Planning is an important part of a productive life and a frequent topic of discussion on this podcast. This week, though, we’ll talk about another perspective on living a meaningfully productive life.
Planning matters, but sometimes you just have to do the next thing
It’s hard for me to fathom that I’ve reached episode 400 of this podcast. That’s 400 times I’ve sat down to plan, outline, record, and publish my thoughts about productivity and a meaningful life, or talked with other women who shared their experiences and insights with us. When I went into my closet on July 1, 2014, to record that first episode, I couldn’t have imagined I would still be doing this 400 times later.
The truth is that although I talk about the importance of planning and living intentionally, I didn’t have a plan for this podcast’s future when I launched it nearly 8 years ago.
Similarly, I haven’t had a long-term plan for my life. If I have a plan, it’s always just been this: Do the next thing.
I like to plan. I like certainty and knowing what to expect. But as hard as I’ve tried, I can’t live my life that way. In the short term, sure. I can plan a to-do list or a day or a weekend or a week. But long term, I can’t. Maybe I lack the imagination it takes to envision the possibilities or the discipline to stick with the plan I’ve developed.
“Do the next thing” works for a life. It also works on a very practical level when you have too many things to do and not enough time to do them, or when a crisis has thrown your life and heart into disarray.
Do the next thing
For those of us who value certainty and predictability, who want to have a plan and know what it is, this can be a hard approach to accept.
Here is a quote from a post on The Marginalian, a blog and weekly digest written by Maria Popova (Carl Jung on How to Live and the Origin of “Do the Next Right Thing”)
“We long to be given the next step and the route to the horizon, allaying our anxiety with the illusion of a destination somewhere beyond the vista of our present life.
But the hardest reality to bear is that death is the only horizon, with numberless ways to get there — none replicable, all uncertain in their route, all only certain to arrive. This is why there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives. And this is why each and every one of them, even the most seemingly actualized, trembles with a staggering degree of doubt and confusion. Uncertainty is the price of beauty, and integrity the only compass for the territory of uncertainty that constitutes the landmass of any given life.
And so the best we can do is walk step by next intuitively right step until one day, pausing to catch our breath, we turn around and gasp at a path. If we have been lucky enough, if we have been willing enough to face the uncertainty, it is our own singular path, unplotted by our anxious younger selves, untrodden by anyone else.”
A song from the Frozen 2 movie talks about this same thing:
~ Songwriters: Kristen Anderson-Lopez / Robert Lopez. The Next Right Thing lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company
Michael Sliwinski, developer of the excellent digital task manager Nozbe, has this to say about this song:
“Anna is right – our duty to ourselves and our community is always “to do the next right thing”
In the post on The Marginalian (Carl Jung on How to Live and the Origin of “Do the Next Right Thing”), Maria Popova says: “The concept [of do the next right thing] originated . . . in a … letter Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (July 26, 1875–June 6, 1961) wrote to an anonymous correspondent, included in Selected Letters of C.G. Jung, 1909–1961 (public library). On December 15, 1933, Jung responded to a woman who had asked his guidance on, quite simply, how to live…
Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one. If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what. Moreover, this way fits in with the average way of mankind in general. But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live. And then you know, too, that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what this is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate. “
One thing I noted in Jung’s letter is the idea that asking someone else how we should live, how we should manage our life, is maybe the wrong question. We can learn from others, be inspired by others, but in the end we each have to make our own way–determining for ourselves what we believe, what matters most to us, and then carving out a path step by step based on what is the “next right thing” that effectuates those guiding principles. Nietzche said many years ago:
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”
Walk . . . one step at a time. A Chinese proverb says: “The journey of a thousand miles starts begins a single step.” –and you can get anywhere you want to go one small step at a time.
In a blog post about an impulsive decision to run a half-marathon, author and speaker Jennifer Dukes Lee writes this:
“How do you chase after the impossible dream? You take the single first step. That’s how. It’s the starting that’s always the hardest. But you’ve just got to take the step … or you stop. You’ve got to move forward … or you flounder on dead-center. And if you don’t keep doing the next thing, you won’t give wings to your dreams.”
Even if you’ve messed up, no matter how far you’ve gone in the wrong direction, you can still turn it around by simply changing direction and taking one step at a time. In the Marginalian post, Popova quotes another letter Jung wrote to a man a couple of months later, in which he said, among other things: “Nobody can set right a mismanaged life with a few words. But there is no pit you cannot climb out of provided you make the right effort at the right place. . . .” As someone who has made many mistakes in her life, I find this comforting.
Writer and missionary Elisabeth Elliot has said:
“Do the next thing.” I don’t know any simpler formula for peace, for relief from stress and anxiety than that very practical, very down-to-earth word of wisdom. Do the next thing. That has gotten me through more agonies than anything else I could recommend.”
Whether we’re talking about a life, a day, a trip, or a project, planning is good, planning is valuable, especially when planning is done with intention and purpose, with awareness of what matters most to us as an individual. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have a plan. But I believe we should hold our plans loosely. Life happens, circumstances change, and even if we spend hours, days, weeks, planning, we can’t always plan for every contingency. And a pretty great life can result from keeping our guiding principles in mind and just doing the next thing.
What do you think?
What is a dream or a goal or even a task that you’re stalled on? Can you simply do the next thing? Post your suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me
Resources and Link
- Carl Jung on How to Live and the Origin of “Do the Next Right Thing” – The Marginalian
- “Do the Next Thing” (an anonymous poem)
- Stuck? Do the next thing – #TellHisStory – Jennifer Dukes Lee
- Do the Next Thing – Presently Engaged
- Do The Next Thing
- Elisabeth Elliot Quote: “Do the next thing.” I don’t know any simpler formula for peace, for relief from stress and anxiety than that very practi…”
- Do the Next Thing – JessicaLynette.com
- When in doubt, just do the next right thing! – by Michael Sliwinski
- Nietzsche on How to Find Yourself and the True Value of Education – The Marginalian
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Carole Richard says
Thank you for this wonderful episode. Focussing on doing the next step is just what I needed to hear today. Congradulations on Episode 400!
Hi, Carole. I’m grateful to hear you found this episode to be encouraging. And thanks for the congratulations! It’s surreal to think that we’re at (and past!) 400 episodes!