Something magic happens countless times every day. Yet blink and you’ll miss it. It’s a fleeting moment sandwiched between shifts in your attention, when you finish one thing and move onto another.
We pause, briefly, and pose ourselves a very deep, existential question: what next?
If we gave this question the reverence it deserves, it’d sound something more like “right, meatbag you survived this far, but how will you leave a dent on this spinning rock hurtling through space?”
Yet all-too-often we barely give ‘what next’ the thoughtful answer it deserves. Instead, we buy into the ready-made succession of to-dos in-waiting. Emails, favours, expectations, obligations and commitments – menial day-to-day crap.
An existential question deserves an existential answer
Let’s be honest, it’s easier to do someone else’s bidding or mindlessly disengage, than it is to ponder the deeper reasons behind what the hell you’re doing from one moment to the next. Some find it easier to blame everyone else. Some play victim – “I have no choice” or words to that effect. For others, it’s plain exhausting, scary even, to think hard about the whats and whys of life and career.
Meanwhile, what we’d really like to do next drifts unanchored and uncaptained, further beyond the horizon.
As a coach, it’s my job to help my clients be honest and clear; not just with themselves, but with the people around them, so they focus on what really matters. My self-appointed mission is to demolish humanity’s tendency to say one thing yet do another. To challenge those stories and superficial bullshit excuses we feed ourselves, for not moving towards where we want to end up.
And the ‘what next’ question, reframed in the way I describe above helps my kind of people do exactly that. It unearths useful discoveries about what really holds us back and how we might break through.
I’ve pulled together five of the most common revelations thrown up by the existential ‘what next’ question, in the hope that they’ll help you if you’re a little lost, stuck or muddled with competing priorities.
What next is to decide what’s next
When I hear this:
“I’ve got this thing I need to create/do/write/sell/talk about…. But everytime I sit down I just can’t get my teeth into it. I end up staring into space or side-tracked by the fridge.”
Meanwhile they desperately flagellate themselves with a whip called progress. They teeter on the precipice of a chasm full of toxic uncertainty, prompting yet more frustration and paralysis.
This happens when what next is too ambiguous. It’s not really a definitive action. It’s just a state you’re aiming for, like ‘find work’ or ‘work out who I serve’.
In this case, may I humbly suggest that what’s next involves first stepping back to decide what the next step actually is. Perhaps you’ve got ahead of yourself.
It might involve weighing up your options first, then making a decision about what your ‘what nexts’ are (oreven why you’re bothering). You might have heard this called planning. Preceding that, humans sometimes like to go away and research what needs planning in the first place.
Behold the power of what next to reveal you don’t have enough information yet. You’ve missed a step in your eagerness to get things done. Poor human. Take a step back, evaluate, decide, then pick up where you left off.
What next is to say no
We have a finite amount of time and attention – that’s a given. Sorry, but you can’t do everything. At least not right now.
Like that bloke who ran Apple famously said, to say yes to one thing, is to say no to another.
No isn’t a popular word though. No upsets people, ruffles feathers. It’s negative and negative means failure, confrontation, letting people down, letting go – or whatever other emotional hang-ups you’ve been lucky enough to assimilate on your passage into adulthood.
So in this instance, what next is an investigation into what you can let slide or get rid of altogether.
Think now – what other commitments and obligations (to yourself or others) could you get rid of that would free up some mental airspace? What, if you were totally honest with yourself, don’t you really enjoy anymore but do habitually anyway because it’s easier than facing up to the prospect of a painful goodbye?
I used to love the idea of being an allotmenteer. I had rosy visions of meeting like-minded hippies living the good life, exchanging organic produce and organising friendly community get-togethers. In reality, it’s a disparate group of people who’d rather keep their heads down, for fear of suffering the wrath of a well-intentioned albeit meddling, moaning committee. That, and endemic, casual racism.
Alas, the allotment has become a real burden. I love growing veg dearly but it’s simply not the priority it used to be. Coaching needs my full attention.
So maybe it’s time for you to say no and see what loosens up?
What next is what’s missing
Someone I coached had a book in mind – a vast collection of stories and insight on living a long and healthy life, informed by science and first-hand experience.
Yet progress – publication, eluded them.
When I asked the ‘what next’ question, the answer wasn’t immediately obvious. So we tap danced around it for a while, I listened, provoked, and a thread soon emerged. Cooperation and involvement underpinned everything they’d ever achieved in life. They believed in people power and crowd-sourcing their problem-solving.
My coaching radar began to flash. It’s that gap between principle and practice again that humans love so dearly…
Out of curiosity I asked ‘so when it comes to involvement and cooperation, how’s that looking with the book?’ The answer was zero. Everything lay tucked away in My Documents.
On occasions like this it pays to act professional and tactful. However, my face had other plans and an expression of WTF spread over it.
It got exactly the reaction it deserved. This would-be author immediately spotted what was missing: ‘I need to get other people involved, don’t I?’ And with that breakthrough in hand, new options lay ahead – writing mentors, an editor, collaborators.
This time, ‘what next’ forced us to trace a line from what we stand for, to how we act on the front-line of getting things done.
Are you living by your principles? What’s missing from your ‘why’ in your ‘what next’?
What’s next means slow down
Back when computers weren’t everywhere, they were monolithic beige blocks, connected to other beige blocks, like printers, by serial cables. To grossly oversimplify data transfer protocols, serial means one thing one-after-another, consecutively. You’d send something to the printer, then watch as your bits went streaming from screen to paper in full dot matrix glory, as if filing through the cable in a nice orderly line.
Then along came parallel data transfer and networks, increasing in complexity. The world of work, business and productivity followed suit, eager to play catch-up with computer technology. But our brains – they’re not so good at this game. Wetware barely operates even in serial, when it comes to getting things done.
Thanks to this technological precedent for growth, people dream in plural. They picture projects, opportunities, clients, premises, exhibitions, rewards, public speaking engagements. These are imagined as many things, all happening, all at once, in abundance and in increasing scale and rapidity.
I believe (with the right coach of course) you’ll get all this, eventually. But when you’re bogged down in the here and now, right at the beginning, it helps to think more serial.
Right now I’m dreaming of a full-roster of coaching clients and how I’ll go about creating all of them, all at once. But that’s a lot to deal with, isn’t it? I’m thinking plural when I need to be thinking in serial. Consecutively. One client, one door opening, one opportunity at a time, which leads to the next and so on.
Working in serial, you give individual things your full attention
Are you racing ahead when really you ought to be slowing down and focusing on what’s already right in front of you? A big picture is made of a thousand brushstrokes. Would it help to move slowly from one stroke to the next, instead of trying to get as many down as possible, all at once?
What next? Focus on the simplest, most immediate step you can take towards getting where you need to be. Warm yourself with your vision of the sunny upland(s), but what can you do, right now, to put one foot in front of the other and bring you a tiny bit closer to being there?
What next means step back
I once coached a talented tech-minded individual who loved keeping the peace between myriad commitments. They were on a crusade to right the wrongs of the world, defending their customers from fly-by-night charatans with a proclivity to promise more, deliver less.
So they kept taking on more and more commitments, saying yes to everyone. With just them alone in charge of spinning, countless plates began to lose momentum and smash. Projects got neglected. People were disappointed.
Unintentionally, they’d become everything they set out to destroy.
This was never a quality issue. It was never really about the systems they had in place either (though that might have helped).
This was about how you engage with the world. That’s what really needs attention
Have you ever thought that the way you set expectations (for you and others) could affect your chances of getting where you want to be? Are you really being honest about how best to spend your time, or are you all things to all people? Are you second-guessing what’s best for everyone else instead of yourself?
When I see people held back by situations like this, frustrated because they aren’t reaching their true potential, I also see someone killing their best hope at resolving the problem: creativity.
So, when you pose the ‘what next’ question, could it be finding space to learn new ways of coping and relating to the world? By that I mean stepping back from the workaday grind, to give yourself what you really need, before hopping back on this insane merry-go-round.
Five years ago I realised one ‘what next’ was practicing meditation. It’s a war of attrition in which acceptance is slowly winning. If I’m a little more present and forgiving, moods are more weatherable (sometimes favourable too), so creativity comes more readily to the rescue, giving new options, helping me trust my intuition about what’s next.
Will you give what next the attention it deserves?
As I’ve hopefully shown, ‘what’s next’ is more than scratching one bugger off the to-do list, before shifting mindlessly to another. That’s fine, of course, if you want to live like a machine, processing whatever’s thrown in the vicinity of your cheesebox.
Left to its own devices, the brain deals with what’s in front of it – old-fashioned problem-solving analogue computer that it is. Racing ahead automatically to what’s next, it clutches at whatever lies nearby in blind search of progress, productivity, efficiency – because by default, that’s what we’re told is important. Busy, apparently, is good.
Yet I think you’re different. You’re a capable human being with a big idea, someone who deserves to spend their time and talents wisely, with purpose and intent.
So here’s my challenge to you
Next time you stumble into that gap between tasks, pause before you leap. Consider what ‘what next’ is really asking of you. Should you slow down, step back? Is something missing? What can you say no to? How are you nurturing ways to cope?
Give yourself a breather and treat this existential question with the curious reverence it deserves.