Habit Formation BASICS

Understanding the HABIT habit
How your BRAIN wants you to do it

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Habits, Decisions, Attention Series

Your Brain is Habit-Building Friendly

© Creative Commons on Wikipedia from Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator

Habits are patterns – and the human brain has evolved to be a pattern-recognition machine.

As we learned in an earlier post in the Habit Series, Brain-based Habit Formation, a part of our brain called the basal ganglia keeps track of those links that are built through repetition.

It’s important to know and remember that pathways remain available for reactivation as long as the basal ganglia are intact.

That can be BOTH good news and bad.

  • It’s good news if we drop out the activities that lead to the development of a behavior we want in our lives and decide we want to try again.
  • It’s bad news when we stop paying attention to building our new habit and backslide into the non-productive ones before we know it.

In an MIT report of a 2005 study, Dana Alliance member Ann Graybiel wrote encouragingly,

“We knew that neurons can change their firing patterns when habits are learned, but it is startling to find that these patterns reverse when the habit is lost, only to recur again as soon as something kicks off the habit again.”

To underscore what we covered in Part-1 of the entire Habit Series,
Habits, Decisions and Attention . . .

In a 2011 Associated Press article, Dr. Nora Volkow explained that most individuals assign more value to an immediate reward than a long-term goal, based on what science reports about the preferences and behaviors of study participants.

Those study subjects probably represent most human beings fairly closely.

Dr. Volkow is a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives [Dana Foundation] member,
and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA]

She goes on to say that the pleasure our brain gets from repeatedly reinforcing the immediate reward is transformed over time into a habit through the processes modulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine (which long-time readers may remember from Brain-based Habit Formation: the Dopamine Pleasure/Reward System).

Volkow explains that the dopamine-rich part of the brain named the striatum (the major input station of the basal ganglia system), “memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward. Eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviors almost automatic.”

Hold that thought!

Especially for ADD/EFD readers

Many of you already know that one of the reasons why stimulant medication is effective is that it increases the bioavailability of dopamine, the amount available for your brain to use.

Impaired dopamine metabolism in many of the citizens of Alphabet City almost approaches reward-deficiency syndrome [RDS]which is the main reason why consistent and immediate positive feedback is frequently required to reward our ongoing efforts and keep us on task.

Related Post: Virtue is NOT its own Reward

Volkow’s research is great news for us, however – it means that we can learn to manipulate our own dopamine production, even without medication!

Releasing more dopamine through the brain’s automatic response to performing positive habitual activities allows our brains to feel increasingly more pleasure.

That serves as wind beneath our wings as we develop even MORE new habits – as long as we keep it up. The additional dopamine will help with intentional focus overall, too!

No need for the rest of you reading to feel left out, however.

Creating habits that get us where we want to go eventually becomes its own reinforcement no matter how our brains were originally wired — as long as we don’t continually reactivate our bad habits.

Like attracts like

As explained in Habits, Decisions & Attention, Keystone Habits are habitual behaviors that have what is sometimes termed “a multiplier effect,” serving as a CUE for additional habits in harmony with the original set of actions.

By taking advantage of the multiplier effect of Keystone Habits, attracting the formation of positive changes congruent with the original habits, less productive habits will be naturally “pushed aside” by the new pathways created by the new habits — unless we continue to reactivate the old pathways.

That’s the reason why I gave you the final assignment in the previous habits post: “identify what you want to create instead.”  That will be step-one in determining which habits will be congruent with your keystone habits.

Remember that you can always check out the sidebar
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HOVER before clicking – often a box will appear to tell you what to expect

What happens when we “backslide”

Backsliding is represented well by something frequently uttered by smokers trying to quit:

“I’m a puff away from a pack a day.” 

Even though part of the struggle is due to elements of physical addiction, it is also due to the reactivation of a brain-based habit stored in the hippocampus, motivated by attentional rewards and activated by a context-sensitive cue.

Nicotine, remember, is also a psycho-stimulant, “waking up” a sluggish prefontal cortex,
the part of the outer layer of the brain located right behind your forehead
(essential for effective Executive Functioning).

According to memory researchers, it is beginning to look as if, in healthy brains, the neural pathways established as a result of our habits never get deleted.

  • Those pathways remain available for activation so that learning complex tasks that build upon information previously stored becomes possible — because the previous habits are still available for linking.
  • Healthy brains will store the pathways of old habits (like basic math facts, for example) — even if we don’t use them for decades, just in case we need to go back and use those same routes again — like when the internet is down, our cellphone battery is dead, and we haven’t owned a calculator in a decade.

That’s great news for learning and growing, but it complicates the process of unlearning old habits we want to get rid of – especially habits of thought that keep us tethered to emotions like fear, anger, frustration and sorrow.

Related Post: Yes AND vs. yes but

Building and rebuilding those habits

Do you know what cues your behaviors – wanted and unwanted, thoughts and actions both?  That’s essential. As I told you in a previous article, habit formation follows a formula, and takes consistent repetition over time.

The good news is that researchers Phillippa Lally and associates* found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did NOT materially affect the habit formation process” — in the same study that overturned the old and oft repeated myth that it takes 30 days to form a habit.  (It turns out it takes an average of 66 days.)

* From a study published in October 2010 [Volume 40, Issue 6, pages 998–1009, European Journal of Social Psychology]Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre | UCL Epidemiology and Public Health.

Read more about that study & habit formation timing in Changing a habit to change your LIFE

The important take-away today:

Missing a day or two now and then does not negatively affect the process of building your new habit.  You don’t have to “restart your count,” as previously believed (and still passed along by some of the “habit gurus” around the internet) — as long as you get right back on the horse.

Your brain continues to build links in response to your repeated attempts to set the new habit in place, long before the habit reaches the point where it becomes automatic.  You strengthen those links every single time you activate the Habit Cycle, consciously or unconsciously.

  • You can decrease the time it takes for a process to become automatic if you are diligent about not reactivating the old pathways while you are attempting to build your new system, but only so much.
  • For the most part, changing old habits seems to be a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race process.

Just don’t give up!

Science still does not know what level of consistency is necessary for the formation of a habit, but if you are extremely inconsistent you won’t be able to build the new habit until you step up your level of regularity.

Things will always remain a struggle as long as you allow yourself
to remain in the will I or won’t I decision-making stage.

But there’s always the possibility of change. That possibility increases with every activation of the Habit Cycle by every single new attempt to install your new habit — as new pathways are built and existing links are strengthened.

More questions for notebook noodling:

  1. What bad habits of thought cause you emotional agita?
    Personalization? Black and white thinking? Judgment? Shoulds? Anything else?
  2. What CUES those habits?
    This is trickier to determine than cues for other types of habits.  If you’re stumped, think “arena” — political discussions, family occasions, certain words or expressions used by others?
  3. What new thoughts could you link to those old cues?
    Write them down if you want to help them stick!  Again, hand-writing on paper is best – it activates a different part of your brain than typing it into one of your devices.
  4. Think about a few of your GOOD habits you might be able to use a Keystone Habits.
    What else could you link to them and how might you go about it?  Timing?  (before or after?)  Memory prompt?

(For example, since I spend a lot of time online and have developed the habit of putting together a Mental Health Awareness Calendar, queued in advance every month, when a new one autoposts it serves as a Keystone to cue other monthly things I want to make sure I handle — like Tink‘s heartworm medication, internet and utility bills, rent, etc.)

STAY TUNED for more about habits: how to use rewards while you and building them, how to stack them, and-so-much-MORE. Meanwhile, you can find links to every article I’ve already posted here on ADDandSoMuchMORE.com by clicking to pop open the Habits-Decisions-Attention Series LinkList.

Another warning NOT to rely on the Lone Ranger approach

I hope you’ve been looking for a buddy to play along with you as you work your way through the Habit Series – even a virtual helpmate.

To repeat: enrolling a charge-neutral, NO make-wrong, totally encouraging accountability partner has been proven to make a HUGE difference in the probability of your actually doing the work to build the habits that will allow you to reach those goals you set for yourself.

REMEMBER, if you want some personalized professional help with accountability and developing those new habits, that is part of what I DO. And I’d love to do it with you. Get in touch if you want to talk about it.

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IN ANY CASE, do stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

82 Responses to Habit Formation BASICS

  1. Pingback: Flashback: Can This ADDer Be Saved? – Part 3 | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Christy B says:

    Hi Madelyn, you’ve been writing up a storm while I’ve been away ~ I’m catching up and reading your posts today so I’m back in the “habit” of it 😉 I couldn’t resist writing that, hehe! Seriously though, your post is good fuel for anyone wanting to change for the better and the part about missing one or two times not being enough to ruin the habit change process is good. After all, no one is perfect. Good moments and not-so-good ones, right? xx

    Liked by 2 people

    • Since my posts tend to be long, most require research, and I really need more time to respond to the comment interactions around the web and read the posts of my blog-buds, I have gone down to posting only twice a week, Christy (Mondays and Fridays) — so you haven’t missed as much as you thought. I really appreciate your wanting to catch up and get back in the habit – lol – of reading here. THANKS a *million*!!!

      I do my best to keep up with you, but I still struggle with finding the time to read ALL the every day bloggers, so I hope you don’t take it personally when I miss more than a few. I hope you know I love your blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. dgkaye says:

    Absolutely fascinating post how the brain works with habit – long and short term, and how it can pick up after a lengthy abstinence of a habit too, kind of like riding a bike. I was also fascinated by the bit about how the brain can produce its own dopamine requiring less medication for those who require meds. Awesome post! 🙂 ❤ xx

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Our brains are so amazing. Really love this article Madelyn

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Habits good or bad are formed due to repetitive actions and are always wanting for the repetition.
    What you convey here is absolutely true and to be checked and cultivated.
    You have a very good way of putting things with illustrations and drawings.
    Madelyn you need all the Pats Dear. I have to come to your blog when I have lots of time, I think I shall make it a Habit to come here, which long since I am unable to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome back, Shiva – and welcome any day you find the time to visit and read.

      I realize that my posts tend to be longer than many on the ‘net, so it is lovely to see a comment like yours that tells me that they are worth the time it takes to read them (and my time to write them!) Thank you.
      xx, mgh


  6. You raise some very interesting points here, Madelyn. The addiction to short-term rewards must be particularly problematic in our Generation Z children who have become accustomed to instant gratification. Quite a big problem for the future I imagine.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. very good post on habits. pressed this on my primary site https://daisymae2017.wordpress.com Thanks again

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Opher says:

    Wow Madelyn I have a son who has some really bad habits regarding alcohol a nd nicotine that he really wants to break. Habits are so difficult to deal with.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. John Fioravanti says:

    Reblogged this on Words To Captivate ~ by John Fioravanti and commented:
    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie explains how habits are formed and it is a lot of work! Please, read on…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. paulandruss says:

    You know I am a big fan Madelyn and love your articles but I have to say I always enjoy the comments just as much. The responses you elicit out of people are wonderful.

    I dabbled in Neuro Linguistic Programming when younger and from the little practical bits I know they seemed to fit very well with what you said about building positive habits. Positive habits can be built just like negative ones. People think they cannot change but we are changing continually – just compare your self at different decades.

    Realising we change anyway, I believe, makes it easier to accept we can control our changes.

    And yes I do get the old mananas too. But like you say just because you are a backslider (to quote the person above) doesn’t mean you have to stop trying. Be kinder to yourself, embrace you failures and dust yourself off and start all over again.

    I was astounded by the fact you are such a night owl. But you know what, I think that’s a wee bit cool actually!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Paul. I always love the comments too – and we also have in common a bit of NLP experience. Beginning at an early age I’ve explored practically everything and anything that might illuminate my experience of living – beginning with a fascination with Greek and Roman mythology in my early grade school years (another reason why I love your writing, Paul).

      I immediately resonated with the NLP concept of “state change” – and wandered in that direction looking for further explanations and ways to consciously impact my own emotions and functionality as I continued to look for resources. That eventually led me to coaching, then developing an ADD-specific curriculum, and quickly on to neurology.

      And I agree with you that self-acceptance and “getting back on the horse” work in tandem to take us A LOT farther than beating ourselves up for oopses (which ALWAYS take us in the “wrong” direction).

      As for my “extreme owl” tendencies, they are the result of a chronorhythm disorder. I’ll do another article on ONE of those (N-24, on “non-24 hour sleep/wake”) to publish on November 24th this year.

      I have an entire SERIES about sleep and sleep disorders – ongoing. Links to the articles so far can be found by clicking the link below, if you’re curious now.
      SLEEP: Everything you ever wanted to know
      (scroll DOWN for links to each of the articles)

      Liked by 1 person

      • paulandruss says:

        Dear Madelyn,

        I apologise if I caused any upset. I was not making light because I think sleep disorder is trivial – a good friend of mine had a sleep disorder for years and I know how it debilitated her. She sought specialist help and learned to establish new habits over a period of about 18 months after years of being messed around by general practicioners.

        I made light because sometimes you don’t want to be the Doom and Gloom Merchant – people have enough to deal with without constant reminders.

        Even though I am lucky enough not to suffer from it, I know even if I miss small bits of sleep I feel like crap. Once I had a night job and I lasted 3 days: I was seriously not functioning and hated it!

        I am now going through all your links and find it fascinating and a little horrific- apart from conversations with my friend it is something I have never given lots of serious thought to. I really do wish you and everyone else some solution to this. It must drive you nuts. and it has made me count my blessings once again!
        Luv n Hugs Px

        Liked by 2 people

        • I think I know your heart, Paul. I was explaining quickly, not taking you to task. It never occurred to me that you were being insensitive – I’ve never seen anything besides kindness and consideration from you – toward anyone.

          Your words of empathy are wonderful to read, however. Thank you. And yes, MOST of us take the various elements of good health for granted – especially where sleep is concerned.

          Sleep struggles have altered the trajectory of my life, and have yielded little to interventions – so far. I work with it and *around* it – but far too many others lack understanding still, in many cases, and attempt to “force” me to try things that are actually in opposition to what it takes to stabilize my chronorhythms as well as I am able – what I call the “Morning Nazis.”

          I’m afraid that I am becoming less patient with them in my explanations – especially when they continue to insist that *they* know better than I, having lived with it all my life. Of COURSE I can put myself to bed “at a decent hour” — doesn’t mean that sleep comes any more quickly (unless I am ill and then I sleep practically ’round the clock).

          I’m honored that you are reading through the sleep series – interesting, huh (even though some of them are more scientifically intense than others)?

          Liked by 1 person

          • paulandruss says:

            Dear Madelyn, it is funny because what you were saying in your comment Julia would often say the same thing especially reporting her conversation with doctors. In the end I think she fell lucky because her sleep disorder yielded to a series of treatments and new habits. I knew you wee not taking me to task but you know while we can joke together in person sometimes the facial cures and tone cannot come across in cold black and white. And as for being insensitive please rest assured Madelyn I can be as ignorant, tactless and dumb as most of the rest of the human race. Even though I know we can’t change the past- at low ebbs I still go over some of my more outstanding cock-ups and think O CHRIST ON A BIKE!

            Liked by 1 person

  11. Excellent article and resource links, Madalyn! Sharing…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Good old dynamic stereotype to the rescue! Another excellent article; however, there is also age factor at play here, as well as cholesterol level. Simply put, at a certain age (I am not giving out the number here!), habit formation becomes more challenging, although still quite possible and advisable. Increased cholesterol level, as well as extra body weight, tends to prevent formation of new neural paths. I can’t cite sources on this, as I am too lazy to go look for my dissertation file (saved on some outdated technology years ago), so please trust my word that they do exist.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Of course I believe you — that and MORE, Dolly.

      The old saw that we get “set in our ways” as we age probably comes from similar dynamics. There are a lot of theories about why our learning slows down as we age (acquisition of new skills etc) – more seem to pop up as new studies get FUNDED.

      My personal *belief* is that expectation has something to do with it as well.

      I have a friend in her early 60s who is studying at Columbia in NYC and bringing home As. Even her advisors say they are surprised, but she isn’t. She expected to do well, even though keeping up with the reading, etc. took a great deal of time at the expense of other endeavors.

      I have noticed that things I expect to be difficult or tedious, etc. usually are MUCH more of an initiation and follow-through struggle than things I have been postponing simply because I haven’t had time to attend to them.

      However, once I attend to “hateful” things, they are rarely as “awful” as I feared they might be, and sort of take on a life of their own – much like walking, once you get out of bed or off the couch.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Thank you so much for this! Yep, I’m a back-slider, too lol. Trying to get back into the good habits of taking my supplements and exercising and whatnot 💚💙. Very timely post! Thank you again ❤️❤️

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for reading, Laina. Life and learning is a process – and how to do it with ease (or do it at all – lol) has always been a fascination for me. That has driving my attraction to life-long learning.

      A good friend chalks it up to my “seeker” energy as a double Sag – lol.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh wow!! You’re a Sag too? So’s my husband lol (I’m a Virgo but have a very active 9th House, which is associated with Sag!) 😁😁

        Amen to life as a learning process! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼❤️❤️

        Liked by 1 person

        • DOUBLE Sag (sun & rising). My 12th House is pretty full/powerful however.

          Sag is supposedly the 9th House ruler, From Google below, tho’ a fairly surface explanation:
          “The Ninth House is commonly referred to as the House of Philosophy. In keeping with that theme, it’s our search for meaning that is the focal point here. By virtue of exploring our world, we start to grasp everything that is available to us.”
          More specifics can be found by looking at the planets in that house and their aspects (relationship to other planets and houses).

          I don’t guide my life through astrology, but I did study it for a couple of years in my early 30s, during a time when my life was fairly jammed with work to-dos and I wanted to have memories something ELSE from those years that was completely different (and a lot more fun). Another year during that time I took up Bridge – lol.

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Another great post.. I need to stop trying to catch up in the reader lol….. A habit that is always in catch up mode.. 🙂
    Have a great day Madelyn.. and ENJOY x

    Liked by 3 people

  15. -Eugenia says:

    I do pretty well at breaking bad habits, notice I said pretty well. I find replacing bad habits works for me. Of course, the replacement needs to something worthy and something one can maintain.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. colinandray says:

    Hey Madelyn. Re “the dopamine-rich part of the brain ……..memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward.”

    My body produces insufficient dopamine based on a sleep lab analysis, so I am boosting it with meds however, I am given to understand that boosting dopamine like that will eventually give the body a reason to create even less. I can increase the meds somewhat however, my question of interest is “Should I be aware of any shortcomings/hardships when trying to establish (or get back into) a routine, as a result of my dopamine situation?

    Liked by 4 people

    • My answer would be a qualified yes, Colin. Be aware that building a routine or habit might take a bit more “efforting” from you (as with many with an ADD dx) so that you don’t give up in frustration – but don’t let that awareness limit your expectation that you CAN do it and that you will feel good when you do — even once it becomes an autopilot thing. In fact, it makes congruent “keep things up” habits increasingly easier to put into place.

      As an example: I don’t have a dishwasher here, nor is there room for one in my current kitchen – and BOY do I struggle with my “keep the dishes done and put away” habits. I backslide, and then the entire process is more of a conscious hassle.

      YET, when I keep certain “dishes habits” in place it’s such a pleasure walking into a clean kitchen. I sometimes have to Sherlock the glitches that cause me to drop out doing immediately what I know I need to do eventually and try things differently – and as life changes, even a bit sometimes, I often have to change my systems. But walking into a clean kitchen serves as “wind beneath my wings” to keep it that way.

      It also becomes easier to “make” myself hang up my coat, as one example, even when I tell myself I’m going out again later. Eventually it becomes simply what I do. The process is not “rewarding” but the ultimate effect IS.

      Think of it like training Ray. Consistency is essential – as are external rewards in the “learning” phase. But didn’t he become increasingly easy to train after you’d set the expectation through a few successful behavioral implementations? Same brain-based rationale.

      Hope this helped.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. So, we only have to until we want to?Cheers,H

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Jennie says:

    Madelyn, you always have a way of letting us see the the good and the bad within us, and giving hope that we can change and all is well. Habits are hard to break, but can be done. Thanks for your wisdom.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for your acknowledgment, Jennie.

      I try not to think of anything done by humans as “bad” (it shuts me down), but more like “unproductive.”

      It is easier to do in some arenas, of course, and a REAL struggle looking at some of the actions taken by my fellow man, along with many of their words (like most of what is going on with America’s current administration), but I do try to guide my thoughts and over-ride my judgments — not as a “should” but because my life feels better when I do so.

      I also believe that what we think about attracts more of the same – so my habit of reframing helps me stay positive and hopeful that things ARE changing for the better, and that they will continue to do so.

      Liked by 3 people

  19. mike2all says:

    Like they say at the end of those addiction 12-Step Groups, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it!”

    I read this article with interest as it awoke some past knowledge and practices that have long been dormant. As I have said before, I use writing to help me. The writing helps even though I post it for the (Irony alert) world to see. Like the twelve-steps, I am trying to work the brain the way it once did, but without the bull that clogged it up in the first place.

    I will keep coming back.


    Liked by 5 people

  20. An inspiring and encouraging post, Madelyn and our mind and their habit formations so difficult to break if they have stuck to you like glue. But one can always change habits with the help of spiritual masters and motivational talkers and once you change your habit pattern then u are on a road to improvement. Thanks dear an awesome share.

    Liked by 4 people

  21. I’m a backslider, but always if I fail with changing habits I remember the habits I really changed (hopefully) forever… it is like a med what works for a while before the ground becomes slippery again and I’m back to the things I wanted to change…

    Liked by 5 people

    • I hope you realize after reading how it happens, and that you can always “get back on the horse” – even some time later, and the progress you made will still feel familiar (just not automatic).

      I love your description of the slippery ground – that’s exactly what it feels like to me too. And sometimes I get a bad case of the “I don’t wanna’s” and before I realize it, day has slid into day.

      Back when the gurus insisted that I had to start all over, I often simply gave up. So I get it. Personally.

      Good strategy to inspire yourself by focusing on the habits you WERE successful instilling. Let that encourage you to getting back on the horse and you’ll be riding out with a new habit some day.

      Like the say at the end of those addiction 12-Step Groups, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it!” (at least that’s what they say on TV – lol)

      Liked by 2 people

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