5 Ways to Decide What to Do Next

So you’re stuck, and don’t know what to do.

Rather than sit there doing nothing, take a look through these five ways to figure out a next step. Different ones will work for different circumstances and personalities. But if you have a negative reaction to one, don’t necessarily dismiss it – it might be exactly what you need.

Do the Opposite

Seinfeld’s friend George isn’t the only one who can succeed in life by doing the opposite of his first impulse. If you feel stuck, then probably what you’ve been doing up until now isn’t working too well. Rather than doing something completely unrelated, put some thought into it and find something about what you’ve been doing that you can reverse.

Have you been trying to make sales by phoning people? Write letters that give them a reason to phone you.

Always falling for the wrong person? Go out with someone you don’t think of as your “type”.

Yelling at your teenager and making no headway? Talk quietly and find things you can agree with them on. (The shock may make the teenager think.)

Whatever you do, break the pattern, because the pattern clearly isn’t working for you.

Ask Mr Webster

A classic method of provoking creative thought is to grab a dictionary, open it at random, stab your finger down on a word, and then look for how that word is relevant to your next step.

Because there’s an Internet tool for everything, you don’t even have to get off your chair and find a dictionary. Just use a random word generator.

I just got “absence” as my random word. That leads to the thought: What am I doing now that I can leave out, as a creative void for people’s thoughts to fall into?

Find Intermediate Impossibles

The phrase “intermediate impossible” comes from Edward de Bono, and it means something which isn’t a solution itself, but which could lead you to a solution. His classic example, to deal with a polluting factory, is “the factory is downstream of itself”. This led to the idea of putting the factory’s water intake downstream of the water outlet, to give the factory an incentive to reduce pollution.

Write down all the things you can think of that aren’t solutions. Now pick one and think: If I started off in that direction, where might I end up that would be a solution?

Do Good By Stealth

One of the best ways I know to get unstuck on one project is to set it aside and work on something else. Preferably, work on something else you’ve been putting off, and wait for the good idea for the other project to sneak up on you while you’re not watching.

It’s as if, when we’re paying attention directly to the problem, we’re holding it too rigidly in our brains. When we let go of it a bit, it can shift into a form in which we can solve it.

Eat a Spoonful of Elephant

How do you eat an elephant? One spoonful at a time.

Think about a big goal you have. What’s a small thing you can do right now that gives you traction in the direction of that goal? It doesn’t matter if the goal is a thousand miles away and you’re taking a single step. Taking any step at all will at least get you in motion, and taking a step, however small, in the direction of an important goal gets you in motion in a direction you care about.

It’s a lot easier to keep moving once you’ve started.

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About Mike Reeves-McMillan

Mike Reeves-McMillan is an amazingness trainer. He's working on a book on how not to change your life.

Comments

  1. Great post Mike! The one word that come to my mind when I read this article is “Explore” Exploring life in different ways opens the doors to new possibilities.

  2. Great article. I like eat a spoonful of elephant, one spoonful at a time : ) It is always daunting to think of the big achievement, but if we can break it into bite sizes and tackle it one piece at a time in a systematic manner, it will be easier. The key is really to keep the end in mind, be focused, determined, patient and perseverance, which are usually most people’s greatest challenges.

  3. Hi Mike,

    I love the one about the factory being downstream of itself. That would solve some problems wouldn’t it. I’ll have to ponder how I can relate that to my goals. Val

  4. Hi Mike, my lecturer taught us the #2 you suggested – point randomly at dictionary to find ideas while we’re brainstorming for advertising campaign. I never thought that it works in our daily life too. But personally I love your first suggestion – to do the opposite. “Break the pattern, because the pattern clearly isn’t working for you.” Just brilliant! Thanks~

  5. Doing there opposite of what you have done before can work. For example, if you have always gone to work with a bad posture and a negative attitude, you can try doing the opposite. This will obviously have a positive affect on your relationships and overall,l on your life.

    BTW, that was a classic episode of Seinfeld, very funny!

    • I have a phrase: “Work on the work”. In other words, if you don’t like the outcome you’re getting, pay attention to the process. And if you don’t know what to change, change anything.

  6. Hi Mike.

    I liked the clarity of your post. And . . . had to smile thinking about George Constanza’s approach.

    Although I’m compelled to research (as I am an applied researcher), I also like challenging my assumptions. Applying the lens to consider using the opposite and finding intermediate impossibles really appealed to me. I’m in a start-up business and need to mix up my own thinking at times to expand upon the possibilities.

    Thanks so much!
    Susie

  7. My process for big decisions has now become:

    1. Brainstorm – truly free-form… just throwing out words and ideas with no filtering. Sort of being my own random word generator, except that I like to think that randomness isn’t entirely random. :-)

    2. Research & Analysis – I grew up being heavily left-brain dominant, and I find that if I don’t include it in my decision process, it will never let me hear the end of it. So I research the topic, make a list of the possible courses of action, and list the pros and cons of each. That satisfies my left brain — it knows it’s been heard.

    3. Meditate & Reflect – Now I turn it over to my right brain. I first set the intention — focus on the true desired outcome — then I clear my mind and listen. In that silence comes my answer.

    I’ve found this a very reliable and satisfying process, when I remember to use it. :-)

    • Sounds like a good one, Scott. Balances out all the parts, unstructured, structured, verbal and logical, imaginative. I would think you’d get some excellent decisions that way.

  8. Thanks for the advice! I forgot how George from Seinfeld would do the opposite. Perhaps, I’ll try it and see if it truly works. :)

    • Depends how good your instincts are, of course. But if one way isn’t working, maybe the opposite will.

      A classic from Milton Erickson is “prescribing the symptom”. Instead of trying to stop doing something, Erickson would tell his patients to set aside 10 minutes and do it as hard as they could, really “try” to do it. It often led to breakthroughs in their perception about control and how they produced their own symptoms.

  9. Mike, Doing the opposite and asking Mr. Webster appeal to me. I wouldn’t have thought of those on my own. Thank you for these.

  10. Good ideas!

    I especially like eating the elephant idea. I think a lot of people are less often stuck not knowing what to do as much as they are stuck not being able to take the first step toward doing something that seems so daunting a task. By breaking it up into smaller bite-sized chunks, it can motivate action because the task starts to appear so much more manageable.

    Thanks for the insight!

    • Thanks, Ken. Yes, it’s the “pick something you can’t fail at” principle. I read somewhere about a severely overweight man who started spending one minute a day on the treadmill.

      One minute! It sounds like nothing. But the whole point is that it isn’t nothing – it’s something. It’s a beginning, however small, in the right direction, and it can (and in this man’s case did) lead on to much greater things.

  11. Excellent tips and also inspiring. Thanks a lot for sharing. Keep this up.

  12. Thanks for the tips and insight into ways to become “unstuck.” As they say, “If you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got.”

    Meditations seem to help when I’m either stuck without an idea or overwhelmed by too much to do. It’s the break away from the brick wall I’m banging my head into! Things always do have a way of working out, and the results we get sometimes aren’t what we planned, but the journey is much more enjoyable.

    Delilah

    • Very true, Delilah. What I find helpful with meditation is the practice that it gives me in letting go of my habitual thoughts and feelings.

      An insight that I’ve come to lately (through learning theatrical improv) is that being able to let go of your expectations and go with what comes along is a really useful life skill. If you keep clinging to what you originally thought should happen and trying to make it work when it’s never going to, all you get is pain and disappointment.

  13. Mike,
    These are some great suggestions for becoming unstuck. The one that usually works best for me is to walk away for a bit. I find when I’m stuck, I’m trying too hard to DO something, and haven gotten a little out of line with the energy of what I want. In other words, I’m trying to make something happen and have stopped listening to my intuition. When I take a break, I have chance to realign, come back fresh and change my perspective. That, or I take a nap. :o)

    Hugs,
    Melody

    • That’s one of my most productive ones as well. I stand up and go to get a drink of water or whatever, and the movement seems to jar me out of my mental rut and open up new directions.

  14. Hi, Mike,

    I Love Synchronicity! I opened my email and discovered your post was similar, yet different from the post I sent out from my blog, http://The PowerToLive.com the same day.

    My post is titled, ‘3 Things to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do’. You can find it here: http://thepowertolive.com/2191/3-things-to-do-when-you-don%e2%80%99t-know-what-to-do/

    It’s interesting because my post is about passive ways to move forward, while yours is about active ways to move forward. They’re really opposite sides of the same coin, aren’t they?

    Thanks for sharing these ideas with us!

    Connie

    • Yes, I think the two posts are complementary. Yours is about paying attention to the process, what I call “working on the work”, which is also a very important part of getting unstuck. Thanks!

  15. Your first suggestion sounds a bit off, but I truly tried this once with a business presentation & went in the opposite direction of the idea that has been plaguing me the entire week, which I just couldn’t put into motion. I was really cavalier about it and it worked brilliantly.

    I also like the spoonful of elephant suggestion – definitely something that applies to stuckness:-)

    Thanks!

    Josip Barbaric

    • Thanks, Josip. One thing the NLP people are great on is breaking patterns – it comes from the example of Milton Erickson, who was always finding ways to break his patients’ maladaptive patterns. It’s worth learning to do it for ourselves.