Staying In The Groove (When There Isn't One)

03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I'm often asked "Are we really living in a different world than the 'old days?'" Is there something uniquely stressful about the world as we're experiencing it now, as opposed to how we experienced it fifty years ago? My answer is that there is nothing new under the sun, except how often things are new. And we now need to build in an approach and set of behaviors that can engage with frequent change, consistently and constructively.

Change always produces stress and a drop in productivity. When we have to uproot ourselves from whatever we've been doing or thinking and incorporate something different into our habitual and familiar patterns, a dissonance is created, and we have to focus on our process instead of just expressing and doing. Remember when you first tried working a word processor? Your productivity probably went to hell in a hand basket -- at least for a short time. Once you got over the hump, however, it probably turned into something that seemed worth the effort. The point is, even "good" change throws us for at least a little bit of a loop.

And that has always been true. What's new is the frequency of occurrences and inputs that produce change. You will probably change careers more often than your parents changed jobs. And your job, even if it has the same title, is probably quite different than it was when you first came on board. Moreover, you have probably received more potentially change-producing input in the last twenty-four hours than your parents got in a month, perhaps even a year.

If disruptive change doesn't happen that often, people can just tolerate it without undermining the whole fabric of their lives too badly. If it's happening almost daily, it can cause significant debilitation.

This is why we coach people to have relatively simple, flexible personal management systems and structures that don't arbitrarily define their world in ways that will likely be undermined at a moment's notice. Attempts to evaluate and filter commitments in too pre-defined a way have led most people to deeply distrust either themselves or their tools. Outmoded methods such as ABC/123 priority coding and daily to-do lists can't adapt to change as fast as change comes into our lives. That's because these well-intentioned but overly rigid models don't really map to the way the world is. The next time you check email or answer your cell phone, you may get new input that revises your priorities and pushes today's to-do items down the list. Structures are not for life to fit into -- they should only help us leverage reality to our advantage.

What's necessary is to capture, clarify, and organize everything we have our attention on in a few important categories, giving us both an "empty mind" and a complete set of action options easily reviewed for trustworthy intuitive choices. We can then make moment-to-moment assessments of which might be the best, given a huge set of variables.

Those variables include context, time, and energy, along with short-, mid-, and long-term outcomes about the myriad aspects of our lives. And when we perceive that the new, ad hoc spontaneous thing that showed up (that email we just opened or call we just answered) is more important than anything that was already on our lists, we're free to follow our hunch without reservation. This is a system that can dance with change.

This is not letting us off the hook. On the contrary, it puts us on the bigger hook we've all been on all along--that we be responsible every moment that what we're doing in that moment is what we are really to be doing in that moment. But keeping the deck clear, quickly deciding what new things mean to us, organizing the results of that thinking, and utilizing the process and the system to stay positively engaged with our life in a clear way -- these behaviors do not happen by themselves. They have to be learned and practiced. And they can be honed to a highly effective edge.