One day at a time, but not forever!!!

If you’ve ever gone to a 12-step meeting, you’ve heard the phrase “one day at a time,” so often as to make it a mantra. Personally, it always left me wanting more.

Is “one day at a time” enough?!

I think the notion is a correct one… when it comes to early recovery. However, once the initial excitement of staying sober has worn off and life without the crutch of drugs, alcohol, or any other addiction, begins, I believe that there is great value in planning.

Thinking ahead is exactly the sort of thing that addicts don’t do well. As far as I know, there’s only one way to improve a lacking skill – practice.

If a recovering addict truly takes things “one day at a time,” never making plans that take the not-so-near-future into account, where does that leave him except for being sober for one more day? As far as I’m concerned, that’s simply not enough.

I had a lot of learning to do when it came to living a normal life after I cleaned up. I barely knew how to function in the simplest ways without the crutch I’d become so comfortable with. I’ll never forget the single sentence lesson my dad gave me over the phone regarding handling my mail.

“Most people pick up their mail, open it up on the spot, throw away what they don’t need, and handle the rest immediately” he told me.

To me, that was more than a foreign concept; it just sounded strange. You see, I would let mail pile up for weeks, eventually throwing it away when it simply seemed overwhelming. The notion of taking care of my mail, or anything else for that matter, on the spot, sounded so simple as to be impossible. But guess what – it works!!!

Fortunately for me, by the time my dad had shared those pearls of wisdom, I’d been clean for six months and ready to put the lesson into action.

Making plans the right way

Recently, my fiance introduced me to an exercise that requires you to write down your plans for next week, next month, next year, and five years from now. I liked it because it made me think concretely about where it is I’m going in life both in the very short, and relatively long, future. By writing down how I saw different aspects of my life play out in the next five years, I got to think about them more directly than I ever had before.

I’ve adapted the exercise for addicts in recovery. I think that you should try it as early as you feel comfortable with it. The trick early on is to just complete it. Once the first draft is finished, you should go back and change it every once in a while.

Given how quickly things change in early recovery, the second draft should be completed after a week. Since you’ll be getting better, and more realistic, every time, the third draft should probably be done about a month later. From that point on, further edits can be done whenever life calls for it.

I think you’ll find that simply going through the exercise will tell you a lot about where you are in your recovery.

The exercise itself

The first thing you’ll need is a piece of paper. Divide the paper (you can use one side or both depending on how much you like to write) into five sections and title them as follows: “Tomorrow”, “Next week”, “Next month”, “Next year”, and “Five years from now.”

Under each one of the headings, answer the following questions for each of the time periods. Be as specific as possible. Feel free to add, or replace, any of these questions with ones you see as more relevant to your life.

  1. Where will you be living?
  2. What will your job be?
  3. Will you be in a relationship? If so, with who?
  4. How much money will you be making?
  5. What car (or other mode of transportation) will you have?
  6. List your five most important relationships – Describe the quality of each.
  7. What special trips, events, or occasions, will you be taking part in or planning?

That’s it. You’re done. Take a deep breath and read over the list.

Though it seems simple enough, you’ll see that answering these questions can be quite difficult at first. This is especially true the more specific you try to be (answers like “I’ll be living in a 3 bedroom house in Mar Vista with hardwood floors and a home office that faces east” might take some time for some of you).

Again, the point is simply to complete the exercise that first time. I promise you that it gets easier with time. Since you’ll be repeating it relatively often initially, you’ll be able to adjust your plans according to the changing circumstances of your life. Feel free to go back and redo the list any time.

Having goals, both short and long term ones, will help focus your mind. It will also plant the seed of the direction in which you want to take your life. Without this direction, things can seem chaotic, especially when one has recently given up their best friend (cocaine, marijuana, porn, and chocolate fudge ice-cream can easily be thought of as best friends when one is in the throws of addiction or recently out of it).

One day at a time is great, but when you want more out of life, planning is the only way to go.

8 Replies to “One day at a time, but not forever!!!”

  1. I do the same thing that you used to do with mail and have the same problem with doing things that for others seem to come effortlessly or naturally. Not only do I have trouble doing those things others do but the primary problem is I have trouble figuring out how to do those things and what those things even are to begin with.

    I need a “Life: The ‘Normal’ Way” guide that tells me how the majority of people deal with life and how they see/do things. When your brain is wired differently and your conditioning hasn’t been healthy either, it can be impossible or nearly impossible to figure any of that stuff out on your own.

    Great blog, I’m so glad you’re doing this. It’s a service to others but also speaks to the major changes you’ve brought about in your life. Good for you and thanks for reaching out to help others.

    1. Hi there,
      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog. There’s no doubt that those of us with pre-existing issues compounded by bad training (whether our fault or not) need some serious help learning how to function in everyday life. One of my ideas for treatment are small exercises to teach addicts how to exert more control over their behavior. I think a guide to life would be great – If you find one (maybe in the ‘for dummies’ section) shoot me an email???

  2. I don’t think “one day at a time” by itself can work for everyone – the underlying assumption is to focus on the here and now, which research has demonstrated doesn’t really work if you don’t see the “forest beyond the trees”. I definitely think the exercise you suggest helps to start orientating your behavior to the bigger picture rather than “just now.”

    Kind of going off the whole questioning yourself bit, the most interesting research I have read is the effect of changing a statement into a question. Although the research probably did not think in terms of addiction, simply asking yourself “Will I be sober today?” seems to be more effective than demanding to yourself “I will be sober today.”

    I found the research to be incredibly compelling especially in this age of self-affirmations – especially in recovery (“I will be sober today”). I can’t conjecture if this will work in a non-normal, addicted population, but I know I won’t think in terms of “I will”s anymore.

    Fujita, K. (2008). Seeing the forest beyond the trees: A construal-level approach to self-control. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1475-1496.

    Senay, I., Albarracin, D., & Noguchi, K. (2010). Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk: The role of the interrogative form of simple future tense. Psychological Science, 21, 499- 504.

    (Sorry, never re-edit or spell check my comments)

    1. Thanks a lot for this Chloe. I’ll make sure to check out those references – I’m always up for learning more about the ways to refine things that work in order to make them work better!

  3. I think a lot of newcomers misunderstand “one day at a time” as a call to never think beyond today. I don’t see it practiced this way at all.

    One day at a time is good for just getting one through the day without a drink or drug in those early days of recovery.

    We definitely need to start making plans, but I often hear at meetings to plan action, but not outcomes.

    Once I plan actions, one day at a time is helpful again. Do today’s actions today and let go. Don’t get caught up in tomorrow’s actions or outcomes.

    It also continues to be helpful with problems that can’t be solved today. I can stay in the day and avoid the common cognitive error of projecting today’s problem into infinity, leaving me to decide if I can deal with it for the rest of my life and how to deal with it for the rest of my life. (This does not preclude planning action to address the problem. Take the appropriate action and then stop worrying about future and make it through the day, if not enjoy it.)

  4. I definitely agree. I think at first, when you’re overwhelmed and dunno where to start, 1 day at a time is the best attitude to have. But eventually, you need to start planning for your future, and really get into the nitty gritty of what you deem important in your life.

  5. Dr. Jaffe,

    Thank you for bringing up such a relevant topic for the recovering addict. As a college senior with over two years of sobriety, I have recently found myself struggling to maintain the practice of living in the present as I am on the verge of graduating with no concrete plans for the future. Although I love AA and regularly attend meetings, I find it quite interesting that the topic of healthy planning for the future is rarely brought up in the rooms. I completely identify with your sentiment that “if a recovering addict truly takes things ‘one day at a time,’ never making plans that take the not-so-near-future into account, where does that leave him except for being sober for one more day?” I agree that at some point, this is not enough: there are so many people who extend their stay at sober livings or rehabs to, at least in part, refrain from having to deal with their future, and on the other end many people relapse as soon as they leave the protection of their rehab or sober living. The question is, in my opinion, when do you introduce the notion of future planning to the addict? And how do you do it in a way that does not induce anxiety? I like the idea of your simple exercise, and could see its function—in addition to a daily/weekly/monthly tenth step—as a way to introduce direction in the often-chaotic life of an addict.

    However, I fear that this exercise may be asking too much of the freshly sober addict. Although I agree that establishing goals in the short- and long-term generally help an individual focus on what he or she wants in life, I foresee issues arising with the inflated sense of self that is present in most addicts; goals easily become expectations, and if the expectations are too high to reach, the addict, upon failing, may rekindle those relatively universal feelings of worthlessness and sink back into his addiction. An easy way to combat this possibility would be to suggest that this exercise be shared with another addict, as communication with someone else in the program is advised in all aspects of recovery. This external opinion could help ground the addict in reality. Otherwise, if done with rigorous honesty I believe this exercise, like most aspects of recovery, would be beneficial even to those not suffering from addiction. I am excited to try it myself and would be interested to hear the reviews of those who have been practicing this exercise. Thank you for offering up your exercise and bridging a gap that is much too wide in recovery today.

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