Planning can create the illusion of certainty

Bob asked Steven to create a plan, to provide a time and cost estimate for the second part of his project.

Bob was a senior member of PMO, feeding information to the steering committee of Steven’s project. He had decision-making authority and formal power.
The estimates Bob asked for could not exist, they were not knowable at the time when he asked for them.

There are things like that in life, e.g. we can’t accurately forecast what the weather will be 2 months from now, on a Monday at 3 PM. Similarly we can’t predict how a customer will react to a feature in a complex product that does not exist yet. By definition, certain so-called “Complex Adaptive” problems have the characteristic that their solution is not knowable at the outset.
Steven knew this. Bob knew this as well. And Steven knew that Bob knew. Yet the pressure to provide an answer did not go away. Why?

Steven spent days gathering information, looking at data, talking to people, sitting in estimation sessions and assembling Excel charts. He knew that most of the estimates were made up.

Eventually he provided the estimates and plans that Bob asked for, only to realize some time later that doing so didn’t make things any better. One of his senior developers, Charlie, was held accountable against those numbers.
Steven also realized that there were so many assumptions made in his estimates and plans, and things changed so fast that he would need to re-plan and re-estimate frequently.
Steven had to start the whole process again, wasting precious days, weeks and even months that he could have spent doing useful work that would have delivered value to his customer. He started to feel more and more frustrated and angry. He noticed a feeling of helplessness as well. He started to feel his work was pointless and did not deliver value to anybody. He quit.

Steven did planning that did not bring more certainty but created the illusion of certainty.

Does this sound familiar?

Planning in the above example does not serve a practical purpose anymore (e.g. to remain in control of delivery variables like scope, cost and time).
Planning now serves a psychological purpose: to avoid the emotions of doubt and fear.

Planning can serve both practical and psychological purposes

We can use planning for numerous practical purposes: it can increase the chance that our business will be successful, it can help us allocate, monitor and manage budgets to ensure our projects or products don’t overspend, etc., etc.

Sometimes planning can’t serve its practical goals because the information necessary to create good plans is simply not available. We continue to create plans in these cases, even if our plans are invalidated almost immediately after we have made them.
We continue to create plans even when they are so inaccurate that they mislead us in making business decisions.

We even continue to do planning when we know there is a better alternative, e.g. Emergence and Evolution was developed for situations when planning fails.

Why?

Because planning also serves psychological purposes:

Planning helps reduce the anxiety, doubt and fear caused by uncertainty.
Planning makes us and our stakeholders feel better. It makes us feel safe.

Unfortunately, this temporary relief from anxiety, doubt and fear can come at a huge price.

If our plans are built on inaccurate or incomplete information they will still reduce anxiety, doubt and fear but without reducing uncertainty. And this is a dangerous combination.

In this case planning is like taking painkillers when you have a serious injury, in order to help you continue with your exercise. You won’t notice which movements are hurting and dangerous. You will become more injured and less capable of exercising as a result. Due to the deepened injury you will also feel several times more pain once the painkiller wears off.

In this article:

  • We will look into the costs your team, department or business suffers as a consequence of avoiding anxiety, doubt and fear.
  • Avoiding these emotions is built into human cognition itself, i.e. we all do it. We will discover how this process works and what can we do about it.
  • Finally, I’ll show you a few simple techniques that can help you reduce these costs and improve your business (and you can get in touch to learn more techniques).

Credits

This article is based on the latest psychological research which provides a unified model of human functioning. This model is built on strong scientific evidence and it works in practice.

I build a lot on the work of Steven C. Hayes PhD.

Recommended books, articles and websites:

Warning – this article was not designed to be solely read or skimmed through.

This article has multiple short exercises which can help you reach deeper insights and develop an important psychological skill. Skipping any of the exercises will eliminate almost all of the value that you could take away. This is true even if you read the article fully. It is highly recommended that you do each exercise as you encounter them and before continuing with the article.

The article will explain how the psychological skill that we will develop can be used to improve your well-being and the profitability of your business.

How difficult is it for you to feel doubt? How much do you want to avoid feeling doubt?

A closed body posture and an open body posture adapted toward doubt (or any emotion)

Exercise

Find 3 separate workplace situations which occasioned strong doubt in you.
You can choose situations where fear and anxiety have accompanied doubt or ones where they haven’t.
The situations you choose can relate to anything causing doubt, e.g. uncertainty about the reliability of a plan, uncertainty if a product will be profitable, uncertainty of employment, etc.

Draw a small table like the one below on a piece of paper. Fill in the 3 situations and then jot down 1-3 thoughts that were in your mind when these situations were occurring. Try to find thoughts that are related to the situation and thoughts that are related to your feelings. E.g. “This forecast is worthless.” or “If I could just somehow control my doubt/fear, everything would be fine.”

Next evaluate the strength of the emotions of doubt and anxiety that you’ve felt.
It’s important that you are evaluating your inner, private experience, the strength of your emotions. You are not evaluating the amount of objective uncertainty that existed in that situation. Use a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is the weakest doubt and anxiety you’ve ever felt in your life and 10 is the strongest. Jot down these numbers in the table for each situation.
If you find that all 3 situations you’ve picked have caused the same strength of doubt, then please replace some of them with situations that have caused significantly stronger or weaker emotions. Evaluate these and jot down your numbers into the table.

Next, for each situation evaluate how willing were you to feel this emotion of doubt. How much were you trying to fight it, mitigate it, reduce it, make it go away, ignore it, wait for it to go away, etc.?
1 is that you were not willing to feel it at all and 10 is that you were willing to feel it fully and without defence the same way you would feel your favourite emotion, e.g. joy.

Example table:

Situation where you felt doubt and/or anxietyThoughts that you were thinkingHow strong was the emotion of doubt, on a scale from 1 to 10?How willing were you to feel the emotion of doubt? (from 1 to 10)What did you care about?
My team and I were looking at the sales forecasts for the next quarter
“This forecast looks much worse than I expected”63
“This is so threatening, I need to get this emotion under control.”
“Joe really has no idea what he is doing.”
Situation 2
thought 1
thought 2
thought 3
Situation 3
thought 1
thought 2

Leave the last column blank for now, we will continue to fill-in this sheet later.

What if I can’t remember?

If you find it difficult to remember how much doubt, anxiety or fear you were feeling in those situations or what thoughts you had, then create an empty version of this sheet and make a commitment to observe yourself in the following week. You can fillin the table as new situations arise. Focus consciously on what you are feeling and thinking in these situations and jot them down later.

What if the previous exercise is too hard for me?

It can become very difficult to identify our thoughts and feelings as such and to look at them, instead of looking from them. This is another feature of how our minds work, so don’t worry about it, there’s nothing wrong with you.
Here’s a simple training exercise you can use to build this skill:

Exercise: watching your thoughts

  1. Take a piece of paper and pen and find a quiet spot for a few minutes.
  2. Set a countdown stopwatch on your phone to 5 minutes.
  3. For 5 minutes allow yourself to think of anything and when a thought comes up, jot it down to the paper. Then allow yourself to think of anything again.
  4. You might have thoughts like these: “I don’t think of anything.”, “Am I doing this right?” Those are thoughts as well! Jot them down.
  5. At the end of the 5 minutes, briefly re-read the paper.
  6. You can discard the paper now, it’s not the actual thoughts are interesting, rather building the skill to observe your thoughts as they come and go.

Take a minute to reflect and gather your thoughts about the exercise:

  • How did you find it?
  • How many thoughts were you able to notice and jot down?
  • Did you find that by jotting down a thought you had another thought about that though?

You can try to do this exercise in your head without the paper: notice a thought and say “I’m noticing the thought that …”.

Practicing this exercise for just 5 minutes every day will build your capability to consciously notice your thoughts. You may find that you will also become more focused and calmer.

What is the cost of avoiding doubt? (exercise)

We know why we are trying to suppress, control or avoid doubt and anxiety. We want to feel good, feel safe. But everything has a cost in life. What is the cost of trying to avoid these emotions?

Think of what your trying not to feel doubt has cost you, your team, your department, your product or project and your company.
Example:
“I had a project where I engaged in excessive over-planning to soothe my discomfort about the lack of understanding of customer requirements and behaviour. We’ve wasted approximately 10% of all the project’s resources on generating several plans that were useless as they had too many assumptions in them. This number does not include planning time that was useful.
Also, I started to focus more and more on generating plans to cover bad scenarios, instead of listening to customers. As a result, I missed an important piece of feedback that multiple customers provided independently during usability testing and the product saw significantly less sales than it could have.”

Jot down your answer to the questions below, feel free to pick the questions which are most relevant to you:

Does avoiding doubt increase uncertainty or reduce it?
Does avoiding doubt increase adaptability or reduce it?

  • What is your level of confidence that the plan you are following today will lead to good outcomes?
    Rate this on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is no chance, 100 is certainty.
  • How did plans like the one you are following now work in the past, i.e. did they lead to the outcomes planned?
    Rate this on a scale from 0 to 100 as well. 0 is they helped achieve nothing, 100 everything that was planned was achieved as well.
  • How likely is it that you will proactively look for new information during planning with the intention to improve the plan?
    Rate this on a scale from 1 to 10: where 1 – You never seek new info, 10 – You explore and analyze all new information possible.
  • How likely it is that you will proactively look for new information after the plan has been created (assuming that this new information would modify the plan)?
    Rate this on a scale from 1 to 10: 1 – you would never do that, 10 – you do that every day.
  • How likely it is that you will build new information into your plans if that new information arrives after the plan has been signed off?
    E.g. you receive crucial feedback from the customer about a feature. This information would require you to completely replace an entire feature in your product plan.
    Rate this on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is you never modify your plan after sign-off and 10 is you take into account all new information and always modify your plan.

Now look at the previous numbers.
What do these tell you about your and your organizations capability to respond to uncertainty? Is it improved or reduced by over-planning?
Did avoiding doubt and anxiety help avoid uncertainty?

Avoiding emotions leads to behavioural rigidity: we don’t adapt our behaviours, plans and strategies even when we know it would be beneficial to do so.

Does avoiding doubt save or cost time, money and manpower?
Does it lead to more or less opportunities?

  • What percentage of your resources (time, money, manpower) do you spend on planning? Please count everything: the time of analysts, project managers, time spent in meetings, side conversations, overtime, etc.
  • What percentage of the plans you produce actually help you make better business decisions or create better products/services?
  • How much could you spare by avoiding unnecessary planning? Try to quantify this in your currency and in time as well.
  • What is the opportunity cost of over-planning, i.e. what features could you add to your product using the resources you spend on the unnecessary aspects of planning?
  • What percentage of your team is comprised of roles which have the function of reducing uncertainty (e.g. analysts, project managers, programme managers, etc.)?
  • What percentage of these roles actually contributes to reducing uncertainty in practice?
  • How many hours do you spend per week in meetings to coordinate the activities between those people whose role is to reduce uncertainty?

Now look at these numbers. What do they tell you?

Avoiding doubt, anxiety and fear can cost significant amount of money and time. This money and time is taken away from delivering value to your customers and making more money.

Does avoiding doubt cost or save mental effort?

  • Did you notice a tendency to spend time worrying about the outcome of your product/project even when a good plan is in place?
  • Do you spend a lot of mental capacity creating scenarios and plans in your head to minimize your discomfort? What percentage of these plans do you use in practice?
  • Do you do this outside of work as well? Do you find this exhausting?
  • Can you voluntarily turn off this mental process of worrying and planning?

Rate the amount of mental capacity you spend doing these on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is you spend no mental capacity and 100 is you spend all the brainpower you have.
What does this number tell you?

Exercise: Which one requires more effort: feeling or not feeling?

  1. Slowly touch you left upper arm with your right hand. Allow yourself to feel the bodily sensation of warmth and pressure as you are touching your own arm.
  2. Rate how effortful it was to feel this bodily sensation of warmth and pressure (rate the effort of feeling not the effort of moving your arm). 0 is no effort at all, 10 is the biggest effort you’ve ever expressed toward something.
  3. Put your right hand back to where it was and slowly reach to your left arm again, touch it. But this time try really hard not to feel the bodily sensation of warmth and pressure in your left upper arm. Try really hard, until you can almost completely suppress this sensation. Try harder.
  4. Rate how effortful it was to not feel the bodily sensation of warmth and pressure. Rate this effort even if you only managed to partially suppress this sensation. The scale is the same as before.
  5. Compare the two ratings you produced.

Trying not to feel is significantly more effortful than just allowing yourself to feel.

Does avoiding doubt lead to peace or does it occasion other painful emotions?

  • If new information arrives after the plan was created and this information invalidates significant parts of the existing plan what do you feel?

    Look for a specific memory where this happened and spend a minute getting in touch with it. Who was there? What happened? What did you hear and see? What did you think? What emotions did you feel? Did you feel anger? Frustration?

    If you can, try to find where you feel these emotions in your body.
    Rate how painful these emotions were on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is not painful at all, and 10 is unbearably painful.
  • Look for a specific memory where following a plan has failed to deliver the intended outcomes, spend a minute to get in touch with this memory.
    Who was there? What happened? What did you hear and see? What did you think? What emotions did you feel?
    Did you feel disappointment? Sadness? Anger?
    Try to find where you feel these emotions in your body.
    Rate how painful these emotions were (from 1 to 10).

Now look at all the ratings you’ve come up with for the painfulness of these emotions that you’ve felt.
How does the painfulness of these emotions compare to the painfulness of the doubt and anxiety you jotted down at the beginning of this article?

These emotions are the consequence of excessive planning, which is the consequence of the desire to suppress, control or avoid doubt.

You have this secondary pain in your life because you were not willing to feel doubt and anxiety at the beginning.

Beware: ignoring the emotion of doubt is another form of avoiding it

Some people have a different avoidance strategy.

Instead of trying to control doubt, they choose to ignore the real-life uncertainty that occasions it.
You may find that you also do this occasionally. There’s nothing wrong with you, this tendency is also built into human cognition.

Despite your efforts to ignore objective uncertainty you may occasionally experience the emotion of doubt anyway. When this happens you may ignore your own emotions the same way you ignored objective uncertainty.

This strategy has practical costs that are similar to(or in some cases even more severe than) conscious emotional suppression because it requires completely ignoring objective, real life uncertainty.

How effective is emotional control and avoidance?

You’ve seen what it costs you to minimize the psychological pain coming from doubt, fear and anxiety.
Now let’s see how successful your efforts can be to suppress unwanted feelings and thoughts.

Exercise: measure the effectiveness of thought suppression

This exercise has been adapted from the work of John T. Blackledge PhD and Steven C. Hayes PhD and will help you experience one of the most fundamental aspects of human cognition.

You will need 10 minutes of uninterrupted time in a quiet place. Please do not try to predict or think through what you might experience in this exercise. Do the exercise, you will be surprised by the results.

It’s important to experience for yourself how your mind works. It’s interesting and exciting to think about how you might feel when riding a bicycle for the first time but it’s not the same as actually getting on the bicycle and cycling.
Steps:

  1. Get a piece of paper and jot down the number of times you thought of a big pink elephant in the last month. (No, I’m not joking, please bear with me, this exercise requires an object that you don’t normally think about, so the choice is deliberate.)
  2. Set a countdown stopwatch for 5 minutes. For the next 5 minutes you’ll have two simple tasks (don’t start the clock yet):
    1. Do not think of the big pink elephant.
    2. If, for whatever reason, you still think of the big pink elephant, count the number of times you thought about it.
  3. I suggest you draw marks on the paper as a way of counting, as that won’t distract you from the main goal (i.e. not thinking of the pink elephant).

    Please do not give up, do not stop. You may find that you did not think of the pink elephant even once and there’s only a minute remaining or you may find that you’ve already thought about the elephant hundreds of times. In any case, just keep counting until the 5 minutes is up.

    You are not allowed to use any external objects (e.g. you can’t play on your phone). You have to sit and consciously put effort into not thinking about the pink elephant.
  4. Start the clock and do the exercise.
  5. Now set the countdown stopwatch to 5 minutes again. This time allow your thoughts to flow freely, without restrictions or goals, but continue to count the number of times you think of the big pink elephant.
    Again you have to do this on your own, no phones, external objects, etc.
    Start the clock and do the exercise.
  6. Count your marks. How many times did you think of the big pink elephant during the first and second 5 minutes?
  7. Look at the 3 numbers. What does this tell you? Take a minute to jot down your thoughts.

You can repeat this exercise with the emotion of fear, anxiety or doubt instead of the pink elephant if you wish.

There are several strategies to try to suppress or avoid the emotion of doubt (or any emotion or thought):

  1. We create a verbal rule “do not think of doubt/uncertainty” and we follow this self-made rule.
    The paradox is that this rule has the word “doubt” or “uncertainty” in it so every time we execute it we will bring doubt and uncertainty to our minds. We will think and feel more doubt and uncertainty, not less.

    Employers of this strategy find that they thought about the pink elephant more times during the first 5 minutes than during the second 5 minutes.

  2. We distract ourselves by deliberately thinking of something else over and over again.
    Distraction requires effort, but our energies are limited, so at some point we will have to stop distracting ourselves.
    Other things we have to do may also force us to stop the distraction, as distraction prevents us from focusing on another task. E.g. constantly thinking about my car in order to avoid thinking about the uncertainty in my project will also prevent me from thinking about a task in my day-to-day work.

    When the distraction ends, the avoided emotion or thought returns significantly stronger and seems to appear in places and situations where it did not appear before, as if it became more connected in our minds.

    Employers of this strategy find that they almost never thought about the pink elephant during the first 5 minutes but they thought about it a lot of times during the second 5 minutes.
    Furthermore, during the second 5 minutes they may have felt as if the big pink elephant was everywhere, everything reminded them of it.

  3. We completely avoid the situations that occasion doubt.
    This strategy seems to be the most foolproof but you may not be able to employ it as you may not be able to choose which work situations to attend to, e.g. you might not be able to say no to an important meeting.

    Furthermore, doubt, fear and anxiety are emotions, they are inside of us. We can connect them to anything: places, other emotions, thoughts, memories, people, objects, events, etc. and we can bring doubt into mind through these connections even if we avoid the original situation that occasioned doubt.
    E.g. doubt and the feeling of safety are connected through a strong relationship: they are the opposite of each other. Feelings of safety or thoughts about safety (e.g. “This project is going so great.” “I’m so relaxed now compared to…”) can bring into mind situations where you felt doubt. Have you noticed this happening to you? If not with doubt, maybe with anxiety or loneliness?

    The biggest problem with completely avoiding situations that occasion doubt is that we also avoid our goals. Doubt may be painful for you because you are responsible for a project, product, team or business and you want it to succeed. By avoiding the situations where there is doubt (e.g. talking to customers), you avoid the situations where you could make a difference.

  4. Some people may have not tried too hard to control their thoughts and emotions, they usually see the same numbers during the first and the second 5 minutes. Their efforts to control don’t have an impact either way.

We learned that avoiding doubt, fear and anxiety has high costs and it doesn’t even work in the long run.
Trying to avoid these emotions (or any emotions as a matter of fact) actually makes them stronger (or is completely ineffective).

Now refer back to the table you’ve created at the beginning. You probably have very little control over how painful the emotions in the table are. What do you have control over then?
That’s right, you can control how much you are willing to feel doubt! The second number in the table, your willingness.

What is the alternative to avoiding doubt?

The good news is that there is an alternative that helps you avoid the costs you’ve recognized and keeps you flexible in adapting your behaviour and responding to real-life uncertainty.

The bad news is that our minds cannot understand this alternative to avoidance because it’s not logical.
It’s like walking or dancing. You don’t understand how to walk but you can do it.
You don’t believe me?

Exercise: teach me how to walk

Imagine I forgot how to walk but I stand there in front of you. You have to tell me how to walk.

What should I do first? Come up with an actual instruction. Jot it down.

  • Most people say something like, “put one of your legs in front of the other” or “move your weight to one leg”.
  • I’d say: “that’s a great idea, but remember I don’t know how to walk. So tell me how do I put one of my legs in front of the other?”
    Try to come up with an answer to that question, I need the next instruction.
  • You might have said something like “you need to contract muscle x in your leg in order to move it”.
  • I’d say “Gotcha. Contracting muscles to move legs, putting one leg in front of the other, it all makes sense.”
    “How do I do that? How do I contract a muscle in my leg?”
  • I need the next instruction so please come up with the answer to that question…

We haven’t learnt to walk this way and it’s not possible to learn to walk this way. Walking is what we call a non-verbally regulated psychological process. You don’t learn it through language and logic, you learn it through direct experience, trial and error.
Many things in life are learned this way: walking, cycling, loving another person, most sports, playing on an instrument, martial arts, dancing, collaborating, etc.
All humans are capable of this type of learning and many animals are also capable of it (e.g. cats and dogs). You can do it as well.

The alternative of avoidance is Acceptance: it’s about allowing yourself to feel your emotion of doubt fully and without defence. Acceptance is about voluntarily sustaining contact with your doubt and adopting an intentionally open and nonjudgmental posture toward it.

The goal of Acceptance is not to feel better, but to feel better. The goal is flexibility.
We won’t feel less pain (doubt) but we will struggle less with it.

I warned you, it doesn’t make any sense, does it? But it works. Keep reading.

Metaphors to aid Acceptance

Imagine that doubt is a Chinese finger trap. Have you ever used one of those before? The more you try to pull your finger out, the tighter it grabs them. The solution is to push your fingers into the trap, instead of trying to pull them out.

Your psychological pain is like a Chinese finger trap


Imagine that your doubt is quicksand and there is nothing around that you could grab to pull yourself out.
What most people try to do when they accidentally fall into quicksand is to try to get out by lifting one of their legs. They start fighting. This puts all the pressure to their other leg and creates suction in place of the leg that was removed, these two together makes them sink faster.
The right way to get out of quicksand is to maximize your contact surface area with it. Basically, lie down with your arms open. This way you won’t sink in.

What if your doubt and other psychological pain is infinite quicksand?
You can’t get rid of doubt but you can stop yourself from amplifying it by maximizing your contact surface area with it.

Exercise: Preparing to accept your doubt

We all attach evaluations, categorizations, comparisons and judgements to our emotions.
E.g. “I hate when I’m so anxious.”, “Anger is bad, I must not feel it.”, “I have to learn to control my fear.”, etc.

In this exercise you will need to identify thoughts, judgements that you make about your emotion of doubt.
Some of these thoughts might be recurring, you might think them frequently. Jot down the top 3 most frequent or strongest thoughts that you think about your emotion of doubt. Write each of them on a separate piece of paper.

If you find it difficult to identify these thoughts, then try the following exercise.
Notice the bodily sensations of pressure in your back or feet as the chair or the ground holds you. Notice if there are areas in your body where this sensation is stronger or weaker. Are there any areas which are colder or warmer than other areas?

And now, look for a memory of a situation where you felt a lot of doubt or anxiety, e.g. your project was running late and you didn’t know when it would finish but you were asked to provide an estimate.

Try to keep these sensations and the memory you’ve chosen in your awareness simultaneously. Try to see the situation the way you saw it when you were there, through your own eyes.
Notice that you were there the way you are here now.
What did you hear? What did you see? Who else was there? What were they saying? What were you saying? What did you feel? Do you remember any sensations in your body?
Try to remember the emotion of doubt or anxiety the way you felt it back then.

Now see what thoughts come up regarding this emotion and jot them down.
If you have multiple thoughts, then write down each of them in large, clear writing on a separate piece of paper or a sticky note. We will work with these.

Put these papers with your thoughts approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) away from you. You can affix them to a wall. Make sure the text is easily legible from this distance (you may need to rewrite them).

For the next five minutes do the following simple tasks:

  1. Read the first piece of paper.
  2. Notice that the thought is 5 feet (1.5 meters) away from you. I know you know this and can see this, that’s not the point.
    In this exercise it’s important to experience this. Notice where you stand and notice where the thought is. There’s a difference between knowing that your favourite pen is blue and staring at it and taking in the colour of blue. I’m asking for the latter.
  3. Repeat the exercise for the next thought.
  4. Start again with the first thought and repeat the whole exercise. Continue over and over and over again, until the time is up. It’s boring yes, maybe even annoying, try to persevere nevertheless.
  5. Do not try to fight, modify or hide any of these thoughts. Just let them be, let them hang on the wall. This is important.

Unfortunately, it’s beyond the scope and space limitations of this article to discuss in detail what was happening there and why it’s working (but you can always get in touch if you are interested ;-)).

The short and basic explanation is that we are learning to look at our thoughts instead of looking from them, so it becomes easier to see our emotions in the way they really are instead of seeing them in the colour that our thoughts have painted on them.

Now you are ready for the next exercise: accepting your doubt.

Exercise: Accepting your doubt

Hold your doubt in your awareness the way you would hold a spiky but cute hedgehog in your hands. With love and care.

Try the following with your doubt (please don’t try to understand, analyze or think over these metaphors, instead try to relate to your doubt the way you would relate to the objects and events in the metaphor).

It’s important to try these immediately after the previous exercise. Give yourself at least a minute to try each of these:

  • Hold your doubt as you would hold a delicate flower in your hand.
  • Embrace your doubt as you would embrace a crying child.
  • Sit with your doubt the way you would sit with a person who has a serious illness.
  • Look at your doubt the way you would look at an incredible painting.
  • Walk around the room with your doubt the way you would walk while carrying a sobbing infant.
  • Honour your doubt the way you would honour a friend, by listening carefully even if it was hard.
  • Inhale your doubt the way you would take a deep breath.
  • Abandon the fight with your doubt the way a soldier might put down his weapons to walk home.
  • Take in and carry your doubt as you would drink a glass of pure cold water.
  • Carry your doubt the way you carry a picture in your wallet.

(These metaphors are adapted from the work of Steven C. Hayes PhD, he uses these in many of his materials and books, check out e.g. “A Liberated Mind”.)

Doubt and anxiety is important. It reminds you what you care about and what you want.

Uncertainty, doubt, anxiety and fear are painful emotions. Is psychological pain your enemy?

“We hurt where we care and we care where we hurt.”

Steven C. Hayes PhD

Values and pain are two sides of the same coin. If you didn’t care about your work, team, product/project or business, then it wouldn’t hurt to know that there are uncertainties around these. It only hurts because you care.

In your psychological pain you find what’s important to you, what you truly care about.

E.g. you may like a specific, proposed feature for your product and you really think it would make a huge difference in user satisfaction and sales. However, there is uncertainty if the feature will be approved by your steering committee/boss/product manager/etc. This doubt is painful because you care about this feature and you care about your product. Avoiding this doubt means avoiding caring about your project and this feature.

Exercise: Connect to your pain and find what you do care about

Now look at the table from the beginning of the article again. Go through those painful situations one by one. Spend a minute to actually imagine yourself being there, hearing, seeing, thinking, feeling and experiencing whatever was there to be seen, heard, thought and experienced. It’s important not to rush or skip this part. Take your time.

Also notice simultaneously what sensations are there in your body. E.g. how does it feel to stand on the ground, sit on the chair or lie down on the bed (whichever you are doing right now). Locate the bodily sensations of pressure, pain, cold, warmth or tension that you feel in your body. Notice these sensations while you remember those painful situations where you’ve felt doubt.

Now try to get in touch with the emotions of doubt and anxiety that were there in that situation you’ve chosen to remember. Try to hold this emotion in your awareness the way you would hold a delicate flower in your hand. Can you feel this emotion of doubt in your body as well? Where does it start? Where does it end? What shape does it have? What do you feel?
If you can feel it in your body, try to imagine that you’ve put an object into your body with exactly the size and shape of your sensation. You’ve done this with the intention of deliberately feeling this sensation of doubt in your body. Try to sit with this for a few seconds and experience your sensation this way.

Now try to experience the answer to the following question (don’t try to intellectually answer it, try to experience the answer to it): what would I have to stop caring about for this not to hurt?

In other words, try to flip your doubt and anxiety and see why they hurt, what do you care about?

Jot down your findings for each situation into the table.
Example table:

Situation where you felt doubt and/or anxietyThoughts that you were thinkingHow strong was the emotion of doubt, on a scale from 1 to 10?How willing were you to feel the emotion of doubt? (from 1 to 10)What did you care about?
My team and I were looking at the sales forecasts for the next quarter
“This forecast looks much worse than I expected”63Safety, I want to secure the future of my projec
“This is so threatening, I need to get this emotion under control.”
“Joe really has no idea what he is doing.”
Situation 2
thought 1
thought 2
thought 3
Situation 3
thought 1
thought 2

There is a difference between verbally knowing what’s important to us and being in touch with it through our psychological pain.

Taking healthy action (exercise)

You should have a list of situations, corresponding thoughts and emotions and what you cared about in those situations. For the sake of simplicity we will call these things that you care about your Values.

For each Value answer the following questions:

  1. What actions can you take to start putting that Value into your work life today?
    E.g. let’s say you found that you care about safety. What can you do to make the future of your project/product safer? Can you do more planning? If information is not available for adequate planning, what else could you do? Is it possible to create a product sample with a minimum set of features and test it with the customer to gather more information? Is it possible to otherwise do things to test the market? Can you create a prototype to better understand the limitations and peculiarities of the technology you will use?
  2. Generate a few actions for each and every situation. Look for actions that don’t have the purpose of directly reducing the intensity of doubt and anxiety that you feel. The goal here is not emotional control. The goal is to fully feel doubt and let it be your guide in what you need to DO to move toward the things that you value.

Detaching Practical Control from Avoiding Doubt

Check every action you generated again to make sure that they don’t have the hidden purpose of trying to control your doubt. It’s fine when an action is one which, if successful, may decrease the uncertainty in your project/product and therefore the intensity of the emotion of doubt that you feel. But the action itself cannot have the direct purpose of controlling your emotion of doubt.

Practical control (e.g. budgetary control) can work if done properly. We want practical control.
Emotional control cannot work, it makes emotions stronger in the long run and has severe costs. We don’t want emotional control.

This is between you and the person in the mirror. Only you can tell what the true intention behind taking an action is. If you find that what you want to do is to suppress, avoid or control your doubt, then change the action to something else. Focus on what you care about.

Grow your business with evidence-based psychological intervention that works

In this article, I’ve introduced you to some of the aspects of how human cognition works and how you can use this knowledge to improve your business.

We have merely scratched the surface though.
Using the latest psychological research you can develop a skill called Psychological Flexibility that can help you significantly increase the profitability of your business and the well-being of your employees or teammates.

Psychological Flexibility is comprised of 6 sub-skills. In this article we mostly focused on one of these, called “Acceptance”.
There are dozens of Acceptance exercises and we only covered a few, there is much more to be learned. It’s worth learning more as you may find that some exercises work better for you than others. Also the exercises come with different trade-offs: some of them shorter but less effective, some of them longer but more effective.

Also, whilst there is benefit in using one of the 6 flexibility skills in isolation, the 6 skills work together in a synergy. The other 5 skills support Acceptance, making it more powerful.

If you would like to learn more about Acceptance, Psychological Flexibility and the 5 other skills, get in touch. I provide flexible training and coaching for both individuals and teams tailored to their needs.

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