Why the “One Day at a Time” Philosophy Might Not be the...

Why the “One Day at a Time” Philosophy Might Not be the Best Approach for You in Dealing with Alcoholism or Drug Addiction


The “one day at a time” philosophy is heavily toted in traditional recovery circles as being the best approach to overcoming any sort of drug or alcohol addiction.

But is this really the best method for quitting drugs and alcohol?

Are there any alternatives to this day-at-a-time approach that might work better for some people?

I think there might be. Let’s take a look.

Is it working for you? If taking things a day at a time works for you, then don’t change it!

Of course, before you can try to apply any recovery philosophy to your life, you have to first make a firm decision to stop making excuses and actually decide to quit drinking for real.

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But once you have made this decision, and you are attempting to live your life in recovery, the big question is:

“Is your recovery working for you?”

Asking this question is actually a mindset. An attitude. The process of recovery is one of continuous refinement.

What are you actually doing in your recovery–for your recovery–and is it working for you?

Because if it is not, then it is time to change.

Simple as that.

If you see through the mental trick of the day at a time approach, you can easily get discouraged

The day-at-a-time approach is a mental trick.

The prospect of staying sober forever can be overwhelming. It seems like an insurmountable obstacle; an impossible task.

So we attempt to break it down, and do it “just for today.”

Well, this is an attempt at mental manipulation. We are not stupid creatures. We know that tomorrow comes, and it will be a new day, and that the task of staying sober for “one day at a time” is actually an infinite task.

Keeping yourself “in the present” and “in today” is fine, but it can be discouraging for those who are craving alcohol or other drugs very badly, and they know full well what tomorrow will bring (no real relief).

I always thought to myself: “If I knew that I could drink alcohol tomorrow, then getting through today sober would be easy.” And I think that illustrates the problem with trying the day at a time approach: there is no relief in the end. No carrot on the stick. We surrendered fully and made a decision to change our lives, remember? I cannot fool myself into thinking that I will change my mind about sobriety tomorrow. Therefore the “day at a time” approach does not offer real relief to me. It is a mental trick that falls short, because I see right through it.

So what is the solution for people who struggle with the day at a time thing?

An alternative: the 30 day trial

This is the solution I offer:

Do a 30 day trial.

Here is how it works:

1) Make an agreement with yourself that you will stay clean and sober for 30 days no matter what.

2) Give yourself full permission to go back to drinking if you so choose after 30 days.

3) Stick to the 30 day trial and follow through. Accumulate 30 continuous days of sobriety. If you fail for some reason, start over and do not stop until you have amassed the full 30 days.

Why 30 days?


1) It is long enough for many (but not all) of the positive changes of sobriety to start to kick in for you.

2) You will have established a new habit of sobriety and will be in a strong position to continue with sobriety if you so choose at the end.

3) You will learn quite a bit about yourself and about your possible recovery in 30 days of continuous sobriety. Even if you fail with this trial, the lessons you learn may help you to succeed later on.

My recent example: giving up sugar for lent

The 30 day trial and the day-at-a-time approach are mindsets. They are philosophies. They are ways of thinking about a problem.

My coworkers and I gave up sweets and sugar for lent this year. We were all approaching it one day at a time, and it was really tough at first.

But I decided to give myself permission to dream about when it was over. I made a list of all the junk food I was going to eat. Now, instead of doing it “a day at a time, now it was a 30 day trial (or a 40 day trial actually).

And you know what? It got easier. During the last week or two, we all agreed that it had become fairly easy to go without sugar. Whenever I had a craving for sweets, I just added it on to my list of what I was going to gorge on at the end.

So what happened when it was over?

I did go crazy with sweets for a day, and so did my coworkers. But when we came back to work the next day and compared notes, we all agreed that it was a big let down. We had learned something. We thought we were so deprived, and instead we learned that it was no big deal, and that we could go without the sugar quite easily and still be happy.

Our “reward” was a big let down, and that was a big lesson for us.

Is giving up sugar the same thing as quitting drinking?

No, it’s not. They are obviously quite different. But they are in the same ballpark, and we can definitely use one experience to learn about the other.

There are many ways to quit drinking. Some people quit cold turkey, and never use any form of support. Others spend hundreds of hours each year in 12 step meetings. Some may use religion, others may swear by exercise.

There are many different mindsets, attitudes, and recovery philosophies that might help you to quit drinking.

Some people say that the 30 day trial idea is terrible, and that “giving people permission to drink” at the end of 30 days is dangerous and irresponsible.

But keep in mind that this suggestion is only for people who are failing to stay sober with the day at a time approach. This is for people who are drinking anyway. If it isn’t working, change it! Try something different. You can’t get any worse than continuous relapses.

Experiment to find what works for you

The point is that you have to find what works for you.

It is your responsibility to keep experimenting in order to find your own path in recovery.

If the day at a time approach fails repeatedly for you, then try something else. Do a 30 day trial and give yourself full permission to drink at the end if you want. The lessons you learn from such a trial can be invaluable.

Credit where credit is due: Steve Pavlina wrote the book on 30 day trials, and explains the benefits of them in more depth than what I have done here.

Have an opinion?  Come discuss this in the forums.

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