It’s one thing to design your desired new normal. It is another thing entirely to bring it to reality.
Claiming your goals is one of the most selfish acts you can engage in. I mean that in the most positive way possible. You are declaring your wants for you, not influenced or shaped by the wants, preferences, desires or expectations of others. That can be a scary proposition. We are conditioned from an early age to do otherwise—to meet expectations, to live up to our potential and to conform with standards of behaviour. Deciding what you genuinely want—and working to attain it—can be a scary and intimidating prospect.
That fear can have a number of sources. There is the essential question of how people will respond to the changes that you make and the objectives that you take ownership of. Once you have established your declared intent, you are also solely responsible for its attainment. You fully own realizing your ambitions, which means you also fully own the consequences of not reaching them. There is the fear that you might be making the wrong choice, and that realizing your declared goals won’t bring you the outcomes you seek. That is a lot to be wrestling with. It is why it can sometimes feel easier to opt for stasis, and accept your current reality, rather than make the bold moves to aspire to something different.
What is important to recognize is that action and fear are not incompatible. It’s normal to feel fear. It is a regular byproduct of human functioning in anticipation of the unknown and dealing with uncertain and risky outcomes. But the presence of fear does not preclude taking action. In fact, you can make the argument that fear can contribute positively to results. The body’s fear response is to prepare for fight-or-flight; it releases cortisol and adrenaline, heightening responses and preparing for action.
One of the things many people cite as their greatest fear is speaking in public. We fear it more than death, which is more than a little astonishing; the speech is only going to last so long. While a completely debilitating fear of a presentation isn’t necessarily helpful, many speakers argue that a twinge of anxiety helps. It give them focus, energy and a sense of urgency. While too much fear might be paralyzing, a complete absence of it could lead to complacency.
The bottom line is that we can feel fear and continue to act through it. This is a process of prioritizing the importance of the outcome over any discomfort that we might have in attaining it. By keeping what you are doing—and more significantly, why it is important to you—front and centre, it is possible to work through any anxieties you might have about accomplishing it. Recognize and acknowledge your fear responses for what they are, but recommit to knowing moving past those responses is important in realizing your future.
What you are doing is giving yourself permission to act. You are acknowledging your agency, and giving it a place in the forefront of your consciousness. You are choosing to do something, even though it has consequences that you might not yet fully understand and implications that you are not always wholly comfortable with.
How this plays out will depend upon what you are working towards in realizing your new normal. You may be aspiring to continue to work remotely, or to do so on a hybrid basis. You may have decided to make a change to how you approach your work—and the hours you put in—to prioritize other interests and pursuits. Perhaps you are seeking different work, or looking to move companies, industries or cities. Your change may be more personal, resolving to shift how you engage in key relationships. There may be personal commitments to make happen or personal changes that you want to make a reality. Or you may have some previous relationships or commitments that you are choosing not to engage in moving forward.
While you may have resolved these decisions for yourself, there is still the matter of enacting them in reality. For all the confidence that you might feel in the moment when you make a decision for yourself, it can still be difficult to articulate that choice to others. This can be particularly true when a decision that is good for you has consequences and implications for others. Whether that is your boss, your colleagues, your family or friends, establishing new expectations and resetting boundaries can be hard to initially voice, and harder to make stick.
Even choices that are theoretically strictly yours have consequences for others. If you want to simply have more time for a personal project—writing a book, volunteering, building skills or improving your health—there are consequences that result in negotiations with those around you. Making time for those pursuits will come at the expense of whatever you are displacing. That might be time with friends, overtime spent at work or simply passive time spent in the presence of your family—even if that’s just watching Netflix after dinner—that you now want to in part spend focused on alternative pursuits.
While negotiating with others as you contemplate and pursue your new normal will be its own challenge, a harder negotiation likely lies with yourself. This is particularly true where the choices you are making for your future are ones you have held as dreams for some time. The essential question that needs to be asked about moving forward projects that have languished for a time is: why now?
The answer to that may simply be that enduring and coming through the pandemic has focused and help clarify for you what really matters. You may be fully committed to a transformation that has long been put off, and that you are now determined to realize. If that’s the case, that’s awesome. For many of us, though, we’ve been here before. We’ve had dreams that we’ve aspired towards, only to put off taking action and making steps towards realizing. We’ve procrastinated, deferred, made the excuse that “we aren’t ready,” or determined that first we needed to clear the decks of other commitments, in order to be able to focus and fully commit to our theoretical chosen path.
If this sounds in any way familiar, rest assured that you aren’t alone. Nor are you destined to continually struggle with whether or when you will finally make that step. But actually doing so is entirely and solely up to you, and the degree to which you are intent on making real change. It is about making the real steps that are necessary to integrate whatever changes represent you new normal into your day-to-day routines.
This is where things get complicated and challenging. What you are pursuing and setting your sights on in terms of your new normal might feel like it’s a project. Whether you are thinking about shifting careers, writing that book, pursuing a degree or developing a new skill, you may be looking at it through the lens of project management. There is a thing you want to accomplish, an outcome you want to realize, and there is a start and finish to making that happen. Just because you’ve recognized this and built a plan of what needs to happen when doesn’t mean that it is going to be accomplished.
As I write this, for example, I have several projects brewing that are integral to my new normal as I move past the pandemic. There is a research project that I’ve been noodling about for two years, that I’ve not made any significant traction on making happen until this past week. There is a book that might emerge as a follow on pursuit. I have three more workshops in mind to complement Strategy Making. Recognizing the sedentary nature of much of my experience during the pandemic, there is also some attentiveness to my health, physical fitness and overall well-being that I would like to be making happen.
The challenge that shapes my moving forward on those priorities (and in my mind they are all priorities in different degrees) is not my awesomeness in planning and managing projects. I can show you many, many notebooks where I have outlined, planned, framed and scheduled different versions of everything that I have just mentioned. The larger problem that needs to be overcome is the routines that shape my day, define my existence and frame how I choose to act.
You may think you want to make projects happen. What is getting in the way are habits. You have a pattern to how you spend your days. You have situations that you frequently find yourself in, and default responses that frame how you react. For all of those dreams, desires and passions that you have wanted to pursue in the past, what has most likely derailed them to date has been the habits that you routinely engage in. The default patterns of how you go through your day, respond to situations and react to circumstance have a fundamental influence on where you invest your energy and the behaviours that you ultimately engage in.
An essential thing to keep in mind is that every one of our habits has evolved to in some way serve us. Each one provides a benefit that we theoretically value. That bag of Doritos is a source of comfort. The glass of wine or two at the end of the day is a way of winding down. Routinely checking your phone is a way of making sure you haven’t missed out on anything important. Ordering in for dinner is a way of reducing the stress of having to shop and cook. Every one of these habits in small doses may be defensible; they exist for a reason, and evolved because they provided a feeling of well-being and comfort, if only to alleviate boredom or stress. Overextended, though, each habit becomes potentially problematic and negative. What once provided a benefit instead becomes a barrier and a crutch.
The essential pattern of habits is that there is a trigger, which leads to a behaviour, which provides an outcome. Stress leads to a tub of ice cream that leads to comfort. Or stress leads to a glass of wine that leads to a different flavour of comfort. Stress can lead to avoidance that leads to relief. Or stress can lead to confrontation that leads to being left alone. The trigger is the same in all cases. The behaviour in each instance is different. The result is something that on the surface may appear to be desirable, but which may in actual fact be harmful and undermining what actually matters to us.
If you are going to be able to truly harness and realize your next normal, you are going to need to come to terms with the routines that you are encountering and inhabiting today. You need to recognize the triggers that lead to default behavioural responses, and you are going to need to give very real consideration as to whether the results of those responses are useful, meaningful and valuable for you. Doing so is an excellent place to start in framing different behaviours going forward. Being aware in the moment of the outcomes you are experiencing‚—and the degree to which they are positive, negative or neutral—is incredibly helpful in identifying the behaviours you want to change, and the triggers that you need to be aware of.
The pandemic has already wreaked havoc on our triggers, and on our habits. Many of us have reverted to strategies and norms that provide comfort or familiarity, perhaps to a greater degree than we have in the past. Part of where we go next is coming to terms with that reality, and finding our way back to ways of operating that reflect more who we use to be. What complicates that is also trying to find who we want to be next.
Success means that you need to build on parts of you that have worked successfully before. You need to be honest with yourself about the parts that are not working for you now. And you need to consider the parts of you that you will need going forward, to become the person you aspire to be. There is a lot to unpack inside of that. There are a lot of potential rabbit holes and distractions that could easily take you back to earlier, easier, familiar behaviours. If you are serious about doing different and being different, you are going to need to find the new routines that actually make that possible. You have the potential to do so. You simply need to care enough about the results to find a way through to your optimal future, despite the fears or the temptations that might lead you to do otherwise.