What is the best way to act in the face of uncertainty over the future?
How should I handle the sometimes paralyzing anxiety that comes along with trying to plan for the unknown?
A handful of events have taken place in my life over the past several months which have led to major deviations from the plans I had made for myself. Some of these changes have made me anxious about the uncertainty of my future and what to do next—or where to even begin. This anxiety sends my frontal cortex into overdrive; thinking about all of the possible decisions, actions and outcomes that will put me back on a path towards my goals. This tends to result in a kind of mental paralysis that keeps me from doing anything altogether. The planning, the details, the possibilities, and the unknown put me in a state of overwhelm that can be difficult to break out of.
The problem is this: you will never know the future. You can make plans all day, but they will never execute with 100% perfection. There will always be hiccups, detours, and monkey wrenches that get in the way of the otherwise flawless plans that we lay out for ourselves. This is not to say that planning is useless or ineffective. Looking ahead, laying out your goals and milestones, and accounting for bad things happening are a very necessary part of getting what you need and achieving what you want in this life. However, making plans may not always be the best use of your time, especially if planning gets in the way of doing or if the plan itself cannot be conceived in the first place. To realize this is one thing, but to act in spite of this realization is not always straightforward.
I have, with deliberate practice, developed a strategy that usually pulls me out of this pit of paralysis. The way to break out is to take the next best step in the direction of greatest importance, as defined by your current priorities (if you don’t know what your priorities are, you should figure them out, but that is a post for another day). Based on your current circumstances, the information you have, and your current abilities, the best thing you can do is move in the direction of your choosing.
Simply determining what the next best step is helps to keep me grounded in the present. I can recapture my agency by shortening the timeline and reminding myself that the only things I have power over are my thoughts and actions in this very moment. Nothing else. Nobody else. Nowhere else.
You can leave the details for later. You can detach yourself from future outcomes and focus only on the process of acting in the short-term. Try to avoid getting so caught up in the details that you paralyze yourself from even starting. It does not matter that you don’t have the whole thing planned out or that you don’t know where you’re going to end up. It’s okay to not see the whole picture—sometimes you have a paint-by-numbers (if you’re lucky), but most of the time you have a blank canvas. Painting by numbers will produce a pretty picture, but it never results in a masterpiece. You have to start with a blank canvas to create something exceptional. But you have to start. When the alternative is inaction or paralysis, the best thing to do is to narrow your focus and shorten your projection to the most manageable view that allows you to further your cause.
I am not going to say that this is always easy. The idea of the next best step is simple, but right action has a tendency to be difficult. The trick is, however, to focus only on what is right in front of you. That’s it. Not all of the other steps that come after it—this is the fast track to becoming overwhelmed and things tend to devolve rather quickly after that. So, if your next best step is making you feel this way, you probably haven’t broken it down enough. The more you break it down—the more manageable each step becomes—the more the plan actually unfolds as you act.
You are not in charge of the future and there is nothing you can do about the past. The only real power you wield is the ability to control your actions and make decisions in the present moment. Thus, given the circumstances, your abilities, and the information you possess right now, all that matters is moving—even if ever so slightly—in the right direction.
Do what you can with what you have where you are.
Take the next best step.
Am I wrong about something? Did I miss anything? Do you agree? Disagree? Have questions or critiques? Post your response in the Comments section below.
Special thanks to Caroline Buzzard for her help with communicating my thoughts.