What to do when you don't know what to do.

This is more of a question than an answer because I’m pretty lost myself. But I’m hoping in 1000 words I’ll have some kind of answer.

Uncertainty is hard. Uncertainty creates stress and anxiety. And what do you know we’re all bathing in a giant pool of uncertainty right now. Now obviously, the world isn’t coming to an end and we have a lot to be grateful for, but for a lot of us we are living in unprecedented times. The pandemic has dramatically changed the nature of everyday life and messed up a lot of our plans. I’m someone who likes plans. In Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, he lists out some things we might want to aim to do everyday. One of them is

“Just for Today, I will have a Programme. I will write down just what I expect to do every hour. I may not follow it exactly, but I’ll have it. It will save me from the two pests Hurry and Indecision.”

The reason I bring up this quote is because even if I want to be spontaneous, I like to create a general plan. I’m allowed to ditch this plan at any time for as long as I want, but I’ve found that just having some kind of plan in place helps me feel grounded.

So what do I do when I don’t know what to do?

Make a plan.

But how?

I’ve talked before about how I try to stop obsessive thinking and that I think a lot of the problem is that we often ask ourselves unanswerable questions. But there is so much uncertainty in the world right now, that pretty much all questions about the future are unanswerable making it nearly impossible to plan without starting obsessive thinking. I find myself racking my brain trying to weigh pros and cons and come up with some answer to what action I should take next, but it just never works. There are too many variables and it’s impossible to organize and analyze all the options, especially because everything is moving around all the time.

So what do we do?

I think step one, is to level up awareness. I know, I know I’ve been talking about awareness a lot recently, but I guess this is just a skill that I’m focusing on a lot. I think if you had asked me before I started writing 1000 words a day if I had good self-awareness, I would have responded that it is one of my biggest strengths. Now I’m not so sure. Because the trick is, the more self-awareness I gain, the more I am able to see areas where my self-awareness is lacking. It’s sort of a catch-22.

But anyways, I think we can’t just give up hope for planning at all, we just need to rethink how we approach the task. You all know that I really like pushing the limits. It is inevitable, however, in pushing limits that occasionally, or even quite frequently we can go too far. Now what I’ve realized for myself personally is that with all of the increased certainty accompanied by increased free time there is a lot more room to go too far, and this can happen way more frequently than I’m used to it happening. I’ll give you an example.

I was supposed to move to the bay area to start my job after college, but it is likely that I’m now going to start working remotely. This means I don’t necessarily need to move right away and can go wherever I want. I have spent countless hours investigating possible locations including looking through pretty much all airbnbs on the coast of california, all of the hawaiian islands, colorado, and even some east coast beaches. Since I was supposed to do some travelling abroad before starting work, living somewhere else in the US seems like a nice compromise, but where? I know I’m very lucky to have this type of a problem, but the breadth of the problem seriously stresses me out. I love a good problem and I love putting in good work and getting a useful answer, but I need to narrow down the scope.

Step 1: Break down the problem.

So step one, use awareness to notice if you’re working on a problem that is too big. If you feel overwhelmed, then there’s a good bet that the problem is too big. Now when a problem is too big, it is obviously not an excuse to give up, we dig in but we do so strategically. One of my number one strategies for staying in flow is to make sure that the problem I’m working on is always appropriately-sized. If something is too hard or too easy then it is super easy to fall out of flow. So any time I’m working something, usually too hard, I’ll make sure that I break it down into bite-sized steps and I will only focus on the one at hand. Peeking ahead at the next step or looking at all of them at once is what causes overwhelm. I don’t know why I’ve never tried to translate this approach into my personal life before, but it’s time. Trying to figure out where I’m going to move, who I’m going to live with, and how long I’m going to stay all at once without any system is a recipe for disaster. I need to start by breaking down this problem flow-chart style and figuring out one step at a time.

The key here is knowing when a problem is too big and too overwhelming. It seems like it should be very straightforward to notice these types of things, but once we get sucked into problems it can be hard to retain perspective. Especially when we do have a lot more time to throw at the problem. Sometimes, time constraints can force us to strategize and break down problems, but without any clear goals or deadlines, it can be easy to ruminate endlessly.

Step 2: Get clear about goals.

I feel like there are two types of people in this world: those who die by their goals and those who abhor them. It probably seems like I’m a staunch supporter of goals, but honestly I don’t care. If goals work for you then that’s great, and if they don’t they don’t. Do whatever works for you. But regardless of what you call them, you must have some idea of what your endgame is, even if it’s just “I need to pick what I’m eating for lunch out of the fridge”. However, more often than not, we are not clear about our goals. I think lack of clarity is the number one reason goals don’t work for some people. “Eat healthier”, while it may express your general intention, is not really a goal. What I mean is, that in order to actually achieve the broader vision to “eat healthier”, you would have to get specific about what that actually means to you and how you are going to achieve.

I’ll use myself as a bad example here. For the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to figure out “what to do next”. That’s it. Obviously this is as vague as it could possibly be and doesn’t really make sense as a goal. But grace, you’re the one telling me I should get clear about my goals but you have this monster of a “goal” yourself. The problem is that I haven’t been organized. I for some reason thought that planning out the next few months of my life did not deem any focused attention (ridiculous I know), so I didn’t think about it as a goal, so I never went down my normal process for streamlining goals. So take a few minutes and really think about it. What exactly are you trying to accomplish right now? What specifically do you need right now?

3. Take a break

I’m not going to lie. I find this step extremely hard to put into practice. This is probably another one of my weaknesses. You see, I’ve more or less come to terms with the fact that in life, if I want to be pushing the boundaries, I’m going to have to be ok with going overboard. With doing too much, with failing, and with doing it all again. The trick is after you try and after you fail, it may be good to take a half-second to breathe before diving in headfirst. In my quest to get uncomfortable staying comfortable, I’ve found that I have a tendency to go full speed ahead into the next challenge immediately after completing the one at hand. Personally, I’m going to be working on implementing a system to help myself become aware when I’ve just finished a big project or a big push, so that I can use that awareness to implement a [brief] rest period wherein I can integrate the lessons of my failure or be proud of my success. Regardless of how you do it, when we fail to take breaks, we cannot function as effectively as possible. I’ve told myself this fact so many times and yet for some reason, I still can’t get it to stick. So here I am saying it again. Take a break! They really do help you be more you and do more of what you want.

So that’s it. Those are my three steps for facing uncertainty. I know they seem unbelievably simple, but it’s often when we get overwhelmed that we need these types of simple reminders. So take a step back, break down what you’re working on, figure out what you really want, rest, and repeat. Ok that’s all for today – I’ve got to go take my own advice.