Establishing New Habits in Recovery: The Paper Clip Strategy (Pt. 1)

Establishing New Habits in Recovery: The Paper Clip Strategy (Pt. 1)

Habits can be hard to break, and that can be a good thing…if they’re the right kinds of habits. Good habits can be affirming and set a positive tone, bad habits can be self-sabotaging and sink the ship.

In early recovery, there is a lot to do – and a lot to change. The patterns of behavior that fueled and sustained substance abuse must be abandoned and new healthy choices and habits must take their place.

But when people in recovery say, “the only thing you have to change is everything” it can sound overwhelming. Establishing and maintaining new, positive practices can be a challenge, but there are tools that can help us do so.

One strategy often used to reinforce productive processes in the business and personal development arenas is called the paper clip strategy. We think it can have powerful application in the world of recovery, too.

Simple Steps Add Up to Great Strides

The story behind the paper clip strategy is worth telling. Legend attributes it to a newbie stock broker in Canada in the early 1990s. Not having much experience and not working in one of the major urban or financial centers (email and internet technologies were still a few years away, so geography and in-person meetings were still very important to land new business), no one expected much of him.

Despite these disadvantages, Trent Dyrsmid quietly but steadily began to create huge revenue and generate successful outcomes for his firm because of a very simple – but doggedly consistent – practice he implemented every day.

What was his secret? Dyrsmid explains, “Every morning I would start with 120 paper clips in one jar and I would keep dialing the phone until I had moved them all to the second jar.” That was it. He didn’t lay claim to a fancy or irresistible pitch. And he admits he didn’t do a ton of market research or analysis. But he made 120 calls per day. No matter what. And he moved a paper clip every time he made a call. Within a year and a half, Dyrsmid’s book of business ballooned to $5 million in assets, his salary increased sharply, and he was being recruited by other companies.

The story underscores a fundamental truth that many successful people have come to embrace: success often follows from the persistent practice of good fundamentals. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, repeat what works. Do simple things really well and consistently.

So how does this apply to recovery?

Faced with the prospect of giving up alcohol or drugs for the rest of their lives, many lose focus and forget about the simple things that will get them through this day sober. There is a reason they say, “first things first and “one day at a time.”

Just as often, some people obsess about achieving a certain result they want out of sobriety like regaining trust, getting a job, or getting back into shape but they quickly lose the motivation to commit to the simple practices that will help them get there (e.g. being honest in all interactions, staying sober so they can be dependable, going to the gym and watching what they eat).

The trees get lost in the forest. Worse still, many try to figure out their own system or slip into old habits, rather than implementing proven practices and 12 step principles that have historically helped people stay sober and happy.

The Power of Visual Reminders

So how can the paper clip method help keep those in early recovery on track?

  • It serves as a simple visual cue that you need to do certain things. When you see you haven’t moved any paper clips, it’s a reminder that you haven’t yet done things you’ve committed to
  • It acts as a reinforcement and reward when you have them done (e.g. you go to a meeting, you move a clip for that day). The moved paper clips help you to measure how well you’ve met goals and transformed intentions into actions.
  • After a while, it becomes a motivator. You want to move the paper clips because it has become a powerful symbol of forward progress. All along the way, it helps galvanize your new routines.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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