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The One Question You Need to Ask Yourself When Deciding What to Do

Thinking man

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~Mary Oliver

I’ve recently discovered that for fifty-odd years I’ve been asking myself the wrong questions. Uh-oh.

Maybe you are too.

The questions we ask ourselves habitually—even when the process is totally unconscious—guide our lives in a very profound way. For me, the two questions that dominated my thinking had very different, but equally pernicious results. They are: What am I supposed to be doing? And What do I feel like doing?

The first question is all about hitting the numbers. What looks good in the eyes of the world? What would others see as successful, laudable or, at the very least, sensible? What would your mother approve of?

This question was especially influential in my early life, but I’m still susceptible to a good dose of “compare and despair” angst.

We love to see how we stack up against everyone else, and that impulse never seems to go away. Instead of comparing grades, test scores, and college acceptances, it’s salaries, vacations and how our kids are doing.

There’s always some external standard we’re supposed to be hitting.

The “supposed to” agenda is dictated by the ego, or what I like to call the Social Self. It’s all about getting you to line up and conform to the standards society sets for measuring success and general acceptability. It’s not about what would make you feel happy or fulfilled or even reasonably satisfied. Often it makes you downright miserable.

I chose a career and two marriages based on that agenda, all of which are now defunct. The truth is, you’re not “supposed” to do anything. Truly. I know that’s hard to swallow. I have to remind myself of it daily, even hourly. There is no right answer. Life isn’t even a test! Who knew?

Let’s all take a moment to let that one sink in.

Unfortunately, once I finally figured out that I’m not supposed to do anything, I promptly fell into the next trap for a decade or two. As an antidote to the first question, I swung to the opposite extreme and decided that I would only do what I felt like doing.

The problem with What do I feel like doing? is that it keeps us stuck in our comfort zones. Honestly, I usually don’t feel like doing things that make me scared and uncomfortable. Or that require a long slog of work with no guarantee of reward at the end.

It’s hard for me to admit that this question is also wrong, because I’m a big fan of “following your bliss” and doing the things that make you feel good.

The real problem here is in the timeline. What do I feel like doing? focuses on your feelings in that very moment. Would I rather have a glass of wine and surf the web right now, or work on that thorny chapter in my book that doesn’t want to settle into shape? Hmmm.

Which brings me to the one question I’ve found that actually does pay to ask: What do I aspire to? This question still focuses on what you really want (not what society tells you to want), but it directs your attention out a little ways.

What do you want to do in the grand scheme of things, not just in this moment?

To aspire means “to direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving something.” Some synonyms are: desire, hope for, dream of, long for, yearn for, set one’s heart on. That sounds kind of delicious, doesn’t it?

Remember, we’re not talking about what would look good to others, but what would feel good to you, which is a tricky distinction for most of us. The key here is to focus on your body’s reactions.

Thinking about what you aspire to should feel exciting and inspiring. If you feel tense or anxious or stressed out, you’re probably back in ego territory, trying to figure out what you’re “supposed” to do. (Stop that.)

And don’t let the ego get its sticky hands on your aspirations, either. It’s easy to get sucked back into the idea that we need to achieve something specific—and within a certain timeframe, mind you!—in order to be happy.

Refuse to go there. Focus on the joy of engaging in a goal that’s meaningful to you, no matter how long it takes or what others might think of it. Take your time and relish the process; that’s what life is really about.

Asking What do I aspire to? keeps you homed in on your bliss, but defers the gratification just enough to get you off the couch and sitting in front of the computer, or schlepping to the gym, or picking up the phone.

Go for the glow, follow your bliss, by all means… just not in this very moment. Get used to projecting yourself a little bit forward, and then consulting your body to find out what would feel really good to it then.

It’s a great question to ask yourself at the start of every day, as a kind of intention-setting ritual. What do I aspire to in this day? How do I want to show up in the world?

Flash forward to the end of that day and imagine what would make you feel really great to have done. Do the same at the beginning of the month or a new year. Use it to set goals that really matter to you, not just to your mom or your 750 Facebook friends.

So, what do you aspire to (even if you don’t feel like it in this very moment)? Now go take a baby step or two toward it. I’ll be right there, just as soon as I finish watching this kitten video.

About Amaya Pryce

Amaya Pryce is a spiritual coach and writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Her newest book, How to Grow Your Soulis available on Amazon. For coaching or to follow her blog, please visit www.amayapryce.com.

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  • Cate

    Thank you for this wisdom. Your counsel is a close relative to Pema Chodron’s: Given that death is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what’s the most important thing?

  • Amaya

    I love Pema Chödrön! She’s definitely one of my favorite authors, so I appreciate the comparison. And yes, life is too precious to waste it living out someone else’s agenda!

  • Wei Zhao

    Make a resolve to quit thinking about the future at all.

    Using death as a motivation gives you the fear of loss, loss of things you did not even have in the first place. Fear mustn’t drive you in any form. You can say, I am no longer distracted by fear, but it is still the same poison as fuel.

    Ask yourself, is it fear? If so, discard it regardlessly. No fear is reasonable. This may leave you in the unknown – you cannot attach yourself to a concept and then be happy – happiness is found without regard to what is being sought.

    When thinking of a good future, you are merely enjoying your imagination about how pretty it would be /not now/, and this discontent will always reflect your experience of the present moment.

    You came here with nothing being able to live blissfully with nothing. Then, you learned all these things, and now you’re not blissful anymore. Is the way not clear? It is what you believe is ‘you’ that is blocking you from being what you are.

  • Amaya

    Thank you for sharing. I think there is a difference between fears and aspirations, although I agree that our focus should always be on the present moment, rather than living in a future which may never come. Aspirations are like “eagle vision,” which gives the big picture and direction for our lives. Then the challenge is to bring the aspiration down into “mouse vision,” where we engage with the actual path, step by step. I think it’s possible to do that without necessarily being driven by fear. What do you think?

  • Tanya

    Yes, it’s important to acknowledge what we WANT to do vs. what we SHOULD do. However, sometimes in choosing what we want to do–the path that leads to the most overall satisfaction and joy–we have to do things we don’t want to do along the way. Not every day will be a sunny picnic, and sometimes we just have to power through. But the overall vision, that course of passion, never wavers. Does a marathon runner wake up every day and think, “Gee, it’s 5:00 am. I’m so happy I’m awake and get to train!” Probably not. But do they feel absolutely fulfilled and exhilarated when they cross the finish line? You bet. In my opinion, great happiness can be found in striving for what we want and seeing the beauty in the not-so-glamorous tasks along the way.

  • Amaya

    Exactly! That’s why it never seemed to work for me when I just did what I “felt” like doing in the moment. For me the key was to look out a little ways – still focusing on what I wanted but taking a longer view than just what sounded appealing right this second. I’ve never been a runner but it sounds like the perfect example!

  • Really loved this, Amaya! Great way to shift our attention to what we want to being doing with our lives, what we feel drawn towards instead of accepting what everyone expects of us and what feels good in the moment. Great message! 😉 #keepgrowing #keepcreating

  • Amaya

    Thanks so much, Ewan! I just wish I had learned this sooner. 🙂 But I’m using it now!

  • That’s great, Amaya! And anyway, what matters is how we’re feeling now; what’s done is done. We can learn from the past, but the point of learning from the past is for the lesson to help serve us for the now. It’s now, that we feel good now, that matters. 😉

  • Jack Sparrow

    Lovely post Amaya! I feel like half of me is still stuck in ‘what do I feel like doing’ mode. Perhaps it’s a natural progression & the more I read about setting goals and, as you call it, being aspirational, the more it sinks in. Now more and more I get a deep sense of urgency that I’ve wasted enough of my life NOT doing anything worthwhile. I also think that the ‘what should I do’ mentality for me had a lot to do with low self esteem. To follow my own goals I needed to feel more confident in myself and that has taken the longest time to develop.

  • Amaya

    Jack, be sure your aspirational impulses feel like fun! “Worthwhile” is such a relative term, so be sure you’re the one defining what it means. 🙂 But I hear you about the self-esteem part. I really let my life be guided by what I thought looked “good” to others for such a long time. That’s the part, if anything, that feels wasted to me. However, I’m not a big fan of the wasting time idea. Who really can say what’s a waste of time? And can you waste something that’s unlimited in quantity (or non-existent entirely, depending on your beliefs)? Thanks for the reply!!

  • Mike

    So much more helpful than asking ‘what’s my purpose?’.

    ‘What do I aspire to?’ holds a calming, future and potentially exciting promise. Thank you, Amaya.

  • Amaya

    That’s exactly how it strikes me too! When I think “I’ve got to find my purpose in life” I feel so anxious and pressured. Aspiring to something feels exciting and adventurous!

  • Amaya

    Hi Mike! I agree about “what’s my purpose?” – makes me feel anxious and pressured. Aspirations, on the other hand, feel exciting and adventurous!

  • Kitkat

    A very honest and aspiring piece! (pun unintended) Thank you!

  • Amaya

    You are welcome!! 🙂