What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do


“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

John F. Kennedy

Direction is everything in life. If you know where you’re going, you can dodge obstacles, plow through resistance, and do whatever it takes to get there. Not knowing what to do is bad to the same degree that knowing is good.

Before we talk about knowing what to do, let’s explore the consequences of not knowing what to do. One thing it seems to do in my experience is decrease motivation. I’m least motivated when I don’t have a specific target.

There is a segment of the Mini Habit Mastery course I’m working on that has no visual aid, and I don’t know what to put there. As a result, I find I am less motivated to work on the project as a whole. It’s much easier for me to follow a decision I’ve already made, such as reading a script. Which begs the question…

Is Motivation Strictly Tied To Difficulty? 

Eating ice cream and watching TV both provide nice rewards, which motivates us to do them. But they’re both also incredibly easy to do. 

Playing basketball, however, is something that I and many others are often motivated to do despite it being physically demanding and not easy. This is offset by the fun factor: when I play basketball, even if I’m tired and working hard, I don’t perceive it that way. I perceive it as pure fun. This is unlike the exercise bike, which feels like pure torture, especially when I reach the steep part in the “mountain” preset (level 25 resistance!).

Clearly, difficulty is relative for each person and each activity.

The difficulty to bike 5 miles on hills is much higher for me than for Dan, a professional cyclist. That difference in difficulty is not limited to physical effort. Mental effort plays an even bigger role; we know the mind gives in before the body.

A professional cyclist doesn’t just have better leg strength and endurance for cycling, his mind is habituated into cycling: his subconscious would have less resistance to the same amount of hard cycling exertion than mine, just because his mind very familiar with the process and has learned to associate pleasurable endorphins with the activity.

This is why I say habits are the ultimate personal development weapon. They are. They can make the most grueling, hard work seem like it’s no big deal.

Why Not Knowing What To Do Increases Difficulty To Nearly Impossible Levels

When you don’t know what to do, it can completely demotivate you. You can be extremely passionate about a project and still lose motivation just because you don’t know what to do. That’s because you can only be motivated (in the “take action” sense of the word) to do something specifically. If I scream “Let’s do this!” into your ear, you’re going to ask, “Do what?” And your brain will ask that too.

A person can’t be “motivated in general,” because that could mean anything. How motivated are you to jump into the ocean or juice an orange right now?

The truth is, not having a target action demotivates us until we find a new target.

If you don’t know what to do, it usually means your decision is hard. You can handle the decision, as we can handle any decision with effort, but the quick and easy answer is missing because it’s too complicated for a “fast-twitch answer.”

This is fascinating to me because when I look back on moments in my life, I’ve consistently avoided some of these difficult decisions. And it’s because I didn’t adjust. I would try to figure out the best decision immediately, then quit when I couldn’t, and try it again later. This is the worst thing about poor strategies: they don’t work AND they drain your energy. 

Think about that again because it’s a huge insight:

When you have a problem without an easy and instant answer, do you adjust to a problem-solving technique—like a pros/cons list, consulting with a friend, or brainstorming—or do you cycle through the “battery drain” process below?


Write It Down To Figure It Out

When faced with a decision that’s demotivating you, wearing you out, and making life difficult, you have one excellent option—get out a pen and paper. Start writing down the options and variables. Writing things down is the best way to take weight off your mind, analyze a lot of information, and solve problems. We know this intuitively. 

Advanced mathematics are difficult problems needing solving. That’s why they are done on paper and not in one’s head. Why should difficult life problems be any different? Life problems have more than one “correct” answer, you might say, but that only reinforces that need for pen and paper. A tough problem with nearly unlimited variables and multiple answers? You might need two sheets of paper.

This is effective for micro and macro instances: whether you can’t decide on a career, can’t decide your ideal work/life balance, or aren’t sure whether to use slides or images for your presentation.

My Real Life Example

For my Mini Habit Mastery visual content, here are my options:

  • Slides: this is the most likely option. I’ve used slides for about half of the course, but I’m open to more creative approaches.
  • Whiteboard animation: this could be used, but probably only for part of it for cost reasons and not fitting all of the content well.
  • A slideshow of sorts showing relevant images, charts, and visual aids. I used this in a previous section to good effect, but there are content-fitting concerns.

The logical thing to do seems to be to analyze the content and write a few notes about what sort of visual aid would work best for it, part by part. If the majority of it works best for slides, then I’ll likely use that as the “base” and add some “creative flares” to it.

It’s interesting to note: writing out my options hasn’t give me a clear answer yet. But it did give me a clear next action (which is what counts), and my motivation to take this new path is rising.

If you don’t have a gameplan, you’re going to lose, but if you have a gameplan like the one I just made, you’ll move forward and make adjustments as you go along. There’s a quote I like that says something like, “a problem corrected no longer exists.” Think about that if you’re fearful of choosing the wrong path. You can reroute!

Sometimes, You’ll Find The Problem Isn’t What You Thought

As I went down this new path, I found that one problem was hidden: uncertain audio content. The audio drives the visual content, so without an idea of the final audio, it’s almost impossible to decide on a visual (for some courses, it would be easy, but Mini Habit Mastery has about a dozen different and fun presentation styles to keep people from falling asleep). I was trying to decide the visual content before the audio was finalized. Doh.

I also found that the uncertainty in the audio produced fear of wasting time on a visual that didn’t work, which made me hesitate. Put simply, uncertainty triggered a perfectionistic response.

Even writing that simple list was astonishingly effective. It took the uncertainty out of my next move, which decreased my fear. This is one of many potential examples in which taking a productive action can change your emotion toward a situation.

When you don’t know what to do, write about it. Write down your thoughts, options, and ideas. There is no substitute that will be as effective as this. It’s a painfully simply suggestion, but that means that A) it will probably work and B) you have no excuse not to try it. Complicated solutions are inferior because they often carry “dead weight” steps that don’t help you. Simplify your thinking and processes. 

  1. I don’t know what to do.
  2. I’ll write about it: What’s the problem? What are possible solutions? What makes this solution better than that one?

When you write it down and work through it, you’ll be more confident in what you ultimately decide. 

The subscriber-only message on 7/8/14 expands upon this post! It explores the question of changing our emotions—is it more effective to use thoughts or actions? Join Deep Existence below to read the rest. 

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