when not knowing what to do makes you crazy

There’s a specific mental loop that I get stuck in at times and it goes like this:

I don’t know what to do →
I should know what to do →
I need to do something now
but I don’t know what it is!

Sound familiar?

I ran around this loop constantly when I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life, and then again after I’d started my business and was blanking on my next steps.

If I’m not careful, I find myself going in circles, getting wound up tighter and tighter, until I get to the point where even if there is a good decision to be made, there’s no way I’m going to know what it is.

Today I want to break down this loop into its components and explore some of its implicit assumptions, which will hopefully make it a little easier to deal with (and eventually get out of!).

There are three parts: the initial thought, the judging thought, and the urgent thought. 

Part 1: I don’t know what to do.

This thought is actually pretty neutral when taken by itself. It’s a statement of fact. I’m pretty sure there are times when you didn’t know what to do and it was no big deal.

Therefore, it’s not the thought itself that makes us anxious, it’s the judgments and assumptions we have about the thought. This leads us to the next part.

Part 2: I should know what to do.

This is what takes the first part and turns it into something to get stressed about.

These anxious feelings tell me that it’s a really good thought to question, like so:

  • Is it true? Should I know what to do?
  • Who says? 
  • How is this thought trying to serve me? (And isn’t that an interesting question!)

The reason I’m having the thought in the first place is that it’s trying to protect me, albeit in its own not-very-enlightened way.

Its purpose is to motivate me to look for new solutions and to supposedly keep me from giving up. If I don’t know what to do, the reasoning goes, I need to keep working until I do.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. I usually end up just getting paralyzed and feeling ashamed, frustrated, and anxious.

Part 3: I need to do something right now.

What we want to question here is that sense of urgency. It feels like the clock is ticking, like you’re wasting time. If you’re a millennial like me, maybe you grew up hearing about your potential and then at some point became terrified of wasting it.

There’s an implication that there’s a right way to be spending your time and if you’re spending it in the wrong way, you’re letting it slip away. Time is a precious thing in this loop and it feels very scarce.

Again, the “helpful” reason that thought is there is to keep me moving forward and keep me from giving up or settling.

Instead, I go straight into sympathetic shock, which is a fancy way of talking about the fight-or-flight response. I start running around, doing lots of different things but not really making much progress on any of them. Nothing really gets done, and if it does, I’m more apt to make mistakes and things tend to take longer.

What you want to do when you’re stuck in this part of the loop is to ask questions like these:

  • How urgent is this, really? 
  • Will someone die if I don’t act immediately?
  • Do I have to figure out the whole thing now, or just the next little piece of it?

Getting Out of the Loop

So, to recap, what we’ve done so far is 1) notice we’re in the loop and 2) start questioning the judgments and assumptions. Now, we’re going to do something about it.

1. Come up with some alternative thoughts.

What “better-feeling” thoughts can you offer your anxious, worried, harried brain?

  • I don’t know what to do yet, but I’ll figure it out.
  • I have plenty of time.
  • All I have to figure out is the next step.
  • I’d like to figure this out soon, but it’s not imperative that it happens right now.
  • I don’t know what to do this minute, and that’s okay.
  • I have lots of different options, even if I can’t see them right now.
  • Relaxing helps me to see my options.
  • I’m exploring my options.
  • I’m learning about my options.

2. Give yourself a 10-minute “worry break” and reconnect with your body.

When you’re in that fight-or-flight feeling, you’re completely dissociated from your body and your pre-frontal cortex (the part that makes decisions and regulates emotions) goes completely offline.

Meditate, do some stretches, or take a walk. Even just feeling your feet on the ground, paying attention to your breathing, and putting your hand on your heart or your abdomen can help.

I’ve written a whole blog post about some other things you can try. Just give yourself a brief vacation from having to deal with your stressful situation.

3. Next, feel into your body and let this question bubble up into your brain:

“What needs to happen next?”

Like literally, the very next thing you’re going to do. It might be to go get a glass of water or answer an e-mail.

But whatever it is, let it come into your consciousness without forcing. Just take that one next step, and then see what happens. Do you go back into your anxious loop, or does something else come up?

When you come from that quiet, calm place and ask what needs to happen next, you might be surprised at the answer.

If it’s too anxiety-provoking to trust yourself that way, treat it like an experiment. See if you can do that for an hour. Just see what happens when you let yourself trust the part of you that knows how to answer that question.

I know this isn’t easy.

The fact that you’re here and reading this means that you’re interested in changing your patterns. It happens a little bit at a time, so don’t get discouraged if this doesn’t come naturally at first.

I can tell you that if you stick with it, it becomes easier and easier to gently detach yourself from the doom spiral and trust that the answers will come.


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to my newsletter and get future articles delivered directly to your inbox – and if you need a next thing to do, you can check out my mini-workbook Be Your Own Career Detective: 4 Steps to Deducing a Career Path That’s Right for You.

Image credit: freeimages.com/William Ray

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