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A Brief Guide to Navigating Periods of Disorder

Like it or not, life is cyclical.

Brad Stulberg

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I recently heard someone say that that inherent unpredictability and uncertainty of life can feel like “looking both ways before crossing the street, and then getting hit by an airplane.”

For better or worse, we tend to live under the illusion that things are stable when in fact they are always changing. We crave a straight line of progress and increasing happiness, but like it or not life is cyclical:

  • Order → Disorder → Reorder
  • Orientation → Disorientation → Reorientation
  • Integration → Disintegration → Reintegration

The hard work is navigating the middle phases. The prefix “dis,” which all the middle phases share, means asunder, apart, or into pieces. The question, then, is how do we go to pieces without falling apart? The principles below, all of which are supported by modern science and ancient wisdom, help.

Stop Resisting What Is Happening. Periods of disorder are the nature of reality. Resisting them may feel good in the short-term, but invariably leads to distress in the long-term. You’ve got to engage with what is in front of you, and wisely—which is what the following principles emphasize.

Focus On What You Can Control, Do Not Worry About What You Cannot. Trying to control the uncontrollable is a waste of time and energy, and a surefire path to anxiety. There is a difference between worrying about a situation one the one hand and taking productive action on the other. Whenever you catch yourself doing the former, use it as a cue to do the latter. Not only is it more effective, but you’ll feel better too. Exerting agency, even if only in small doses, is key to health and well-being.

Nail Daily Habits.Move your body regularly. Sleep. Do what you can to eat nutritious foods. Nailing these basics supports underlying physiological and psychological strength. If you feel guilty or indulgent for doing these things, don’t.

Use Routines. When it feels like the ground underneath you is shaking, having tried and true routines provides a source of stability and predictability. This can be as simple as your daily walk, morning cup of coffee, meditation practice, or evening book-reading time. It’s all about something that you know will be there and that you can come back to over and over again.

Stay Connected. Study after study of resilience points to the benefits of community. During periods of disorder there can be an urge to shut down and isolate. Do what you can to resist this urge. Odds are, many other people are feeling the same way as you. Vulnerability builds trust and deep relationships. And in deep relationships we stay strong (enough) together when we could never do so alone.

Think Adaptation Instead of Change. Change is something that happens to you. Adaptation is something that you are in conversation with. Get the former out of your vocabulary and focus on the latter. All successful systems, from individual cells to entire species, are successful because they can adapt with their shifting surroundings. Get clear on the aspects of you (or your organization) that are non-negotiable, and then push yourself to be more flexible with the rest.

Respond Not React. The Holocaust survivor and philosopher Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This kind of approach is, of course, easier said than done. Something that helps is what I call the 4 P’s: pause, process, plan, proceed. It’s a good heuristic for thoughtfully being in the dance with a frequently changing environment (see above).

Show Up, Get Through, and Worry About Making Meaning on the Other Side. At times, it can be helpful to release from any sense of “this has to be meaningful” or “I need to make the most out of this” in favor of being kind to yourself, being where you are, and simply getting through. If you pay close attention to what is happening inside of you during these liminal phases, and do so without judgment, the right choices and actions tend to emerge on their own. Gradually, you progress from disorder to reorder from disorientation to reorientation. Research conducted at Harvard by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert shows that we look back on challenging periods of disorder in a much more productive and meaningful light than we experience them. In other words, sometimes nothing makes sense until you get to the other side, and that’s okay.

Brad Stulberg researches and writes on sustainable excellence and wellbeing. He is bestselling author of the new book, The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success that Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.

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This post originally appeared on Brad Stulberg and was published September 23, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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