At our virtual Toastmasters meeting recently, my friend Uma presented an interesting speech about something I’d never heard of: ‘productive uncertainty’. It’s apparently a well-known concept in education, but given all the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic over the past months, it also fits what I’ve been thinking about lately. . . .
Productive uncertainty is basically the experience of “not quite knowing”. But this kind of uncertainty, as Uma explained, can encourage our desire to explore, to see what’s going to happen next, or to come up with creative distractions.
You have probably engaged in productive uncertainty if you’ve ever been part of a brainstorming exercise at work.
Some studies have suggested that successful advances in scientific research actually require scientists to feel comfortable with discomfort, with pushing the boundaries of their knowledge, and living with that feeling of “not quite knowing.” It’s like permission to NOT know everything, yet to keep going forward despite this uncertainty.
There’s another kind of uncertainty, however, that can make most of us feel overwhelmed, not encouraged. This feeling can start a cycle of worry, followed by trying not to worry. That’s when we turn to distractions to help us stop the worry cycle – especially if they’re productive distractions.
Consider, for example, all the online excitement around baking during the early self-isolation days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not just baking, but bread-baking.
And not just bread-baking, but sourdough bread-baking.
And not just sourdough bread-baking, but making your own sourdough starter from scratch. . .
And then photographing all of it, of course, for social media.
Nielsen polling data for late March 2020 showed that retail flour sales in North America were up 154 per cent, while baking yeast purchases were up by 647 per cent! After I whined one morning to my lovely neighbour Glenda that grocery stores had run out of flour and I was down to my very last cup and a half, she surprised me with a generous 15-pound gift of flour left at my door!
That’s a lot of bread. I still have no idea how she got that flour, given the long empty shelves at most grocery stores. . .
Many people turned to other distracting ways to fill those uncertain self-isolation hours at home, like live opera or rock concerts online, or doing Tai Chi classes online, or taking free online tours of famous museums.
And since recently diagnosed heart patients were no longer able to attend in-person cardiac rehabilitation programs, many virtual classes – like those offered by Pulse Cardiac Health (based in my own province of British Columbia) – sprang up online.
My sister Catherine, a chef by trade, started reading classic books; her first one was a real classic: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in 1852. My friend Carolyn (spelled correctly, just like my name) found hours of happy challenge in the boxes of colourful jigsaw puzzles piled on her dining room table (before she then passed her puzzles on to me). Mostly, I pulled out my favourite paper crafts and played with scissors, glue and glitter.
Like many of you, I had bold plans to clean/sort/organize/tidy my home’s long-neglected messy bits during isolation. I resolved, for example, to empty and re-organize my kitchen drawers (I have 16 of them!) I posted pix on Twitter of my empty and scrubbed-clean drawers, each one a thing of beauty.
But at Drawer # 14, I suddenly lost interest, and I haven’t tidied another drawer since then.
That particular distraction was no longer working for me as the weeks went by. By then, I was desperately missing hugs and cuddles with our five-year old granddaughter, Everly Rose. And my anxiety about this virus continued to grow. As Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Susan David says:
“One symptom of distraction is more distraction. And then we feel more anxious.”
She was so right. The distractions that were supposed to make me feel better were making me more anxious. Endless drawer-tidying and jigsaw puzzles weren’t how I wanted to fill my days, but instead were a daily reminder now of all the other things I truly loved doing that were lost to me. See also: The Real Reason We’re So Tired of Zoom Calls
I recall that in my own COVID-19 agenda of distractions to plan for each day, I knew I was losing interest in those distractions when, on Day 21 of self-isolation, I’d written only one plan on my daily to-do list:
“Make a decision about washing my hair.”
Dr. David once told a Harvard Business Review how increasing feelings of anxiety can also be contagious:
“We subtly pick up on the emotions of others, and start to feel or mimic them ourselves.”
I recognized this response immediately: that was me as this pandemic unfolded. Like most of us, I couldn’t NOT think about this new corona virus. I was worried about getting sick. I was worried about ending up in ICU on a ventilator. Then I was worried that because I was a high-risk heart patient, I wouldn’t be put on a ventilator! See also: Scary Times: Living With (But Not IN) Fear
Dr. David reminds us that feeling stressed is an absolutely normal physiological response to feeling out of control or threatened during an overwhelming time. Here’s her take on this:
“Change can bring about a lack of agency that can send our brains and bodies into overdrive. “
If you’re feeling stressed, practice self-compassion. Take the time to understand what you’re feeling. You want to label your emotions honestly. Acknowledge that things now seem chaotic and unpredictable at the moment. At the same time, try to avoid brooding, where you get stuck in a negative spiral. Make a conscious decision about how to act in response to these uncertain times.
“Ask yourself, Who do I want to be in this situation? What’s most important to me?”
Dr. David, who wrote the book called Emotional Agility, also offers us four key concepts on the road to becoming more emotionally agile:
1. Showing Up: Instead of ignoring difficult thoughts and emotions or over-emphasizing ‘positive thinking’, facing into your thoughts, emotions and behaviours willingly, with curiosity and kindness.
2. Stepping Out: Detaching from and observing your thoughts and emotions to see them for what they are – just thoughts, just emotions. Essentially, learning to see yourself as the chessboard, filled with possibilities, rather than as any one piece on the chessboard, confined to certain moves.
3. Walking Your Why: Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction. Rather than being abstract ideas, these values are the true path to resilience and effectiveness.
4. Moving On: Small deliberate tweaks to your mindset, motivation, and habits – in ways that are infused with your values, can make a powerful difference. The idea is to find the balance between challenge and competence, so that you’re neither feeling complacent nor overwhelmed.
Please. Stay safe. . .
Image: Elisa Riva, Pixabay
. P.S. ♥ BONUS SOURDOUGH RECIPE! If you somehow frittered away all your self-isolation distractions without ever exploring the sourdough craze, you can make your very own sourdough starter if you have flour, water and a little time. First, combine one scant cup of flour (minus a tablespoon or two) with one half cup of cool water. The rest of Julie Van Rosendaal’s easy starter instructions are here. Julie is a cookbook author, a contributing food editor at Canada’s Globe and Mail, and a regular “Food and the City” radio guest on CBC Calgary.
Q: How have you been occupying your productive uncertainty hours during the pandemic?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about the uncertainty of being diagnosed with a chronic illness in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). You can find this book:
- at your nearest library branch
- at all bookstores (please support your local independent bookshops)
- order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon
- order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price when you order)
. See also: