One of the smartest pieces of advice I ever received was from a guy in recovery from drug abuse. He said, “Whenever I feel the need to use, or I feel lost, or I just have no idea what to do, I ask myself one question. What is the next right thing I can do? Then I go do that. And I do it again and again until things are OK.”
I sat there listening to him, in complete awe. Within his practice, all the stuff that happened before the moment you ask the question gets pushed to the side. It’s still there, of course, and you can go back and deal with it later when the conditions are right. All the worries and fears about the future certainly aren’t going anywhere either. They are our constant companions. But for right now, they can take a back seat as well.
A Tough Self-Assessment
Let me be clear. I’m still terrible at this. I have all sorts of to-do lists and files, both paper and digital, strewn all over the place. There are many days where everything gets away from me and I have no idea what I should be doing, or at the end of the day what I actually did.
We’re all to varying degrees like this. There’s too much to pack into any day, and it’s impossible to ever ‘catch up’, a nonsensical idea in and of itself. Our default mode is panic.
But with this man’s words, I realized one way to start getting out of the mess and into a better state of mind. All I really have to do is look at this present moment, and tell myself, Do the next right thing.
What a Next Right Thing Is and Isn’t
If we take two or three deep breaths, I think most of us can figure out what that might be. But please, please, please don’t overcomplicate this. Don’t stress over what the next right thing should be for you. That completely defeats the point. And please for the love of God notice that it doesn’t say, “What is the best possible next thing?” That is so not what we’re getting at.
Find a good enough next right thing. It can be really simple. Wash a bowl. Write a Facebook message of encouragement to a hurting friend. Recycle a few papers that piled up on your table. Shake your butt to an imaginary tune in your head. Hold space in your heart for a friend who needs it. The specifics don’t much matter. Just make it something simple and positive that creates some good energy in your world and the world around you.
You don’t get any awards here for creative next right things or 50-step project things. So stop that mess. This is not a contest. This is not a chance to feed your ego. Feeding your ego definitely is not the next right thing ever. You aren’t graded. No one will hand you an award. None of that is the point. So, again, stop.
The point is to pick one simple, good, next thing, and then do it.
If you do something good and you still feel pretty dumpy, look for another next right thing. Then go do that. You may not feel like doing, just being. Sitting down and breathing calmly and deeply is often a really good next right thing. Finding a nice tree outside and just staring at it – also great. Connecting with beauty with one or more of our senses puts us in touch with something absolutely fundamental.
Just please, for the love of whatever deity or higher power you believe in, don’t overthink this. It’s not supposed to be work or a chore. It’s a practice, a redirection. It’s a drop of salve you can put on the places where you used to do something destructive instead.
Why Do This?
When you’re in pain, maybe you drink, use, smoke, eat enormous amounts of junk food, or some other destructive thing. Maybe you beat yourself up with those repetitive voice loops in your head that say you’re a loser, that you’re doing it wrong and you’re a total failure. Maybe you just stare into space in agony because you feel like you are coming undone. These are all common reactions to dulling and dealing with our pain. We’re human; we’re not real big on feeling pain.
Doing the next right thing is a way to break that cycle, of stopping yourself from falling down the rabbit hole where pain is like a spiraling vortex. It’s not about doing everything perfectly from here on. No one can do that. It’s about taking the step you can take in this moment and nothing more. And even that step doesn’t need to be perfect or even that great. Just make a good attempt at a right thing. No pressure to look beyond that.
Be Kind to Yourself
Most likely you’ll slip into old habits at least sometimes, and perhaps quite often at first. This is OK. You’re human. Remember, this isn’t a contest. You aren’t being graded. Return to the present moment as best you can without self-judgment and ask yourself what the next right thing you can do is. Keep practicing. Don’t quit. Eventually it will take root.
Above all, be kind and gentle with yourself, which is in itself a next right thing. You aren’t competing for Valedictorian of the World here. You are simply trying to be present and do a little good thing now. That’s all. I promise it will add up and that it will make a difference in how you experience your life.