define their idea of success.


Take a minute and consider how inspired it is to break free from the noise of unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves. Embracing intentional, distinct, attainable, and impactful disciplines takes all the abovementioned adjectives. Resourcefulness to make it work even though it’s hard. Strength and compassion to speak kindly to ourselves and those around us amidst our recovery process. Success in achieving disciplines that we have come to treasure as acts of self-love. And you know what? The above outcomes are the perfect recipe for a motivated recovery that will continue to get better and better.


Ali Kitchin grew up outside of San Francisco, but most of her extended family lives in Michigan, so she’s glad to call Grand Rapids home these days. Ali has a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master's from Baylor University. She is the clinical manager at Sanford Outpatient Center and has worked for Sanford since 2018. In her free time, Ali loves to run (when weather permits), read science fiction novels, or be outside with her dog, Pepper!