Create Your Optimal Use Plan

optimal use planThe New Year is right around the corner. Many make resolutions to change their relationship with alcohol or a substance, resolving to use it less or not at all.


Maybe you’re working on this already. If changing your pattern of using or drinking is important to you, perhaps it’s time to consider creating what’s called an optimal use plan.


An optimal use plan is a hypothetical plan or vision that you can create on your own, with the help of a loved one, or ideally a therapist. It’s a “working plan” that will help you name your goals for your drinking or using and includes strategies for how to achieve them.


So how do you create one? Let’s dive in.


Exploring Where You Are

Before you consider how you’d like your using or drinking to change, it’s crucial to start to understand why you’ve been using as you have.


I’m really big on this. Changing your relationship with your substance use is hard enough. By skipping this step and going straight to trying to change your behavior, I’ve often found that it’s more difficult to sustain that change.


After all, I tried to quit countless times. How many times have you told yourself, “Tonight’s the last night,” or “I’m never doing that again”? You’re in good company. I’ve been there.


So take a good look inside. Usually, substance use helps us either:

  1. Get something (getting access to emotions we’ve cut off, e.g., or finding our long-lost authentic voice), or
  2. Get away from something (shame, for example, or other unbearable feelings)


Want to know a secret? It’s usually both at the same time.


Clarify Your Values and Goals

The next step to creating an optimal use plan is to consider your values and goals and imagine a vision for your life in light of these goals. Here’s the $64,000 question:


“If you were to create a plan for using your substances of choice that would provide the greatest amount of benefit with the lowest risk, what might that look like?”


Here, you’re really choosing your destination. Where do you want to go? Would you be, for instance, alcohol free? Would you drink moderately? Many people, myself included, try moderate drinking and then choose abstinence. Others know abstinence is for them right away.


So, your goals can change. But it’s important to know where you’re headed so that you can think about how you want to get there.

Time to Strategize

There’s a lot a possible tools here, too many to list. But we can start to list a few by category. Let’s break it down a bit.


Biological/Somatic Strategies

  • Medical examination/treatment
  • Psychiatric evaluation/treatment (including an array of drugs to help detox and reduce cravings)
  • Holistic health and wellness
  • Acupuncture
  • Nutrition and diet
  • Fitness and exercise
  • Yoga

Psychological/Cognitive Strategies

  • Charting and journaling urges
  • Manage and resolve triggers in new ways
  • Mindfulness and self-monitoring in the moment
  • Breathing techniques
  • Refusal skills
  • Avoidance strategies
  • Situational planning
  • Psychotherapy (cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, somatic experiencing, biofeedback, EMDR, etc.)

Social/Interpersonal Strategies

  • Group therapy
  • Couples therapy
  • Mutual help groups (SMART Recovery, 12-step groups, etc.)
  • Social services


It’s really important to hold whatever strategies you choose loosely and experiment. If one tool doesn’t really work, you can tweak how you’re using it or move on to something else. Test your strategies and keep playing around until you find something that works.


Remember, it’s all about discovering what’s doable. And what’s doable now may change; you’ll probably become capable of more the more you try. I sometimes tell clients that you’re working out a new muscle here and it’s going to take time to make it stronger.


Hone Your Skills

Along the way, there are really important skills to learn and master. Let me mention a few of the most important.

  • Curiosity: Turning toward yourself, especially when you feel the urge to use or drink, and being curious about your experience can open up new possibilities. Oftentimes, we’ve learned to use or drink to avoid feeling emotions, much less be curious about them. If this sounds familiar, it might be helpful to remind yourself of what it’s costing you not to feel your emotions. Learning to take a curious stance toward yourself can take practice, so getting help from a loved one, a sponsor, or a therapist is a great idea.
  • Mindfulness/awareness: Awareness is the first step in changing how we want to think, feel, and act. We can’t change what we don’t know about. Mindfulness also refers to a set of practices that can create curiosity about your experience, help you to be kinder and more compassionate toward yourself, and increase your ability to manage difficult feelings. Speaking of which . . .
  • Emotional tolerance: Being able to tolerate feelings means that we’re able to manage them positively and successfully without turning to substances or behaviors to help us cope. From my perspective, this skill is the most important but also the most difficult to master. It’s the linchpin on which your entire optimal use plan depends. Without the ability to fully feel your feelings, you might turn to a familiar substance or a behavior to help you get by, especially if the situation you’re in brings up a lot for you. That’s okay; this skill takes time to learn and involves the complicated task of reconciling conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves.


Final Questions

When you implement your optimal use plan, it’s critical to hold it loosely. It’s an experiment. I can’t stress that enough. You’re probably collaborating with a loved one, a sponsor, or a therapist on this and aren’t sure what will work. And as you go, you’ll almost certainly need to adjust along the way.


So treat it like a hypothesis. Test it. Tweak it. Is it realistic? Is it too much too soon? Are there ways that you can break it down to make it more doable? What problems are you having and how might you need to revise your plan? Or, what do the problems you’re having call attention to that you need support with?


If you need help creating an optimal use plan to reach your goals, it would be my privilege to support you. Let’s talk today about what’s on your mind. I’d love to connect.


Live near Ventura, Camarillo, or Oxnard, CA?

I’d love to connect.

Contact me today to get started.


Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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