When I first heard the phrase, “Just do the next right thing,” it was in the context of my early days of recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. I was sitting in front of my 12 Steps sponsor, after having jabbered on and on to him about needing to deal with my upcoming DUI court case, how to avoid losing my teaching job, what to do about my truly irate “significant other,” etc., etc.
He looked me squarely in the eyes and simply uttered, “You’re going to save yourself from a lot of grief and anxiety if you’ll just keep it simple and do the next right thing.”
Surprisingly, instead of immediately questioning him or arguing with him, I chose to reflect on what he’d said, what it meant (at least to me at that time), and how I could best start applying it.
I recall thinking aloud to myself later that day, “Okay, he’s saying don’t try to tackle all of this stuff at once. That’ll only keep me overwhelmed and freaked out! Just do one thing at a time. Figure out what’s the most important thing to do next and do that.”
But as I continued to reflect, I realized he also meant don’t focus too much on the future – that is, I don’t need to figure out the rest of the day, week or month right now… I’ll be much better off being right where I am, identifying what the next right thing to do now is and doing that—i.e., “living in the present moment”—rather than filling my mind with all the “what if’s” and “what abouts” I’d typically find myself running off to.
The truth was, doing the dishes that had been piled up for a few days turned out to be “the next right thing” for me to do that afternoon. And by turning my attention to washing each plate, bowl and fork, I did notice I was quickly becoming less stressed, even feeling good about what I was accomplishing. And back then, feeling good or non-stressed about anything was rare, if not unheard of for me. So yes, I did see this could be a game-changer for me.
But don’t let me fool you: when the dishes were done, my mind immediately started back in the direction of panicking about all the aforementioned “stuff” I was facing as a result of my alcohol and drug addiction (e.g., court, my job, my relationship).
In other words, if you’re anything at all like me, you can understand why it was appropriate for him to encourage me to use this powerful mantra (which I’ve since found out through my years in recovery is often emphasized to those in substance abuse treatment programs and 12 Steps recovery) and his reiterating how important it was that I practice it in action! In my case, I clearly needed to adopt and develop a new way of thinking and behaving (pronto!), if I was going to sustain any forward progress in my recovery.
I didn’t do it perfectly, but I put in my best efforts (and still do). By establishing a habit of consciously seeking to do the next right thing, I slowly began living according to a new formula… and indeed something new began to arise — an increasingly free life: free of anxiety, worry, distraction or overwhelm. By identifying the best use of my time and attention, whether facing big challenges or mundane decisions, I was (and still am) consciously preparing and engaging myself to act in accordance with my life in this moment… then the next moment… and so on… thereby bringing fresh choices to bear upon whatever it is I’ve chosen to focus. And by and large, the results have been satisfying, effective and rewarding.
I’m deeply grateful to my first 12 Steps sponsor for sharing that wise aphorism with me that day. I’ve benefited from it beyond my ability to say, and I continue to, one day at a time.