What to do when you don’t know what to do? It sounds like a paradox.
You could be wondering what to do when you don’t know what to do with your life, what to do for a career, what to do in a relationship, or even what to do with yourself.
How can you make a decision when the only thing you know right now is that you don’t really know?
The good news is, there is plenty you can do to help.
Here are 20 steps to try when you don’t know what to do.
1) Focus on the positives, not the negatives
There’s being pragmatic and then there is just limiting yourself.
I’m not suggesting you make ill-informed or reckless decisions. Putting every cent you own on a horse race and hoping for the best is definitely not what I’m getting at here.
I’m saying it’s better to make choices motivated by the positives rather than held back by the negatives.
Get into the mindset of thinking more of what you stand to gain rather than what you stand to lose.
It’s tempting to look at the pitfalls when we make a choice. But in life, it’s always a good idea to keep your eyes focused on what you want, rather than what you worry could happen.
The doomsday attitude of focusing on the negatives has a habit of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Go after what you want rather than simply trying to avoid what you don’t want.
I know plenty of people who swear by meditation as a way to receive the answers they are searching for. There is scientific evidence that suggests they are right.
One study found that a 15-minute focused-breathing meditation may help people make smarter choices.
Whilst meditating once is unlikely to give you all the answers to life in a flash, it can help to calm your rushing mind, and bring you a step closer to clarity.
Research from UCLA has shown that meditation strengthens the brain and improves your ability to think clearly.
There are lots of scientifically proven benefits to meditation.
Cultivating a regular practice has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, enhance your self-awareness, improve sleep, and improve your emotional wellbeing.
All of which is going to really help when you feel like you don’t know what to do.
3) Ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen
To all the natural worriers out there (big shout out to my fellow anxious types), whenever I’m nervous, apprehensive, or downright terrified about something, I play a game called ‘What’s the worst that could happen.’
Bear with me as I know this initially may sound like the worst idea in the world. But the thing is that when stress kicks in our imagination runs away from us.
Our imagination is a powerful thing and used against us it can create lots of fearful scenarios that only exist in the mind. When you face these fearful thoughts you can see them for what they are —a mental construct.
Ask yourself ‘What is the worst that will happen if I do X, Y, Z?’. Then ask yourself, ‘And then what?’.
Eventually, you will land at a realistic “worst-case scenario”. I’m guessing what you will find is that you would still be able to deal with it.
That’s not saying you want to deal with it. But when we face fear, look it in the eye, and realize there would most likely be a solution, even if the worst happened, then things don’t seem as bad.
4) Know that doing nothing becomes the choice you’re taking
You may have heard the expression ‘When you don’t know what to do, do nothing’.
For a short time, this can be good advice, but it has limits.
When you wait too long, doing nothing becomes a decision in itself. At some point, it’s better to let go and take action.
Any action can be better than no action at all. Let’s say you are stuck in a dead-end job that makes you miserable.
The problem is you don’t have a clue what you want to do instead. So you do nothing. But by doing nothing, you’re not getting any closer to finding out what it is you truly want.
That’s when doing something, even if you’re still not sure, is better than doing nothing. That might mean applying for new jobs, having interviews, taking new courses and learning new skills, etc.
Taking action gives you feedback which will help you figure out what you feel and think.
Remember that even discovering what you don’t want still helps you get closer to what you do want.
5) Make a pro’s and con’s list
The pros-and-cons list has been a long-standing tool to help people make a decision.
Apparently, in 1772 Benjamin Franklin advised his friend and fellow scientist Joseph Priestley to “divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con.”
It’s a simple tool that can help you to get some emotional distance and see things in a logical way.
The catch is that not every decision can be made by analytical thinking, something we need to feel our way through. But laying every thing out in black and white can help you to feel more in control and create order in your mind.
6) Go with your gut
Intuition is an often overlooked tool when it comes to decision making, but it shouldn’t be discounted.
That gut feeling isn’t a vague guess it comes from years of collected experiences and unconscious information stored in your brain.
There’s scientific evidence that people can use their intuition to make better choices.
In fact, one study found that when it came to simple decisions, better choices are made from consciously thinking about the problem. But for a more complex choice, people actually did better by not thinking about it.
You should always listen to your initial instincts about a decision.
7) Do some self reflection through journaling
Writing down your thoughts and feelings is a great tool to help you dig deeper when you’re stuck and don’t know what to do.
It’s like having a conversation with yourself, but rather than the words continuing to go round your head, you get them out and onto paper.
You might also want to ask yourself some meaningful questions to gain more insight.
Scientific studies have shown plenty of practical benefits to journaling — including boosting mindfulness, memory, and communication skills.
8) Give yourself some time
Particularly when you are feeling a heightened sense of emotions, sleeping on it can be great advice when you don’t know what to do.
Important decisions shouldn’t be made when you’re feeling off-balance.
Sometimes when we feel stuck, everything just swirls around in our head.
Deciding to wait for a certain period of time can mean:
- We get more information that makes knowing what to do next clearer
- Something happens or changes so that the best solution presents itself.
- We allow ourselves to not think about it, which takes the pressure off and we suddenly feel a lot clearer about what to do.
The key to giving yourself time is to not make that an indefinite amount of time and avoid making any decision at all.
9) Know that it’s ok not to know
Social media would have you think that other people have their entire life figured out and you’re the only one left scratching your head.
Even though we know it’s not true, it’s easy to fall for the lie that everyone else is further along in life than us, living their best life, or has all the answers.
Is it okay not to know what to do? Yes. Because most of us will feel this way at some point or another.
Piling on extra worry, guilt, frustration, or panic about not knowing is only going to make you feel more stuck.
10) Take the first small step to find out
Overwhelm usually kicks in when we demand of ourselves that we have everything perfectly mapped out.
The reality is that you don’t need to do it all now, or know it all now, you just need to take one small step, then another, and then another.
Deciding whether you should immigrate doesn’t mean you should pack your bags straight away and jump on a plane. You can research the country, talk to other people who have done it, or go on a vacation there.
Whatever the decision is, look for the next small step that you can take which will help you get some of the answers you are looking for.
11) Use your imagination
Imagination is an incredible mind tool that we can use in our favor or against us.
Researchers have concluded that the imagination has the extraordinary capacity to shape reality, and can help us to reach our goals.
Play a game where you are just pretending what you want. When we inhabit the world of fantasy rather than reality it is easier to dream big, as the pressure is off.
Using your imagination can help get you closer to what it is you want, which you can then use to guide you towards what to do next.
Sometimes we do know exactly what it is that we want, we just think we can’t have it and so we talk ourselves out of it.
12) Get curious
Curiosity is another wonderful way to play with life, without feeling crippled by burden.
Rather than demanding answers from yourself, be inquisitive instead.
Play, explore, innocently try things out as an experiment, rather than the aim being to draw definitive or serious conclusions.
Being curious in life might mean following your desires and passions to see where they lead, asking yourself thought-provoking questions, or giving something a go (without any particular expectation.)
Research shows that being curious boosts achievement, helps us to stay vigilant, and gain knowledge in changing environments.
Studies have also found that curiosity is associated with higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of anxiety, more satisfaction with life, and greater psychological well-being.
Getting curious about a problem or situation can help you to find solutions you hadn’t even considered.
13) Make friends with fear
9 times out of 10 it is fear that keeps us stuck.
Fear takes many forms — overwhelm, procrastination, uncertainty, nervousness, helplessness, anger, dread, panic. Basically any time we feel threatened by something in life, fear appears.
It’s a natural biological response to want to avoid threats. We’re designed to keep ourselves as safe as possible and run from anything that might potentially harm us.
The problem is that fear can be crippling, keep us stuck, and cut us off from taking all-important action.
Fear will always be with you throughout your life. There’s no getting away from it. But it doesn’t need to be in the driving seat, it can just be a passenger instead.
Trying to make friends with fear is about recognizing when it shows up and seeing beyond it rather than getting lost in it. Ask yourself if your decisions are being swayed or motivated by fear.
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “feel the fear and do it anyway”. The only way to “conquer” fear is to accept that it isn’t going anywhere and to act in spite of it.
14) Understand that all of life is a giant question mark
There is never any real way to know what will happen in life, which can be simultaneously scary as hell but also liberating.
You can make the best-laid plans and everything still ends up in the air. This might sound terrifying, and it kind of is. But isn’t it thrilling too?
The unpredictability of life is what makes it magical. The chance encounters, the opportunities you could never expect. These are what make life a roller coaster.
You can either shut your eyes and pray for it to stop, or you can raise your arms and get a kick out of the twists and turns along the way.
Either way, the ride isn’t stopping.
15) See where you are procrastinating
Sometimes we do know what to do, we just don’t do it.
We make excuses. We find reasons to avoid what feels uncomfortable. We find 1001 other things that we “must” do first.
Deep down we know they’re probably not important, but it makes us feel better for a while.
We hide within inconsequential tasks and little “to do’s” to convince ourselves that at least we’re doing something.
I’ll be honest, I’ve always found a little bit of procrastinating is good for my mental health.
For example, I like to have a clean and tidy space before sitting down to do a task. If I’m feeling overwhelmed it helps me to clean up. But it’s also important to know when you are hiding for the sake of hiding.
Get honest with yourself and discover where in life you procrastinate and where your excuses come from. Then ask yourself how important the things you procrastinate on really are.
Noticing where you procrastinate can help you prioritize and do the most important things first.
16) Focus on your values
You may not know what to do, but I’m willing to bet you do know what is important to you.
When you’re feeling lost and uncertain, it can help to return to the core of who you are and what makes you tick.
You know what you like and what you dislike. You know what drives you.
Your values are your compass in life, and they help to steer you towards what is best for you.
When you decide what is most important to you in life, you can then decide what to do.
17) Stop desperately trying to find your purpose
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that we all have different skills, talents, and abilities. Some we are born with and many more we develop over the years. I also think we are here to share those with one another and the world.
Few people may have a strong sense of one thing that they overwhelmingly want to commit to and work towards in life, like a calling or vocation. But the truth is that is not the case for the vast majority of us.
And for everybody who feels motivated and excited about discovering their purpose, there are far more left thinking “I don’t know what to do with my life and I’m scared.”
Whatsmore, the irony is this societal pressure about how to discover your purpose can be exactly what keeps you from finding meaning.
But what if you didn’t have one purpose, what if you have many?
What if purpose is a constantly unfolding and shifting path, rather than a destination you have to arrive at by a certain date?
Maybe there isn’t a strict timetable at all, and the pressure you feel is just a societal construct about how life “should” go.
What if your purpose in life is actually to fully experience? How would that change the way you approach or even appreciate life?
What if you are here to love, to cry, to try, to fail, to fall down, and to get back up again?
There isn’t one thing you are here to do, there is an entire rainbow of things.
You can’t “fail” at life, because you are not here to “win”, you are here to experience.
18) Serve others
We get so wrapped up in our own heads that thinking of others is actually a great technique to help us shift our focus.
Volunteer, offer your skills to someone who would benefit, help a friend who needs it.
Scientific research even suggests that the secret to happiness is helping others.
The good thing about directing attention to somebody or something else is that it helps to stop you overthinking.
19) Talk to someone you trust or someone impartial
A problem shared is a problem halved and talking about what’s going on in our head has great value. It can help us to release emotions and thoughts that we’ve kept bottled up.
This release alone is often enough to make things clearer for us. But it’s always smart to be cautious too.
Before deciding to go to someone else, think about whether you want their opinion, or if you just want them to listen.
You might even decide to talk to an expert (like a therapist or coach) as these types of people are trained to ask reflective questions that help you to figure things out, without directly giving you an answer or opinion.
Whilst it can be useful to get the opinion of someone else who you trust, for a fresh perspective, it can also add to your confusion too.
At the end of the day it’s your life. You need to do what feels right for you, and not based solely on what someone else thinks.
Before you talk to someone ask yourself:
- Do I respect and value this person’s opinion?
- Do I want this person’s opinion or am I looking for a sounding board? (If you just want them to listen and ask questions, then tell them that first.)
20) Know that there are no “wrong’ choices, only potential different paths
When making what seems like a big decision, it can feel incredibly important that we make “the right” choice.
But all experiences are valid. Even the ones that didn’t feel so good at the time.
It really is true that every step you’ve taken up until now has made you who you are. Each has been valuable in its own way.
Even when the sh*t hits the fan, those can be the times that end up making us. From the worst things that happen in life, sometimes the best opportunities will follow.
Understand that ultimately, whatever decision you make is just one potential route in life.
Whichever route you take (even if you need to correct your course later on) there are infinite potential routes that can lead to the same destination.