Uncertainty can be a deeply paralysing feeling.
“In Limbo” – literally, “the edge of Hell” if you are religiously minded – is a place to avoid as much as possible.
But exactly what is it about uncertainty that we don’t like?
“Markets hate uncertainty” they say.
But a market can’t hate anything. We mean people running financial institutions.
And people become fearful and risk-averse when they feel uncertain.
There are good and solid reasons why uncertainty triggers fear and discomfort. Our brains are designed for it.
When we have limited information, our brains tend to hand over control from the rational part to the Limbic system which is the source of our emotions, including anxiety and fear.
Many thousands of years ago this helped us to stay cautious and fearful when we had limited information – a valuable part of staying safe. If you were unsure whether or not there was something inside a cave that wanted to eat you, better to stay outside.
Safe, not sorry.
It was a healthy reaction.
But today, we need to live more and more with uncertainty both because the world is constantly changing and because the information overload that defines our lives can often overwhelm us rather than bring certainty.
We just get more confused.
We also have to make quick decisions based on little or minimal information.
This makes us uncomfortable because we like to rationalise everything to the “n’th” degree rather than follow our gut instinct or intuition.
So how do we become more comfortable with uncertainty?
Here are five suggestions that might help.
It’s a glib thing to say.
But being aware that your brain will “trick” you into feeling anxious can help your rational mind to kick into action.
Take control of what’s going through your mind and stay positive.
Label any irrational thoughts as “unreal” (especially those that begin “What if…..”), because that’s what they are until proven otherwise.
Uncertainty sometimes feels like being unsure about “everything, everywhere”.
Spelling out the specifics of your uncertainties can make the situation seem more manageable.
Prioritise them, identify their relative importance and allow yourself to have a “known unknowns” pot in which to dump the most difficult issues for the moment.
Simply naming your uncertainties as specifically as possible will help to take away their power.
It will also provide you with a list of where to focus your efforts on gaining more certainty (if that’s important).
Forget “right” and “wrong” decisions
We like to make the right decision. But a lack of certainty can paralyse us into indecision.
We become overwhelmed by the pressure to get it right and so nothing happens.
Label your options 1 and 2 instead of right and wrong then make the decision. Label the next set of decisions in the same way.
Sometimes it’s better to make a mistake and get moving than to stay stuck.
Use working assumptions
We very rarely know everything.
A “working assumption” both recognises this and at the same time provides a tool for starting to move forward.
Knowing that you can change an assumption based on feedback and experience provides confidence. It allows the idea that you are working with a best-laid plan rather than certainty.
It’s more reassuring and probably more realistic.
It’s also a collaborative idea.
People can share and contribute to working assumptions without feeling like they are having to challenge or live by hard and fast rules.
Be up front that you are setting out your best working assumptions and people will appreciate your honesty and realism.
Uncertainty makes us overthink.
We believe that by thinking more and more about issues we have no control over, we can make them more certain. We can work them out. We can win back control.
The downside is that nothing happens and very little changes until we actually do something.
One piece of action – however small – starts to unlock uncertainty much more quickly.
Action instils a sense of control better than thinking, because it’s something we’ve done ourselves and proves we are capable of creating our own certainty.
Author Margaret Drabble once said “When nothing is sure, everything is possible”.
Write it down somewhere and keep it to hand.
There’s a first piece of action we can all take.