What to do when you have no idea what to do?

I really don’t remember too many times in my life when I’ve felt completely at a loss on what to do next. I’ve always been the woman with a plan.

Earlier this year, however, I found myself in that unusual position. I had absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do next and found myself in something of a crisis.

Whenever I tried to talk about this issue with my friends, they would say things like:

Trust yourself!

You know what you want to do.

You don’t need to have life all figured out… just go with the flow.

I in turn would respond with:

How do I do that?

No, I don’t… I really don’t

But I’m lost without a plan. Where do I even start?

At the time, I reluctantly listened to their words of wisdom. Yet the whole time I was thinking to myself:

Gee thanks… a lot of help this is…

I was not really understanding, nor appreciating what it was they were trying to tell me.

I just really wanted someone to give me a direction. Someone, anyone, to make my choices for me. I needed someone to show me the way. Yet nobody could.

I realise now, that there was an important thing I didn’t realise at the time though.

Sometimes what you want and what you need are two completely different things.

And that the information I was failing to understand, was actually treasure waiting to be revealed.

 

Trust yourself

Trusting myself was a concept I really struggled with.

In the state I was in – confused, emotionally out of sorts and unsure of what was to come – my mind liked to play tricks on me.

I kept thinking to myself:

My mind and body are completely out of control!

I’m in no condition to make decisions right now!

Any decision I make now will lead me down the wrong direction!

Interestingly, as I reflect on these thoughts weeks and months later I realise I was right. Not because I was actually was out of control or going crazy. Rather because I thought I was at the time.

  • I was out of control, because I felt out of control.
  • I wasn’t in a condition to make decisions, because I didn’t feel able to make decisions at that point
  • Any decisions I would have taken at the time, would likely have ended up taking me in the wrong direction. Mainly because I didn’t trust myself to make a good and balanced decision at all.

I had a million thoughts shooting through my brain. They were all telling me to do or not do certain things. 

Ironically, I realise now that by slowing down and listening to what was going on in my head. By observing and reacting accordingly to my emotions. By intentionally not making any drastic life decisions, because I didn’t feel ready. In the absence of action and the presence of awareness, I was in fact trusting myself.

Unconsciously, I was doing the very thing my friends (and the many self-help books I was devouring at the time) kept emphasising.

I was listening to my feelings of confusion, turmoil and weakness and accepting they were there. Instead of making quick and irrational decisions, I was listening to my intuition telling me I was not ready. Instead of acting impulsively, as I felt I should, I did the exact opposite. I took my time.

I eventually figured out that the “not knowing what to do” feelings running amok related to personal dissatisfaction. A dissatisfaction with both my professional and personal lives that I was previously not aligned with.

Once I realised this, I went to work examining why I was feeling so out of control. I tried to figure out what I could do about it and what options I had to change it.

I may not have felt comfortable making major life decisions at the time, but identifying options made me feel like I had a choice. It made me feel I had some control. And as I started regaining my mind I found myself repeatedly returning to a thought:

Boy… wouldn’t it be nice to take a nice long break from everything right about now…

Wait, what… what were my mind and body asking for? A break? A time out? A place to go to gather my thoughts?

Even the consideration made me feel slightly excited. Excited and smiley. Now there’s something I hadn’t experienced for a while!

You know what you want to do

So there I was feeling overwhelmed, stressed and getting sick again. I was frequently starting to think some time away could do me good too… but now what?

I had no vacation days left and my inquiries into unpaid leave and sabbatical options had hit a dead end. Remote working was a no go too as it was not within standard company practice.

I didn’t want to go on extended sick leave again as I’d already been out for 5 weeks this year. Another absence may have triggered alarm bells in places I really didn’t want them ringing. 

Thinking about sick leave in particular, I started tallying up my sick days over the last 4+ years with my company. Irritatingly, I found an unexpected trend of increasing sick leave every year. Something was not right.

Certainly, the last year had been unusually tough professionally. Two large scale company re-organisations had directly impacted my job and there was no end to my situation in sight yet.

Things in my personal life weren’t looking much better as I’d experienced my hardest heartbreak in 10 years shortly after too.

As I mentally tallied up my absences from the last 3 years though, I realised they had been increasing each year at my company though. Independent of these unusual circumstances.

That uncomfortable discovery left me with the realisation that maybe, just maybe, my body and mind were trying to tell me something.

Perhaps it wasn’t quite so off base to think a break was the correct next step. Maybe, even if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, I actually did subconsciously know what I needed

A break might not be a long term plan, but at the very least it was a starting point. It was an idea I could work with to make plans for immediate next steps.

 

You Don’t Need to Have Life All Figured Out – Just Go With the Flow

With the thought of a break playing on my mind, I started looking into the realities of such a move.

My previous research had shown that a break was unlikely to happen whilst I was still gainfully employed at my company. T

his was the first uncomfortable reality I had to wrap my head around. It meant there was a high probability that I would have to quit my job.

This got me questioning:

How much did I really want this break?

Was I willing to risk everything I had worked towards in the last 4 years?

Could I even afford it?

Would a break tank my career?

What would my family and friends say?

How would I feel about myself making this move?

As a new rush of questions started entering my head, I started the exercise of mentally and physically exploring each and every question.

 

Was I willing to risk everything I had worked towards in the last 4 years? 

The mind likes to play tricks on us sometimes. It really likes to expand situations to the point where obstacles seem a lot larger than they actually are.

I thought about this particular question in my head for a long time.

The reality was that I had worked my butt off for my company for the last 4+ years. I also did have good potential for a promotion in the upcoming year as I was recognised as top talent.

However, my current job situation (which I was not allowed to transfer out of) was simply ‘ok’ – and that was a fact too.

It was not ‘good’ or ‘great’, as it had been in the past. It was simply ‘ok’, meaning that I didn’t love nor hate my job and I also wasn’t struggling financially from it.

Taking into consideration future job prospects, I also didn’t know what those promising prospects would really look like. There certainly weren’t any open roles now that I was super excited about. I also hadn’t heard of anything immediately coming up that would rock my socks.

So when I thought about it, there wasn’t really anything tying me to the company. I loved the people and I got a decent pay cheque, but those weren’t things unobtainable elsewhere too.

With that in mind – was I really risking everything by leaving? Probably not.

 

Could I even afford a break?

This one wasn’t too hard to figure out, but it did require some mental negotiation with myself. I had been saving for a housing deposit for some years, so I did have money in the bank.

Realistically though, if I was going to be taking a career break, I would not be working for a while. That would likely mean burning through a good part of my savings. That dream of putting down a housing deposit – that would have to go.

These thoughts caused me to go down the whole short vs. long term gratification equation. My health was important, but so was having a roof over my head. 

Nevertheless, health won in this instance. After all, health is the one thing you can’t recover if you let it deteriorate too far. Money and possessions on the other hand were items which could likely be accumulated again. It was only a matter of time.

 

Would a break tank my career?

It’s all very well taking some time off work, but it’s still important to look at the bigger picture. If taking time off lands you in a significantly worse place than you started, this could easily result in many days and nights of tears and frustration.

That was my main thought when considering the career question. Especially, since I was planning to take a break without a fixed job opportunity lined up in a country with a notoriously high unemployment rate (~15.2% at the time of writing).

Not being one to be put off by a seemingly unfavourable situation, I started looking at what opportunities might be open to me instead of focusing on those to be shut down.

It seemed my chosen city of Barcelona had a job market comprised of a number of higher profile travel companies (Expedia Group, Tripadvisor, eDreams). That’s an industry I briefly experienced in the past – and enjoyed too!

International software and services companies not unlike my current company were also available, which was a plus (Amazon, Microsoft, T-Mobile).

Considering my international work experience, fluency in multiple languages and project management experience with remote teams globally, I felt I would have a good chance differentiating myself from the crowd.

I was also planning to network extensively and take an intensive Spanish course during my break, which would help. As an expat, being fluent in the local language is often a bonus.

In Barcelona particularly, it seemed Spanish and Catalan fluency would help create opportunities to at least get a foot in the door for interviews.

I also started thinking about a dream I’ve had for quite some time now. It’s a dream I’ve had for around 12 years in fact.

It’s a dream of working part-time whilst still having a career. And with remote working becoming more popular, it’s now an idea I could work towards realising.

You never know, if you don’t try – right? 

 

What would my family and friends say?

I have to say, I am very fortunate when it comes to the people around me. Over the years, I seem to have built a tribe around me that is exceedingly supportive towards everything I do.

So, it’s not surprising that when I mentioned I wanted to move to Spain to study Spanish for 6 months the unanimous response I got was:

Sounds like a great idea!

Followed by:

Just make sure you can get a job.

That was definitely an encouraging start.

Initially, I really struggled with finalising my thoughts around this decision. Especially when I started imagining the reactions of other people. When I started thinking about what would happen if I ‘failed’ at my endeavour.

I would imagine different worst case scenarios. Like not having a job at the end of my break and ending up broke and homeless on someone’s couch. Naturally I would be crying myself to sleep with my cat every night.

I would then imagine the pitying looks and strained smiles I would receive as people tried, and failed, to help me back on my feet again.

Thankfully, I am fully aware that the mind is very prone to worst case scenarios. I am also aware that these worst case scenarios rarely actually happen.

Realising that my mind was looking to protect me I would, therefore, try to block these thoughts. This would then allow me to go on my merry way planning my next steps.

 

How would I feel about myself making this move?

I think that this last question, was arguably the one that had most significance to me. I also think it very much relates back to the concept of trusting yourself.

At the beginning of this process of trying to figure out what to do, I felt exceedingly nervous about up and leaving an ‘ok’ situation for an unknown country, situation and outcome. 

I did know my core principles though. My belief to live my life to the very best of my ability at any given moment. The belief that I can and should make changes when I’m in situations I don’t like and not let fear get in the way. Especially when I’m convinced my actions can yield a positive result.

In this situation I thought to myself:

You’re not satisfied with your situation now. You don’t see that changing without making a change. So in the end… what are you waiting for?

Yes the future is unknown, yes a lot could happen, but sometimes you really need to appreciate the luxury of choice. I feel like it’s an important personal responsibility to make choices in life to better our situation.

I think better can be defined in many different ways and better takes time to build. Yet I also firmly believe that when you start working towards your ‘better’, you immediately start to feel more enriched and enlightened simply for having taken a small step towards it.

In my case, there are currently still many questions that remain unanswered.

Where am I going to live?

How will I earn money moving forward?

Will I like living in Spain?

Will my life indeed get better?

I think simply going through the process of trying to answer the first few questions that have popped into my head has been very therapeutic though. It has really helped me in the process of making a first decision.

Considering I started this process not trusting my decision making skills, that’s something to be proud of.

Obviously, I don’t yet know where my decisions will take me.  Yet by making a decision and taking action from it, I have taken a first step.

It that first step that helps move you from ‘I don’t know what to do’ to ‘What do I need to do to make X happen?’ and it’s a pretty important one.

Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that that is what my loved ones were trying to teach me before. To take the first step and trust in the process of change.

To not wait until every little detail is figured out and allow the details to be filled in as you walk down the new path.

I’ve learned that the most important thing to do when you have no idea what to do is to take a single decision. Take the decision to take the first step that will force you to move in a new direction – and then enjoy the ride!

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