3 Important Questions To Explore When You Don’t Know What To Do

Whenever I’m feeling stuck, confused, or overwhelmed, I often find myself spinning in “I don’t know” energy.

My brain offers thoughts like “I don’t know how to…”

Or “I don’t know what I should…”

And “I don’t know why I…”

Does your brain ever offer similar thoughts?

If so, then you probably know this “I don’t know” energy I’m talking about.

It feels heavy and uncomfortable. 

It keeps us from taking action.

And instead, we stay spinning in indecision.

In episode 121 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, we’re talking all about this “I don’t know” energy. 

We’re exploring the most common areas it sneaks up on us, how to identify it in your life, and what you can do to step out of “I don’t know” and into action. 

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here: 

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In This Episode, You Will Discover… 

  • The most common areas where “I don’t know” energy sneaks up on us
  • How to identify it in your life
  • What you can do to step out of “I don’t know” and into action

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Episode #121: 3 Important Questions To Explore When You Don’t Know What To Do (Transcript)

You’re listening to the I’m busy being awesome a podcast with Paula Engebretson episode #121. Hello everybody. Welcome to the podcast. How are you? I just finished teaching a class all about following through, which was super fun today. And now I’m excited to talk with all of you. So it’s a good day.

Although I’ve got to tell you; the episode that I’m sharing today is not the one that I originally had planned. I’ve had a totally different topic floating around in my mind over the past week, and then today when I sat down to map it out, this other topic popped into my brain and would not leave me alone. It’s a topic that I’ve seen show up so frequently over the last couple of weeks, and it’s just front in center in my mind right now.

And as I will talk about more in depth later in the episode, it’s a topic that I think shows up for many of us on a personal level. And as I talked about the concept with a client of mine this morning, I realized it is an important thing to talk about and shine a light on, because it’s also something that can easily get overlooked.

So what is this concept? Well, I’ve decided to label it “I don’t know energy.” Now you’ve probably heard me share my thoughts before on the phrase I don’t know. When we tell ourselves I don’t know, we often keep ourselves stuck. It is a thought that is generally not useful when we’re trying to figure things out or move forward or grow.

And in fact, most of my clients know that “I don’t know” is not an answer when we are coaching together. And when the answer does come up, we dig in further. Because the reality is that we do know something. So, whenever a client offers, “I don’t know” to a question I ask, I often return to one of my favorite questions, which is, what if you did know? If you did know the answer, what would it be? And this may sound flippant. It may sound a little bit cheeky. But it’s not. It’s a question to really stretch your brain and encourage it to step out of its automatic response of “I don’t know.”

I Don’t Know Energy

You see, the brain loves to go to the answer of “I don’t know” because it’s familiar. It is safe. And it allows us to not extend any extra energy. The brain’s job for us humans is to keep us alive. And it does that by focusing on three things: it seeks pleasure, avoids pain, and conserves energy.

So the brain automatically resorts to the answer, “I don’t know” anytime it feels challenged or confused. This is simply a natural response. It’s trying to conserve energy by not working to find an answer. And in an extension from that, by avoiding an answer, it also avoids needing to take some sort of action. By saying I don’t know, it shuts all of that down.

And today I want to really dive into this “I don’t know energy.” Because the energy of I don’t know is almost like quicksand. It looks unassuming. You might not even notice there’s a problem in front of you. But if you step into it. If you step into that I don’t know energy, it can easily pull you down and keep you stuck. In fact, this phrase is almost like quicksand on your energy as well. When you say I don’t know, it generates an emotion in you. It creates an emotion that you carry with you into your work, and your projects, in your life overall.

And thinking “I don’t know,” likely creates slightly nuanced emotions for every person. We all probably respond to the thought in a slightly different way. Plus, it probably depends on what it is you’re telling yourself you don’t know. And I’ll explain more about what I mean regarding that in just a minute.

But for now, if you take a moment to shift your attention from all of the thoughts spinning around in your head down into your body. If you take a second to breathe deeply and check in with how your body feels physically when you think to yourself, I don’t know, you’ll notice it carries an energy. Because again, our thoughts create our feelings. So when you think I don’t know, it makes you feel something.

When I think “I don’t know,” my body feels very heavy. It wants to close inward or collapse in on itself. I feel almost helpless as that thought weighs down on me and I can’t really find any direction to move out.

So what about you? How does your body feel when you think “I don’t know?” Most likely it’s not a fun energy to get stuck in. And it’s certainly not an enjoyable feeling to experience for those of you like me who thrive on certainty and security and don’t so much love the unknown or the unpredictable.

And when we tell ourselves I don’t know: I don’t know how, I don’t know why, I don’t know when, I don’t know what. When we tell ourselves all these different iterations of “I don’t know,” we step right into this quicksand, closing off options for ourselves to move forward.

Three Areas For I Don’t Know Energy

And today I want to talk about three areas in our lives where this could potentially show up for you. These are areas where I’ve been stuck in the past or where I’ve noticed others feeling stuck. And I invite you to think about each example that we explore and notice if you might be stuck in this energy as well. Notice if you can relate, and if so, take note of the suggestions we explore today on what you can do to step out of it.

And as a side note, if the word energy is tripping you up a little bit, all I mean is your literal physical energy. If you’re low energy or high energy. If you feel like you’re dragging versus when you’re on cloud nine and super excited to dive in and get started on something. So, if you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about when I say energy, I just literally mean your physical energy.

Alright. So let’s talk about these three areas. The first one is probably the most familiar. And it often sounds something like, I don’t know how… And this layer of I don’t know is all about the actions.

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I Don’t Know How

So, it might sound like I don’t know how to do XYZ. I don’t know how to stay on track. I don’t know how to complete that part of the project. And I don’t know how to let this go. I don’t know how to move forward.

What I do know is that we’ve all said this at one time or another. And for so many of us, this I don’t know how often generates feelings of confusion, frustration, discouragement, exasperation, helplessness.

And I can confidently say for myself anyway, when I feel confused or frustrated or exasperated or helpless, I’m not super inspired to take action. Instead, I want to shut down. I want to procrastiwork and do anything else than figure out how to do the next thing.

Because I’m telling myself I don’t know how, my brain offers the follow up thought, “so what’s the point in trying? We don’t know how to do this. Let’s do this busywork instead.” (Please tell me I’m not alone here.)

As we near the holiday season. (We are about halfway through November at the time of this recording) We might notice these thoughts coming up more often. Maybe we think to ourselves, I don’t know how I can get all of this (whatever this is) done before the holidays. Shopping, decorating, planning, etc.

If you’re a student or a teacher, maybe it’s “I don’t know how I can get these papers written or these grades submitted before end of term.” If you spend time with family that you don’t usually see throughout the year, maybe there’s some concern there. I don’t know how I can keep my temper. I don’t know how I can keep my opinions to myself. Or I don’t know how I could possibly not say anything about XYZ. Maybe you’re wrapping up fourth quarter goals for your job or your business. And you’re thinking, I don’t know how I can possibly finish out these goals or reach my numbers.

Seriously, how do you feel when I share those thoughts? I physically feel like I have less energy after saying them. And if you find yourself having similar “I don’t know” thoughts, I invite you to check in with yourself. Whatever you’re telling yourself you don’t know, invite your brain to open up a little bit with the opposite question: what do I know?

For example, if I don’t know how I’m going to get all my holiday prep done on time, what do I know I can complete? What do I know I have time to do? If I don’t know how I can navigate being around particular people for an extended period, what do I know? What do I know helps manage my emotions? What strategies do I know to helps me practice patience? Or what do I know about how I want to spend my time over the holidays?

If you’re worried about meeting the fourth quarter goals, and you don’t know how you’re going to do it, again – what do you know? What do you know that you can complete? What do you know you can get done? Answer these questions. And then invite your brain to move out of the quicksand by asking, if this is what I know, what’s the next step? What’s the next small step to move me forward today?

I Don’t Know What

The second area of I don’t know energy that I want to explore today focuses on our future and different versions of I don’t know what. So this might sound like, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. And I don’t know what I want. And often when we are thinking different versions of “I don’t know what…” we experience feelings of uncertainty, fear, maybe we feel lost. And when we’re feeling this kind of uncertainty and fear, we generally want to look outside of ourselves. We start checking in with other people to try and find the “right” answers, because we don’t trust ourselves. We don’t slow down to check in and find what is true for us. Instead, we delegate what we know to other people.

And as I always like to remind you, if you can hear yourself in these situations, you’re in good company. I’m in this work right alongside you. In fact, this “I don’t know what…” energy came up for me on a call with my coach recently. I was talking through some decisions and realized I kept looking to others to have the right answer. And she asked me, well what do you want? And my first immediate knee jerk reaction was, I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.

This was such a beautiful opportunity to really slow down and realize that I hadn’t even checked in with myself. It was so convinced that everyone else knew the answer and I didn’t. And since I was so convinced of this, I didn’t even slow down and ask myself what I thought. So again, I slowed down and I got curious. We started asking lots of questions because my brain really didn’t want to do the work. It did not want to find the answers. In fact, when I used my favorite question, “If I did know, what would the answer be?” My brain responded with, I don’t know! Not useful brain…

So we had to come at it from different angles. And I started asking questions like, OK. What do I know I do want? What do I know I don’t want? By getting just a little more specific, that helped give my brain direction. I also asked, “what do I secretly want?” Sometimes that extra little word “secretly” can help open up another perspective that my brain might not want to look at because it’s afraid of judgment. It helps release those “should” thoughts.

For example, let’s say you’re exploring the question, what do you want to do with this job offer? And your brain wants to respond with, I don’t know, because exploring a new job offer feels like danger to your brain. But if we say, well what do you secretly want? That can open up space to explore. And maybe your brain offers something like, “I wish I could take the job but also have some downtime between my current position and the new one. I want some time to rest and relax before starting the new position.” And because you allowed yourself the space to dream and imagine without judgment, the answer came to you.

Another question I really like to ask, and used when I was feeling stuck with my coach, is if you were guaranteed success, what would you choose? If you knew the option would work, would you do it? Or if you knew both ideas would be successful, which one would you want? What do you want? And again, that slight shift in question helps the brain relax its grip and open up to other possibilities. And layer by layer, we can uncover the answer. We can get past the I don’t know.

I Don’t Know Why

Then we get to the third situation. And this third area often focuses on the past and your actions. So, this might sound like, I don’t know why I did that. I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I thought that. And I don’t know why I felt that way. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why I didn’t follow through. And I don’t know why I didn’t use that. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it.

And I really want to draw attention to this third example. Because it is so disempowering. When we take or don’t take certain actions, there is a reason for it. And there’s a good reason for it. There is a thought feeling combination that created your actions. And it’s not a problem. But when we tell ourselves “I don’t know why I took those actions” and we shut ourselves down, we release all control. When we dismiss why things unfolded the way they did, we dismiss ourselves. We don’t give ourselves the time of day to even get curious and explore those possible reasons.

Instead, we say things like, my sister called and wanted to talk, so I couldn’t get my work done. Or my schedule didn’t work. Or the time went by too fast. But with each of these situations, when we leave ourselves out of the equation, we have no power. When we leave ourselves out of the equation, we have no way of gaining control or changing the situation should we want to do.

The reality is that your sister called, and you chose to answer the phone and chat with her. This is not a problem. It’s just what happened. It was a decision you made. It wasn’t this schedule that didn’t work, there was a reason behind it. Maybe you forgot you wrote the schedule. Maybe you didn’t write a schedule at all. And maybe you scheduled yourself as a robot instead of a human and didn’t leave any breaks. But when we tell ourselves I don’t know and shut it down immediately, we can’t find the truth behind it.

And here’s the deal, you deserve to know that truth. You deserve to take that time and figure out what’s going on. This is why I stress the importance of reflection time and time again. That’s how we learn. And when you do slow down to check in, it’s imperative that you do it with love and compassion and curiosity. It is not with judgment it is not with shame it is to learn and grow.

Now here’s the deal, it makes perfect sense why our brain does not want to answer what happened. It makes perfect sense that the brain wants to say I don’t know when you check in and go oh, I did not get half of my schedule completed this week. What happened?

I guarantee you, your brain will immediately want to say, I don’t know. The time just went so fast. The brain puts up this defense mechanism because it’s so used to negative self-talk. It’s so used to us thinking things like, you didn’t follow through again. You messed that up again. You never stick with anything. You’re so far behind. I knew this would happen. I shouldn’t even bother scheduling anymore since I never stick to it.

When this is the normal way that we talk to ourselves, of course the brain wants to avoid looking deeper. It does not want to get that constant critical feedback. But when we look at it with curiosity and love, that’s a very different experience.

When we think to ourselves, oh, interesting. I wonder what happened here. Hm it looks like on Monday I scheduled 12 hours of work in eight hours in my schedule. And on Tuesday, I had four meetings scheduled that weren’t there when I made my plan for the day, and I chose to attend them. That took up the four hours of focused work time I had planned to do. And on Wednesday, I had a call from my daughter’s school, and I picked her up early.

When we look at the facts with compassion, then we realize, oh this makes sense. And now I know what to do next time. Now I know to use time blocking so I have a better idea of how many tasks fit in my day. And I’m going to try checking in with my team about scheduling meetings at least 24 hours ahead of time. And I know to schedule some overflow time for if and when unexpected situations occur like when I picked up my daughter from school. Not a problem. Let’s find a way to support me as I move forward.

I’m telling you, it’s only when we pause to ask ourselves why and we learn the truth behind our actions that we can learn and adjust and solve for the situation should be wish to and move forward.

And if you have a hard time practicing curiosity. If your brain is more used to the negative self talk, perhaps start by simply asking yourself “why” to each of the responses your brain offers.

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So, for example, if we start with the question what happened with your schedule this week? Maybe the brain offers, I didn’t want to do it. So, then we ask why? Why didn’t I want to do it? In the brain response, it was too hard. So then we ask why again. Why was it too hard? And the brain might respond, I never stick with it anyway. So we ask again, why don’t you stick with it? And the brain responds, “because I jam-packed my schedule so tightly that I can’t get it all done no matter how hard I work. And we ask again, well why do you feel the need to jam-pack your schedule? Maybe the brain offers, if I get more done I feel better about myself. I feel like I’m good enough, lovable enough, when I get enough done.

And I have to say, when I planned out examples for this episode, I actually got emotional working through that back and forth between the brain and the question why, because that’s a model that drove my life for years. That was my model. And when I look back and reflect on it, I feel so much compassion for my past self who was driven by always trying to do more to be enough.

But it’s not until we slow down and actually question what’s going on. It’s not until we open up to compassion and curiosity and release the judgment that we can find those beliefs like, “if I get it all done then I’m enough.” It’s not until we release our judgment and can explore our thoughts freely that we can sidestep the quicksand and move forward with greater ease.

And once we do that, then it’s so much easier to use the different productivity tools and concepts that we talk about on the podcast to increase your effectiveness and your efficiency in a way that supports you. Because you’re learning and growing each time, and you’re doing so from a place of support rather than judgment.

So this week, my friends, I invite you to do an “I don’t know energy assessment.” Here’s how it works.

First, check in with yourself. How much of your energy is sucked away from the thought, I don’t know? How often are you letting that thought slow you down and keep you stuck?

Second, where do you notice ”I don’t know” happening most often? Is it at work? Is it at home? Perhaps it’s your relationships. Maybe you notice it’s a lot of I don’t know how versus I don’t know what versus I don’t know why energy. Which one shows up more often for you?

And third, decide and commit to setting aside time to sit with these I don’t know statements and question them. When will you give yourself the time to dig into the questions that we explored today: what do you know? What would you do if you did know? What do you know for sure? And what do you secretly want? If you knew it would all workout, what would you want? Why do you think this thing or that thing isn’t working? What would someone else in your same position do in this situation?  And keep asking why as you dig deeper.

Use any and all of these questions. Be patient with yourself. Stay open. Notice the answers that you find, and the shifts you experience as you release that I don’t know energy and start moving into action.

Alright my friends, that’s going to do it for us this week. And if you know someone who might be stuck in “I don’t know energy,” would you be a rockstar and share this episode with them?

Also, if you want to take this information deeper, release the I don’t know energy, and start getting things done in a way that works for you and your brain, I invite you to join my group coaching program, we’re busy being awesome. You can find out more at I’m busy being awesome.com/group. Learn about the program, add your name to the interest list, and you’ll be the first to hear about additional trainings, bonus information, and when the doors open to sign up.

Until next time, keep being awesome. I’ll talk with you soon.

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