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Managing uncertainty-driven stress


Ambiguity is become more and more common place in our working environments. We are being asked to operate effectively in environments where the way forward isn’t clear.  


Work environments with no ambiguity are straightforward. The knowns outweigh the unknowns.  The next steps are predictable. However, we can end up feeling too comfortable, bored and not being stretched or learning. Such environments are becoming less common.


However, we are living in an increasingly ambiguous work. Ambiguity is when the problem or solution is unclear. Ambiguity creates complexity and means decision making is difficult. 


Ambiguity is stress inducing because you can’t rely on your usual patterns and predictions. This is unsettling as you lose your anchor and the uncertainty drives stress. 


This is natural. Our brains our programmed to like certainty and to look for patterns and scripts so that we can predict what will happen next. When patterns don’t turn out as you expect we experience stress. This means you are more likely to REACT to situation in an unhelpful way rather than RESPOND in a considered and thoughtful way. 


Ideas for managing stress, ambiguity and uncertainty:

  1. Use Covey’s Circle of Influence model to ensure you are being proactive rather than reactive and spending time in the rights areas:-              
    1. “Circle of Control”
      These are tasks that you can do immediately and will create movement and energy,
    2. “Circle of influence”
      These are short to medium length activities that we have influence over and contribute to our longer term goals.
    3. “Circle of Concern”
      These are topics that we have some interest in but little influence over.   We want to minimise our time here.
  2. Mel Robbins in the “5 second rule” says that we always know what we need to do in a situation but when we are stressed our feelings take over and stops us. We don’t have that uncomfortable conversation with a colleague because we are scared, we don’t suggest the new idea at the team meeting because we are scared we might look stupid and we don’t try a new idea because we are worried we might fail.  She argues that if you have an impulse to act on a goal then you must physically move within 5 seconds otherwise the emotional part of your brain will kill it.   She says that if you count from 5-1 then you are giving your idea an opportunity to get to the rational part of your brain and disrupt your default patterns. 
  3. Breathing is another powerful way for managing stress. The US Marines use box breathing to manage their stress when going into any challenging situation. You breathe in through you nose to the count of 5, hold your breath lightly for 5, breathe out through you mouth for 5, hold your breath lightly again for 5 before repeating the process again.  


The benefits of dealing with uncertainty induced stress

Uncertainty and ambiguity are not going to disappear. Some of the benefits of learning to deal with uncertainty induced stress are:-

  • Reducing the level of procrastination that I have due to ambiguity
  • Having a more flexible mindset
  • More action being taken to clear the fog and being less paralysed

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