The Next Right Thing

Part of what got me to finally write down some of my larger thoughts on Frozen was the release of Frozen 2. While I’ve only seen the new film once, and I haven’t processed it enough for a deep dive, it still hit me hard enough in the theater that I need to work out how part of it fits in with some other ideas I’m digesting.

There’s the moment in the sequel when Anna sings “The Next Right Thing,” and I was astounded that so much of what I had felt from my own depression (and still feel) was echoed in a kids movie:

I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing

I’ve written before about being kind to your future self, but lately I’ve needed to go further than that. I’ve needed to elevate some of these habits toward the notion of ritualized behavior.

In Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, she makes a great point about the power of personal ritual:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, may sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.

If you make something a habit, you’re saying that it needs to be done, and it has meaning. If you have something to do that has meaning, then you are giving yourself a purpose. If I wasn’t here, this wouldn’t get done. If I’m here, this needs to get done.

Sometimes it’s incredibly small for me.

  • Setting the timer on the coffee pot before I go to bed to tell myself to wake up when the coffee is fresh. I don’t want to waste the coffee, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to drink it.
  • Making overnight oatmeal and leaving it in the fridge so that I tell myself that it matters that I take care of my body and not just eat something in the morning, but eat something that’s good for it.
  • Checking off boxes in a habit tracker I keep in a notebook, so that I can look back and see that I’m keeping up to the commitments I make to myself.

With that last one, I’m building off ideas from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. One of the hardest things to gauge when depression asserts itself is if the thing I’m doing in the moment is worth it; if I’m making any progress toward something that matters to me.

Some days I don’t get much time for bigger projects. I might wind up only being able to carve 15-20 minutes out of a particularly busy day to get any writing done. But treating it as a necessary habit grounds me in the idea that those 15-20 minutes still have value.

In Clear’s book, he talks about incremental progress as being similar to making a small shift in the direction of travel:

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

It’s about that idea of playing the long game: If I work a little bit every day, no matter what, it will eventually matter a great deal. And it’s a reminder that if I want to see the dividends, I need to show up not just today, but tomorrow. And the next day.

But it’s also about another point that Clear makes in his book: Habits aren’t just about outcomes, they’re about identity.

I can turn my actions toward ones that support the person I want to be, or I can sit here, mired in the depressive inertia.

It can feel like swimming against the current. It can feel like the effort isn’t carrying me forward.

But that’s only the present moment. That’s not the long game.

You push against the current every day, and you can strengthen your body against it. You push against that current enough and you learn how to keep swimming.

I am not just working to keep moving, even when it’s hard, but to embrace momentum itself as a goal.

Plans are useful to help determine what needs to be done next. Goals are helpful in clarifying direction. Constructing a sense of identity helps give these actions motivation and purpose.

But measuring the distance between now and completion only creates frustration unless there’s momentum.

Which brings me back to the message of Anna’s song. Sometimes the fog is too thick to see through, and that next step is all you can see.

But you can see that next step, and you can take it.