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How to embrace uncertainty

Uncertainty about your future at work – if you’re worried about job security, for example – is a unique kind of torture, writes Oliver Burkeman

by Psychologies

Our minds are designed to seek control and predictability, so it is arguably worse to fear bad news than to receive it. The feeling of being in limbo can damage health and relationships. There is a solution – but it’s probably not what you’re thinking. 

The aim

The real problem, argues self-help writer Susan Jeffers, isn’t the uncertainty, it’s the struggle to get rid of it. ‘We live in a society that teaches us to grasp for control of everything: our careers, relationships, children, health, money,’ she writes.

But that’s impossible. Even in areas in which you do have control, it’s only partial, and accidents, illnesses and economic crashes happen. The trick is to embrace uncertainty instead – but that’s easier said than done.  

The theory

Embracing uncertainty doesn’t mean failing to make plans. It just means seeing the truth: that such plans are made against a backdrop of unpredictability. ‘Let go of any hope that you can create certainty in your life,’ Jeffers urges. Then, switch your focus from outcomes (which you can’t control) to processes and habits (which you can).

You can’t guarantee financial security, but perhaps you can save a little extra each month. You can’t be certain you’d get a new job if you were sacked, but you can make regular coffee dates, to nurture your network.

You can’t determine the outcome of your performance review, but you can do good work – and make sure that those higher up know. This approach to life is a relief. In contrast to the futile struggle for certainty, when you focus on daily steps, you ‘win’ every time you perform one. 

Try this

  • Use ‘negative visualisation’. Instead of trying to persuade yourself that everything will work out fine, try calmly imagining the steps that you would take if things went badly wrong. That way, the worst-case scenario won’t hold so much horror.
  • Meditate. It’s a piece of advice you hear often these days. But a mindfulness practice – even just five minutes of concentrating on your breathing each day – helps you to see that the thoughts and feelings associated with uncertainty are simply that: thoughts and feelings. You don’t have to believe them.
  • Try the ‘I wonder’ exercise. Jeffers suggests listing your hopes for the future – ‘I hope I find a new job’, ‘I hope I get promoted’ – and substituting ‘I wonder if…’ It’s a surprisingly powerful way to shift your stance towards the unknown future.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99).