A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.
Recently, I’ve felt stuck. This wasn’t paralyzed-by-self-doubt stuck or even exhausted stuck, though those happen to me too. This time, I felt stuck in a whirlwind with so many potential next steps to choose from. I was left overwhelmed and unsure where to begin.
Last year I invested a ton of time and energy on a proposal for a book that – it turns out – I don’t want to write. I’ve recently felt called to revisit the sample chapters I was excited about and begin reworking that content. With much of the material already drafted, I made a commitment to finish the book by the end of the month. This felt ambitious but doable.
But, a few days in, my preliminary momentum stalled out. At last count I had written, “Figure out next steps for book,” on no fewer than seven to do lists. Eventually I’d cross everything else off a list, and this book planning task would migrate fully intact to the next one.
Because my next step was to figure out all of the steps after that, I felt too paralyzed to take any action at all. A week and then two passed by with little progress on the book.
I finally sent my coach Rebecca Aced-Molina a message asking for support.
Focus on the process, not the destination.
Aced-Molina encouraged me to momentarily put the need to have it done out of my head and focus on the process. Basically, she reminded me that I like writing.
I had become consumed with checking an item off the damn list. This fed my instinct toward perfectionism – the temptation to wait for everything to be juuust right and to be fully certain about all of my next steps before taking any of them.
Aced-Molina made the excellent observation that I’m not writing a book for the glory of checking things off of my to do list. I’m writing for the joy of creating, for the hope that it helps people negotiate their careers with greater confidence and success.
Just take one next step.
Aced-Molina’s other key piece of advice centered on the question, “What’s one next step I can take?”
With characteristic levity and warmth, she shared her own experience, playfully telling me, “[Just taking that first step] takes me out of that sense of overwhelm. I might not finish. I might not get the stupid thing done, but I’ve at least started.”
She explained that once you start, the next step becomes clearer. It evoked Glennon Doyle’s mantra in her memoir Love Warrior: “All I have to do is the next right thing.”
Once I let go of creating a perfect action plan and reminded myself to enjoy the process, I realized my next step was clear: to ask a friend and fellow writer for help mapping out the project.
Ironically, as I pitched my friend on coaching me through an outlining process, I realized that I already knew what I needed to do in this phase. While I’d still want help later on with editing, my next nine steps were suddenly clear.
After we got off the phone, everything started flowing again. I felt energized and excited as I remembered why I like writing – it feels like a puzzle, assembling all the different ideas and seeing how they fit.
At this point, it’s unlikely that I’ll meet my self-created deadline.
Now the work becomes reminding myself that that’s ok. As my friend Robert Clark says about planning, “We don't know what the winds are gonna be like on the seas three days from now. We’re just gonna have to deal with them when we get there.”
The winds altogether stopped blowing for a few weeks, but now they are gusty, and I’m thrilled to ride the momentum.
My focus these days is on imperfect action, on building an Imperfect Action Plan that I’ll adjust in real time as needed. If I expect my actions to be imperfect and just do something, it takes the pressure off of getting it just right. Rather than the self satisfaction of completing a task, this mindset allows me to be present with what I enjoy about the task at hand.