There are a few fundamental problems with the thought process of a person who abuses substances, but today, we’ll just be tackling the pattern of short term thinking which is so often at the base of these problems – and how the most common piece of advice doled out in 12-step groups reinforces this negative habit.

Substance abuse is a pattern of substance use in which the costs outweigh the benefits, thereby harming the user. The very nature of such behavior is fundamentally short-sighted. The substance abuser isn’t thinking of the hangover which will make it difficult to get to work the next day, the electricity bill which he won’t be able to pay because of drug expenditures, the health problems which will surely catch up with him in the future, or the damage to his long-term personal relationships with friends, family, colleagues, or a spouse. If he does consider these consequences, he either thinks he’ll find a way around them, or he just resigns himself to crossing that bridge when he gets to it. What matters to someone who is actively abusing substances is the moment, and in that moment he wants the cheap thrill of drug and alcohol use; he doesn’t want to think about the future, and in fact trades the bigger payoff involved with living responsibly, for a brief yet immediately gratifying episode of substance use.

So what do we tell these people when they need help? Take it “one day at a time”. I will concede that this popular 12-step slogan can be useful, when used appropriately – such as when someone is experiencing anxiety about the future, you could remind them to focus on the present and do their best right now. Every one of us needs to do this, we need to live life as it’s happening, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t also plan for the future and make long-term, long-lasting decisions. Unfortunately, when “one day at a time” is taken literally and to extremes, as it is in the recovery culture, it results in a rejection of long-range thinking & behavior, the destruction of self-confidence, and a continuation of the thought patterns underlying substance abuse.

There are far too many people in the recovery culture telling people to take it “one day at a time”, in the worst sense of the phrase. They believe that you can only ever take it “one day at a time” because you can never know that you will never abuse substances again. They say this outright, as well as proclaiming that you may succumb to an episode of substance use tomorrow – that you have no control over what you will do tomorrow, that you can only stay sober today (and the gospel is that this is true even for people with 20 years or more of abstinence!). When they dole out this advice, more often than not, it’s a warning. It tells you to not be confident, to doubt your resolve. If you begin to feel successful and confident in your choice to stop abusing substances they’ll tell you to to slow down and take it “one day at a time” (or worse, they’ll tell you that you’re on a pink cloud, another slogan to be discussed on another day).

In reality, it can be helpful to take things one day at a time in the extremely early stages of changing a substance use habit, but when the days turn into weeks or even months, then you should be allowed to be confident in your ability to change your habits permanently. Unfortunately, if you accept the slogan as it’s understood within the recovery culture, this will never happen – you may end up fearing that every day will be your last, you may end up continuing to live only for the moment and simply take on other habits of short-sighted immediate gratification. Most people who successfully change their substance use habits make these changes permanent by investing in long term happiness and success. They believe in a brighter future, and they make it a reality by building better personal relationships, new habits, investing in careers, and taking on new leisure activities. They learn to focus on longer-term, delayed, yet exponentially more gratifying, goals and behaviors. They reject the short term thinking that led them to abuse substances in the first place.

The life of a substance abuser is already lived one day or one moment at a time; they are hiding from the future and trading it for a cheap thrill today. So please, stop taking it “one day at a time”. Envision a brighter future, and make it happen. Focus on the things you really value, plan your journey to achieving and attaining them. Believe in your ability to change permanently. A day at a time is the range of consciousness for an animal. People are able to think and plan for the long term – it is a rejection of your basic human nature to adhere so strictly to the one day at a time mantra.

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