Having lots of ideas about what you want to do next can be overwhelming – and paralyzing. Find a small, achievable action to get unstuck.

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I had a new coaching client in my office the other day. “I hate my job,” she told me as she sat down, barely holding back tears.

“I fell into it 10 years ago. I’ve been promoted and I’ve moved around to different companies,” she said, naming a couple of premier Seattle employers. “But I just hate the work and I feel stuck in it.”

We talked in detail about what she’s interested in: product management, teaching middle school, UX design, corporate communications, freelance editing and copy editing — “I’m all over the place!” she exclaimed.

“It’s great that you have a lot of ideas,” I reassured her. “You have lots of ideas because you’re interested in lots of things, because you’re alive and curious and intelligent. That’s a good thing.”

And I shared with her a structure for thinking through lots of ideas:

“I call these the Stepping Stones,” I told her, drawing a square around each of her ideas in my notes. “Each one of these ideas is a Stepping Stone.”

I described a career as a long river, with some fast rapids and some placid stretches, some backwaters and some hairpin turns. Over the course of her career, she will navigate this river one Stepping Stone at a time.

“Right now, we don’t know which one of these ideas is your next Stepping Stone,” I said, pointing at my notes. “You’re going to investigate each of these ideas until you have enough data to choose one of them.”

And then I unapologetically mix my metaphors.

“We move these ideas forward a pebble at a time,” I explain. “You can, literally, move a mountain one pebble at a time. We’re going to identify the small, sustainable, achievable action – the pebble – that you can take to start moving each of these mountains.”

“The point is,” I said, looking at her sternly, “Less thinking — and thinking about why something won’t work — and more doing.”

Once she moves those pebbles, we’ll identify the next pebbles, and the next, until she has enough information over the next weeks or months to choose the next Stepping Stone of her career.

“What is one small, achievable action you can take to learn more about UX design?” I asked her. She decided she would have lunch with a UX designer friend to learn more about the day-to-day work.

We identified one pebble for each of the other stepping stones. “I’m worried I’ve overwhelmed you with pebbles,” I tell her as we were wrapping up this first coaching session. “That’s a long list.”

Kathryn Crawford Saxer, columnist for The Seattle Times Jobs
Kathryn Crawford Saxer, columnist for The Seattle Times Jobs

“No way!” she exclaimed, her face glowing with energy and optimism. “I can’t wait to get started.”

Kathryn Crawford Saxer coaches mid- to senior-level professionals on career management and development. Connect with her online at kathrynsaxer.com.