You’ll have heard the phrase dozens of times over the past few years, and now perhaps more so than ever: ‘In these uncertain times . . . ’
But uncertainty is a fact of life. It is, in fact, the only certainty. We might think our own times are especially unstable, but most periods in history have experienced tremendous upheavals and unknowns. People have always had to deal with wars, floods, famines, political turmoil, pandemics.
On a less dramatic level, on any given day, our train could be late, the internet might crash, our child may come down with a fever. We could lose our job, be forced to relocate. A partner could say they don’t love us any more. There will always be an infinite number of ‘what if’ scenarios to cycle through.
I am a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist who studies what makes us thrive. I recently moved to become head of psychology at the University of Adelaide in Australia, after ten years at the Oxford Centre for Emotions and Affective Neuroscience (OCEAN), a lab I founded and directed at Oxford University. I also coach sporting and business elites to reach their full potential. And in my decades of research I have come to realise that accepting the world’s uncertainty not only fosters resilience and lowers anxiety but drastically improves your chances of happiness and success. Those who truly thrive in life have learnt to adapt to its inherent unpredictability.
Agility is built into our DNA because humans have had to deal with huge changes. Professor Elaine Fox explains how we can also practise to make ourselves better
If you don’t learn to live with uncertainty, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with worry, never embrace change and torpedo your life by getting stuck in a rut.
But there is good news. First, we are better at coping than we think we are; and second, we can improve our tolerance of uncertainty by developing what I call an ‘agile mindset’.
Agility is built into our DNA, in part because humans have always had to contend with huge changes. But we can also practise to make ourselves better at it.
Whether it’s coping with a difficult boss, dealing with argumentative teens, resolving a dispute with a friend, boosting your energy or losing weight, an agile mind will make all the difference between calmly getting things done and sticking rigidly to old habits that doom you to fail.
Start to flex your agile mind now. First, take this quiz to find out how you react to uncertainty. Then learn to embrace change by giving your brain a resilience-boosting workout.
HOW WELL DO YOU COPE WITH LIFE’S UNKNOWNS?
Answer the questions honestly. For each one, give yourself a score from one to five, according to how much the statement is typical of you, then add up your total.
(One: not at all like me. Two: a little like me. Three: somewhat like me. Four: very like me. Five: completely like me.)
To thrive at a time of uncertainty, distance yourself from negative or judgmental thoughts, too. Refusing to become stuck in a spiral of negativity about yourself will lead you to become more agile
1. I really don’t like surprises.
2. I become frustrated if I don’t have all the information I need.
3. There are many things I don’t do if I’m unsure about them.
4. I always try to plan ahead to avoid unexpected things happening.
5. Even small things that happen unexpectedly can spoil a well-planned day.
6. Sometimes I can’t do things because I’m paralysed by uncertainty.
7. I always want to know what is going to happen to me in the future.
8. I don’t function very well when I’m uncertain.
9. If I have any doubts about something I find it very difficult to act.
10. I try to avoid uncertain situations.
A score between 10 and 12 is very low; 13 to 15 is low; 16 to 28 is average; 29 to 45 is high; 46 to 50 is very high.
A low score shows you have a high tolerance for uncertainty. You are curious about the unknown and happy to take on new information or find yourself in a new situation.
Intolerance to uncertainty, on the other hand — indicated by a higher score — leads to a disproportionate need to feel safe and secure, alongside a tendency to worry, which in turn generates anxiety and stress.
You’re the kind of person who engages in ‘safety behaviours’ — things that provide reassurance and reduce uncertainty, such as phoning your teenager if you don’t know where they are, or checking a restaurant menu before you go out.
If you scored highly, try getting more comfortable with not knowing how a situation will turn out. You can start small: if you are scared to try reconnecting with a relative after a long family feud, leave that for now. Instead, you could reach out to a friend or acquaintance you haven’t seen for a while to test how that feels. Then you could tackle a mildly difficult conversation, such as bargaining for a discount in a shop.
The idea is to start with a small degree of uncertainty, then gradually expose yourself to more and more degrees of uncertainty as you become more comfortable.
FLEX YOUR BRAIN TO EMBRACE CHANGE
Most of us don’t like change. Restructures at work, a house move — we tend to look on these events with dread. But not changing can often be worse.
Everyone will be able to think of a time when they stuck with something, or someone, for too long. The status quo may be comfortable, but it’s important to question things: are our past habits really serving us well? Ignoring change and doggedly trying to keep things the same will gradually undermine your energy and vitality.
We can measure agile thinking in the lab. Brain imaging studies show that mentally agile people have more flexible connections among different regions of the brain, and those connections are more dynamic and fluid. But that’s not a hard-wired advantage — we can all loosen up our brain networks by training them.
Try this exercise, which measures how fast you are at switching from one mental setting to another . . .
Consider the following series of digits, to which these rules apply:
- If the font is in bold, you have to say whether the digit is higher or lower than five.
- If the typeface is normal (e.g. 4), you must say whether the digit is odd or even.
In technical terms, one mental setting is ‘higher or lower than five’, while another is ‘odd or even’. Switching between the two disrupts the flow of mental processing.
So, open the stopwatch on your phone and time yourself from the beginning to the end of these number sequences. Remember, normal typeface means saying odd or even, bold typeface is identifying if the number is higher or lower than five.
6 2 7 4 9 3
6 3 8 3 2 9
1 3 4 8 6 6
7 4 8 2 3 9
Write down your answer.
The first time I did this it took me 21.32 seconds.
Now, reset your stopwatch and do exactly the same with the following sequence.
6 2 7 4 9 3
6 3 8 3 2 9
1 3 4 8 6 6
7 4 8 2 3 9
Write down your time.
This took me 26.88 seconds, meaning there’s a switch cost of 5.56 seconds. The second set is harder because you have to jump back and forth between rules, while in the first set of digits there is only one switch.
How did you do? If you practise task- switching regularly, you should see an improvement over time, and it will give your brain a good cognitive flexibility workout. For a more practical workout, try this assignment . . .
1. Write out three or four tasks that will each take no more than 15 minutes. They can be something like writing an email, making a phone call, booking theatre tickets or tidying your desk.
2. Work out a sensible amount of time for each of your activities and decide on the order in which you will tackle them.
3. Now, set a stopwatch for your allocated time and begin the first task. When the time is up, stop. No cheating, no matter where you are in your task. Even if you have almost finished, you must stop when the buzzer sounds.
4. Take a short break. Then reset your timer and get on with your second task.
This simple assignment is surprisingly helpful. First, you’ll find out how good you are at estimating how long tasks will take. Hint — most of us hugely underestimate. Second, you will learn to switch more efficiently from one task to another.
If you do this regularly, perhaps weekly, you’ll dramatically improve your cognitive flexibility.
LEARN TO THINK LIKE MICHELLE OBAMA
Allocate a number from one to six to the names of six people you admire — people you know, celebrities, like Michelle Obama (pictured, or even fictional characters
The reason we often get stuck in life is because we tend to assess situations from a single perspective. But sometimes, shifting our view on things even slightly can reveal a new impression and open our minds to other possibilities.
This ability to change your perspective is a fundamental component of agility. To improve at it, try this simple game.
Allocate a number from one to six to the names of six people you admire — people you know, celebrities, even fictional characters. Then roll a die and spend the next hour getting into the head of the person on whom it lands, seeing the world as they would.
What would Elizabeth Bennet or Hermione Granger do? How about your best friend? Or Michelle Obama?
How would she deal with the problem? When practised regularly, this exercise gets you in the habit of seeing things from various viewpoints.
IT CAN HELP TO DON ROSE-TINTED SPECS
Most of us are positive about our own lives. Even during the pandemic, one study in the U.S. found people were optimistic about their chance of not catching the virus, while pessimistic about the chances others would become ill.
Remember, optimism is not necessarily unrealistic. Those who achieve a healthy balance of ‘optimistic realism’ see the future through rose -tinted glasses while knowing there will be disappointments and failures along the way.
Optimists don’t ignore the stresses or uncertainty of life, they just approach adversity in more productive ways. When something goes wrong, rather than blaming themselves and seeing it as permanent, they look for ways to learn from the setback.
We can all change our perspectives to be more optimistic. Try to look for the positives in any difficult situation and surround yourself with positive material and people.
We all know negativity tends to pulse through social media, so steer clear if possible.
DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM NEGATIVITY
To thrive at a time of uncertainty, distance yourself from negative or judgmental thoughts, too. Refusing to become stuck in a spiral of negativity about yourself will lead you to become more agile.
Write down a couple of selfjudgmental, negative thoughts — whatever resonates with you.
Now pick one of them and spend about 30 seconds giving it your full attention, trying to believe completely in the thought as much as you can.
Next, replay the thought with the phrase, ‘I’m having the thought that . . .’ stuck in front. For instance, you might say: ‘I’m having the thought that I’m boring.’
Once you’ve done this for several seconds, add the phrase, ‘I notice I’m having the thought that . . .’ in front of the original.
Now practise this with different negative phrases, until you begin to see that it isn’t that difficult to distance yourself from them.
Distancing is a powerful mental tool that will show you how thoughts are not necessarily linked to reality.
USE THE FRIDGE TO PREP FOR A CRISIS
Professor Elaine Fox suggests putting an enticing treat — a piece of chocolate, say — in your fridge, surrounded by healthier options. Tell yourself you can have the treat on a certain day, or at a certain time. Each time you open the fridge, you can look at the treat, even pick it up and smell it, but then put it aside and select a healthier option
In a crisis, it’s important to keep a cool head. We need to focus on what is relevant and suppress information that isn’t.
Some everyday exercises can enhance ‘inhibitory control’ and help give us the mental skills to assess a situation calmly, rather than act on impulse.
Put an enticing treat — a piece of chocolate, say — in your fridge, surrounded by healthier options. Tell yourself you can have the treat on a certain day, or at a certain time. Each time you open the fridge, you can look at the treat, even pick it up and smell it, but then put it aside and select a healthier option.
Done regularly, this will bolster your mental control skills, helping you to stop acting on impulse. There may be a few setbacks!
Participating in sport, learning to play a musical instrument or learning a foreign language can also target some of the key mental resources that are needed to help you stay in control in a crisis, such as maintaining both focus and cognitive flexibility.
Positive emotions and resilience are closely linked. So, in a crisis, remember to try to seek even tiny positive experiences. You could play with your grandchildren, phone a friend or go for a walk somewhere you love. Positive experiences and emotions can also be ‘banked’ to draw on when times get tough.
If you regularly experience positive emotions, your social bonds will strengthen and your resilience will increase as you learn to face difficult situations with a broader perspective and a willingness to be agile.
- Adapted by Alison Roberts from Switchcraft: Harnessing The Power Of Mental Agility To Transform Your Life, by Elaine Fox (£16.99, Hodder & Stoughton). © Elaine Fox 2022. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid to May 30, 2022; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/ books or call 020 3176 2937.