We have all heard people talk about the “day at a time” philosophy in addiction recovery.
But what does it really mean, and how do we apply it in our day to day existence? And how can we plan for a lifetime of recovery when we are supposed to stay in today?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the ideas and see what we can learn.
Why it really is a day at a time program of recovery
One of the biggest challenges in getting sober is getting over that initial hump of misery.
This is really what the day at a time philosophy is really about. This is what it was made to address.
Because what happens is that the struggling alcoholic will go to rehab and they will be completely miserable. How could they not be? You just took away their best friend, their drug of choice. This is how they have been creating “happiness” in their lives for years or even decades.
In short, the alcoholic does not yet know how to be happy in sobriety yet. They must relearn happiness.
To be honest, I did not even want to believe that it was possible. I wanted everyone to believe that I was just stuck as an alcoholic and I could never be happy if I were sober. Ever.
Of course that was just my addiction talking. My addiction wanted me to keep drinking forever. It had me convinced that I was only happy if I was drunk or high.
So when you first take that plunge into sobriety, the first few months are not going to be easy. You are going to face the emotional loss of your best friend, alcohol.
I have heard people in AA say things like “Just hang on, no matter what happens, just hang on and don’t drink.”
That’s actually the whole point of recovery and one of the most profound “secrets” of early sobriety. Just hold on, don’t drink, and things will get better.
Of course you have to put in the work. You have to take positive action in order to get decent results from this approach. Maybe that is in the AA program, or maybe you are working a different program of recovery, and ultimately, guess what? It doesn’t matter. The fundamentals are the same. Get sober, stop putting chemicals into your body, and start taking positive action. Just hang on and don’t drink, and things will get better.
The hard part is that your life gets better slowly.
Repeat that: Slowly. Recovery starts out slowly. The first week is generally unpleasant. After that it starts to slowly get better and better.
Within a year you should be happy. Within five years you should be happy and your life should be completely different. If this is not the case then you are not doing the work, you are not taking positive action. And as such, you run the risk of relapse.
The 1 percent rule and living your life in long term sobriety
Do you think it is possible to improve your life by just one percent each week?
Every week, do you think that you can take enough positive action to improve your life by just one tiny percentage point?
You get a whole week to accomplish this one percent change. And you can do it in so many different ways, in so many different categories of your life, such as:
1) Your physical health. Fitness, nutrition, sleep patterns, etc.
2) Your mental health. Stability, lack of obsession, generating new ideas.
3) Emotional health. Finding happiness every day. Stability. Eliminating toxic relationships, finding balance in your life.
4) Social health. Reaching out to others in recovery. Sticking with the winners. Avoiding toxic people.
5) Spiritual health. Practicing gratitude. Prayer, meditation.
So you think that if you were to work on all five of these areas of your life every week, that you could reach this goal of 1 percent improvement?
I think that is a very reasonable goal.
Now think about what this will do to your long term sobriety.
If you do nothing, eventually you will relapse. That is just how recovery works. If you stand still, if you are complacent, if you stagnate….you relapse. Simple as that.
If you want to drink again, then don’t make an effort. Just be lazy. Do nothing. This leads to relapse.
But if you take on this 1 percent challenge, if you push yourself to improve your life each and every day, in all of these different ways, then…..
Over time, that 1 percent improvement each week will compound into something amazing.
Don’t worry about the actual 1 percentage point. That is just a placeholder for a greater idea. We are striving for personal growth, for continuous self improvement.
But the outcomes are the same. If you keep improving over the long run, then the benefits and the rewards in your life will compound.
I have found this to be true for myself.
And it is exciting because you cannot really predict exactly how your life is going to transform.
All I know is that when I do this work and when I push myself for continuous self improvement, my life transforms slowly over time in ways that I could never fully predict.
Say that I am pushing myself for greater physical health. So I started running every day with my dad. I become a jogger. I try this new habit, and it sticks. I run for the next 10 years and beyond (still running to this day).
What did that do for me? Just get me into shape a bit?
No. Hardly that. It actually did so much more. It gave me the strength and the discipline to quit smoking cigarettes. It gave me the inspiration to start a new business. My running routine gave me a platform for daily meditation. I get emotionally balanced from my jogging routine. I get to sort out my ideas and my anxiety from a mental standpoint while I run. It helps me to get organized and stable in that regard. It helps me to sleep better. I eat healthier foods as a fuel source. And on, and on, and on.
The benefits of these changes interact. This is why I think it is important to have a holistic strategy for better health. It is not just about jogging, or even your physical health. That is just one slice of a much bigger pie. No, it is about your overall health in recovery, it is about growing personally and transforming your life in all of these positive ways.
Remember the 1 percent rule, as it is a powerful idea. I also think that it is necessary for long term sobriety. Recovery is about building momentum. You avoid relapse in the long run when you build a new life that helps you to want to remain sober. You can’t go through sobriety with your teeth clenched in anger and expect to remain sober. You have to make it easier for yourself to say “no” to drugs and alcohol. And that requires work. You have to make an effort. And because you live your life each day, this effort that you make should be a consistent, daily effort at self improvement.
Could it ever be any other way? Can someone “cure” their alcoholism in, say, a month or two of recovery, and then just go on and forget about it? No, we know today that this is not possible, that approach doesn’t work, no one can permanently “cure” an addiction. It will always be an ongoing work in progress. Therefore, your strategy should be one of continuous self improvement. Otherwise you run the risk of complacency and eventually relapse.
How do you make incremental growth every single day? Answer: Habits
So how do you make incremental and consistent growth every single day?
One answer to this is to look at your habits. If you create positive habits in your life then the positive results that you seek should take care of themselves.
Recovery is really nothing more than trading in a set of bad habits for a set of good habits.
It’s all about change.
So you need to ask yourself on a regular basis: “What changes can I make today in order to build a better future for myself?”
My suggestion to you is to seek out suggestions as a matter of course. Every time you speak to someone in recovery that you consider a mentor, find out what their advice for you is. Ask them for direction, for guidance, for suggestions.
People in recovery would be happy to give you ideas. You should take these ideas and put them into action. Test new ideas out for yourself and see how they fit into your recovery. The idea is to “take what you need and leave the rest.”
This is how you discover new habits that work for you.
In order to find the process that works for you in recovery, you have to test several processes that fail for you first.
That should not really come as a surprise to anyone. This is a natural part of the learning process. Failure is a natural part of the learning process.
I am not suggesting that you need to relapse, of course. What I am saying is that you need to figure out what works for you in recovery, you need to test new ideas out in your life, and you need to take advice from other people in order to get these new ideas.
Sure, you can come up with some ideas on your own, too. But it is so much easier and more efficient to “borrow” wisdom from others instead.
Others have found success before you, why not learn from them? Why not learn from their mistakes? The way to do this is simple: Just ask for advice. Find someone with significant sober time, and ask them what their advice to you is. Find a sponsor in AA. Model their recovery. Imitate their efforts. Get the same results that they got.
It really can be this simple.
But you have to be consistent.
If you work in a treatment center for a long time, as I once did, then you will start to notice trends.
People leave rehab. Some stay sober, others relapse. What separates these two groups? What is the difference?
The main difference is in the follow through. It has to do with action. It has to do with consistency.
Nearly everyone who leaves rehab follows through for the first few days. Maybe they go to an outside AA meeting. Maybe they go to their outpatient therapy appointment. But they tend to show up. They follow through, at least initially.
But then check back in with them a month later, 90 days later, six months later. Are they still following through?
Many will not be. If you take 100 individuals in early recovery, you can plot their rate of fall off on a chart. Nearly all of them will remain sober on the day that they leave rehab. But each day, more and more of them will relapse. After a full year, maybe 5 to 10 percent will still be sober, if that.
The difference has to do with follow through. Taking massive action. How many of these people actually go to AA meetings every single day, as suggested? How many of these people work the steps, go to therapy, get active in their recovery, take massive action?
The 5 to 10 percent that make it to one year sober are the folks who are taking massive action in their recovery.
In order to be successful in recovery you have to be consistent. You can’t work on your recovery for a month, then kick your feet up for the next month and expect to just glide through. That doesn’t work. As soon as you stop pushing yourself to improve your life, you start to slide back towards relapse.
I think this is a really important concept so I want to reiterate it: Leaving a 28 treatment program is not an ending, it is a beginning. You have to keep that momentum going long after you walk out of rehab. If you slack off and get lazy in any way, the result will likely be relapse. The only way to maintain sobriety in the long run is to keep pushing yourself to take massive action and make positive changes.
You can do this in AA or you can do this outside of AA. Believe it or not, the recovery program that you choose to follow is not really what makes or breaks your recovery. It is all about willingness, commitment to a new way of life, and taking consistent action. The rest is really just details.
Getting feedback and ideas on what to prioritize in life
Early recovery can be an overwhelming time for the newcomer. So much advice, so many suggestions.
How do you prioritize?
Here are my recommendations on how to prioritize in early recovery, from most important to least important. Also, the sequence is important here as well:
1) Overcome denial, make a decision to change your life.
2) Ask for help. Take advice. This will likely involve professional help.
3) Go to rehab. Not everyone needs treatment, but most will find themselves here if they genuinely ask for help.
4) Focus on total and complete abstinence. This is your number one priority and goal in life.
5) Find the negativity inside of you. Fear, anger, resentment, self pity, shame, guilt. Whatever it is, find it and eliminate it. You may need to ask for help to do this. You may need a sponsor in AA to help you, or a therapist, or both. Either way, find the help you need to create that inner freedom and peace. Eliminate the negative.
6) Focus on personal growth. You can do this through the 12 steps, or not. You don’t necessarily need AA to achieve personal growth. You just need positive changes.
7) Focus on daily growth. Incremental growth. Improve your life every day.
8) Constantly examine your life situation as well. Seek to improve it daily.
9) Focus on support, surrounding yourself with sober people and positive influences. AA makes this easier to do, in most cases, but it is not a requirement.
Those are not steps, like in AA. Those are themes. Those are just ideas that you might try to live by. They are not the same as the 12 steps, nor should you compare them. You might do very well by working the 12 steps, but you could still benefit from many of these ideas and themes as well. For example, the fifth item on the list above is to eliminate the negativity inside of you. Working through the 12 steps of AA with a sponsor is one way to do that. There are other ways as well.
If you are stuck in your recovery then you need to take action. The best way I have found to do that is to talk to others, get advice, and put new ideas into action.
What you are really doing in your recovery journey is testing out ideas to see what works for you. Do not just limit yourself to one mentor or one sponsor though. Seek additional advice from multiple sources and you will gain power and experience by doing so.
For example, because I lived in long term treatment I went through several different therapists in the course of a few years. Each one of them taught me something different. One taught me a great deal about emotions and feelings and how to manage them in recovery (hint: It’s all about communication!). Another therapist taught me extensively about forgiveness, including how to forgive both yourself as well as others. Another therapist specialized in teaching us about holistic health and long term personal growth in sobriety.
So I think it is good to get ideas from various sources. Everyone tends to have a specialty, or one thing that was really important for them in their own journey. For example, the therapist that taught me all about forgiveness was someone who had survived some serious childhood abuse. So the concept of forgiveness turned out to a be a huge factor in his recovery. This may or may not be true for you though. But if that person is the only person that you ever get advice from in recovery, then you are going to seriously limit what you can learn. Whereas if you open yourself up to other teachers you can learn a lot wider variety of topics.
Continuous self improvement and positive feedback loops
Once you get started on a path of continuous self improvement, your life starts getting better and better.
This is awesome. You really have to experience this to appreciate it.
It is amazing because what happens is this: You start out in early recovery and you are pushing yourself to improve your life in all of these different ways: Spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and so on.
And for a while, nothing happens. Growth is very slow to start out. It may even feel like you are not making progress at all.
And others who are watching you, such as a sponsor or therapist, will tell you that they see real progress. And yet you don’t see it. You are too close to it, and you are trying to grow in so many different ways at once. So many positive changes, all at once.
And then later on, Bam! Everything starts coming together. And the rewards of all your hard work start to kick in, all at once.
And the benefits and the rewards of this new life start to mix, to interact, and they produce even more amazing benefits for your life.
This is the magic of recovery, when all your hard work pays off, and life gets better every single day.
And it all starts by putting in the hard work of recovery, one day at a time. Consistent action.
What about you, are you living the day at a time philosophy? Are you seeing the rewards of sobriety in your life yet? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!