- The measure of intelligence is the ability to change. -Albert Einstein
Change is never easy. That's what I tell myself, looking at the (organised) mountain of post-its, books, notebooks, boxes, assorted paraphernalia that's littering the table next to me as I type today.
It's not easy, yet the most constant and certain thing we will all experience throughout our lives is change. So why do we feel so unprepared for it when it comes?
This year's been full of it: shifts, transitions, transformations, everywhere around me. The joy of the new, the grief over what or who we’ve lost; I assume it’s been a rollercoaster for you too. Then not knowing whether we could travel, meet, be in public or in which condition, from one day to the next. As for returning to the office, most people have yet to experience it. And many aren’t prepared to do so or simply don’t want to go back to what was before.
Change and transitions come in all shapes and sizes, and whether rainbow-coloured or a slate, doomsday grey, we human beings don’t like it when the natural order of our environment gets disrupted. I’m assuming you’ve heard of our ancient limbic brain, the reptilian master of our fight/flight/freeze mode.
Our built-in survival mechanism has one job against whatever disruption to our baseline, and that’s to protect us. It’s worth noting that it reacts similarly to the threat of an attack (think sabre-tooth tiger) as it does to mundane things such as reading something you find offensive on Facebook/IG or other. Think of the physiological responses: flushed cheeks, warmth, sweating, increased heart rate, muscular tension: it’s as if you were facing a potential death threat, and yet you’ve only glanced at a screen.
Even the most positive changes, those we actively seek out, can lead to us closing down or running for the hills, whether that’s the job of our dreams, an amazing promotion, moving in/out, or finding ourselves in a blossoming relationship.
Basically, our human nervous system sees all change as a threat.
Buddhist thought leader Ethan Nichtern describes this conundrum beautifully:
“Inhabiting a human nervous system is kind of like living in a house where the doorbell and the burglar alarm make exactly the same sound.”
No wonder that in the midst of the greatest uncertainty most of us have ever faced, we see so many movements pushing back against widely considered positive recent changes. Or simply trying to go back to old traditions.
Old is safe. New is scary.
How can we work with this then?
If we are going to survive, let alone thrive as a people, as a planet, we’re going to need to make some significant changes and I can safely predict that it’s going to feel annoying and even uncomfortable!
But I have great news for you: we are a highly adaptable species. Only look around you and see how we constantly move forward.
Our brain is a great partner in this, it does a wonderful job at directing us to appreciate what we have, even when we have needed to radically adapt to new scenarios. Basically, we have an automated rewiring system helping us change the narrative and helping us feel good about our new situation. You don’t believe me? Well, Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert offered a great case in his TED Talk 'The surprising science of happiness', (one of the 25 most-watched talks of all Ted conferences) where he explains that our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong.
So we are capable of adapting to change and we are going to have to.
But what can we do now?
In coaching or consulting, I see many of my clients trying to navigate uncertainty and here’s what I find works for them (and me).
A friend of mine (married to a sailor husband) has recently spent a lot of time at sea and told me she’d learned a lot about meditation and herself lately after spending so much time without solid ground underneath her.
When we are on shaky ground, when things feel uncertain and fear is making us feel tender, or vulnerable, stability or solidity is the relief we seek.
For me, fear of change is a chameleon-like inner creature who prefers to spend time on mundane chores instead of challenging or important work. She’s highly domestic and likes to create steady ground by busying herself taking out the trash, paying the bills, repotting plants, cleaning the pantry and doing the laundry. Most forms of organisation soothe her. Even excel spreadsheets appeal to her. And when things are really, really important (or hard to do), she’ll even start ironing!
However, I recognise that this procrastination or self-sabotage (against deadlines of the creative kind) also offers the welcome relief of a stable, clean environment. So instead of judging this other me (I am looking for a nickname for her in case anyone has any ideas), I observe her and commend her for her effort to make me feel safer.
Thank you, domestic goddess-me, I see you. Despite the fact I was supposed to develop my business plan and marketing strategy, I understand you were trying to make me feel more at ease.
I’ll get back to the turtle steps towards my business development plans now, thank you.
ESTABLISHING A PLAN
Even for the most creative and right-brained of us, creating a structure is a top tactic, one that makes us feel contained. I'd almost go as far as saying ‘held’. And the image I have in my mind is swaddling a baby. Routines and strategies are a form of boundaries, giving us the means to establish a clear perimeter within which we feel safer evolving.
What works best for me, and dare I say most of my clients, is to consider routines (or you could say rituals) they can put in place to bookend their day; a solid foundation is excellent for our sense of self and accomplishment. We start off strong.
What works at home can apply to the office. Making a list, identifying what works with your team is step one, then setting up a strategy to do those things that work. I find a daily checklist is key to ensure that we keep engaging in the right way with the tools we know are supportive.
My favourite one, for group work, is check-ins. Something retail teams do daily, but which I rarely see implemented in other corporate environments. Fifteen minutes every morning is all you need, together, to track tasks, ask everyone how they are, see if anyone needs help, especially with prioritising, and of course, cheering the daily or weekly wins.
Something else I’ve found useful is to ask: what do I need right now? What can serve me and my work best?
When I asked myself that question earlier, this is the answer that came up: ‘Keep your head down, do the work.’
However daunting the task is. Take one step. And then another. Keep your head down and keep going.
Eventually, that's how we climb the highest mountains, right? So that’s what I am in for. It sounds a bit stern and this voice is not the cheeriest but she certainly will help me towards my goals.
Change is not comfortable. I look again at the paperwork next to me and I remember that discomfort is a signal something important is happening.
Moving towards our goals, doing things that are new, walking into the unknown is really hard and it takes a great deal of courage and perseverance, not to give in to the discomfort or shoving our dreams back in the box.
My friend Laura was reminding me of great advice she'd heard from a coach and mentor of ours:
Feel the fear and do it anyway!
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO REMEMBER THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
Here’s what I want you to take away, what I hope you remember and what I wish for you to share with others near you.
Change and uncertainty won’t go away, it is literally what life is made of.
Clamping down and waiting for change to go away is unlikely to help you move towards any of your objectives, whatever they are.
And until you (and me) learn to ‘be with what is’ or to enjoy riding the waves without solid ground beneath us, here are some things that can help:
- Choose to cultivate self-awareness and explore how change or uncertainty might be impacting you and your team.
- Look for strategies to support you and provide you with a sense of control and stability: figure out what works for you. Something you can do every day (or almost every day). Make that checklist and do what you can, track your progress, add or subtract to the list as needed.
- Be kind to yourself. Change is bloody hard. The last thing we need is to beat ourselves up about how we handle it. And I say this from experience.
Finally consider this: things DO need to change. I’m talking about climate change today but obviously, there is more, apart from this life-threatening sword above all our heads.
So let’s make change management something we all work on, talk about, and support each other on.
Perhaps that’s a good strategy for our planet’s survival. Maybe add that to the checklist.