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How to handle the chaos of uncertainty

There is a funny quirk about humans: we know that we can’t predict the future, and yet, we try really hard to do so anyways. We watch the weather, we try to second-guess the economy, and we fill our calendars with (hopefully) exciting plans.

And yet, we never really know what’s going to happen in the future. In fact, there are times in our lives when it’s painfully clear that the future is uncertain. Losing a job, dealing with a serious injury or illness, ending a relationship, moving to a new city, starting a business, graduating from college, and hundreds of other semi-common situations force us to deal with uncertainty.

During the first two weeks of February I was booked to speak at conferences in five states. Three of those states, CT, MN, and KY were experiencing severe winter weather that made hosting a large scale event, like a conference, extremely challenging. In all three cases, the event coordinator called me prior to the conference and said, “Jason, I hate to say this, but we may have to cancel the event because of dangerous weather. We won’t know for sure what’s happening until a few hours ahead of time, but I wanted to give you a heads up just in case.”

This put me in a strange place: all day long I was trapped in a hotel room, in a new city that I couldn’t explore because of the bad weather, unsure as to whether or not I would be responsible for delivering a talk that evening. The uncertainty left me struggling to focus, extremely anxious, and unsure of what the heck I should do with myself.

Fortunately, all three of the scheduled conferences took place, and – according to the attendees – went well.  Being in a constant state of uncertainty for two weeks forced me to develop coping strategies that I want to share, for you to use when you’re dealing with uncertainty.

1) Stay in the moment:  part of what makes uncertainty so challenging is that we don’t know what the future will hold and our minds naturally try to figure out what will happen next, even though that’s not possible. Worse still, if you’re wired anything like me your mind will drift to the worst case scenario which adds stress and anxiety to an already challenging situation. The trick to overcoming this is to stay in the moment. Virtually all stress exists outside the moment. By drawing yourself into the present you’ll release yourself from some of the stress and be able to relax a bit.

Personally, I fall back on meditation, exercise, and slowly drinking tea or coffee while listening to relaxing music.

2) Make reasonable plans for the most likely situations: while the only clear thing about uncertainty is that we don’t know what will happen next, often times there are one or two scenarios that are more likely than the rest.

In my case either I was going to deliver a talk that evening, or the event was going to reschedule, which would seriously complicate my travel plans for the rest of the tour. Since giving the talk was the more mentally and physically demanding situation, I got myself prepared to speak in case the conferences did happen. This helped me relax because I knew I was equipped to deal with the most complicated outcome. After that, I also put together a list of alternative dates that I was available for my client in case we had to reschedule. This would allow us to quickly pivot and begin working on the rescheduled event. Knowing that in either of the two most likely situations I would be prepared and capable, helped make the uncertainty less threatening.

3) Treat yourself like royalty: uncertainty is very taxing. One of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re experiencing significant levels of uncertainty is to treat yourself extra well. This will lower your stress levels and make it easier for you to navigate the unknown. Personally, I cancelled all non-essential phone calls and meetings, rescheduled all tedious tasks for a later date, and spent my time doing low stress, enjoyable activities like having a tea, writing an email to a friend, and watching “How I Met Your Mother” re-runs.

4)  Keep the lines of communication open and set clear signals: finally, if you are coordinating with multiple people it’s important to keep the lines of communication clear. We all exchanged cell phone numbers, and set scheduled check-ins throughout the day. This way everyone had accurate information. We made soft plans for the different scenarios that may play out so that we were all on the same page and ready to take action once a final decision was reached.

We also set the rule, “If you hear nothing, assume that the conference is on. If the conference cancels we will all alert one another ASAP.” This way I knew that no news was good news and didn’t need to wonder what was happening if I didn’t hear from anyone. For your purposes, I suggest creating a clear schedule as to when people will check in with one another, as well as how to interpret a lack of communication. This will help everyone relax because they will know that they will be kept up to date with the latest information and action steps.

Uncertainty is challenging. I slept much less and felt far more stress than normal when I was unsure as to whether the conferences I was scheduled to speak at were even happening. While feeling some degree of anxiety and tension during periods of significant uncertainty is inevitable, by using the strategies above, you’ll be able to minimize the anxiety and sail smoothly through uncertainty.

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