The discharge papers from my grandfather's service during the first World War stated simply, “The World War”. It is tragic that a century later we know well that it was not the “war to end all wars” nor the only “World War” and in fact we have been in a nearly constant state of war around the world ever since. Preceding the world war society had been enjoying some of the most rapidly changing times in history to date. During the “belle epoque” we invented automobiles, airplanes, phonographs, synthetic fabrics, X-rays, relativity, and general creativity in the arts, architecture, and science were unprecedented.
During a period of perhaps greater social change in 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote “Future Shock”. A massive best seller it noted the “shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”. If anything, the pace of change has increased even more and perhaps as importantly the access to the changes are unprecedented. In 1820 it took 6 weeks to get news from Europe to the United States, in 2020 the same news is broadcast live as it happens by a bystander’s cell phone.
Rapid changes and the related stress it causes have been with us for at least the last 130+ years, and while not unprecedented, it does seem to escalate in scale and accessibility. We could follow the example of the “Luddites” of the early 19th century who were so fearful and hostile toward technology that they physically destroyed the machines they feared. That course, however, does not feel very satisfying nor forward looking. As I write this billions of people are being impacted and will continue to be impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. What is one to do?
Here are a few ideas that might help you not only cope, but even thrive amidst escalating change, pandemic or no pandemic.
Core Values: It was Steven R. Covey who said that in a time of increasing change it is more critical than ever to build our lives on the solid bedrock of our values. Of course, this wisdom has been around for thousands of years as the Bible encourages that we build on a solid foundation so that we can withstand the wind and rain and not be washed away. Or, there is always the country song that tells us that “if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything”.
In graduate school I learned about variable management – the idea that you use different management skills for different situations. While there is some wisdom there, it does not apply to our values. They form a solid foundation on which, or around which everything else is secondary. Living with this type of integrity may make us wealthy and famous, but it may not – and it does not matter. When your values are based on fashion, fleeting, and fad your life is in turmoil and lacks a true north. It is said that courage is the exercise of your values under duress. May you find the courage and integrity to understand and make your core values rock solid, a foundation, something that you never trade for lesser things.
Once you go through the heavy lifting of uncovering your values you have the further work of determining how closely you are living your life to them. This can be a challenging but very useful process. Wasn’t it Socrates that said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. At the end of the day, and certainly at the end of your life, the only judgment that matters is if you can say you lived consistent with your values, what some call integrity.
Core Skills: There are cognitive skills (thinking skills) that everyone can develop. Somewhat like values these skills give us confidence and hope during times of stress. No matter our more specific skills or goals if we take the time to develop these core skills everything becomes easier. Without them everything seems harder. The core skills fall under two themes, self-compassion and self-efficacy.
The leading researcher on self-compassion is Dr. Krisen Neff. She has published that the core skills of self-compassion include self-kindness, our common humanity, and mindfulness. These are skills that can be learned and reinforced. Her website is the greatest resource on the topic with tons of information, surveys, and links to research. The results of this skill development includes patience, perspective, resilience, and self-esteem.
The leading researcher and author on self-efficacy is Dr. Albert Bandura, who wrote the rather technical book on the topic. He describes self-efficacy as a set of skills that can be learned through experience, feedback, self-reflection, and verbal persuasion. The results of this skill development includes the exercise of control over one’s life, confidence, and resilience.
I like to think of these sets of skills as the Yin/Yang of core skills. The one builds confidence, the other perspective, the one control, the other compassion, the one esteem, the other builds that esteem without comparison or narcissism. They are related but different and you are incomplete without both strongly developed.
Core Habits: A habit is something that we have learned to do without thinking about it. There are innocuous habits like driving the same way to work every day. There are destructive habits like addictions to any drugs or stimulants. The types of habits I am thinking of as core habits are ones that we have used intention to create e.g. to exercise regularly, to eat some fruits and vegetables daily, or to remember my anniversary.
The basic premise of a habit is that once you set it, which takes about 40 to 60 days, you don’t have to think about it very much, it is a habit. If you break the habit just occasionally, it usually is automatic to get back into it right away. This is critical because there are a few things, habits, that everyone should have that make everything else easier. By taking your “will power” out of the equation and relegating the activity to habit you free up your thinking mind for the less repetitive but essential cognitive tasks of life.
The three habits I consider essential are: regular exercise, regular sleep, and regular healthy diet. Study after study has established these three habits as necessary for a healthy, happy, and successful life. With them, everything else in life is better and easier.
Dr. Wendy Woods has written a great book “Good Habits: Bad Habits” which goes into detail on ways to successfully establish intentional habits. Amongst her research-based learning are three bases for habit formation: changing your context, repetition, and rewards. While habits help us reduce the reliance on will power, they do require that to start. The more resources, support, and change of context you can muster during those formative 40-60 days the better. Once established you relegate your great new habit to, well, habit and don’t require nearly so much resource intensity to sustain.
Manage Information Flow: Here are 4 information truths that influence my recommendations below.
Back in graduate school I learned that “what gets measured gets done”. This has been great advice that I have used through 35 years of work as a CFO, COO, and CEO. It also works with children, church members, and interest groups. It does, however, have its limits.
More recent research has added additional insights. Behavioral economics researchers discovered that when we are faced with a choice amongst many options (more than 3-5) more information actually results in sub-optimal decisions as we try to remember the difference between option 3 and option 10 and end up getting frustrated and choose #1 because it has a good title or your lucky #3.
The short classic “As a man thinketh” describes the idea that what we think about we become. This idea is supported by current research into how the mind works including principles of plasticity and habit.
Lastly, as human beings we tend to associate with, befriend, and listen to people who think like we do (at least in some ways). For the most part this is normal and natural and works just fine. Under pressure, however, this can become a great disservice to ourselves and our broader community. In their insightful book “The Coddling of The American Mind” the authors describe the “cognitive distortion” of there are only good people and bad people. This is a distortion because most people are just people, trying their best, fallible, and flawed. We know so little about most people as individuals, and yet can be so quick to judge them on the weakest of information, usually combined with the strongest of opinion.
Given these facts, I suggest 3 ways to manage your information flow that will have the benefits of both improving your perspective of the world and reducing your stress. They are:
Strive to limit your information gathering to certain times of the day. As I write this, we are in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. The news, rehash of the news, opinions on the news, and predictions on all the above are everywhere. Most of this is not particularly useful, nor timely. Given what we know watching the ticker of the number of people dying or dead will not help you make better decisions or cope with your own stresses and challenges. Limit access to it. I suggest a morning and evening time then occupy the rest of your time with value adding or appropriately recreational activities.
Focus your sources of information on 1-3 key reliable sources. For example, regarding the pandemic I rely on the CDC and my local health department. I figure that gives me reliable information nationally and locally. Almost everything else will be based on what one of those sources originates, so why not get it from the source. I do check with a variety of other sources just as a “fact check” or alternative, some favorites include Statistica, Christian Science Monitor, and The Economist for an international perspective.
Finally, I would try to listen to one “alternative” source of information on a regular basis. If you are fan of Fox News, try CNN – and visa-versa. If you listen to the nightly news on ABC, try CBS. If your favorite podcast is X, try their chief competitor Y. You get the idea. Getting alternative views can be very useful to provide you with the most complete perspective possible. You don’t need to listen to super fringe stuff (unless you want), but especially in an environment of conflict and the cognitive distortion mentioned above some variety of reliable news is helpful.
Core Values, Core skills, Core habits, and managing your information flow will help you live your best life every day of the week. Having these foundations built you are stronger, smarter, resilient, and better prepared for the most stressful periods of your life as well. If you have read this and feel like you are lacking in most of these – don’t despair. Start now with better understanding your core values, and go from there. This is a life-long journey of discovery, trial, and growth. No matter where you are on the journey the only day that matters is today. I wish you the very best today, and for the rest of your life.
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