Conscientiousness is one of the big five personality traits in the personality model most commonly used by psychologists. The five traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which you can remember with the acronym OCEAN. While there is no single addictive personality, there is one pattern that’s more common among people with substance use issues: high neuroticism and low conscientiousness.
What’s important about conscientiousness is that it appears to be a protective factor against substance use and addiction. Even people who score relatively high in neuroticism—which makes them especially vulnerable to mental health challenges like depression and anxiety—are less likely to have substance use issues if they also have high conscientiousness.
Conscientiousness is divided into six facets: competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, and deliberation. Highly conscientious people tend to be goal-oriented, responsible, organized, and hardworking. To people with moderate or low conscientiousness, these traits don’t sound the least bit appealing. They bring to mind a caricature of a tight-wound perfectionist, someone who is a slave to their own routine and, perhaps worst of all, completely devoid of imagination.
As with any trait, conscientiousness can be a bad thing when taken to an extreme, but if you struggle with substance use issues and commonly co-occurring issues, like a mood disorder, learning to be a bit more conscientious can do you a lot of good. Since it’s a personality trait, it will only change slowly and with persistent effort, so there’s little risk turning into a repressed conformist overnight. The following are a few suggestions for nurturing your inner Hermione Granger.
First, it’s helpful to keep in mind that conscientiousness, more than any other personality trait, is linked to specific behaviors. That is, even if you are not a highly conscientious person, you can learn to behave more conscientiously in things that really matter to you. For example, the artist Chuck Close has famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” If something matters to you, being more conscientious in your habits can help you do it better.
Start by identifying your priorities and focus on one or two specific behaviors that support those priorities. So, for example, maybe you want a better relationship with your kids but you frequently fail to follow through on your promises. Your specific focus for a while might be to do what you promise, no matter what. Look at the factors that prevent you from following through and come up with a plan to help you succeed. A therapist is often a huge asset in this process.
If you’re not very conscientious, it may be too much to ask to schedule every minute of your day Ben Franklin style. However, there are two concepts that can help you rein in the chaos: structure and priorities. First, decide what your priorities are and give them a definite time in your day. So, for example, you might decide your top priority is to attend a 12-Step meeting at 5 p.m. The rest of your activities go somewhere around that. We typically don’t get to more than three priorities in a day, so choose wisely.
Structure is also important because it helps automate healthy activities so you don’t have to expend thought or willpower on them. It may be a good idea to start by establishing a consistent bedtime and a consistent wake-up time. This ensures your hours of operation are more consistent from day-to-day and it also ensures you get enough sleep, which makes everything else easier. Once that part of your routine is in place, you can add a new element, perhaps exercising or studying at a certain time.
The two-minute rule is one of the most effective tactics against procrastination and letting things pile up in general. The rule is that if something will take less than two minutes to do, just do it now. Does the dishwasher need to be loaded? Just do it now. Does someone need a quick favor at work? Just do it now. You’ll be amazed how much more you get done and all those nagging little tasks won’t be taking up mental space.
People who struggle with substance use and mental health issues typically have relatively low conscientiousness but they often have a high level of empathy and compassion. You can use this to your advantage when you’re trying to be more conscientious. After all, much of conscientiousness is really about being considerate and not just following arbitrary rules. For example, if you’re always late, put yourself in the place of the person who is waiting for you. If you have trouble following through on your promises, imagine what it’s like to have someone let you down. At work, don’t think about getting that raise; focus on helping out your coworkers. Social connection often motivates us when more abstract incentives fail.
Improving your conscientiousness is a bit of a catch-22: changing a personality trait takes persistent effort, but if you have low conscientiousness, persistent effort is especially challenging. In a way, just sticking to a plan is an exercise in conscientiousness in itself. A therapist can be a huge help in creating a plan and sticking to it, as can participating in group therapy or a 12-Step program. Entering a treatment program can be especially helpful since your time is more structured in addition to having group and individual therapy sessions.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that a strong recovery from addiction is really about learning the skills to live a better life. Recovery should be an adventure in reaching your full potential. To learn more about our holistic treatment programs, call us at 833-801-LIVE.
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