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Why does our brain need certainty?

Power of Familiarity

Imagine this: You’re plunked down in the middle of a foreign country. You’re not sure where you are, you don’t speak the language, and you have no idea how to order food or find a place to sleep for the night (besides, you don’t even have the right currency in your pocket). As you walk down the sidewalks, you blindly turn this way and that, unsure where to go or who to ask for help. Everything is new, and you feel yourself becoming more on edge…maybe even scared.

But then you see a familiar face—a friend from back home. Your anxiousness subsides as your friend greets you and waves you over. You’re safe and relief washes over you.

This might be a dramatic example, but it does demonstrate the power of familiarity. Our brains cling to certainty, to routine. You may think of yourself as adventurous and willing to try new things, but your reptilian brain says otherwise. It’s been conditioned to thrive on patterns and daily habits. It finds comfort in the familiar. Of the 86 billion neurons in the human brain, only a handful are designated to handle adapting to new situations or environments (what is known as cognitive flexibility).

Lately, many of us have been jolted from our places of comfort by the recent pandemic. We’ve had to adjust to new working conditions, social norms, safety regulations, and routines. Parents of younger children have had to juggle babysitting with Zoom meetings.

Even if you’ve managed to find tentative peace with your new way of life, chances are things will change again. And again. And again. Uncertainty has the annoying tendency of continuously cropping up in our lives, like a particularly stubborn patch of weeds.

With change as inevitable as death and taxes, what can we possibly do to prepare? How can we equip ourselves with the right tools to successfully grapple with unexpected change and adapt to a “new normal,” time and again?

Though we can’t possibly prepare for every scenario life might throw at us, we can explore the root of our daily patterns and think about how we might reimagine and reestablish routines. Before we dig in to our discussion, keep in mind that we are only scratching the surface of a complex, multi-faceted concept. If you’d like to take a deeper dive, feel free to reach out to us on our website or sign up for our UNBOX program, which provides brain-centered tools to ignite your potential.

1. Identify the Motives Behind the Actions

It’s difficult to adapt to new changes or expectations if you don’t understand the core of your daily habits and routines. Sure, you may have a good grasp of your daily motions (wake up at 6:30, grab coffee on your way to work, drive for twenty minutes, sit at your desk and check your email…), but do you understand the “why” behind the action?

Start paying attention to your everyday tendencies (or, if your normal routine is still disrupted, think about what your past routine looked like). What actions bring you comfort? What motivates you in the morning? What keeps you going throughout the day? What fills you? And, conversely, what leaves you drained?

A commute is usually more than a commute. It’s a chance to transition yourself from home to work. It’s your quiet time to mentally prepare for your day and whatever lies ahead. At the end of the day, it’s a way to unwind from the stressors of work and shift gears into “home mode” or “family mode.”

Your daily lunch break is not just a span of time from noon to one o’clock. It’s a chance to take a meaningful break and gather steam to propel yourself through the rest of your work day.

Once you begin to understand that actions are not just actions, but expressions of comfort, motivation, transition, and more, you begin to realize that the action itself isn’t what’s important, it’s the idea and emotion behind it. Psychologist Robert Thayer says that “moods are created by our habitualness” and your mood is a filter through which you experience life.

So, the question to ask yourself is this: “How do I replicate the ideas or emotions behind the action when dealing with a new set of circumstances?”

2. Develop Meaningful Substitutes and “New Normals”

When your normal routine is knocked off-kilter, your brain reacts to the disruption and you start to feel on-edge or unsettled. When this happens, take time to reflect on what was disrupted and what that disruption means, at its core.

Maybe your children are home more often, meaning that you now have more family time, but less personal/decompression time. Maybe all your interactions with co-workers are now limited to virtual meetings, which deprives you of casual, spontaneous conversations in the hallway.

Consider why each of these actions is meaningful to you (having kid-free personal time may, for instance, help you trouble-shoot difficult work problems; having casual conversations with co-workers might strengthen work relationships) and consider how you could develop a new routine or approach to replace what’s lacking. You might, for example, establish a schedule at home (whether with a significant other or child care worker) that buys you a few hours of personal time. Or, when it comes to connecting with co-workers, you might make a concerted effort to host virtual meetings that are simply meant for casual conversation—a chance to check in, vent a little, and support one another.

Another example: If you’re mourning the loss of your daily commute, you might carve out a little “you time” each morning in which you make coffee, sit in a quiet spot with a pen and notepad, and plan your day. Or, you might make a cup of tea, put it in a thermos, and take your dog for a walk. Experiment with different substitutes for your normal routine until you land on one that suits you.

Keep in mind, however, that not every pattern you have “lost” needs to be substituted for a similar action. It’s probable that some of your daily habits were unhealthy or unproductive. There’s no harm in ditching those habits and replacing them with new patterns or routines. In fact, when your day-to-day life is in upheaval, that may be the perfect opportunity to establish new, healthy habits and give the old ones the boot.

3. Helping Others During Times of Uncertainty

Coping with new patterns and new systems may feel isolating, but keep in mind that others are probably experiencing the same sense of disturbance and turmoil that you are. It is, however, important to grapple with your own feelings of upheaval and pattern-shifting first. It’s the concept of “putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” You don’t have to have all the answers (no one does), but it helps if you make a personal effort to cope with change before reaching out to others.

Start helping your team members acclimate to change by opening the floor to open, candid conversation. Dare to be vulnerable and acknowledge that significant change isn’t easy for anyone, yourself included. By demonstrating that you, too, sometimes struggles with change, you’ll allow others to be vulnerable as well—to share their experiences.

To facilitate conversation, ask good questions that encourage answers that go beyond a simple “yes” or “no.” For example:

· Which parts of your routine were disrupted, and what have you done to get past or deal with the disruption?

· What are you missing the most? What could you do to substitute what you’re missing?

· How successful have you been in developing new daily patterns? What’s working and what’s not?

Be curious, get others involved, and listen. When your team’s foundation has shifted, it’s up to you to promote an open dialogue. Be the brainstormer or thought partner your team needs. By getting people talking and generating ideas, you’ll help shift their brains from a stuck, “everything is terrible” mentality to a motivated, action-oriented mentality. Psychologist John A. Glovan says that if we remain in a place of negativity and inaction “our brain becomes very efficient at doing this,” since the “circuitry in the brain is wired over time to repeat itself consistently and efficiently.”

If your team members are not in a good place (which may even be true for people who seem like they’re doing okay on the surface), it’s especially important to emphasize action and problem-solving. Otherwise, they’ll likely remain in a threatened, “survival” state, which not only impedes their work, but (more importantly) affects their mental health and wellbeing. The stressors of major change are real, and it is up to you to be a compassionate, attentive, and motivating leader.

In the upcoming months, it’s possible the pandemic will pass, and we’ll return to work in a familiar (but likely permanently altered) landscape. It’s also possible we’ll have another spike in COVID cases, and have to adapt, yet again, to uncertainty. Or, we might face some new threat in the future—some change that shifts the way we work.

We don’t have a crystal ball (if only we did!), but we are certain of one thing: Change is inevitable, and it pays to train your brain to adapt to it. Though you can’t know what the future holds, you can equip yourself with tools and methods to face uncertainty head-on and take a deeper dive into the “why” behind your daily routines and patterns.

If you’d like help retraining your brain, consider subscribing to our new UNBOX program—a brain-centered, interactive way to advance growth, cultivate connection, and spark innovation.


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