For the most part, I like to know what is going on. I have long-term, medium-term and short-term targets of what I’m trying to accomplish, professionally and personally.
Those targets aren’t carved in stone. They don’t say “on this month five years from now I will have accomplished x.” Short-term goals can be defined that way, but larger and loftier goals require a certain amount of flexibility. They can happen a lot faster, and they can also get derailed by the vicissitudes of life. Reaching our longer-term outcomes requires a certain combination of persistence, focus, serendipity and openness to opportunity. What combination this might take varies, by circumstance and situation.
There are times, though, when all planning—short, medium and long term—goes completely out the window. For me, now is one of those times. There was no signal it was coming. There was no ominous build up. The theme from Jaws was curiously absent. One day, you wake up, and life is different. And you’re left to figure it out from there.
This is the challenge, though. Dealing with massive upheaval is hard. For anyone in the middle of it, finding a way through feels enormous and overwhelming. There aren’t guides for what to do when life goes completely off the rails. But we all get there at some point, and all of us need to find a way safely through to the other side.
While I won’t bore you with the details of what I’m dealing with right now, there are health challenges on several fronts in my family right now. That includes me, which has necessitated changes in my work schedule and travel. I’m also in the process of renegotiating a significant corporate relationship. I had several relatively urgent customer commitments, some moveable and others not. And just for extra fun, the condo unit below mine developed a mysterious leak, with my building wanting to excavate into my walls to find the source.
Apart from feeling like the universe is engaging in a giant and completely undeserved pile-on, the challenge is how to cope. What do you do when all of your careful planning goes out the window? How do you respond in the face of a whirlwind of chaos? And how do you stay sane in the process?
What follows are the hard-won strategies that have emerged for me as how to deal with chaos and upheaval on a major scale:
- What’s the immediate priority? And I mean immediate. It’s easy to start running off in all directions. This is neither productive nor helpful. What’s first? What, above all, needs to happen right now? This is about getting focussed on whatever needs to be done to respond to the situation, in order to stabilize it and make it manageable. If there are immediate choices, actions or decisions, be clear about what they are and get them tackled.
- What can move, what can get deferred and what can stop? After dealing with the immediate, we can pull back a little bit and look at the bigger picture. Scanning forward a few of weeks, what’s on your plate? What really, really has to happen (and you need to judge this carefully, based on what’s truly critical). What can you shift? What can you cancel? Be ruthlessly pragmatic here. People will understand. When I had to cancel several planned trips, my customers were nothing but supportive. Yes, that means rescheduling things, and that has an impact. But there is very little that is so important that it can’t move, if the reason for doing so is critical enough.
- What’s the best possible outcome that’s possible from here? Even in a crisis—especially in crisis—it’s helpful to have a picture of where you are trying to go. Be honest about the problem or issue and build a pragmatic image of what the best possible outcome looks like in the face of that reality. That’s the solution you are trying to reach; that’s the goal you should keep in mind. From there, it’s about working out the steps that you need to take to work towards that goal.
- What’s the next best outcome if that doesn’t work? Of course, our best possible outcome doesn’t always happen. So what’s the next best result after that? This is very much in keeping with the negotiation principle of understanding your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” If you can’t get optimal, what does “good enough” look like? This helps to identify options and avenues you can explore as things change (because things will continue to change).
- What decisions need to be made now? When you’ve got a picture of what you are trying to accomplish, identify and focus on the decisions that have to be made immediately. There are likely to be some. Be clear about what they are, why they need to be made now, and what the consequences are of making them. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by ALL the decisions (and all the uncertainty). Not everything needs to be dealt with now. Pay attention to what’s front and centre.
- What’s the next decision, and what information will I need to make it? For the next decisions along the pipe, what are they? What will need to be decided? What information will be helpful when you get that far? That’s going to shape what you can do now, in terms of research, in terms of asking questions, in terms of finding out information. This helps with recognizing there is a sequence to the decisions we need to make, but it also helps us to proactively prepare for the decisions we will need to be making soon.
- What needs to get done today? In a crisis, the idea of any plan often goes out the window. We need to plan, but we also need to recognize that plans are going to shift in real time as things change. We also need to be conscious of the fact that we have limited time and limited energy, and that bandwidth is also being compressed by stress. So triaging what really, truly needs to be done becomes critical. What are those must-do things that have to get done today? There may be other things that are causing us stress or worry, but if they aren’t changing in the next 24 hours, it’s not helpful to focus on them.
- What can get deferred to tomorrow? A big part of focussing on what needs to happen today is identifying what can get moved, and what the consequences of doing so are. Sometimes, it can be really, really helpful to decide something can wait, whether that is until tomorrow or next week or next month. Again, we’re not focussing on what we WANT to do now, or even what we think we SHOULD do now (there’s a whole other article about “should” in my future). It’s about what HAS To happen now.
- Where can I get help? A big thing to recognize is that none of us are in this alone. People want to help us. They are often even anxious to help us. But they sometimes aren’t sure what to do or how to help. We need to ask. There is no badge for heroism for going through a crisis alone. Identify what would help, and who could provide that help. And ask, as clearly and specifically as possible. Allow for the fact that they might not be able to, as well, or at least that they might not be able to now. Give them the ability to say no gracefully. That will often lead into a different offer of help elsewhere. Take the help that is offered. Be thankful, but know that people are also happy to make a difference for someone.
- What do I need to do to look after me? Self-care is critical here. It’s what we often forget (well, I often forget it). Working through a crisis, part of what we need to do is take care of ourselves. We need to sleep. We need to eat. We need to step away for a period of time, so that we can come back and continue. Doing this is not selfish, or weak, or a sign we are failing. It is absolutely necessary and essential to do. Identify what you can do to keep your physical, mental and emotional state as positive as you can. Then do it.
- Stay optimistic. Optimism is a powerful force in the universe. Research has demonstrated that optimists are more successful than pessimists. Largely because they keep going, when others throw up their hands in despair and give up. Keep focussed on what’s positive and possible. Keep in mind that best possible outcome and work towards it. Acknowledge setbacks for what they are, adapt around them, and figure out what to do next.
- Celebrate the wins when they happen. It’s often difficult to think about celebrating anything in a crisis. But not everything is going to go wrong all the time. Some positives will occur. Breakthroughs will happen. Actions will be taken, decisions will be made, answers will be provided or help will be offered. Recognize the small wins that happen along the way. Appreciate them and celebrate them for what they are. Be grateful for the positives.
No one wants to live in crisis or challenge. But we’re all going to find ourselves there some day. Aging parents, ill partners, accidents and corporate upheavals all mean that somewhere, sometime, we are going to have to respond and react. It’s never fun, and there is no good time for it to happen. Often, it will feel like the very worst time for it to happen. We don’t get to negotiate with the universe. We do get to choose how we respond.