“1 step forward, 3 steps back” is about the ups and downs of life and the challenge of navigating relationships with an inconsistent partner, as every time Olivia takes a step forward towards meeting her true love, she immediately feels pushed back from her goals.
The song contains a slight interpolation of Taylor Swift’s 2017 track “New Year’s Day,” while bearing some similarities in its main concept from another song by Swift, “Dear John" (2010). The title also strays from the typical version of the saying: instead of “1 step forward, 2 steps back”, it is “1 step forward, 3 steps back”, a reference to Swift’s favorite number, 13.
Rodrigo has praised Swift several times, citing her not only as a heavy inspiration for her introspective songwriting and melodies, but also as a role model in the music industry, as she told Nylon Magazine:
Obviously, I think she’s the best songwriter of all time, but she’s so business-savvy and she really cares about her career in that regard, too. That’s been really inspiring for me to watch somebody take control of her career life like that.