Productive uncertainty: beyond the sourdough

sourdoughby Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

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:

The uncertainty of hitting that pandemic wall

Cognitive dread: the painful uncertainty of waiting

The importance of planning for everyday joy

other Heart Sisters posts about the COVID-19 pandemic .

14 thoughts on “Productive uncertainty: beyond the sourdough

  1. I am so glad I found your website and book. You are such a gifted writer and researcher. I absolutely love this article and have sent it to many friends.

    I feel like you’re my BFF and we haven’t even met! Thanks Carolyn!

    Paula Klice

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paula and thanks so much for your kind words – they mean a lot to me. Thanks also for sharing this post with your friends!
      I too am glad you found my site and my book.
      Take care, stay safe… ♥


  2. Hello Carolyn…

    Dr David’s 4 steps to emotional agility are Sooo very similar to the concepts I teach my Spiritual Counseling Clients! Very re-enforcing to my core values.

    My pandemic activities have evolved… the only truly active thing I’ve done is to learn about and participate in Twitter… First from curiosity and encouragement from my tech savvy brother, then drawn into it like staring at a car wreck for hours a day… then becoming a conscious observer and choosing what parts I want to participate in, based on my core values.

    Each day I check the headlines and decide if there is anything I can or desire to do about the current situations in my country and the world. THEN I move on to what I have decided is the most important goal in my life…that is to realize my Self as a Divinely conscious Human Being. This requires much time, effort, silence and reflection on all thoughts and emotions.

    When it gets too tough???…I have ice cream and watch TV. 😎
    Blessings! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Jill – I too love Dr. David’s emotional agility tips. So simple, and common sensical…

      I’m glad you mentioned Twitter; your comment about “staring at a car wreck” for hours can be frighteningly seductive in social media, especially given the bizarre antics of certain politicians. I admire your commitment to be a “conscious observer”. I’m going to remember that next time I read something that makes me want to scream – I don’t HAVE to click that Retweet button!

      Best part of your response? The ice cream recommendation! 🙂

      Take care, stay safe ♥


        1. Excellent idea, Jill! I just watched the absolutely insane interview he did with the Australian journalist Jonathan Swan of Axios News, and it was the last straw. It was simply impossible to believe that such nonsensical answers were actually coming from the so-called leader of the free world. Blocked, blocked, blocked


  3. Oh, Carolyn, as so often happens, your post hit home for me once again!

    The term “productive uncertainty” and what it represents have defined my life for the last year. It started when I was convalescing from an extended illness, continued after was laid up with a broken ankle, followed immediately by the quarantine that we’ve all been experiencing.

    My most productive activity has been finishing my book and getting it to publication (which will happen in about two months). I learned a new skill, and now I am a (very) part time transcriptionist.

    I made a beautiful Christmas wreath and garland for my front porch. I got out those coloring books (the ones for grown ups) and pencils to play with while watching movies (oh, so many movies!) And then the puzzles–so many puzzles!

    There are days when I question myself about all of these activities. I was once a vibrant, social, and driven teacher. My days were filled with challenges, joys, lots of activity, and a sense of accomplishment. Other than writing my book, these are pretty low key activities that carry very little impact on the world, much less on others’ lives. My old life was fraught with meaning. How much meaning is there to be extrapolated from puzzles and coloring?

    But, “productive uncertainty” brings that into focus. I must wait out this season in my life, believing that the uncertainty will wane and leave some measure of purpose once again. Until then, I still have my need to fill my days with things that still engage my heart, mind and soul. That’s a happy thought.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Charlotte – well said, especially “believing that the uncertainty will wane and leave some measure of purpose once again…” It’s either learning to live comfortably with that belief (i.e. not having a clue how all of this will go!) or raging and ranting impotently against what we don’t want to be happening ( = very bad for our mental and physical health!)

      Sometimes I wonder if all the news reports about these anti-mask anti-science people having spectacular meltdowns in public because their “rights” are being violated just boil down to being utterly infuriated by NOT being in control of a reality that is quite out of our control…

      Take care, stay safe… ♥


  4. Carolyn, this is the most helpful thing I read since this pandemic began. It’s like you were reading my thoughts, feeling my fears and encouraging me forward.

    Thank you soooooooo much,

    Liked by 1 person

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