How Do You Know You’ve Chosen a Good Next Step?

Decision Making, Following Through, Thinking Tools

It’s a truism that you should break a complex or difficult project into small steps. The difficulty in applying that truism is in figuring out which of many possible steps to take next. You need to choose a good next step, quickly and effectively, without falling into analysis paralysis or perfectionism.

Let’s take a trivial example: I need to pack my suitcase and load my car after I finish writing this. There are a thousand ways I could step through that process. Some of them are long and inefficient. One of them is optimally efficient. Most are somewhere in between.

It would be a waste of my time to work out the most efficient method. Indeed, figuring out the best possible method would probably take longer than the packing.

Some people would say, you should just take a step — it doesn’t matter which.

However, if you take any step, it is possible to work yourself into a frenzy while packing a suitcase. You run from the bedroom to the bathroom to the closet and back again. If you weren’t in a frenzy before you started, you are frenzied by the time you finish.

If you’ve ever packed by the whirling dervish method, it is imprinted on your brain, and you will feel resistance to doing it again. As you pick up a shoe, it will occur to you that you can’t pack that shoe properly until you have packed something else, say the garment bag. Before you know it, everything you pick up will have an objection associated with it, and you’ll be paralyzed for a moment, not knowing where to start.

I assume nobody on this list needs help with how to pack a suitcase. The solution is to plan just a bit, so that you create some order. Then you can be reasonably efficient with very little effort. My usual method is to lay out everything to be packed on the bed. Then I select items to pack from the array spread before me. You may have a different method that works for you.

But my point is, even a straightforward task such as packing a suitcase cannot be accomplished effectively by either the “just take a step” approach or the “plan the optimal way” approach. You benefit tremendously from having a simple packing system.

So what do you do when you are taking a step into the unknown? How do you figure out the steps to take when you don’t have a system, or wide enough experience to make one easily?

This is a big question, which I could literally deliver two days of training to answer. But there is also a short answer: have a robust decision-making process, that either leads you decisively to a decent choice of next step, or immediately raises a red flag if there an urgent need to think a little more about the decision.

I’ve been sharing aspects of my decision-making process in recent posts. I believe you start where you are. You are an adult with decades of experience making choices. Most of your decisions are not a problem. Therefore, the first thing to do is to just try to make a decision about what step to take, off the top of your head.

If you can’t seem to make a decision, you need a thinking tactic to help you deal with the confusion or overload. But assuming you can make a tentative decision, then I recommend two more steps to vet it and make it stick.

First, give a reason for your next step which passes the “Laugh Test.” Click these links for my full discussion of these issues.

Second, ask yourself, would you be willing to take that step now?

Yes, instead of ordering yourself to take the step, ask yourself if you are willing to take it. One of three things will happen.

You may hear a “yes.” Even if the task is uncomfortable, you may be willing to do it. Wonderful: you have found a decent, doable next step. Take it. Accompanying that “yes” will be a small action impulse, that you can exploit to jump into action — if you start acting now.

You may hear a “no.” If so, it will be accompanied by a wave of resistance — and important new information to factor into your decision. You need to do a little more thinking.

Finally, you may hear a non sequitur, such as “I don’t feel like it” or “this might not be the best step.” Those answers are neither a yes nor a no.

In this case, I encourage you to push yourself to answer the question directly. Often, we do things we don’t feel like. You are not asking whether this next step is fun and wildly motivating — if it were, you’d already be taking it. You are not asking whether this is the perfect step. You know you don’t know.

You are asking whether or not you are willing to take this step.

It is crucial to get into action. When you take a step, you reinforce your values and you learn about the world and yourself. You don’t want transient feelings to get in the way of that. On the other hand, you do want to be alert to any indication that this step is going to create some significant problem for you.

Answering the question, “would I be willing to take this step?” is a great way to get a clear reading on whether you have in fact identified a good next step.

Now I face a new decision point. I could explain more or end here and get on with my packing. Would I be willing to leave it at this? Yes, I would. More another time.


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