What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

Early in my career, I was the marketing director for a book publishing company. Because of my workload and the on-going pressure to produce results, I felt overwhelmed. I was certain that it was only a matter of time before my boss discovered that I was in over my head.

A Thumbtack Pinpointing a Location on a Map - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/alephx01, Image #101025

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/alephx01

This produced uncertainty. I was afraid to act. Instead, I worried and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking through worst-case scenarios—something I am pretty good at.

Frustrated, I went to a wise, older colleague and poured out my soul. He listened patiently, then said something I will never forget:

“Mike, just do the next right thing.”

“That’s it?” I asked.

“Yep. That’s it,” he replied. “You’re over-thinking it. Just do the next right thing. It will be okay.”

That simple concept simultaneously gave me relief and clarity. I have used it time and time again in moments when I have felt overwhelmed and uncertain.

Here are the three steps I take.

  1. Forget about the ultimate outcome. The truth is that I probably have less control over the outcome than I think. I can undoubtedly influence it, but I can’t control it. Besides, before I ever get to the final destination, many of the variables will change. Projects and deals have a way of unfolding over time. There will be problems—and resources—I can’t see now.
  2. Instead, focus on the next right action. Since worrying about the outcome is unproductive, I try to think about the next actions that will move the project forward. This is far more accessible that something in the distant future. For example, as an author, I can worry about whether or not my book will become a bestseller or I can make sure that I am fully prepped for the interview I have scheduled today.
  3. And do something now! This is key. Something is better than nothing. Too often, we think that we have to have clarity about how it will all turn out. In my experience, I rarely have this. But, as I move toward the destination, making course corrections as necessary, I experience clarity. Therefore, it is important to get off the sidelines and into the game.

So if you are in a situation where you feel overwhelmed and don’t know what course to take, just do the next right thing.

Question: What do you do when you feel overwhelmed and uncertain? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Bei

    I put on some hot water for tea, and wash dishes–to be doing something while the concern reverberates, “You need to do something”.

  • Antagonist

    I often get this overwhelming sense of imminent doom, and my mind fills up with the same statement repeated over, and over, and over again until I succumb to the anxiety: “I don’t know what to do”. I physically, emotionally or mentally flee the situation after the built up terror becomes unbearable. “I don’t know… I don’t know…”, I don’t know what? What don’t I know? “I don’t know.”. It’s horrible, paralyzing agony of uncertainty and peril. These words are not just words, they steal my control, they seep in like a poison to which I cannot remedy.

    So tonight, like the night before and the night before last, found myself spinning in the hamster wheel of despair and unknowing. I wanted to tell someone, (or something) that I didn’t know what to do. Whenever I’ve been vocal about this uncertainty, it’s met with furrowed eyebrows and irritating questions. It’s bullshit, because my statement is it’s own paradox. I don’t know, but I don’t know what it is that I don’t know, and that terrifies me.

  • eli

    Somehow I found your site with ways of dealing with feeling overwhelmed and unable to move ahead. Thank you for this – here I am in the Australian bush, temporarily unable to do very little from injury, but surrounded by an endless number of tasks that need to be seen to.
    Your words of advice have helped enormously. Thank you.

  • Rachel


  • JacquiD505

    Best thing I read, ever. You might have just saved me time and being stressed out not knowing what to do with my life. Thank You.

  • 1determined1

    Like Michael, if availability l seek counsel after prayer, my first line of defense. I have heard that phrase before, “do the next best thing”, and I agree completely. God can’t move a parked car, and action relieves stress, James in the Bible did say faith without works is dead. Granted my action taken is AFTER I have prayed, not just embarking on my own thought processes. Sharing with safe and wise other’s is invaluable. Part of my frustration is usually out of some disconnect, sharing sorta grounds me again, and I can get on my merry way. Wise people ask for advice, humility is wisdom, but not very popular.

  • Mily

    Although this makes me feel less worried and as much sense as that makes, I just have one question, “what is the next right thing”. What if everything just seems wrong how do I know I made the next right thing?