It sounds almost laughably simple. Of course we live one day at a time in recovery. No one is capable of living multiple days at once, regardless of spiritual principles. To the pragmatist, the very idea is nothing short of absurd.
This ever-so-common AA slogan, when taken literally, seems less like recovery advice and more like a simplistic explanation of how time works. And as so often proves the case with the overthinkers among us, its simplicity almost guarantees that we will miss the point entirely.
When they tell us to live one day at a time, what they mean is that we should not become mired in the past or the future. Funny enough, behavioral scientist and best-selling author Dr. Steve Maraboli actually explains this while directly drawing attention to the more literal meaning of the phrase. He writes for Everyday Health:
“Stop allowing your day-to-day life to be clouded by busy nothingness! How do I get so much accomplished? I don’t let the blur of life blind me to the simple TRUTH that although time seems to fly, it never travels faster than one day at a time.”
These three short phrases carry a great deal of weight. In them he defines all time but today as “nothingness,” indicates that living one day at a time can increase productivity, and suggests that living for anything other than today constitutes a denial of life’s truth.
This seems like a lot of meaning for a simple five-word phrase. Is today really so important? What’s so wrong with learning from the past or planning for the future?
In short, nothing. But those in recovery still suggest focusing on the present wherever possible. And as we’ll discuss, there are some pretty good reasons for us to consider taking their advice.
Why We Turn Our Minds to the Present
When we focus too strongly on the past, we often do so for one of two reasons. Either we feel overly attached to a positive memory and do not wish to move on, or we find a difficult memory so hard to deal with that we punish ourselves by getting stuck on it. But as Eckhart Tolle notes in The Power of Now, living in the past does nothing to enhance our sense of self. In fact, getting stuck in the past may actually hurt our potential to live fully. Tolle writes:
“In the normal, mind-identified or unenlightened state of consciousness, the power and creative potential that lie concealed in the Now are completely obscured by psychological time. You cannot find yourself by going into the past. You can find yourself by coming into the present. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.”
Of course, we can still check in with the past from time to time. But unless we use our past experiences as lessons that we apply in the present, it serves no purpose. The past only serves to help us if we can identify lessons worth acting on today. When focusing on today, however, we can do any number of things to improve our lives. In a fashion that echoes Tolle’s work, Maraboli writes of today’s potential.
“Each day is a new opportunity to live your life to the fullest. In each waking day, you will find scores of blessings and opportunities for positive change. Do not let your TODAY be stolen by the ghost of yesterday or the ‘To-Do’ list of tomorrow!”
Note that Maraboli’s words do not cast the future as any more useful than the past. It is true that, unlike our past, we can at least make plans regarding our future. But once again, we find this beneficial only to the extent that we take action in the present. We must work one day at a time to secure the future that we want. Anybody can make a plan for tomorrow. It takes presence of mind and body to pursue the course of action that will cause that plan to take shape. Without present-moment awareness and the choice to live for today, our obsession over tomorrow proves fruitless. All we accomplish is a lot of wasted time, harping over a future that we’ve done nothing to achieve.
In short, we don’t just live one day at a time because it makes us happier. We live one day at a time because it’s the only way to truly live at all.
Developing Present-Moment Awareness
The inspirational blog Aim Happy dedicates an entire post to living one day at a time. In this post, author Jen notes the importance of present-moment awareness in securing a better future. As discussed above, our future gains depend largely on our present action.
“What you plant now, you will harvest later, but let’s leave later for later and let’s focus on the now for now. If you aren’t present now, then when?”
In other words, every moment we spend failing to develop present-moment awareness goes to waste. We have an infinite number of possible futures, but only one moment to decide which one we move toward. And ultimately, the future brings yet another moment we must live right now if we wish to get the most out of life. As once said by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
“If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything.”
Meditation helps a lot in this regard. By taking even ten minutes every day to focus on the present while putting aside intrusive thoughts, we enhance our sense of mindfulness. Over time, living for right now becomes less difficult. It becomes a daily practice, something that comes to us naturally even outside of meditation. And while our minds may occasionally wonder, necessitating a return to right now, we do not get so carried away as to lose our ability to live one day at a time.
In fact, one day at a time becomes an understatement. Through the practice of mindfulness, we live second to second, breath to breath. One day at a time becomes one moment at a time, as we root ourselves firmly in right now.
Learning Acceptance through Repetition
When engaging in mindfulness practice, we find that intrusive thoughts often continue to occur. Despite our intention to live one day at a time, regrets of yesterday and worries of tomorrow keep revisiting us, interfering with our meditative process. Meditation instructors often remind us not to feel too much frustration over this—to simply acknowledge it and return to the present. We soon find that this applies to other disturbances in life as well. Rather than spending all of our time in regret, we correct and move on.
Living one day at a time makes this much easier. Human beings cannot attain perfection, but we can respond to our imperfections with acceptance and a resolve to continue working toward progress. When we obsess, we often stand in our own way, allowing our negative emotions to take over. Aim Happy cites another quote by Thich Nhat Hanh in this same vein:
“Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness.”
As noted above, we do not achieve full present-moment awareness on the first go. It takes a great deal of practice and repetition. But as we continue living one day at a time, we can develop a stronger sense of acceptance.
We do not have to like our circumstances, especially if they involve our addictive tendencies. At the same time, we cannot improve upon them without first accepting them. Denying our present reality only ensures that we will never change it. One day at a time, we learn to let go of expectations for our future or the expectations we failed to see met in the past. We live as we must, as dictated by our present situation. It’s a far easier, and much more rewarding, way of living.
Living More Than One Day at a Time?
We’d like to conclude by revisiting an idea we’ve touched upon many times throughout this discussion. Namely, the idea that living in the present benefits our future. The pragmatists among you may wonder how we can live for a better future without any planning whatsoever.
Simply put, we can’t. No one can live a normal life without making any plans at all. Living one day at a time does not mean we never schedule appointments or make plans ahead of time. And living with acceptance rather than expectations does not mean we can’t harbor dreams of the life we want. In fact, Dr. Maraboli very much encourages people to set goals. He simply reminds them that they can only achieve those goals one day at a time. In his previously quoted Everyday Health article, he provides the following call to action:
“Let today be the day you finally take a step in the direction of your dreams and goals. Remember that every step towards your dream today is a step away from your regret tomorrow.”
If you want to improve your life, do it. Don’t wait. Just as anybody can recover from addiction, anyone can achieve a life worth living. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen if you stay the course. You can set your mind to the future, as long as you do so while continuing to work toward it one day at a time. The trick lies in setting our goals without getting carried away by the dream of tomorrow, realizing that only our actions today matter.
So, yes—to some extent, you can live more than one day at a time. It simply takes a degree of balance, albeit with a clearly stronger emphasis on today than on tomorrow. If you want a new job, use today to fill out applications. Want a new home? Use today to check real estate listings. And if you’re struggling with addiction and want to get sober, use today to call us for information on our programs.
Don’t get stuck in dreams of the future without doing anything to achieve them. Live one day at a time, and enjoy the beauty of every present moment. Otherwise, life might pass you by before you realize it.