It is murky when someone says they’re “working the steps.” What does that mean? When do they ever finish the 12 steps?
Or we might hear that we should finish the steps in a specific timeline or that our way of doing the steps is too fast or too slow.
It comes down to the way your sponsor performs the steps and your willingness to complete them. Your sponsor is the guide for how fast you finish the steps because they use the style of working the steps that was passed on to them. You speed up your progression through the steps by taking the action your sponsor suggests.
I’ll answer the main questions about the timeline for the steps below. “It depends” or “you always work the steps” aren’t the correct answers here for several reasons I’ll describe.
- How Long Does It Take to Do the Steps the First Time?
- How Vital the Guidance of a Sponsor is for Learning to Do the Step
- Sponsors Have Different Styles of Completing the Steps.
- Do Timelines Matter?
- What’s the Ideal Timeline for Finishing the Steps?
- Why People Get Stuck at a Certain Step
- Does Step Work Ever Truly Finish?
- What to Do After the First Round: Maintenance of Your Sobriety
How Long Does It Take to Do the Steps the First Time?
When people ask, “how long should I take to finish the steps,” they usually mean the first pass through the steps. When people respond that they should always be working the steps, it doesn’t justify the original question. What someone means when they say, “You should work the steps all the time,” they are referring to the maintenance stage after you first learned the steps. They might mean applying steps throughout the day as needed or practicing the maintenance steps like 10, 11, and 12.
However, you have to learn the steps somehow, and you do that by completing the steps for the first time. That’s what the question is about.
So if we narrow down the question, we have to understand the mechanics of doing the steps. Currently, the most recommended way is to ask someone to be your sponsor, someone who has worked the steps themselves and has the knowledge and experience to pass them on. If they haven’t worked the steps themselves, they aren’t passing much helpful information about doing them, if any at all.
How Vital the Guidance of a Sponsor is for Learning to Do the Step
The sponsor is the primary guide for step work. You might hear of other newcomers doing the steps differently with their sponsor, which might sow doubt in how you’re doing the steps with your sponsor. That’s perfectly normal. There’s no official guide that everyone must follow, which would make everything uniform. It all comes down to how your sponsor did the steps themselves and the speed at which they progressed.
You don’t need to blindly go along with a plan of action you don’t understand. But you need a sponsor to get you through the steps for the first time. If their timeline feels too slow or too fast, ask them what the plan of action will be and how it affects you.
Sponsors Have Different Styles of Completing the Steps.
Your sponsor’s method of step work will likely be unique from another sponsor’s. That’s why you usually only stick with one official sponsor, so you don’t get confused with multiple ways of working the steps.
The Way They Learned is the Way They Pass on to You
Most likely, and ideally, your sponsor will pass on the steps in the same way their sponsor passed it to them. The way they worked with their sponsor is a fresh experience in their mind and a framework for passing on to someone else. There’s no need to make up a new way as they go along because they have their own experience to work from.
And the methods are various. A sponsor might require written work for steps 1-3, or they might need you to sit down and think about them, and you’re at step 4. It depends on what your sponsor guides you to do.
The Sponsor Has a Unique Way
As a result of the various methods, the timeline varies as well. I’ve known a sponsorship lineage that does most of the steps in a single day. I’ve known others who have a drawn-out process requiring reading the book aloud and doing what it recommends over several one-on-one sessions.
When it comes to doing single steps, there are many ways of doing them as sponsors. Usually, they bear some semblance to what the Big Book says for that step, or your sponsor can explain how the work applies to what the Big Book suggests.
Do Timelines Matter?
Sponsors aren’t keeping track of your progress on a calendar, and that’d be weird if they did. They are voluntarily passing on the knowledge they have to you, free of charge, as a way of staying sober themselves. As a result, they aren’t usually taskmasters like a professional counselor or treatment center. I’m sure you could find someone who treats their sponsees like that if it works for you, however.
Therefore, the timeline is your own. The sponsor will move on to the next step when they think you’re ready and willing. You show a willingness by doing the outline of action they suggest and keeping in touch with them for any questions and feedback.
Your Willingness to Complete Each Step Should be a Guide
If you feel your sponsor is moving too slowly through the steps or too fast, let them know and talk about it. They may not know how anxious you are to finish and hopefully don’t keep you stuck at a step when you’re ready to move on. The goal is to progress through the steps and not get stuck at one.
The sponsor has likely seen many sponsees with different levels of willingness. Some sponsees may not have even been interested in working the steps. The way to convey your willingness is consistently doing what you’re sponsor recommends and showing up to see them and call them regularly.
What’s the Ideal Timeline for Finishing the Steps?
Some might take a year or more to finish the steps. Others get most done in a day if that’s their sponsor’s way. Everyone has an opinion of the speed because they’re usually biased by how fast they finished the steps.
You want to learn the steps, apply them in your life, and get relief from the obsession and cravings of drugs and alcohol as a result. Many find this relief early on in their step work, especially when it comes to the constant rat race in their thoughts and feelings. Others take longer.
So it would be best if you took with a grain of salt anyone who states you’re not doing the step at an ideal speed. You’re going at the rate you and your sponsor agree on and making steady progress day by day.
Why People Get Stuck at a Certain Step
You’ll probably hear about the “1,2,3 shuffle.” This expression refers to people who do the first three steps, don’t progress to step 4, and relapse.
The steps appear difficult. Steps 4 and 5 usually are big hang-ups for newcomers. Many people are scared off by step 4 because they know they have to go to step 5, asking that we become completely honest and vulnerable with another person. Others get stuck at step 9, fearing the requirement to make amends to people they hate or screwed over.
So fear usually causes someone to stop at a step. It’s usually not because a sponsor has said to “sit and wait.” It’s because someone has lost the will to continue or fears what the steps ahead would ask of them.
Does Step Work Ever Truly Finish?
Some people swear you start the steps over once you finish them the first time. This cycle sounds exhausting and not necessary if we look at the book.
The book suggests we perform steps 10, 11, and 12 regularly to maintain our recovery. This means taking inventory and making amends promptly, engaging in our spiritual practices, and passing on the message to others.
Some people might go through the steps again or do an annual step 4 and 5 as housecleaning.
However, the book suggests we can maintain well with steps 10, 11, and 12 regularly and incorporate the other steps as needed. An entire chapter is devoted to step 12 in the Big Book, while all the other steps are in a single chapter. This attention should let you know how important working with others and passing on the message is to achieve long-term sobriety.
What to Do After the First Round: Maintenance of Your Sobriety
Using steps 10, 11, and 12 as daily maintenance steps, we also keep in touch with our sponsor to learn if we can apply the steps to any other problems in our lives.
Passing on What We Learned is the Aim
As a result of working the steps, we hopefully found some peace within ourselves and our ability to stay sober. We know how to live each day without taking a drink.
The focus now becomes passing on the steps and recovery to newcomers. It’s not to wallow in doing the steps over and over. Working with others becomes the new, long-term basis of recovery.
You pass on the steps by becoming a sponsor yourself and using the method your sponsor used you with. The cycle continues, and you keep in touch with your sponsor for any guidance you need with your own sponsoring.