When You’re Not Sure What to Do… Do the Next Thing
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been busy. Overwhelmingly busy. There was, and still continues to be, so much that demands my attention that I often feel overwhelmed by the simple task of choosing what to do next.
Ironically, this is a sentiment that many of my clients often express. When faced with the challenges of making a career transition, managing and coordinating the lives of the people under their supervision, or simply trying to determine how to make life work better, they tell me “I just don’t know what to do and when to do it.” Truthfully, I think I could answer with and honest, “Yeah, I know what you mean” most of the time. But is there some simple, fundamental truth that can make life and work easier?
If you’re a student of the Myers-Briggs or any other personality test then you come to learn that certain people are more gifted to get things done. People with Sensing and Judging preferences on that test are the doers of our world. They line up tasks and then knock them down. My favorite joke with my wife, an ESFJ on the M-B, is that God will call her on the day He wants a break from running the universe. She hates that joke, but I still see the truth of her incredible ability to get things accomplished and wish (not so secretly) that I had more of that ability. But what about the rest of us?
I recently reread some of the words of author Elisabeth Elliot. Elliot was a prolific writer and radio personality who focused primarily on the challenges of daily living. She was also a Jesus Follower, for those of you who care about such things, but it was her pragmatic approach to her faith and life that’s helpful here. She also didn’t varnish the truth and, being somewhat like that myself, I find that very appealing.
In one a transcript from one of her radio programs she explained the rationale behind one of her best known quotes: “Do the Next Thing.” She said,
“When I went back to my jungle station after the death of my first husband, Jim Elliot, I was faced with many confusions and uncertainties. I had a good many new roles, besides that of being a single parent and a widow. I was alone on a jungle station that Jim and I had manned together. I had to learn to do all kinds of things, which I was not trained or prepared in any way to do. It was a great help to me simply to do the next thing.
Have you had the experience of feeling as if you’ve got far too many burdens to bear, far too many people to take care of, far too many things on your list to do? You just can’t possibly do it, and you get in a panic and you just want to sit down and collapse in a pile and feel sorry for yourself.
Well, I’ve felt that way a good many times in my life, and I go back over and over again to an old Saxon legend, which I’m told is carved in an old English parson somewhere by the sea. I don’t know where this is. But this is a poem which was written about that legend. The legend is “Do the next thing.” And it’s spelled in what I suppose is Saxon spelling. “D-O-E” for “do,” “the,” and then next, “N-E-X-T.” “Thing”-“T-H-Y-N-G-E.”
The poem says, “Do it immediately, do it with prayer, do it reliantly, casting all care. Do it with reverence, tracing His hand who placed it before thee with earnest command. Stayed on omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing, leave all resultings, do the next thing.” That is a wonderfully saving truth. Just do the next thing.
She goes on to tell about applying this in her missionary work, and then asks the listener:
What is the next thing for you to do? Small duties, perhaps? Jobs that nobody will notice as long as you do them? A dirty job that you would get out of if you could have your own preferences? Are you asked to take some great responsibility, which you really don’t feel qualified to do? You don’t have to do the whole thing right this minute, do you? I can tell you one thing that you do have to do right this minute. It’s the one thing that is required of all of us every minute of every day. Trust in the living God.”
Please understand that I’m not trying to promote Elisabeth Elliott’s belief system here but, rather, to promote the core idea she encapsulates so eloquently. When you and I are overwhelmed by the enormity of tasks we face OR are emotionally overwrought by the possibilities (both Negative and Positive) of our future, it’s often best to simplify our focus to those small things that we can do right now. Life is usually easier to address by asking, “What is within my control to do and what is not within my control?”
I’m a fan of movies. Actually, I’m usually a fan of ideas and dialogue I can steal from movies. One of my favorites is by Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean – “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do.” Psychologists will tell you that this is about Locus of Control: whether a person sees herself or himself as being a pawn of forces outside themselves or they see themselves as being the masters of their own lives.
I hold to a (hopefully) healthier medium – that life is chaotic and unpredictable because we live in a screwed up world, but I’ve been given free will and the power of choice, so I can have the power to exercise control over some things. I choose to do those things that are within my power to do and not worry about those things that aren’t within my control. (It also helps that I share Mrs. Elliott’s belief that my life is in the hands of someone who loves me and is strong enough to take care of me.)
Do the Next Thing has power to free us from worrying about those things that are outside of our control and focus our energies on those things that we can actually accomplish. We have been given great imaginations for the ecstatic and horrific things that may come to be but we’re also finite beings with limited abilities to know what may or may not actually happen. Most of the time our healthiest approach is to tend to the immediate needs we see clearly before us, rather than to twist in torturous anticipation of “What May Be”.
So, the next time you find yourself paralyzed by the anxiety of choosing “the best step” or trying to figure out how to accomplish that enormous task, simplify your life and Do the Next Thing. And if you can’t figure out what that Next Thing is, click on the Contact Dr. Jim button on my website pages.
For more about Elisabeth Elliot, I suggest you go to http://www.elisabethelliot.org/.