Getting Focused on “My Number One Problem”

Life has vexed Philosophers, Artists, and the Common Man since the dawn of humanity. Consciousness, with its seemingly endless capacity for nuanced semi-reflective, thought, socialized man and continues to capture his imagination.  Language, culture, and religion followed. Later, math, science, medicine, and the arts followed. Several thousand years later, we’ve become the diverse and often fascinating pastiche we are today. And we’re still going.

What have we learned? After several thousand years, we have learned that life is still mysterious and wonderous, fulfilling, and frustrating, with a payoff that can be joyful or heartbreaking when its all over. Whatever the outcome, there are few guarantees and few certainties.

Add to this milieu a nearly endless supply of new and shiny objects competing for your attention every minute from nearly every angle. In 2021, it has never been easier to feel overwhelmed and perplexed by the world around you. Focusing on something specific can be a real challenge. This is true for everyone – not just those in AA.

My Newcomer Perspective

When I came to AA, I knew I had a drinking problem. My mind, however, had me convinced I had all sorts of equally important “issues” that had to be managed concurrently while putting the plug in the jug. I remember I thought getting my goals precise was important. I read somewhere that unspecific goals were unachievable, so I needed to fix that. I don’t know why now, but it seemed urgent back then.

I also thought I needed to learn more about my childhood. Maybe do some therapy, placing blame for my current predicament on my parents.

There were also other twelve-step programs. Mom was an alcoholic, after all. Shouldn’t I also go to Alanon or ACOA? And, what’s the deal with CODA? If one program is good, more is better! Right? Maybe I should do a different one each day of the week!

Of course, I also needed to get in better shape (which might help me get a critically important girlfriend). Then, there was that pesky issue of being twelve units shy of a Batchelor’s Degree. I needed to complete that if I wanted a better job. I also worried that driving without insurance wasn’t good. Nor, for that matter, was not having a job and living on my mom’s couch.

I share this to illustrate all the shiny objects that were vying for my attention, both internally and externally, when I stumbled into AA. To paraphrase the Big Book here, “I could increase this list ad infinitum!”

What I Heard

When I came to AA to get help with drinking and marijuana problems, I started hearing people say at meetings, “if you want to get sober, you need to focus on your number one problem!”

At first, I thought this was a clever riddle to solve. So, I kept it all in my head – the riddle and my answer.

Then, one night at coffee, a sober guy asked me, “what’s your number one problem?” I was ready. I replied with my brilliantly thought out answer. “It’s either ego or my selfishness!”

To which he responded, “No, no, no! You’re number one problem is drinking! You need to stop drinking!” He went on to add, “If you solve your number one problem, you’ll be able to solve all sorts of other problems later! Focus first on learning how to stay stopped!”

What I Read

One of the most popular Big Book stories is “Acceptance is the Answer.” While most read the …acceptance is the answer to all our problems,  there are other equally noteworthy sections.

Here is an excerpt from page 415-416 that articulates the sentiment I am trying to communicate with this post. Thanks to Steve T. for this reading.

“It seemed that all they talked about at meetings was drinking, drinking, drinking. It made me thirsty. I wanted to talk about my many big problems: drinking seemed a small one. And I knew that giivn up “one drink for one day” wouldn’t really do any good. Finally after seven months, I decided to try it. To this day, I am amazed at how many of my problems – most of which had nothing to do with drinking, I believed – have become manageable or have simply disappeared since I quit drinking.”

What I Did

So I took that guidance and began focusing on my number one problem.  I began “getting serious” in and about AA. Rather than come to meetings and listen and hope to offer up a clever share, I became far more engaged. I came to meetings with a purpose. I was coming to learn how to stay sober. And, appropriately, I began behaving more like a member like a visitor.

I started asking pointed questions to long sober members like, “what should I be doing around here if I sincerely want to stop drinking?” I also asked, “How will I know if I’m in trouble and at risk of drinking again?”

Taking their advice, I then started getting to meetings earlier and going to coffee afterward. There I got to know people one-on-one. Eventually, I found a person to be my sponsor—big, huge, giant step. My sponsor took me through the steps.

And, like so many others in AA, once I worked the steps, my life transformed – seemingly for good.

That sponsor promised over thirty years ago, “If you focus on your number one problem, your other problems over time will also be solved, and new better ones will arise.” He was right. Now I have many what the super-oldtimers called “Cadillac problems!”

What I Think

When I came to AA, I was highly unfocused. Some science supports both a genetic and behavioral connection between Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Alcoholism and Addiction (AUD). Because people with ADHD require constant stimulation, the thought is drugs and alcohol either feed or arrest this condition. Alcohol and drugs are self-medicating agents.

I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure I have ADHD. Focusing has always been hard for me. Anecdotally I know many others in AA also have ADHD. Some have told me so.  I also see many newcomers shaking their legs incessantly, looking around the room, and unable to remember what the reading was three minutes ago. It’s estimated this AUD/ADHD connection might be as high as 25%.

I also know I was, especially in my first years, “running my mind” during meetings was something I did. I still do. THINK THINK THINK!

After all these years, I’ve gotten better at listening during meetings. Closing my eyes helps. I also focus better when I leave the smartphone in the car. Science supports that too.


Learning what my number one problem was, then putting all my focus on that rather than all the other things in my head worked for me. Maybe this will work for you, too.

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