TOM #9: How to create certainty in an uncertain world

Posted on: July 3, 2022

Today’s issue continues our focus on topics and tools that help you build organizational and personal resilience, so you can lead better (and feel better) in these complex times. 

In an increasingly unpredictable world, it is normal to feel compelled to control things. But our typical attempts to control things often cause more harm than good. 

There are hundreds of resources for the logical, operational, business-based interventions that help you manage risk. But there are few that acknowledge our drive to be control a psychological one. So this issue focuses on the human experience of uncertainty and interventions that improve your psychological experience of uncertainty.

Part 1 discusses how humans typically cope with uncertainty and offers more constructive ways to respond to and manage uncertainty.

Part 2 offers four interventions to try.

Part 1: How to create certainty in an uncertain world

We humans really don’t like uncertainty.

Research shows people would rather there be a 100% chance of something bad happening than a 50% chance. [A 2016 study found that subjects who had a 50% chance of receiving an electric shock experienced the greatest amount of stress, and subjects who had a 0% or 100% chance of being shocked experienced the least amount of stress–because they were the most certain.] 

We would rather know what’s waiting for us around the corner than wait for it to reveal itself.

The drive for certainty is so strong, our systems neurochemically reward us when we feel certain, which can make it especially hard to notice when we’re falsely creating a sense of certainty via our other-than-conscious thoughts and behaviors. [Remember the “feeling right” mind trap introduced in TOM Issue #7?]

How uncertainty can degrade your leadership.

I know my business owner clients are craving certainty when they’re micromanaging or catastrophizing (or both). These are typical go-to coping strategies for humans in unpredictable situations. And these strategies predictably make things worse.

Micromanagement focuses resources on “doing things right” whereas effective management focuses resources on “getting the right things done.”

Micromanagement is like arsenic. It’s naturally occurring and survivable when infrequent and in small doses, but regular or large doses of it are ultimately fatal. When you micromanage any aspect of your business, you’re slowly killing what makes it great. 

Hypervigilance boosts your ability to notice threats and avoid experiencing an awful thing that occurred in the past, but it corrodes your capacity to think, lead, and rest in the present. When your nervous system is on high alert, your brain notices all the ways things can go wrong. This negativity bias left unchecked often leads to catastrophizing, a cognitive bias in which your thoughts focus on the worst possible things that could happen, no matter how (im)probable.

Before continuing to the next section, take a few moments to identify how uncertainty might be influencing you and how effectively you’re leading right now.

Self-Coaching Questions

  • Where, if at all, are you attempting to assert your control over how things are done?
  • In what areas, if any, are you experiencing pressures of perfectionism?
  • What, if anything, are you avoiding because you’re unsure how things will turn out?
  • How often are your thoughts fixated on what/how things will go (terribly) wrong?
  • How often do you experience anxiety that disrupts your capacity to be decisive, take action and/or maintain focus?

The most effective way to deal with an active craving is to feed it. Vegetables.

If you’re voraciously hungry (or find yourself in search of ice cream when a wave of feelings you’d rather not feel come on strong), you’re at the whim of what’s ready to eat. And if all you’ve got is junk food, you’re more likely to eat junk food than cut up or cook veggies.

If you already have healthy snacks stocked in the pantry and fridge, you’re more likely to reach for them. And if you eat them, you’re more likely to feel (and lead) better.

Similarly, if the only thing you have to feed your psychological drive for certainty is default coping behaviors, you’re most likely going to engage in those. You are likely to stop doing the work that only you can do, so you can tell someone else how to do theirs. You are likely to start imagining all the bad things that could happen and slipping into a tailspin of doom.

But if you have healthy options ready, you’re more likely to engage in them. And if you engage in them, you’re more likely to feel (and lead) better.

The most effective way to manage a craving is to prevent it.

If you are physically fit and consistently doing things that support physical fitness, you’re less likely to eat junk food when a craving strikes. Partly because you get fewer cravings and partly because your drive for the good feelings being fit gives you are typically stronger than your drive to numb out the negative feelings of the moment.

Similarly, if you’re psychologically fit and consistently doing things that build mental fitness, you’re less tempted to micromanage, catastrophize, or some other destructive coping behavior.

Deal with it by feeding it.

The next time you feel a need for certainty, create a psychological win for your system to release that neurochemical reward for being certain. In other words, do something that quickly generates a predictable outcome and positive feelings (e.g. proud, confident, calm or refreshed).

Prepare “snacks” that will satisfy the craving AND keep you on track. Make a list of simple, finite, concrete tasks that take 2-15min and have fully predictable, controllable outcomes. Have the list readily available at all times, so you can reference it and take action as soon as you notice you’ve been (or are about to be) hijacked by a certainty craving.

I get the biggest “certainty” hits when I take action within my business. (Sometimes I feel pulled to do something that only benefits me personally, because in addition to certainty it also gives me a hit of autonomy which is what my system craves most.) I have a running list of little tasks I can choose from when I want a hit of certainty. My challenge is doing only one, because it can feel good to keep doing easy tasks that make me feel smart, capable, and in control! 

I encourage you to build a list that has a mix of things on it that meet the following criteria:

  • Easy to do
  • You already know how to do it well
  • You know exactly how much time it requires to complete
  • You can do it solo from start to finish
  • You feel good when you’ve completed it

What’s key about these tasks is they are predictable, controllable and generate positivity for you.

For example, paying an invoice might be a finite task that you can complete yourself with ease, but if it generates negative feelings for you it’s not a good choice. 

Bonus points for tasks or activities that involve moving your body.

Manage it with healthy habits, routines and rituals.

Healthy habits, routines and rituals are those which promote physical, mental and emotional well-being.

You might not know how an upcoming meeting is going to turn out, how interest rates are going to shift between now and September, or how your new offering is going to perform…but such uncertainties are less stressful when you have reliable, structured, predictable events in your life that you can count on.

  • Habits are the things you unconsciously do.
  • Routines are a series of actions you do in a particular order and deliberately engage in (unlike habits which happen automatically).
  • Rituals are routines that have meaning or purpose attached to them.

You can build new habits. (Don’t waste your time attempting to delete habits that aren't working so well cuz that doesn't work. You can add or edit code, but human software doesn't allow you to delete any code.)

You can design routines that offer you (more) structure and efficiency. (The predictability is part of what makes these good for you!)

You can ritualize any routine by adding intentionality or presence-of-mind. Napping for 20min after your afternoon coffee might be a routine you integrated into your life after reading about nappacinos in Dan Pink’s book When. To ritualize your nappuccino, you could savor the aromas of the coffee beans as you grind and brew them. You could put your full attention on the taste of the coffee with each sip. You could pause a moment before closing your eyes to consider how napping allows you to reset and enables you to do great work in the final hours of the day. You could pause when your alarm goes off to reflect on the ways you’ve lived in alignment with your values since yesterday’s nappuccino.

All of these things require willpower, preparation and practice. 

I recommend before defining what you’d like to begin doing that you index what’s already working. 

Self-Coaching Questions

Let’s flex our appreciative inquiry skills [reference TOM Issue #8] to uncover what’s already working. When you’re at your best…

  • What habits, routines and rituals are supporting your everyday health and well-being?
  • What habits, routines and rituals are enabling you to lead effectively through uncertainty?
  • What habits, routines and rituals help you to be okay when things are not okay?

Let’s keep looking for more of what works...

  • When you were a kid, what allowed you to take your hands off the handlebars (or do some other risky thing with good results) without second-guessing yourself?
  • What allows you to do bold things now?
  • What have you learned?

Part 2: Tips for creating certainty in an uncertain world

Here are a few tactical things to try.

Set intentions, not expectations. 

Clear and specific intentions focus your (and your team's) attention on the right things rather than doing things right, which is far more useful all the time…but especially during times of uncertainty. 

Be clear on what’s important and why. Understanding how things fit into the bigger picture enables everyone to see it and remain connected to it when things go sideways.

Consider using the Outcome Frame questions [TOM Issue #5] to assist you in clarifying what you would like to have happen and what about that is important.

Observe yourself.

Over the next two weeks, observe yourself. Pop out of yourself in your mind's eye and take a seat in the balcony section. Watch yourself lead your company. Notice how you carry yourself. Notice what you’re paying attention to and how you are breathing/speaking/behaving. Notice how others are relating with and responding to you. Then slip back into yourself and notice details about your inner experience, particularly the thoughts in your mind and the feelings and sensations in your body.

  • Who are you when you’re dealing with uncertainty? How is that version of you different?
  • What is your experience of uncertainty? 
  • What lets you know that things are (too) uncertain?
  • How much (un)certainty is enough to change how you feel
  • At what amount of (un)certainty do you notice your behavior changing?
  • What lets you know that things are certain (enough)?
  • What are the emotions that go with your experience of uncertainty? How do they modulate or shift with changing levels of (un)certainty?
  • What are the thoughts that go through your mind when you’re dealing with uncertainty? How do they differ from your thoughts at other times, if at all?
  • How is your experience of (un)certainty different in the various domains of your life, if at all? 

Learn what your team is counting on.

Leverage the self-coaching questions in this issue to learn about your team members, how they’re relying on you and your company, and what you (both individually and collectively) could do to increase your individual and collective resilience?

  • What enables them to be and do their best in uncertain situations? 
  • What are they counting on you to provide? Are those things you can actually provide? 
  • How much (un)certainty is okay? 
  • How is (un)certainty at home or in the real world influencing them at work? 
  • How does the (un)certainty at work affect them when they’re not at work?
  • What personal and work-related habits, routines and rituals are foundational to them doing/being/feeling their best?
  • What have they learned about themselves/you/the company regarding uncertainty? 
  • What have you learned about them? About yourself? About your company?

Ritualize at least one routine.

Choose a routine that you already reliably engage in. Add in some intentionality or purposefulness...that's it! Let this be easy and fun!

Many of my clients have benefitted from establishing an after-work ritual. They already had a few things they routinely did at the end of the day, but ritualizing the routine enabled their whole system to register that work is indeed over. By being fully present to the end of the day, their brains get a much-needed break, and they’re released to fully engage in their home lives.

When I was first building my coaching practice, I was also a mobilized Navy Reservist working full-time supporting nearly-24/7 reconnaissance drone operations. I was struggling to shift myself from naval officer to coach, and back again. Up until then, I “transitioned” into my Navy mode when I put on my uniform and out of my Navy mode when I took off my uniform. But when that wasn’t working anymore, I added in music. This upleveled my routine to a ritual.

I created a playlist of songs to get me into Navy mode as I drove to base, and another to bring me back to myself as I drove home. Some days, the music wasn’t enough. So I added in scents which powerfully influence my mood. I would smell an energizing blend of peppermint and citrus essential oils after I laced up my flight boots and headed out the door. And after I finished changing out of my uniform, I would sit in my comfy chair looking out into the backyard, smell a bottle of cedarwood essential oil and take a few breaths. This ritual pulled me out of my head and back into my body...back into myself.

How would you like to ritualize the end of your work day?

Please let me know how it goes!

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