Overcoming helplessness starts with your intent

Welcome to the second installment of our five-part series on using strategic thinking to overcome helplessness at work and in life. In our first article, we set the stage for the five steps of strategic thinking that anyone can use to move away from the mental paralysis that helplessness shackles us down with. In this article, we will dive deeper into the first two steps of strategic thinking: being intent focused and thinking in time.

Related: What to do when you’re feeling helpless at work or in life

It starts with your intent

The biggest issue when we are feeling helpless is that we don’t really know what we want. You will be surprised just how many people simply coast through their job, or their life, with no real intent except to cover all their bills. Life cannot be about moving from one bill to another.

The first thing we need to do is to identify our intent. Having a focus on what we want to achieve will give us the impetus to marshal the required resources to make it happen. For example, if your intent were to be the most respected and referenced subject matter expert in your industry, then you would have to identify ways to showcase your expertise, and to provide opportunities to be referenced. You would certainly have to publish, and you might even have to go on the road. Identifying your intent will help you identify your actions. And that will start you out of your feeling of helplessness.

Yet, many people don’t want to look beyond their situation because they either feel that they don’t have a solution, or they feel that they cannot do anything about that. These are self-imposed limitations. The important thing is to move past them by getting onto a reinvigorating project. Any project will do; so long as we latch onto an intent that will move past our mental stasis. Action is key!

How to find your intent

But what if we didn’t have an intent? After all, that is what’s causing the feeling of helplessness in the first place! To identify your intent, project yourself onto your ideal future where everything is “perfect”. (The word perfect is within quotation marks because we are referring to a realistic ideal future, rather than an improbable one.) Look and feel in your mind’s eye what is happening, who is there, what they are saying to you. See the smile on your face and the smiles of the people around you. Once you have assimilated this image, imagine that you are being interviewed by Time magazine for the “Person of the Year” award. They are here to find out what made you the success that you are – whatever success means to you. Answer them by detailing how you got here, what hurdles you had to overcome, and how you planned all the steps to get from where you are to where you want to be.

Now, from this vantage point, identify what it is you want to accomplish. What is the key thing that you want you achieve in your work or your life. That will be your intent.

One more thing: it does not matter whether you know how to get there at this moment. The important thing is to identify it.

Finding “bright spots”

So you now know what you are trying to achieve; the next step is to find bright spots. According to Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Switch: How to change things when change is hard, bright spots are exceptions to the status quo. The key thing about any issue is that, no matter how “bad” we think we are; no matter how “hopeless” we have been in tackling our situation, we are not TOTALLY inept. Everyone has moments of success, no matter how brief or how limited in scope. It is these that we pursue.

So, look back at how you have approached your situation and identify the bright spots. Then dive deeper into them and see what you did t be successful. Perhaps it was a laser focus on getting something done; or it was a different way of seeing something. Whatever the case, we want to bring this to the fore and magnify the actions. We look for ways to replicate, making the solutions more sustainable.

Let’s say for example your child comes back home with a report card that shows 49% for mathematics. All of a sudden, you start think about how to move the score up – maybe more tuition, less Wii or X-Box, certainly less computer/TV time! That is the standard response from most parents. But what if we looked at the bright spots. Maybe his English scored 89%? Then we ask, “How do you think we can use what you did for English to increase your maths score?” By looking at how your child did well for one subject – the bright spot – and replicating it for other subjects, you can help your child get better without having to spend more money on tuition that might ultimately drain your child’s will to study!

Similarly, in your situation, when you find bright spots, look to see how you can replicate what was done successfully, so that you can enlarge your performance; and hence move you away from feeling helpless.

Using hindsight

But what if there was NO bright spot? Maybe we have been so down in our luck that we cannot even see one pinhole of brightness (highly unlikely, but sometimes, these things happen!) How does thinking in time help us? We can use hindsight.

What we do is to list all the events and decisions made regarding our situation and the impact it had on us. Because of your feeling of helplessness, chances are, these might all be negative. After we have identified the events and looked at how they had impacted our situation, we ask ourselves what we could have done differently on hindsight. Create a long list of “what ifs”. When you are done, look back at this list and see which of them you could do NOW. After all, you are still in your situation, and the best time for change is right now! The minute you do this, you will realize that the situation is not bleak as it is, and you can make corrections even now to move away from the status quo.


If you don’t start by giving yourself a positive, empowering intent, there is nothing we can do to help you out of your current state. In a sense, if you cannot find one, it probably means you don’t want to move out of your helplessness. And that is fine. After all, there is at least one advantage to being miserable – we get sympathy. And maybe that is your intent all along.

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