By: Jon Pope
“On the occasion of any accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.” – Epictetus
The current situation has affected everyone in one way or another.
Some people have had their lives upended.
Others may be only slightly inconvenienced by this whole mess. Perhaps that’s the case for you right now. But, none of us have any guarantee that an easy life will stay that way. Most of us will eventually have responsibilities and people counting on us to come through in tough situations.
How you respond when it counts will be a product of how you approach every challenge you encounter – even the minor ones.
The small decisions you make now will compound over time and dictate the person you will be in a decade.
Even when you can’t change anything about your situation, your attitude and approach affect the trajectory of your life, making you more resilient or more fragile.
The process we teach clients to make better decisions in difficult moments is called optimization. This concept is borrowed from decision theory, with a few modifications of our own to include elements of hardiness and a growth mindset.
To optimize your approach to a difficult situation, answer the following questions:
- What is the best possible outcome given the constraints of my situation?
- What are my available options or pathways to the desired outcome?
- Which pathway has the most possible upside and least downside?
No matter how bad the best possible outcome is, it’s what you pursue. What could have or would have been are irrelevant. This is a matter of embracing reality, rather than arguing with it or wishing it away.
For an example of optimization done poorly in response to a setback, we can look at how I handled my first major surgery:
After my elbow surgery, I felt sorry for myself. I felt like these bad things were happening to me. I become self-destructive and lazy. I ate like shit, drank too much, didn’t work out, and was an apathetic and moody asshole. After about six months of this, I realized that I didn’t like the person I had become.
This led me to a turning point. I needed to break the downward spiral I had created for myself. I dove into philosophy and decision theory to learn how to incrementally change my behavior and attitude. What I learned while doing that became the basis of this article.
How to optimize during a difficult time
What you do is important. But, so is how you do it.
The only things you always have control over are your attitude and actions.
The first part of optimization is deciding what you will do (the action).
The next step is deciding how you will execute (your attitude).
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I see challenges and setbacks as opportunities to improve?
- Do I feel like I have control over my actions and attitude and that I can influence any situation I find myself in?
The answer to both of these questions needs to be yes. If your self-talk, attitude, or beliefs aren’t in line with these, you need to do the work to shift them.
We outline this process in our book.
Setbacks as opportunities
When working with clients, I try to help them see setbacks as opportunities. I don’t want a client to get injured, lose a job, move, or end a relationship. But, as these are largely inevitable aspects of life and can also be opportunities, they are useful coaching situations.
When they happen, I’m careful to provide the framework in this article only after I see how the client responds. Memory is extremely susceptible to suggestion. By reading this, you’ll likely rationalize your way into believing that this is the approach you’ve always taken. This is why past behavior is always the best way to assess your tendencies.
Let’s take my approach to my second knee surgery as an example of how this can be applied more effectively:
Nothing about surgery is a good thing. If your knee is messed up enough to need to be surgically repaired, something has gone awry. But, the best possible outcome was to complete my recovery as quickly as possible while improving in the areas I could focus on.
With that in mind, I devoted the energy usually dedicated to lower-body training to improving my nutrition and training my upper body and the non-injured leg. I created a challenging workout program that worked around the injury while focusing on everything else that I could still develop. While I would have rather just never had the knee surgery, I made the most out of the situation. A year later I was more fit and capable than ever.
Don’t let the weather change your actions
No one is a machine. When you face an obstacle it’s normal to think about what could have been, or experience regret, anger, and frustration.
Not letting those emotions rule your behavior can be done using a three-step process:
- Noticing the emotion
- Identifying it as normal
- Let yourself experience that emotion and allow it to pass through you without changing your actions
A useful way to think of letting emotions roll through you is the way weather affects you. You notice it, feel it, experience it. But, it probably doesn’t change what you do that day. You should approach emotions the same way.
Waiting for your emotional state to be in the optimal place to take action is like waiting for perfect weather to do a workout. It’s nice when it lines up that way, but it’s not something to which you want to give control of your life.
Feelings, like motivation, will come and go. If you have a clear purpose and have taken the time and energy to shape your attitude and beliefs, no emotion should change the actions you take today.
Each challenge or setback is an opportunity to learn something about yourself and refine your attitude, beliefs and responses. Using this approach, you will become so skilled at adjusting to difficulties that you’ll hardly register small challenges that might otherwise disrupt your life. Repeat this enough, and the speed at which you adjust to small setbacks will amplify your resilience.
So, the question is, are you making the most of the current situation or using it as an excuse to be less than you’re capable of?