When you're sure you aren't happy with your professional situation but you're not at all sure how to fix things, your head can be a swirl of hopes, questions, and anxieties:

Can I afford to make a career change?

How long would it take for me to make that transition?

All of this internal chatter might lead you to a career breakthrough, but it's far likelier that you'll just end up so confused and demoralized that you trudge on in your current unfulfilling situation. What you need is clarity, and when you're unsure of your next step that can be the hardest thing to find.

The problem with planning ahead

Career change coaches Careershifters think they can help. In a post on the company's blog recently Natasha Stanley claimed that those looking for a new career path need to ask themselves just a single question.

Yes, that's right, only one.

Most of the agonizing we do when pondering a career change serves no purpose except to terrify and confuse us, she argues. This is the sort of thinking that leads people to fret over how to budget for a change before they've even decided which road to take, or stress about gaining experience before they've built the skills to get started.

"There comes a point where 'planning for the future' becomes 'avoiding dealing with the present,'" she writes. "Some of the problems you're most worried about will turn out to be entirely fictional, and unless they're causing you a major problem right now, they don't deserve to be taking up so much attention."

Instead, Stanley suggests that those who are dissatisfied with their careers asked themselves this question and this question alone: "What's the smallest thing I can do right now that will make the biggest positive impact on my situation (as it is right now)?" 

Small actions can kill even the biggest anxieties.

The advantage of this question is that it stops you from psyching yourself out by thinking too far ahead and pushes you to actually take the small, manageable actions that will build over time into a larger life overhaul.

She's not the only expert insisting that those dreaming of a new direction start small. Former Google career coach and author Jenny Blake recommends much the same approach when she argues against grand plans and sweeping visions and urges those who are unhappy with their current circumstances to focus on multiple "pilot projects" instead.

Whichever formulation of this advice appeals to you more, the central wisdom of both coaches is pretty similar. If all your dreams and terrors about a new direction are paralyzing you, the solution is to force yourself back to the present and the incremental actions you can take today to actually change your life.