7 Principles for Disordered Times

Change is inevitable, so focus on what you can control

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

We tend to live under the illusion that things are stable — and that when they aren’t, it’s a disruption from the norm. If the chaos of 2020 (and, so far, 2021) has thrown any truth into focus, it’s how much we crave a straight line. An orderly progression from point A to point B.

But really, as I tell my coaching clients, the norm is that things are always changing. There is no straight line. For better or worse, our lives move in cycles:

  • Order → disorder → reorder
  • Orientation → disorientation → reorientation
  • Integration → disintegration → reintegration

The hard work is navigating the middle phases. The prefix dis, which all of them share, means asunder, apart, or into pieces. The question, then, is how do we go to pieces without falling apart?

The answer is simpler, and more attainable, than you might think. Here are seven principles for living through the most challenging part of life’s cycle and making it to the next phase with your well-being and values intact.

Focus on what you can control. There is a difference between worrying about a situation and taking productive action to change it. Whenever you catch yourself doing the former, use it as a cue to do the latter. Exerting agency, even if only in small doses, is key to health and well-being.

Nail the small things. Move your body regularly. Sleep. Do what you can to eat nutritious foods. Don’t feel guilty for prioritizing any of these things — having a solid grounding in basic health habits supports the physiological and psychological strength that gets us through periods of disorder.

Use routines. When it feels like the ground underneath you is shaking, tried-and-true routines can provide a source of stability and predictability. A routine doesn’t need to be an elaborate, hyper-productive get-up-with-the-sun practice — it can be as simple as clearing regular space for your daily walk, morning cup of coffee, meditation practice, or evening 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. During periods of disorder, there can be an urge to shut down and isolate, but do what you can to resist this urge. Plenty of research on resilience points to the benefits of community in helping us through difficult times. When we stay connected to others, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and with vulnerability comes trust and support.

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 to their shifting surroundings. Get clear on the aspects of your life (or your organization) that are nonnegotiable, and then push yourself to be more flexible with the rest.

Respond, don’t 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.” Of course, in the moment, this kind of intentional approach is 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 staying engaged and thoughtful in a frequently changing environment.

Show up, get through, and worry about making meaning on the other side. Release yourself from any sense of “this has to be meaningful” or “I need to make the most out of this.” Simply getting through while showing yourself kindness is challenging enough.

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. Gradually, you progress from disorder to reorder, from disorientation to reorientation.

Bestselling author of Peak Performance and The Passion Paradox. Co-Creator of The Growth Equation. Coach to executives, entrepreneurs, and MDs.

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