But it was long ago and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far
And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car
And objects in the rearview mirror may appear closer than they are
At the end of West Wing’s first episode, President Bartlet yelled out to Mrs. Landingham, “What’s Next?” For the 21 years since, that has become my tag line. Well, one of them anyway.
Part of this stems from my impatience. Okay, I’m done with this; what’s next. But most of it comes from my absolute refusal to look back. What’s done is done. What’s next?
A lot of people would say you need to look back to learn from your mistakes. But do you? I don’t think so. I think a lesson is learned immediately or not at all. Looking back is a waste of time and energy. It can sap your strength and will to get things done today.
Regrets? I’ve had a few. But I don’t dwell on them.
In the tenth grade, I remember the subject I hated worst in a long line of subjects I hated was history. One day, I asked the inevitable question, “Why do we have to study history?” Of course, the teacher gave the inevitable answer, “Those that don’t study history are destined to repeat it.”
Then we studied World War II.
What’s past is past. Leave it there where it belongs.
Let’s go back to the learning from your mistakes part for a minute. (Yeah, I get the irony, but work with me) You are talking to someone, and you say something foolish. Hurtful even. As soon as you say it, you know it was the wrong thing to say. You will either learn from that mistake immediately or not at all. If a week, a month, or a year later, you do the same thing, it wasn’t because you didn’t look back and learn from your mistake.
It’s because you’re an asshole.
You don’t need to learn not to say that thing in that circumstance. You need to learn to stop being an asshole.
And that comes from looking forward. Setting goals. Living in the now and being intentional about it.
I write a lot about productivity. If you’ve read any of my stuff, you know I am serious about keeping a task list and tracking projects and priorities. My plan is the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I look at before I shut down. At the end of the day, I am taking a quick look at tomorrow, so I’m ready for my morning. I’m also checking the last thing off of today’s list.
That last thing was at the top of the list when I got up this morning, and it will stay there until I check it off last thing tonight.
Stop. Think. Be Kind. Do the Next Right Thing. Be Intentional
Every time I look at my task list, that is sitting at the top. Note that it doesn’t say anything about looking back or remember what you did yesterday.
It’s about looking forward. At what’s next. And no matter what’s next, that line is always right above it. Because no matter what I am doing next, it needs to fall into the framework of those five phrases.
Don’t just jump from one thing to the next. Stop. Stand up. Stretch.
No matter what time it is, you have the rest of the day in front of you. You need to be able and prepared to handle it. So, every time you finish something, stop. And then…
Think about what’s next. Think about what I am doing. But don’t think about what I did. If my task list is appropriately prepared, and I follow this mantra each time, there is no need to look at what I just finished.
Because it’s finished. Or because it has been moved into the future. In which case, I need to look forward to see what I need to do, not look back to see what I did. Or didn’t.
You may not need this one. I do. Internally I am a kind person. I like being around other kind people, and I react positively to them when I am.
Outwardly, not so much. There’s almost no difference between my happy face and my mad face.
And although you have all come to love my acerbic wit, I have discovered not everyone does. Mostly, I think, because not everyone has a sense of humor. It took me a long time to realize that. And my humor is given with such a dry, deadpan delivery, none of those people know I’m kidding.
So, I don’t. I’m kind. And I have been fortunate enough to meet some people lately that show me on a daily basis what that looks like.
Do The Next Right Thing
Ahh, here is the crux of the whole process. Do the next right thing. Not a wasted word in that sentence, but next and right are the key elements.
And trust me on this, it’s difficult to do if you are looking backward. If you are worried about what you did instead of what you need to do.
Yesterday, I performed my weekly five-minute guitar concert for my wife. I screwed up. A lot. But this morning, I practiced what I had planned to practice. I didn’t sit there regretting the mistakes I made yesterday. I focused on the lack of errors I needed to make today. One note on one string.
Because I am looking forward to my performance next week, not stressing over the ones in the past. I can’t change those. But, if I do the next right thing every day, I can change the next one.
I’ve written about this a lot. The exact meaning changes with the context, but it is woven into every movement I make all day. Be intentional. Do everything with intent. The dictionary tells us that intentional means done on purpose; deliberate. And that is how I try to do each thing all day, every day. Big things and little things, I do them on purpose deliberately.
This doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. But I make a lot fewer mistakes than I used to. Before I was intentional. No matter what the project, task, or movement, I am intentional.
And that comes directly out of looking forward. What is the next right thing? What is the next movement? In a few minutes, I am going downstairs to prepare my wife’s breakfast. So, what’s the next right thing?
I don’t just stand up. There probably wouldn’t be a problem if I did, but there might be. But there won’t be if I am intentional. Place my feet flat on the floor. Push back the chair a few inches. Tilt Forward. Flex my quadriceps. Push off with my feet and finally… stand up.
I urge you to stop wasting time and energy looking backward. Stop. Think. Do the Next Right Thing. Be intentional.
And if you can find it in yourself, always be kind.