Adapting to Life Changes: A Basic Guide to Personal Problem Solving

Adapting to Life Changes
No one is coming to sort out your life, so you better learn how to do it yourself. It’s becoming very clear at the moment, while the corona virus is putting the people, the governments and health care systems to a test. Life changes all of the time and you just have to deal with it. In this post share with you my most favourite ninja-tricks to solve problems – big or small – hoping that they’ll help you master the challenges you currently face.
Before we get into the step-by-step approach, there’s a foundation we need to set. Beliefs.

Beliefs That Help Adapting to Life Changes

You may have heard the story of the Taoist farmer in one form of another. Here’s the transcript from a lecture of Alan Watts:
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer, whose horse ran away. And all the neighbors came around to commensurate that evening, “So sorry to hear your horse has ran away. That’s too bad.” And he said, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse came back, bringing seven wild horses with it, and everybody came around in the evening and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You’ve now got eight horses.” And he said, “Maybe.”
The next day his son tried to break one of these horses and ride it and was thrown and broke his leg. And they all said, “Oh, dear that’s too bad.” And he said, “Maybe.”
The following day the conscription officers came around to recruit to force people into the army and they rejected his son, because he had a broken leg. And all the people came around and said, “Isn’t that great.” And he said, “Maybe.”
If you’re in the middle of a crisis, these words may sound harsh or unsympathetic. But it’s key to know that nothing lasts forever. Not even the bad stuff – remember, your life just changed and became harder. It will change again. Maybe not immediately, but much of the despair you’re feeling probably comes from thinking that this situation will last forever. It won’t.
The second belief you need is that you’re resilient and equipped with the tools you need to solve any challenge life throws at you. Humans have overcome the most excruciating circumstances and lived on to fulfil their purpose in life.
And so can you. You have an innate power to bounce back, permission granted to belief in your ability to handle this! Remember what Henry Ford said:
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s amp up your problem solving skills.

Preparation for Adapting to Life Changes

Step 1: Take a Deep Breath

When your head is spinning with overwhelm or you’re flooded with feelings of stress and anxiety stop and take a deep breath. It might seem illogical in that moment to stop and do nothing for a minute, but trust me (and the research… and ancient wisdom) when I say that the payback is tremendous. When you’re overrun by emotions you’re not accessing all your brain’s thinking power. In fact, you’re acting from your ‘reptile brain’ which only knows fight, flight, freeze. And you completely miss out on your more evolved brain to analyse, plan and think strategically. But these are the exact strengths you need to leverage!
Breathing mindfully and slowly into your stomach for a while regulates you body’s response to stress. So unless a car is driving right at you, take a moment to sit still and breath.
If you’re in a very panicky mode, try box breathing. This means you breathe in counting to four, hold your breath counting to four, exhale counting to four and hold again counting to four. Do this for as long as you need to.
I once was at an airport about to get in line for security check when I noticed a young woman in her twenties with her luggage in one hand and her phone in the other breathing heavily. (In German we say “Schappatmung” which means something like agonal or gasping respiration.) No one cared for her, so I stopped but she was unable to speak a sentence. Tears all over her face and a male voice coming out of the phone trying to calm her down. She couldn’t even express how I could help her, so I asked her to look into my eyes and explain how box breathing works. A few circles in she started to calm down a little and we could start to explore what’s going on.

Step 2: Label Your Emotions

The more precise you can label your emotion, the quicker you’ll find a solution. Instead of simply going with “I’m feeling bad” or “I’m feeling stressed”, listen to what exactly your feeling is telling you. If it helps, consider this a gathering data, emotions are valuable data points. Read through the following list of emotions:
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Sadness
  • Rage
  • Loneliness
  • Melancholy
  • Annoyance
It’s easy to see how anger would require a completely different solution than sadness or annoyance. To put a bit of distance between you and the emotion, you can also speak of it differently. Notice how different each of these sentences feels:
  • I’m afraid.
  • I’m feeling fear.
  • [Your name] is experiencing fear.

Step 3: Know Your Thoughts

Our emotions are typically triggered by what we think and those thoughts aren’t necessarily the truth and we can choose to think differently. You are likely to experience negative emotions if your situation was neither expected nor is it enjoyable. You think that this makes it harder for you to get what you want, that you can’t control what happens next and that you’re unable to cope with the situation. You may also think that this is just wrong and it’s someone’s fault.
Write down all of the thoughts you have about this situation. Your assumptions, the stories you tell yourself. It’s important to get them out of your head to increase the bandwidth for effective problem solving. As Marshall McLuhan wisely said:
Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.
Remember the young woman I talked about in Step 1? Turned out she was desperate because she had forgotten a small plastic bag to put her cosmetic products in as required by security rules. You may laugh now and think “How silly!”, but know that to her in that moment it seemed like the end of the world. Her brain played a trick on her and maybe yours does the same on occasion.

Adapting to Life Changes through Problem Solving

Now that you cleaned up and sorted through your inner clockwork, let’s get you out of your head and into action. Use the following problem solving tools and suggestions repeatedly, moving yourself closer to the solution with every iteration.
Remember, that most hurdles we face are adaptive challenges, not technical problems. This means there’s rarely one root cause which you can fix and all is well again. Example: When your car breaks down, that’s a technical problem to which you can solve by fixing the root cause. That you’ve been late for your job interview will not be solved by fixing the root cause, i.e. the car, now. You’ll need different strategies for that.

Step 4: Gather the Facts

Start by gathering what you know for sure about your situation. Which are the undisputable facts? You’ll need those to come up with ideas and make a good decision on what to do next.
Here’s an example. Say you’re quarantined due to corona safety measures and cannot go to a conference (which is cancelled as well) where you were meant to speak. The story in your head might be “This will affect my list of publications I need for my PhD thesis negatively. Can I add my abstract to the list anyway? What if I get a bad grading because of this? It’ll be months to find another opportunity to speak about this.” It’s very understandable that this narrative makes you anxious. 
But what are the facts, i.e. what do you know for sure? It’s only one thing: You can’t present at this cancelled conference. That’s it. Nothing more.
“affect my list of publications negatively”? Assumption, don’t know that yet! “get bad grading”, not a fact. “months to next opportunity”, we’ll see.

Step 5: Decide What’s Most Important Now

After you sorted through the facts, decide what is most important right now and be clear on what isn’t. At this point you probably already have a million ideas and potential next steps. Hold off on jumping into execution mode, because if you’re following up with the wrong thing you are wasting your energy, time and resources. 
Instead, first decide what is most important right now. Not what feels most urgent, not what you’d like to do most, not what is most visible to others. Tweeting about your car broken down might feel most compelling for your ego. But when your car is broken down, you may first want to take safety measures, arrange for a tow truck and inform the other party that you’re not coming. It may sound like a silly example, but all too often our ego’s in the driver’s seat in these moments trying to lure you towards what’s shiny. Don’t listen to it. Do what’s right, be clear on what’s truly important now.

Step 6: Direct Your Attention by Asking the Right Questions

Avoid diversion by asking the right, helpful questions. Even when you’ve got the facts and decided on what’s important your mind and attention may still be drawn to dark places.

Unhelpful Questions

Here are a number of questions that lead you nowhere and you should avoid:
  • Why me?
  • Why does this happen?
  • Why now?
  • Why can’t someone help me?
  • Why didn’t I do [x] to prevent this?
These type of questions are backwards focused. Again, for adaptive challenges you’ll need to do more than simply looking for the cause – you need creative ideas on how to move forward. Because when you ask “why did the conference get cancelled” and the answer is “because of the corona virus” then you may have identified the cause but you are still no closer to a solution.

Helpful Questions

Instead ask a helpful question. Here are some examples:
  • What do I know for sure? (Remember this one?)
  • What can I do next?
  • Who might be able to help?
  • How would [person] handle this situation?
  • What can I learn from this?
  • How can I stay kind to myself and focused?
  • What can I do to help?
If you’re struggling going to the helpful questions or finding answers to them right away, try asking “How could I make this worse?”. It’s a paradoxical question, but you’ll notice how easy it is to come up with answers. Note them down in a “don’t do this” list.

Step 7: Develop Potential Strategies & Make a Plan

Brainstorm at least three strategies you could pursue. Again, we want to avoid doing the first thing that comes to mind, but making sure we stretch our thinking. These might come out of the answers you just asked yourself in Step 6. Write down what you can do next.
But you shouldn’t stop there. Identify the obstacles related to your strategies and decide which actions you can take ahead of time to overcome them. What might stop you from executing one or the other strategy? What else? What can you do already now to prevent that from happening? If that’s not possible – what will you do when the obstacles comes up?

Step 8: Decide What to Do Next and Take Action

Now it’s time to get into action and take the first, however small, step towards the solution. Don’t put this off. It’s important you start to feel a sense of control again and doing something that you know you thought through and is productive will feel good. Iterate from there.

Step 9: Reflect and Review

In order to continue learning and adjust your strategies and behaviour. Whenever you’ve taken action, take a moment to look back at how you did it and what the result was. 
1) Reflecting in action This means reflecting on what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Consider best practices and shared experiences by those that have gone before you. 
2) Reflecting on action Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. What went well?
  2. Where did I struggle?
  3. What have I learned?
  4. What am I going to do differently next time?
  5. What’s my next step?

Summary: Successfully Adapting to Life Changes

  1. Take a Deep Breath When your head is spinning with overwhelm or you’re flooded with feelings of stress and anxiety stop and take a deep breath.
  2. Label Your Emotions The more precise you can label your emotion, the quicker you’ll find a solution.
  3. Know Your Thoughts Our emotions are typically triggered by what we think and those thoughts aren’t necessarily the truth and we can choose to think differently.
  4. Gather the Facts Start by gathering what you know for sure about your situation.
  5. Decide What’s Most Important Now After you sorted through the facts, decide what is most important right now and be clear on what isn’t.
  6. Direct Your Attention by Asking the Right Questions Avoid diversion by asking the right, helpful questions.
  7. Develop Potential Strategies & Make a Plan Brainstorm at least three strategies you could pursue. Plan for obstacles ahead of time.
  8. Decide What to Do Next and Take Action Get into action and take the first, however small, step towards the solution. 
  9. Reflect and Review In order to continue learning and adjust your strategies and behaviour.



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