Adapting to Sudden Change

First Published: June 21, 2021

I've been in a period of repeated, rapid changes since the beginning of this year and have come to appreciate the skill of adapting. In this week's issue, I want to share some things that have helped me adapt to sudden change.

Sudden change can be scary. It might be a department re-organization, a boss or co-worker leaving, a goal changing, a big project suddenly being dropped on you, or something more major like a health issue (or, you know, a global pandemic). All of a sudden, your plans are disrupted, your habits are broken, and your priorities have changed. It's a lot!

I'm a planner and a system-builder. I love being prepared and having processes in place to predictably make progress. Needless to say, sudden change isn't high up on my list of favorite things. Unfortunately, we can't always get what we want. When I was a kid, my dad used to always say, "Nothing is so constant as unrelenting change." I would, of course, roll my eyes every time, not knowing the wisdom that little aphorism held. Since then, I've learned I have to ride the wave and build some flexibility into my plans. Here are some things that I've been finding helpful:

  1. Give some thought to "crisis planning" ahead of time. A little bit of forethought and some type of plan for what to do when things go off the rails can go an extremely long way when something erupts. Some people like to use specific notebooks or planners in the middle of a sudden change, for example, to help them switch contexts. You can also start to build some resiliency and redundancy into your "getting stuff done" systems so that if one piece fails the whole thing doesn't fall apart. It's also extremely useful to think ahead of how you might feel in the midst of sudden change. Do you get panicky? Do you get anxious? Emotions are like signal flares, leading indicators of something going on that we might not have fully intellectually processed yet. Just taking some time to think ahead to how you might feel will help you recognize your emotions in the moment.
  2. Acknowledge your emotions. My default response to sudden change is to just power through and act like everything is fine (yours might be to freeze or hide, we're all different). I'll ignore my emotions, pretend they don't exist, and then inevitably fall apart. Over the years I've learned that there's tremendous value in just saying, "Okay, I'm in the middle of a crisis or a big change. I'm feeling panicked and anxious. That's okay and normal." Often resisting or judging emotions just magnifies their intensity. Your subconscious is trying to tell you something!
  3. Take a step back to re-evaluate your priorities. Once you've acknowledged your emotions, it's time to re-group. What's the most important thing? If you can only get one thing done, what would it be? How about two? What project has the highest risk if it fails or the biggest reward if it succeeds?
  4. Gather your thoughts about where you're at. I recently heard of a great template for this called "BINQX": Bugs, Information, Notes, Questions, and then X can be whatever you need, like Actions. Having a central file, location, or notebook to dump all of your thoughts about a big change can speed up your processing and adjusting. I use Obsidian for this kind of thing.
  5. Do what you can and offload what you can't. Re-thinking priorities is going to call for some tough choices. You can only do so much, so at some point you're going to have to drop, defer, or delegate things on your plate for which you no longer have time or energy. Whatever you decide, be sure to communicate clearly and quickly with whoever is relying on you. I find that people are generally pretty keen to help if I have to say something like, "Hey, I need your help with this project -- I'm in a bit of a crisis mode right now because of X. Can we push this back two weeks?"

Here's something else to consider. These sudden changes are often strategic openings for your career. At a time where others might be scrambling or panicking, you have an opportunity to step up, advocate for yourself and your team, and demonstrate leadership. Of course, you need to take into account your health and capacity here and take care of yourself, but I find that on many occasions when I feel like shrinking or running away, that's the time to expand and move forward. Often, when our backs are up against a wall, that's when we're the most creative. These sudden changes are a way to power up with capacity tests, another subject I wrote about recently.

Take a few minutes today and give a little thought to "crisis planning." Is there anything you can do to help Future You out?

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