An Updated “How It Works”

How It Works

This updated version of “How it Works” – originally published as chapter five of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939 – was created by Hilary J and the Sober Agnostics group and is read at the beginning of their meetings in Vancouver, BC, Canada.


The program is a tool to help us to recover from our addictions. It requires us to be completely honest with ourselves, and to take personal responsibility for our own behaviour and attitudes. We have found this to be a crucial element in our recovery.

Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you truly desire recovery, and are willing to go outside your comfort zone and work hard to change your life and your behaviour, then you are ready to take certain steps.

Some of these appeared very daunting. At first, most of us thought we could find an easier, softer way; but we could not. Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point, and chose the path to sobriety. Here are the Steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addictions—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to accept that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to cope with our problems.
  3. Made a decision to use the program to overcome our addiction.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves: acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses, and the fears, resentments and selfish behaviours that contributed to our addiction.
  5. Admitted to ourselves without reservation, and to another human being, the details of that inventory, both positive and negative.
  6. Were ready to let go of our destructive patterns.
  7. Humbly sought to change our behaviour and attitudes in order to achieve sobriety.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Searched within ourselves for our rightful path in life and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having achieved recovery through taking these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to work hard to improve our lives and maintain our recovery. The principles we have set down are merely guides. We claim progress rather than perfection.


Another excellent version was written by John S and was posted on AA Agnostica on August 9, 2015: A New “How It Works”.

In that article, he wrote:

AA isn’t building anything new for future generations. In twenty-four years, the Big Book will be 100 years old! Those of us who are members of the fellowship today should be horrified at the thought that this book will be used as the central text in the year 2039. That’s not the future any of us should wish for AA.

John’s got that right.

Both versions – and others perhaps! – will be included in Appendix I of the upcoming book on the history of secularism in AA.


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An Updated “How It Works” — 6 Comments

  1. Thanks, Roger, this is indeed a wonderful and much more appropriate version of “How It Works” for us agnostics, atheists and others who have a radically different spiritual orientation than the Oxford Group influenced Christian religion of some, definitely not all, of AA’s original founding members.

    Recently, Jill and I have been attending a secular AA meeting in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, who also have rewritten “How It Works.” Here it is:

    Live and Let Live Group In Bloomington Normal, IL
    Version of “How It Works” for Us Agnostics & Atheists

    Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. There changes are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

    Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided that you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it — then you are ready to take certain steps.

    At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.

    Remember that we deal with alcohol — cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point.

    Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. We came to believe and to accept that we needed strengths and resources beyond our awareness to restore us to sanity.
    3. We made a decision to entrust our wills and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.
    4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. We admitted to ourselves, without reservation, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. We were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.
    7. With humility and opens, we sought to eliminate our shortcomings.
    8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
    11. We sought through meditation to improve our spiritual awareness and our understanding of the AA way of life and to discover the power to carry out that way of life.
    12.Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

    Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are human and are not perfect. The point is, that we were willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than perfection.

    Our description of the alcoholic and personal experiences make clear three pertinent ideas:

    (a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
    (b)That we needed strength beyond our awareness in order to recover.
    (c)That recovery is possible for nearly anyone willing to entrust themselves to this simple way of life.

    When I first heard this version several weeks ago, I was extremely impressed with how it much more accurately it depicts how AA has worked for me for since I was gifted with recovery in New York City in 1972. I especially appreciate the revised (a), (b) and (c).

  2. Half measures availed us nothing!
    We stood at the turning point!

    We had to ask ourselves whether, by retaining half the wording more or less exact, even if we changed the other half, if we didn’t somehow play into that changing the wording of How it works was a cardinal sin, and by only changing half we were pretending to ourselves to only be half sinners.
    Maybe I’m more sore than most, but I just can’t stand How it works at all anymore, even though I still participate in the round-the-table reading of the steps.
    I think we need to break up the AA liturgy altogether, that’s part of what is turning it into a rigid religion.
    It’s getting to where a lot of people have a flea up their ass if even there is the slightest deviation form the formula. This is not good.
    Of course if we scrap anything altogether, such as How it works, then we’re really not even AA anymore – according to them.
    We need to work against that tide.

  3. What a wonderful version. Simple, direct, and very much in the spirit of the original. I had a brief thought of trying to share this locally, and then realized that I am just too exhausted from the struggle of trying to get local people to understand my own atheism to go back into that fray.

    The only change I’d make to this, personally, is to replace “We are not saints” with “We are not perfect”.

    And, on reflection, maybe it is too much like the original. As Boyd P. says, “Translating from “sacred” text is serious stuff”. If people see the translation as too close to the original, they may take it as a parody, and be offended not from the content, but from the – to them – offensive similarity.

    I “grew up” in AA with “how it works” as a continuous and somehow comforting backdrop to the whole process, at least until I got well enough to start rebelling about the “god thing”. For those who have a faith in the supernatural, I can clearly see how changing a key text like this would be offensive. Not that they would have to accept the changed version in their own meetings, but just generally. Religious people are just like that, for some reason – just look at the schisms in various god-faiths in the world today. One group changes something, and bang! you have a new denomination and probably a war. Diversity seems to be anathema to religion. Is that some basic human thing?

    I’d like to see a fresh start, new words, but where that would come from, I can’t imagine. Bill W.’s words resonated with his generation, and continue to do so for many. Perhaps some inspired wordsmith will do it again one day, with secular starting assumptions. Or perhaps science and improved understanding of the addiction will make it unnecessary.

  4. Translating from “sacred” text is serious stuff, but Christians do it all the time. Thanks for these efforts. Is it possible for Agnostics et al. to work on “authorized” versions. Can we create a unified voice that approaches the project responsibly? Or do our anarchistic propensities overwhelm and disable us?

      • Consensus rocks, but it is exhausting, especially when the uninitiated feel they can “block” what they don’t like. Perhaps a beginning place would be to assemble resources on the subject. Them assemble our version of consensus practice.