How to Know What to Do Next
I once wrote a post titled “Being able to ask ‘what’s next?’ is a sign you are happy in your work.” My point was that when you’re doing good work, you enjoy and appreciate it—and when you finish one thing, you’re ready to move forward to the next.
A few thoughts I’ve had since then:
1. It’s about more than just your work. This is true for all parts of life: when you’re enjoying something, you usually want more of it. (You don’t always want more of it right away, but that’s different.)
2. What if you don’t know what’s next? Ah, well, this is a challenge. And an important thing to figure out!
In another old post, I said that knowing what to do next is the ultimate superpower. (Well, after flying and being invisible, of course.) Many of us spend large parts of our days procrastinating, pondering, and flitting about in search of the answer.
It’s not just a one-off question, because once you complete a task, you need to face the question all over again. What comes next? What do I do now? The question is relentless in its recurrence!
I actually think “What should I do next?” is THE crucial, critical, all-important question! Just think about it: wouldn’t it be so cool if you always knew what to do next?
And in the end maybe it’s an impossible goal, at least in terms of having a 100% “what’s next” rating. It could be more like your Uber rating, where no matter how nice you are, no matter how much you avoid slamming the door or drinking a beverage in the car, someone is going to rate you less than 5 stars. So you’re always stuck on 4.9.
But I digress. A more salient point might be that sometimes, the creative process is best served by some amount of patience, down time, and flitting about.
Even if that’s true, the model still fits—it just means that in those times, the best answer to “what’s next?” is to be patient, have some down time, and flit about.
See? It’s ALWAYS better to know the answer.
So now we need to answer the hard question, i.e. “How can we know what to do next?”
PART II: How to Know What to Do
As much as possible, you should decide in advance. This is important so that when you start your workday (or when you reach any particular point in which decisions are involved), you’ve already done the hard work of lining up what comes next.
When you’re in the flow, you’re good at doing. You don’t want to sacrifice your limited doing energy by decisions about what to do.
So instead, you decide in advance. Every night, select three things you will do the next day. No more than three—and if it turns out that three is difficult, reduce it to two or even just one.
These tasks (a maximum of three) may or may not correspond to what’s on your calendar, what shows up in your inbox, and what else you have on any other lists.
You become relentless at saying no to requests and opportunities for your time that feel unaligned. This is hard at first, but once you see how freeing it can feel—as well as how minimal the consequences of saying no usually are—it gets easier.
Don’t be afraid to prune your calendar, block out large periods of time for creative work, set up an email autoresponder, or whatever you need to do. It’s worth it.
On a regular basis, you evaluate. You review. You ask yourself, “Self, are you satisfied? Are you doing the right things?”
(Over time, you and yourself get better at this type of interview. Also, ask: did today matter?)
Again, being able to ALWAYS know what to do next is a true superpower. If you possess it, you’re better than me!
For those of us mere mortals, I think the goal is to have the answer as much as possible, or at least more than we currently do.