Where Do I Start? How to Deal with Order of Operations Overwhelm When You Have Multiple Life Goals That Affect Each Other

When I was in seventh grade, I remember Mrs. Mezzocchi teaching us the acronym PEMDAS—Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. This was a mnemonic trick to help us remember the order of operations for solving a mathematics equation.

Fifteen years later, when my first taste of Thirtysomething Panic came on like a tidal wave, I found this phrase flashing through my head. What is the order of operations here?!? I kept wondering. Where is my Thirtysomething Panic PEMDAS?

My relationship, my career, my purpose on this planet—EVERYTHING felt up in the air. Whenever I tried to start working on figuring out one piece of the puzzle, I felt like I couldn’t make any headway, because I’d start thinking about how it hinged on the other variables and second-guess every idea I’d had towards action. 

What should I focus on first? 

At times, this question can be very useful. At other times, it can stop all progress in its tracks. 

Some people show up to their first coaching session with One Big Problem—the issue they think that, if only they can figure it out, will make everything all set. It could be a career change, finding a partner, making the decision whether they will finally move to California as they’ve always dreamed about, or some other singular goal.

Other people find that many areas of life are up in the air at once, or need a lot of work. This can feel incredibly overwhelming. If this perfect storm of uncertainty and transition lasts for a long time, it can really begin to erode your self-confidence and self-trust. You may start to make sweeping statements like “NOTHING in my life is together.”

It’s especially tricky when you have several different life areas that need big changes or big decision-making, and the decisions you make about one will significantly influence the decisions you make about another. For example, let’s say you want to change jobs, you aren’t sure where you want to live, and you want to be in a committed longterm relationship. Which comes first? 

Should you search for a job where you currently live, and then get to work figuring out whether you want to move? Or should you first figure out where you want to be, and then search for jobs there? Is it better to start putting yourself out there and dating now—or should you wait, because what if you end up in a relationship and you aren’t able to move where you’d like to? Or maybe you’re in a relationship already, and you’re unsure of its future. Better to plant career and house roots where you are, or wait until you resolve the relationship situation in case you break up and are “free” to go anywhere??

Many clients have said something to me along these lines:

“Every time I sit down to make a road map for how to move forward, I choke. I start, and suddenly I’m hit with all the variables. They all affect each other. Depending on what happens with one, everything else looks different. So every attempt to map things out results in not so much a road map as a dead end.”

This kind of push-and-pull with intersecting variables can make it maddeningly difficult to create momentum in any area. Every time you start to outline some possibilities for one area of life, the “but what ifs” about other areas come into play and stop all the momentum that you’d begun to create. 

I remember feeling this drive towards action and yank back into inaction when I was first dealing with Thirtysomething Panic. I felt like it would be so much easier if there was only one part of my life to change. And I have certainly experienced subsequent ripples of the Order of Operations challenge as my life has continued to evolve.

If you’re feeling caught in a “What do I work on first?” quandary, this does not mean something is wrong with you; this is an incredibly common challenge of being a person in transition. Here’s the bottom line:

You must not let the Order of Operations conundrum stop you from getting into action.

It’s essential to find ways to take action, even from this place of uncertainty. 

There are three basic approaches you can take to the Order of Operations problem:

1. Start with the area of life that feels easiest. It may feel easiest because it has lower emotional stakes for you. It may feel easiest because even if you are scared to take the steps you need to take, you have some idea of what those steps are. 

2. Choose the area you feel is most important, and start there. You may find that making even a tiny bit of headway on the puzzle piece that you’ve felt most concerned about gives you a boost of confidence and forward momentum. 

3. Work on several areas simultaneously, aiming to take baby steps in each area. Let go of the idea that you need to “figure out” any one area first, and get things rolling all around.

If, after a period of extended reflection, you’re still tangled up in uncertainty about which part of your life to work on first, know this: starting somewhere, anywhere, is virtually always better than spending lots of time agonizing over where to start.

If you have been paralyzed with Thirtysomething Panic and are not sure where to start, it’s time to channel your energy into action instead of into agonizing about the best place to start. 

Ready? Let’s go. Here’s a tool to get into action:
Start Somewhere

Take these steps in order and for best results, do not read ahead.

1. Make a list of the pressing goals (or general life areas you need to “figure out”) that have been swimming around in your head. 

2. Which one feels the easiest? Mark it “easiest.”

3. Which one feels the most important? Mark it “most important.” (If none of them feel most important or you’re not sure, skip this. Do not get sucked into trying to figure this out—that’s just playing into the OOO problem!!)

4. Next to each pressing goal (or general life area), write down one tiny step you could take in the direction of that goal. Don’t try to figure out a step that will solve for everything. Just identify an action that could move you a little further on the path, or that would be an investment of time focusing on or exploring that area. Aim for something you can complete in 30 minutes or less.

5. Choose one of those tiny steps to execute now. Give yourself a maximum of 5 minutes to decide which step you’re going to do. If you feel stuck after 5 minutes, go with the second one on the list.

6. Do it.

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