The Problem With ‘One Day At A Time’

by Bill Brenner on June 20, 2011

“One day at a time? You wouldn’t believe the crap that swirls around my head one day at a time.” –Anonymous

Recovering addicts have a saying burned into their brains: “One Day at a Time.” It’s important wisdom to live by. But when the recovering addict has OCD, there’s a big problem.

Mood music:

Let’s look at the meaning of “One Day at a Time.” In the world of 12-step recovery programs, the idea is not to be overwhelmed. Instead of trying to get your arms around everything necessary for recovery a week into the future or a month or year, we subscribe to the idea of just focusing on what we have to do today. Doing this a day at a time makes the clean-up tasks seem a lot less overwhelming.

The problem with an OCD case is that the disorder forces you to do nothing BUT stew over the future. You look at the next week or month and relentlessly play out the potential outcomes of that space of time.

The first time someone told me to take it a day at a time, my first instinct was to punch him in the face.

I had a business trip three weeks away to worry about.

I had a medical test planned for the following month and had all kinds of potentially grim outcomes to worry about.

That’s how guys like me roll.

So how have I managed to keep my addictions largely at bay for well over two years? Simple: I remembered another 12-Step saying (OA saying, more specifically): Fail to plan, plan to fail.”

The Powerfully Recovered website, based on the book of the same title by Anne Wayman, explains it better than I could, so let me share:

One day at a time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan

I imagine that this is the very first slogan that found it’s way into the original Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Can’t you just picture a frantic newcomer talking about how difficult he (and yes, it was only men in the beginning – and the men didn’t think women could be real alcoholics, which is another story…) he was finding sobriety?

I can almost imagine the conversation:

Newcomer: What am I going to do? Next week I have to go to the office Christmas party – how will I ever stay sober there!

Oldtimer (early on, he might have been sober only a week): Slow down, it’s not next week yet. Take it One Day at a Time!

And a slogan is born – because it’s got some real wisdom in it. For in truth, each one of us has only one day at a time – or one hour or one moment. 

Abstaining a moment at a time

In the first few rocky days of recovery, just abstaining for that moment, hour, etc. is truly all we can do. If we can’t do that, there’s no point in worrying about tomorrow, or next week, or whenever. 

The One Day at a Time philosophy has benefits far beyond the early days in recovery. It can keep us grounded in the present – that Holy Instant that is so easy to miss in a busy and productive life.

Planning is okay

Unfortunately, some in 12 Step Groups have taken the philosophy to mean we shouldn’t plan. This is patently false. A major promise of the Program is torestore us to sanity, and that includes the very human blessing and curse – planning. We need to set goals, to make appointments, to design our lives.

But planning doesn’t mean we have to leave One Day at a Time behind – the trick is to watch for expectations. 

It’s one thing to plan and quite another to demand that the plan work out the way we require it too – in that we have no control at all. When our plans bring unintended results – and the often do – all we need do is reevaluate, accept where we are in this moment, and start anew. 

There are a lot of contradictions when you put the sayings “One day at a time” and “Fail to plan, plan to fail” together. It’s like a warm front running into a cold front. You get thunder, lightening and worse. Cars are picked up and wrapped around trees.

But in the end, life is unfair like that. We have to learn to deal.

So even when the OCD in me is planning, planning, planning, I do remember to take my recovery — especially the food plan that helped me break the binging spell — one day at a time.

I can digest life much more fully when the pieces are broken up.

But the push and pull still makes for plenty of confusion.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Casey June 21, 2011 at 2:27 am

when i first hit “sober” i looked around and realized my home was disgusting because i couldn’t clean it while screwed up. it was like a Hoarder Episode. (Chris said that is an exaggeration, but we see different then each other, of course)
it was beyond overwhelming and “One Day At A Time” made me want to kill someone. I ended up finding not sure if it is still called that. but she broke down housecleaning into tiny pieces, forcing everything into fifteen minute increments with breaks…it worked! it is very strange how an addicts brain functions, isn’t it?

Brett M. Rhyne November 28, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Come on, Bill. The phrase “One day at a time” refers specifically to not picking up a drink, or a drug, etc. There’s nothing in the AA literature that suggests planning or anticipating future events is a bad idea.

Indeed, the AA toolbox is full of techniques for preparing to deal with future events, especially those that the alcoholic or addict may feel threaten his or her sobriety. Anticipation of such events is a central tenet of the program.

Anne Wayman’s positing of a contradictory relationship between “ODAAT” and planning for future events is a straw man to prove her point. Similarly, her assertion that initially AA did not welcome women is untrue. Both assertions are merely intended to help sell her products, the “Powerfully Recovered!” book, e-book, gear, posters, etc. It’s a shameful act of self promotion, taking advantage of people who are genuinely trying to recover in the self-interest of making a buck.

I think you do a disservice to your readers by referencing — and thus promoting — her website, and urge you to delete it from your blog.

Your loyal reader,

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