When we’re overwhelmed by a difficult conversation, one reason can be that we’re too focused on the horizon and not focused enough on the very next step. A very helpful mindset in moments like this is to “do the next right thing.”
The hill I dreaded most was coming up. I could hear the Taiko drummers positioned at the bottom to motivate tired marathoners up the hill. I grimaced in anticipation, steeling myself for the challenge ahead.
This was years ago, during my first marathon. The hill was on Battery Street in Burlington, Vermont, and among the marathoners, it was known as the “Assault on Battery.” It came in the second half of the race, when runners were beginning to tire.
I passed the Taiko drummers and started up the hill. I did not look up to the top. I kept my eyes trained on the pavement about five feet in front of me. One footfall, then another. A veteran marathoner had advised me,
On the hills, don’t worry about keeping the same pace as when you’re on the flat. Instead, try to keep the same effort.
Suddenly, I heard a whoop and my name being shouted enthusiastically. It was my husband, waving his arms as I passed him.
Wait a minute. As I passed him? He was supposed to be waiting for me in Battery Park, which is at the top of the hill.
I couldn’t believe it. I was at the top of the hill. I’d made it. It had been hard, but not nearly as awful as I’d anticipated.
Just the next singular step
Ultra-runner and Spartan Race champ Amelia Boone says that she never looks in the distance when she’s running a race. She focuses on just the very next step she’s taking. She doesn’t even wear a watch that’ll tell her how long or far she’s run, because she doesn’t want to know. “That’s the key in all these races, I’ve always found,” she says, “Just focus on the next singular step.”
All you have to do is just take the next step. Because when you start to look at the entire macro-picture, you get overwhelmed.
That’s good advice for difficult conversations and mediations, too. When we let our attention dwell on the destination we hope to reach, we not only risk overwhelm, we risk missing important gems right in front of us.
Do the next right thing
If we’re running, we benefit from focusing on the next footfall instead of what’s coming a mile from now. If we’re in a difficult conversation, we benefit from focusing on saying or doing just the next (seemingly) right thing.
The next right thing is our guess about what would be useful / helpful / constructive right now. Then trying it. Then seeing what the next right thing might be.
The next right thing is an experiment. It’s an experiment in staying in the present and in wondering what might be helpful right here, right now.
Sometimes, the next right thing we try will turn out to be a good choice. Sometimes, it’ll fall flat. If we keep our intention on trying to do the next right thing, and not worrying much beyond that, and not worrying about being perfect in every moment, even the stumbles will be ok — because we were aiming for something helpful.
The beauty of the next right thing doesn’t lie in perfection, it lies in the attempt. Instead of trying to keep the pace moving fast, we’re more interested in maintaining good effort.
Maybe the next right thing will be to say back what we heard them say, to make sure we understand and they know we were listening.
Maybe the next right thing will be silence as we think through our response before speaking.
Maybe the next right thing will be to ask a question that’s on our mind or wonder aloud about what’s happening in the conversation right now.
Maybe it’ll be to say, “I’m not sure what to say to that.”
And a minute from now, the next right thing will be different.