The Next Thing - A Simple Approach to Action and Getting Things Done

Small steps by the water

Ever wake up not wanting to get out of bed? Before your day starts, you think of the million things on your to do list and the errands you have to run.

Sometimes you feel the weight of the entire world is on your shoulders. It feels much safer to stay in bed—wrapped in the warmth of the covers and the comfort of not having to do anything.

If we can live like we sleep, it would be total bliss.

But, alas, you can’t stay in bed long because you know you have to get up and do something.

What if I told you, getting up can be as simple and peaceful as going to sleep?

What if you didn’t have to think of the countless items on your list—or in your head?

What if you only had to worry about just one thing from where you are right now, warm and cozy in your bed?

The next thing: my early rising experience

If you think about it for a minute, the only thing you really need to do after you wake up, is to get out of bed.

And that’s exactly what I did.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been getting up at 6 AM. Prior to that, I was getting up whenever, usually between 9 and 11:30 AM (gasp!). I went to sleep around 3 AM. My sleep pattern was non-existent and that affected the quality of my waking hours. I was groggy most of the time and had to keep pumping my system with caffeine to get anything done.

I had a couple of failed attempts at early rising in the past. But I knew I wasn’t done trying. After reading on the subject and reflecting on my experiences, I had to convince my mind and body to cooperate. I can’t sleep at 3 and get up at 6 and be okay with that. And I can’t force myself to sleep earlier. It never worked.

I set the alarm for 5:55 AM. And when it went off, I turned it off and reminded myself, all I had to do was move out of bed. That’s it. I don’t have to do anything else—this is my only mission at this moment, and doing it means I’m a success.

And let me tell you, no matter how tired and sleepy I was, I got up. I’ve been doing this for more than 55 days now and I haven’t slept in since. Now it’s a habit thanks to just focusing on the next thing.

As you probably know, it’s not easy to start and build a new habit. You will face setbacks. Using this approach can be a great help because of its simplicity.

Doing the next thing works seamlessly with your daily routines. There were a few habits and practices I dropped in the past that I added again because of this approach. They include meditating, using the Neti pot and focused writing.

Doing the next thing is about breaking down action in to the smallest steps possible and just focusing on the very next thing—not jumping ahead to what you need to do in an hour or a day, a week or a month—just the next really tiny action step.

Why it works

From my experience so far, the main two reasons I believe this approach works are:

1. You go with the natural rhythm of life. Everything in nature happens in a sequence of the smallest of steps. This is how we learn, how we grow and how we heal.

2. Thinking of only the next thing breaks down your resistance. From now to the next simple thing, there is no room for your subconscious mind to talk you out of doing something or overwhelming you with details. It can handle the next small step.

Advantages of the next thing approach

When you are doing something now and the only thing lingering at the back of your mind is the next thing, you will transform your action and experiences. Think of the following:

1. You start, you do, you move forward. If you’re idle, you start doing the next thing. And if you’re doing something, you keep doing it knowing that you only have one other thing to do. Motion generates momentum, which in turn accelerates your progress.

This method is very effective when your motivation starts to wane and you don’t have enough self-discipline to keep going.

2. You enhance your focus and clarity. You can’t get distracted when you perform a short simple task and your mind is not bogged down with countless ideas and things to do—you focus on now knowing what’s next.

3. You become aware of what  you do and what works. Focus and clarity make you more aware of what’s in front of you and what’s soon to come. You can sense any struggle and revise your approach.

4. You get things done. A small action step now and the next one make it virtually impossible to not finish what you started.

5. You feel more relaxed and at ease. As mentioned above, your mind won’t resist a simple two-step approach (now and next). You don’t fret and overanalyze—you just do. And when your mind feels at ease, your body follows.

6. You become more flexible. You can change the next thing in an instant if you decide to move in a different direction or deal with an unexpected interruption.

General guidelines

As you see there are so many benefits to this approach. If you want to give it a shot, consider the following guidelines.

1. Break your action down to the smallest/simplest steps.

For tasks that need extended focus, you need a bit of dissection. If you still feel one step takes a long time to do, use a timer and set a time interval.

Let’s say you’re learning how to play the piano. Developing a new skill takes a lot of time and effort. Learning one page of sheet music can be one action step. But this may take you hours.

You can break it down by measure (learn one bar of a few notes) at a time. This would be simple enough. Or you can use a timer and just practice for 10 minutes. So if let’s say you’re having dinner and your next thing is piano practice, you’ll practice the piano for 10 minutes. And you’re done.

2. Deal with interruptions as part of your next thing method.

What happens if you’re interrupted with an emergency or an urgent request from your boss?

The emergency becomes your next thing. Visualize for a second what you need to do. If it’s something you can simplify, break it down to steps, and do the first step then the next.

Once you’re done, move to the next thing. And you’re back on track.

You may not do what you initially intended on doing, but you accomplished something. Now you can move on.

3. Keep your commitment to yourself.

Unless you’re dealing with an interruption, do what you said you‘d do. If you’re using a timer, stick to the time limit and don’t go over. You need to move to the next thing. If there is no next thing then you’re free to do whatever you want.

When using a timer, start with a short interval and move your way up as you become more comfortable performing a task. I recommend 5 to 45 minutes max. Don’t get overly ambitious, you’ll get tired and your mind will start to wander.

4. Do things slowly and deliberately.

You don’t need to rush when you’re doing anything. The next thing is simple enough and will get done in no time—you can focus on what you’re doing now.

5. Mix things up.

Try to vary the next thing from day to day for repetitive routine tasks. Shuffle things around and consider doing things differently.

For example, if you brush your teeth and then floss, do the reverse. Floss then brush. If you use the right hand, use the left hand to brush your teeth.

Don’t vary your routine when starting a new habit. Instead, attach the new practice to a well-established routine step and stick to it until the new habit is ingrained as part of your routine.

6. Revise your approach whenever something doesn’t work.

Do what works for you and drop what doesn’t. Think of alternatives and don’t be afraid to try new things. Think of other ways to do the same thing. Sometimes it’s the how not the what that makes a difference.

7. Plan and visualize your steps.

Give yourself enough time to plan projects and break them down. Don’t ignore this step and drown in chaos. Imagine how you’ll do something, or describe it in writing. If your action is simple enough, you’ll have no problem visualizing it.

This approach may sound too simplistic to work, but trust me it does. Try it for yourself and see what happens. If you don’t get tangible results, at least you will have more peace—I guarantee it.

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