The Next Thing

AKA how I’m determined never to let myself enjoy anything ever, but how I’m trying to overcome it

Sometimes, when I’m trying to do any kind of task, I become overwhelmed by The Next Thing.

I’m writing about this behaviour because I’ve wanted to do so for a while, in the hopes of achieving a certain transparent catharsis. Describing my own behaviour helps me understand it, change it if I need to, and sparks conversations which I find helpful.

Anyway, The Next Thing usually manifests as a general inability to enjoy anything while it’s happening, and sometimes not even in retrospect.

I’m doing a task. Inside my head, that task spins off into myriad related others, which I then worry about before I need to. It’s a kind of speculative task-creation exercise that is often unhelpful and exhausting.

For example, I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, as I mentioned. I enjoy writing. But as soon as I begin doing so, I begin also worrying about:

  • I should probably write more. What blog post should I write next? I really should write down some thoughts.
  • How will people react to this post?
  • How will I deal with that reaction? Should I write a follow-up?
  • People probably won’t like it. In what way? How can I get ahead of that? And what about those who do like it— how can I best respond to them?
  • Should I be writing about a mental-health-related issue? I should probably write something technical next.
  • More immediately, I need to start dinner soon.
  • ….fuck it.

It might sound like procrastination, but it isn’t. It doesn’t feel the same. This isn’t so much about doing something, but doing more, about getting ahead before I’ve even begun.

I do get things done; it just means that I:

  • struggle through the process, and/or
  • become unnecessarily stressed by it, and/or
  • can’t enjoy that process or the outcome itself

In the case of writing, it makes the process more difficult than it needs to be, and makes me overly critical of the end result. Building this mental task list makes me hyper-aware of making sure I have time for All The Things, before I even know what All The Things are, or even if I need to make time for them.

Similarly, getting my wife’s Canadian visa was a tedious, bureaucratic multi-step process. However, I couldn’t enjoy the success of any of the steps on their own (and I should have, given how difficult it was) without worrying about the rest, both part of the visa process and otherwise. Even if we got that visa, what about the thing after that? What about arranging travel? Moving expenses? Moving our house? What about other documentation — drivers’ licenses, identification? What needs to come first? What about banks — what do the banks need?

And another example, since visa processes are perhaps meant to be complicated and stressful: If I finish a particular hike or climb or run or lift a new PB deadlift, I can only think about the next goal, not the one I’ve just accomplished. “That’s great, but you’ve done that now — what about the next thing that you haven’t done yet?”

I don’t see it as having done something; I see it as failing to do The Next Thing right yet.

In some cases, The Current Thing intertwines with The Next Thing(s): “After I finish A, I’m going to have to do X, Y, and then Z. Do I have time for them? How do I better prepare for them? If I need to do Y and Z, they might affects A, but how? I should look at that now, because A maybe isn’t worth doing…”

Even for something that should be stand-alone like cooking a meal: even if I make something delicious, I start thinking about the next time I make that thing — can it be better? Can I do anything differently? Should I try again next week? If so, when? Often, this means that I:

  • have trouble enjoying what I’m doing and recognising its intrinsic value
  • overcomplicating things(sorry to literally everyone in my life)
  • once finished, no matter how well The Current Thing has gone, I have trouble enjoying it
  • if there isn’t a Next Thing, I create one

It’s can be exhausting and overwhelming, but oddly enough, I’ve become used to it and can usually identify it when it’s happening. My wife’s helped me a lot with that. I’m trying to be better at:

  1. Realising that I’m worrying about The Next Thing.
  2. Taking a deep breath.
  3. Refocusing on The Current Thing, and reminding myself of what its value is.
  4. Trying to continue.

I’m learning to externalise. To step outside of my own brain and tell my wife or someone else that I’m worrying to the point of being counterproductive. I stop. I take a deep breath and a break. I try to look objectively at what I’m doing or what I’ve done so far, and see the value in having performed it — hell, even if the meal was a bad one, the act of making it has taught me something that (ideally) won’t be repeated.

Or if it is something visa-esque and comprised of multiple parts, I remember that the division of that task into multiple parts is a good thing. It makes a big task more manageable, and each piece has its own value.

That’s key to me not worrying about The Next Thing, or spinning off multitudes of them and building endless to-dos in my head. This is because the biggest problem with The Next Thing is that if I see the completed whole as the only thing that has value, I ensure my own dissatisfaction, because there will always be more Next Things. If there objectively isn’t, I’ll make one.

So I’m learning to enjoy the standalone, the pieces, the fragments — and what they teach me. For me, this learning manifests as taking a deep breath and a step back, reaching out to other people, and generally being simultaneously kinder and harsher with myself.

Slowly but surely, I’m working on worrying less about The Next Thing, and recognising the value of The Current Thing. It makes both my present and the future better.