The Next Right Step

Uncertainty is our constant companion. We often find ourselves standing at the threshold of opportunity, or facing a problem, or struggling with something, and we are uncertain of the path that lies ahead. We want complete clarity, perfect information, and when we do not have it, we tell ourselves that we cannot yet make a decision. Other times, we are faced with a challenge, and we just do not see a way through the quagmire that confronts us. The good news is that we do not actually need to know the whole way through— sometimes, all we need to know is the next right step.

We often feel we need a complete map of the entire journey ahead before we can begin. Because we do not know exactly where we are going, or all the steps we need to complete between where we are and where we want to be, we freeze. Or put another way, we use a lack of complete clarity as a reason to do nothing. We tell ourselves a lie, “Since I don’t know how to fix this, I’m off the hook. There’s nothing for me to do.”

Many of the problems we face are complicated, and the route through is not clear. Instead of focusing on the entire journey, or every step that lies ahead, perhaps instead we should focus on on discerning the immediate next step– the tangible next thing we can take with conviction and purpose. We may not know what comes after that first step, but in a sense, it doesn’t matter. Step number two is often not clear until step number one has been taken. And we can’t skip to step two anyway— we have to take step one first.

This shift in perspective liberates us from indecision, empowering us to move forward. For example, let’s say we are in a relationship with our partner that is just not working. There are deep-seated disagreements, and every effort to try and work things out somehow makes it all worse. It might not be possible to see how such a twisted problem gets resolved, but it might be really clear that the first step is to get some perspective, or find a therapist to help. We may not know how to fix the relationship to know we need help fixing the relationship. The first step might be to get that help. The second step will start to become clear once we have taken the first. Literally the only step we can take is the next one, but we do not take it because we are not sure what step 14 might be. Maybe we should worry about that after (and only after!) taking steps 1-13.

Unlike decision paralysis, which often stems from the fear of making the wrong choice, taking the next right step is anchored in confidence and trust. It is belief that the way forward will appear, even if we do not yet see it. We can embrace uncertainty and at the same time step forward confidently. We trust in ourselves and the future, trust that the way forward will reveal itself once we are underway.

The focus on the next right step can also help us cultivate a sense of momentum and progress. Taking one step is an action, and that first action will often help us take another action, and then another. This process, repeated over and over, can lead to significant change. By focusing on what is immediately within our control, we create a ripple effect that helps us to move forward.

This framework can be helpful as well when we are facing situations that feel ethically or morally fraught. When every path forward seems to be filled with pitfalls, we can hesitate and be ruled by indecision. But sometimes, the view from the path looks different than the view from the starting place. Options to navigate around problems may reveal themselves to us, but only once we reach them.

Another example that comes up a lot in the office relates to patients who are using drugs. The path from today has so many obstacles in it— medical, legal, social— and these obstacles are too overwhelming and numerous to contemplate. Fortunately, not all of them need to be solved at the beginning;all that is needed is to start on the path to recovery. Once walking this path, the next step becomes apparent, and then the next. Each one is fraught, and each one is challenging, but the way forward, when viewed from the day-to-day perspective, remains clear.

If we are walking around the block or across the country, literally the only step we can take is the one in front of us. Why not simplify, and focus on making that a good one? In fact, why not put most of our effort into making that a good one? It is uncommon that a series of good decisions has the cumulative effect of leading us to a bad place. There’s a saying that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I’d add a slightly different twist, “A journey of a million steps is just taking the next step, repeated one million times.”

This idea of the only step we can take is the next one is closely related to the to ideas of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of, and fully living in, the present moment. Part of the beauty of mindfulness is its simply truth—we live our entire life in the present— and we can’t go forward and we cannot go back. The idea of just focusing on the next right step is born from this observation— the next step is literally the only one we can take.

Not knowing what lies ahead is an inherent part of the human condition. We are constantly confronted with difficult, challenging, or seemingly impossible situations for which we have trouble imaging a solution. The practice of focusing on the next step is an antidote to feeling overwhelmed and frozen. It is a practice that allows us to let go of all of the overwhelming the possibilities that lie ahead, and instead direct our attention to what lies directly in front of us.


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