What Does It Mean to Live One Day At a Time?

If you are new to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), you’ve probably heard that living one day at a time is important in finding sustainable recovery. But if you’ve wondered why this is one of the key AA sayings, this article will help you understand how mantras like this can make a difference when you’re in recovery.

In this article:

Where Does the “One Day At a Time” AA Saying Originate?

Alcoholics Anonymous traces its beginnings to a 1935 meeting between two people in recovery from alcoholism: Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson.1 Initially, the men used principles that helped their own recovery to assist other people who were admitted to Akron City Hospital in Ohio for alcohol addiction. After assisting 100 people locally, Bill wrote his recovery principles down in a book called Alcoholics Anonymous—now often referred to as “The Big Book”—which became the foundation for the 12 Step program.2

Today, AA members still work the 12 Steps. But, AA also utilizes other literature and resources to help members get and stay sober. And, while “one day at a time” is not one of the 12 Steps, it is a principle used by Dr. Bob and Bill which can be applied to each of the steps and to other recovery skills you may learn in AA as well as in professional alcohol addiction treatment.

The AA guidebook, Living Sober, explains the importance of focusing on one day at a time in  recovery: 3

“Although we realize that alcoholism is a permanent, irreversible condition, our experience has taught us to make no long-term promises about staying sober. We have found it more realistic—and more successful—to say, ‘I am not taking a drink just for today.’ Even if we drank yesterday, we could plan not to drink today. We may drink tomorrow—who knows whether we’ll even be alive then?—But for these 24 hours, we decide not to drink. No matter what the temptation or provocation, we determine to go to any extremes necessary to avoid a drink today.”

How Are Sayings Like “One Day At a Time” Used in Recovery?

Mantras and affirmation can boost your mental health by increasing positivity. Research shows that positive thinking improves physical and mental well-being, helping promote behaviors that serves you and making it easier to leave behind habits—such as using alcohol—that interfere with the rest of your life.4

By taking your recovery one day at a time with AA, you make sobriety about daily victories that are manageable, achievable, and worth celebrating. You set yourself up for daily success instead of worrying about potential future relapses. The saying also becomes a powerful positive mantra or personal affirmation that, as research suggests, could make it easier to remain in recovery.3

Mantras

In meditation, a mantra is any word or phrase that you can frequently repeat to help you stay mindful and present. Outside of meditation, mantras can still help with mindfulness. As part of a mindful practice, a mantra can help you push away negative thoughts and replace them with the calming familiarity of your mantra.

Mantras can improve your overall mental well-being, as well as helping regulate your behavior patterns, including the decision you make not to use alcohol and the decisions you make to avoid behaviors that have previously led into using alcohol.5

Affirmations

The saying “one day at a time” can be incorporated into personal affirmations. Unlike mantras, positive affirmations can be used at any time and tend to be complete sentences rather than words like “love” or “peace.” They are positive and specific self-talk statements that help you to overcome self-sabotaging and negative thoughts. Often, affirmations help you visualize and believe in what you are trying to affirm in yourself. When you repeat the word, statement, slogan, or sound, you affirm it to yourself and program your mind into believing the stated concept.6

Affirmations themselves can be powerful tools for recovery. An affirmation is simply something you tell yourself to increase positivity. It could be, “I’m successfully living one day at a time,” or anything that resonates for you. The point is to intentionally create positive, hopeful feelings in yourself. Research shows that using daily affirmations positively impacts addiction recovery outcomes.6

“One day at a time” is one of the AA sayings that could help your recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous members have many others, such as “live and let live,” “let go and let God,” and “easy does it.”3 If you attend regular AA meetings, you’ll likely hear other affirmations. Some will resonate with you and others may not. And that’s ok.

To harness the power of daily affirmations, choose the ones you like and identify with in your life. Then, write them down and say them aloud, every day, a few times a day. You can even ask a friend, family member, or your AA sponsor to repeat your affirmations back to you, helping you repeat and believe in them.

Research shows that coming to believe in your affirmations is important to achieve feelings of self-competence. Affirmations that feel true to you help you stick to your core values and believe that you can do so, even in the face of challenges and adversity. When one of your core values becomes related to sobriety—such as preserving your relationships—reciting daily affirmations can help you resist cravings and remain in recovery.8

Not sure where to begin with affirmations? Make statements like “I am strong” instead of “I will be strong.” Affirming what is true for you right now—even if it is in some ways a goal you hope to achieve fully in the future—keeps you mindful of the moment. It helps you live for today, which is why mindfulness can be a useful part of addiction recovery.9

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How Can You Practice Living One Day At a Time?

While “one day at a time” is one of the best-known AA sayings, it’s also a major principle of mindfulness. As noted, mindfulness is important for recovery. Instead of experiencing shame or guilt about your past actions while overcoming addiction, you learn to live in the moment when you are not using alcohol for these 24 hours.9

Many people who are working toward achieving and maintaining sobriety are triggered to drink when they experience overwhelming negative emotions such as shame.9 Worries over the future can also be triggering.10 But when you live one day at a time, you focus on your present goals. And you use your mantras and affirmations to live up to those goals for one full day only, those goals feel more manageable and success is more achievable.3

Not drinking during the upcoming day is just one way to work your recovery steps. You can also live in the moment by:

  • Remaining positive, even in challenging moments4
  • Finding self-love and affirming why you are worthy of that love8
  • Embracing a mindfulness practice that you find meaningful9

Remember, staying present isn’t as simple as repeating your AA sayings and affirmations. It involves waking up and staying open to doing the work every day. As another AA saying goes, “nothing changes if nothing changes.” By staying focused on a shortlist of one-day goals, you can go to bed each night knowing you accomplished what you set out to do. Soon, it may feel easier to add to your daily goals and use mindfulness to acknowledge hard feelings without dwelling on them or letting them trigger you.9

In combination with other forms of talk therapy for addiction, embracing these principles can make it easier not to drink every day, wake up the next morning, and recommend living one day without alcohol.5

The concept of living one day at a time is not intended to focus exclusively on a period of 24 hours. If you find 24 hours feeling unachievable, change your mantra to living one hour at a time or living five minutes at a time. However the concept of making your recovery more manageable best serves you is the right way for you to use it.

Are you ready to live one day at a time but need support to begin your recovery journey? We’re here to offer guidance. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? today, and speak to a treatment specialist who can answer your questions about treatment options.

Resources

  1. Gross M. (2010). Alcoholics Anonymous: still sober after 75 years. 1935. American Journal of Public Health, 100(12), 2361-2363.
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Historical Data: The Birth of A.A. and its Growth in the U.S. and Canada.
  3. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2019). Living Sober. New York.
  4. Conversano, C., Rotondo, A., Lensi, E., Della Vista, O., Arpone, F., & Reda, M.A. (2010). Optimism and its impact on mental and physical well-being. Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, 6, 25-29.
  5. Burke, A., Lam, C. N., Stussman, B., & Yang, H. (2017). Prevalence and patterns of use of mantra, mindfulness, and spiritual meditation among adults in the United States. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 17(1),
  6. Apodaca, T. R., Jackson, K. M., Borsari, B., Magill, M., Longabaugh, R., Mastroleo, N. R., & Barnett, N. P. (2016). Which individual therapist behaviors elicit client change talk and sustain talk in motivational interviewing? Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 61, 60-65.
  7. Cascio, C. N., O’Donnell, M. B., Tinney, F. J., Lieberman, M. D., Taylor, S. E., Strecher, V. J., Falk, E. B. (2016). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(4), 621-629.
  8. Garland, E. L., & Howard, M. O. (2018). Mindfulness-based treatment of addiction: current state of the field and envisioning the next wave of research. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, 13(1),
  9. Luoma, J. B., Guinther, P. M., Lawless DesJardins, N. M., & Vilardaga, R. (2018). Is shame a proximal trigger for drinking? A daily process study with a community sample. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 26(3), 290-301.
  10. Ghiţă, A., Teixidor, L., Monras, M., Ortega, L., Mondon, S., Gual, A., Paredes, S. M., Villares Urgell, L., Porras-García, B., Ferrer-García, M., & Gutiérrez-Maldonado, J. (2019). Identifying triggers of alcohol craving to develop effective virtual environments for cue exposure therapy. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 74.

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