“When You Don’t Know What to Do Next, Finish Something”
Do ever feel stuck or unsure what to do next?
All of us have felt that feeling, of not being sure what to do next. Whether it is feeling unsure what to do next for the day, or what to do next in life, confusion about “next steps” can leave us feeling stagnant, confused, frustrated, or even depressed.
I’ve found that when I’m not sure what to do next in life or when I am feeling “stuck,” the most helpful thing for me to do is to simply do what is in front of me. Finish something. Complete a project or task or to-do list of items. (This works on two levels — the short-term items and projects that I need to do, and also the long-term goals I have for my life.)
Here are the 3 steps I take for the short-term items to get un-stuck…
STEP 1 – LIST: I take my notebook and begin to make a list of everything that is “undone” in my life. This includes any projects I’m currently working on that are unfinished, as well as items such as cleaning out that closet, making any healthcare appointments (dentist, yearly physical, etc.), paying bills, and anything else that comes to mind. I don’t spend more than 5 or so minutes compiling this list — I don’t want to make the list so long that I’ll get discouraged, but 5 minutes is long enough to get most of the important items. You can always add to the list later, if other unfinished items pop up in your mind.
STEP 2 – PRIORITIZE: Then, I prioritize the list this way — at #1 I write down the thing on my list that I least want to do at that moment, at #2 I write the next least thing I want to do, and so on.
STEP 3 – ACT: I take action on the first item immediately.
Here’s a helpful hint: since I start with the thing I least want to do, I usually give myself a time limit so I don’t feel overwhelmed. For instance, I’ll look at the first item on my list, and then think, “I’ll spend 30 minutes on this and stop whether I’m done or not.” Often when I commit to 30 focused minutes, it is enough time to accomplish the task or at least get a good bit done on it. And most of the time, if I don’t finish the task by the end of the 30 minutes, I just keep on going until I’m done. I’ve also used 15 minutes, or even 5 minutes as my time limit, depending on the task.
Using these simple techniques creates momentum. Momentum occurs when we take action — and that momentum can carry us forward. When I finish item #1, I’m usually so relieved and energized that I dive into item #2. When I finish item #2, I go as quickly as possible to item #3. Taking action, then, becomes a chain reaction that enlarges my life and helps me to achieve any goals that I have.
Here are five things that I’ve noticed when I take action:
- When I’m being honest about it, procrastination actually takes more energy than just getting things done. Avoiding things takes a lot of time and energy, and in the end wastes time and energy. Just as it would be silly for a flower to try to procrastinate it’s growth and avoid blooming, it’s just as unthinkable that we humans would try to procrastinate our own growth and avoid living our life as fully and joyfully as possible.
- Sometimes I’ll start a new project because I’m inspired, but there are also times I’ll start a new project to avoid something I need to get done. For example, when I want to avoid finishing something, sometimes cleaning the kitchen suddenly seems like the most appealing and important thing I can do. When I reflect on it, I realize that cleaning the kitchen (or whatever it is) was just a way to avoid to working on my unfinished projects or goals.
- Taking positive action creates positive energy and forward momentum. One of my life mottos is “energy follows action.” This means that rather than wait for the moment that I feel like doing something I know I should be doing, I instead decide to take action on it, and create that positive feeling by doing it. Don’t wait for good outcomes before taking action; take action to create good outcomes.
- Taking positive actions is a form of positive self-care. Taking positive actions creates flow and joy and success in our lives. Avoiding actions or leaving goals unfinished keeps us stuck and stagnant and small.
- There are times when the positive action I most need to take is to relax and “be” rather than “do.” As the saying goes, we are human beings, not human doings. While we do need to take positive actions toward our goals every day, we also need to create balance by also relaxing and playing.
If you are feeling stuck or unsure, allow yourself the gift of taking yourself and your life seriously enough to take at least one positive action today. Commit to just 30 minutes today finishing up a project, and have fun while doing it. Play your favorite music while doing it, or give yourself a reward when you finish, or call a friend to come and help. Do whatever it takes today to move forward. You’ll be glad you did!
Joel Fotinos is the author of the just-released book My Life Contract: 90 Day Program for Priotitizing Goals, Staying on Track, Keeping Focused, and Getting Results (Hampton Roads). He is also a vice-president at Penguin Random House, and publisher of the Tarcher/Penguin imprint. For more information, go to joelfotinos.com.