Coping in Complex and Uncertain Times

With the breadth and severity of issues impacting this country, other nations, and our planet today, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. From global pandemics to economic crisis to racial or religious strife, it’s hard to know what the future holds, leaving many of us feeling anxious, isolated, and confused.
If this sounds familiar, you are in good company.
If you are overwhelmed by complexity and chaos, it’s not your fault. There is nothing wrong with you. It is a perfectly reasonable condition. Here’s why:
Rubin Rule #1: Complexity increases by the power of the number of variables.

So I ask you, how many variables (items, things, people, classes, etc.) do you deal with in one day? Yesterday, for instance. Write the number of variables down. How big is the number? Check your number against the chart. Is your life a little complex, moderately complex, or extremely complex?
Because life is so complex, it is also chaotic. Lots of things going on makes it hard to absorb, understand, or see rational reasons. We can’t make sense of life a lot of the time. That is chaos.
So what can you do to make your life less complex, and therefore less chaotic? 
Let’s start with what not to do. Don’t try to change or affect things that are out of your control. In life and during these times, you will have the ability to impact some things, but not others. If you focus on the things that you cannot control, it will not work very well. However, if you let go of those things and focus on what you can impact, life will be much more satisfying and stress-free. 
Have you ever heard of the Serenity Prayer? The Serenity Prayer was written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Reinhold wrote:
“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
Sometime later, Neibuhr’s prayer became part of the 12 Step Programs for helping addicted people handle that disease. But the words were changed slightly to read, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Perhaps you already know this prayer. Or a prayer or poem in your culture or religion that has the same or similar message. If you know it, great! If not, I advise you to learn it. It’s a powerful tool for making decisions about what you can do. And what you cannot.
Rubin Rule #2: Whenever you need to know the difference between what you can control and what you cannot, ask yourself this:
What can I do right now about X? ( The exact phase may be different, but it must always be about right now.)
...Immediately, you know what to do. DO IT! (No thinking. Just allow the answer be there. Just know and do it. OR 2) You don’t know what to do! If you don’t know what to do, there are two choices: 1) Forget about it. Put it out of your thoughts and focus on another thing. OR 2) Schedule a time later when you will revisit this to see if you can do something then.
Seems simple, right? Just hold on for a minute.
How well can you do what I have shared already?
There’s a difference between knowing something and doing something competently.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Four stages of competence (This file was derived from: Competence Hierarchy adapted from Noel Burch by Igor Kokcharov.)
Using the Serenity Prayer referenced earlier as an example of the four stages of competence: 
  1. Perhaps, prior to reading this blog, you were “unconscious” about the Serenity Prayer, and therefore you couldn’t DO anything regarding it (you were “incompetent”). You were at Stage 1 Unconscious Incompetence.
  2. When you became aware (“conscious”) of the Serenity Prayer but still hadn’t done anything with it, you were at Stage 2 Conscious Incompetence.
  3. When you use your consciousness to practice using the Serenity Prayer and become more competent, you reach Stage 3 Conscious Competence.
  4. And, if you persist in practicing long enough, you will become so competent in using the Serenity Prayer that you won’t require consciousness to do so. This is Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent. 
At some point in your life you are very likely to find a “problem” that does not respond to the tools that you have heard about above. Yet, it won’t go away. It keeps coming back to your mind. It is annoying and unsettling.
This still occasionally happens to me. And each time it happens, I find that I want to know why?
Why haven’t I fixed this? Why can’t I do it? 
That’s when I pull this one tool out of my “Tool Box,” and I suggest you do the same.
First, think of one thing in your life that you’re not satisfied with. A thing that could, or perhaps should, be “better.” Preferably, one that you have tried to resolve, and failed. Write it down in one short phrase or sentence.
[PAUSE for two breaths.]
Instead of (or maybe in addition to) one of the tools mentioned above, you want to look at the “problem” from a different perspective. So, before you start working on this challenge or goal, let’s consider whether it qualifies as one that you have a reasonable basis for choosing it to begin with.
With your challenge/goal in mind, take 30 seconds and answer these questions right now:
1. Are you ready to do it? Right now? You want to make the change. It is a matter of priority to you.
2. Are you willing to do it? Right now? You have motivation to change. The change is important.
3. Are you able to do it? Right nowYou have the skills to make the change. You have confidence in the change.

[PAUSE for 30 seconds.]

How did you feel while answering the questions? The more calm you felt, the more likely your results are true and accurate. Did you let yourself KNOW?

If working on your problem is supported by an affirmation, that’s good. The probability of success is higher, and it will also help if you now call it a GOAL. Choose goals that are small enough to achieve and big enough to matter.

WARNING: Be prepared to experience surprises. Things are going to get in your way.
  • There are known knowns (things we know we know);
  • There are known unknowns (things we know we do not know); and
  • There are also unknown unknowns (the ones we don't know we don't know).
So, in order to prepare yourself, answer these questions (now, and often):
  • What are the known knowns related to achieving your goal?
  • What are the Known Unknowns?
  • What are the Unknowns that are Possible, Probable, and unpredictable? (Use your imagination.)
The Role of Control
Because you are human, you will experience being uncomfortable. The greater your discomfort or perceived loss of control, the greater your reaction will be to regain control. Our “Fight or Flight” mechanism kicks in and the urge to fight can be very strong. But, choosing to fight can be a trap, both physically and mentally. It can get exhausting. It causes stress. It causes anxiety. 
Worse, all too often, it is really an illusion. Many experts have stated that we really have little to no control over outcomes. All we can control--with enough practice--is our actions and reactions to what comes at us.
So, before you fight, make sure you use your tools to examine the situation carefully so that you can make thoughtful, “conscious” personal decisions and increase the chances of success.
You Already Have Everything You Need to Have a Better Life
Start doing it now. You are the key element to having a better life.

Final Thoughts
I hope that the above tools will be helpful. Here are just a few final thoughts for you to consider along your journey to a better life:
  1. Somewhere along the way you will (almost certainly) find that letting go is a most important skill. There are lots of good to great books and groups from which to learn how to let go.
  2. Forgiving yourself is important. It's important to recognize that you did the best you knew how to do at the time you made that choice/decision.
  3. Nothing I or anyone else says is worth a thing. Unless it supports you on your journey - IGNORE it, except when it meets your needs.
  4. Don't sweat the small stuff. And, by the way, it's ALL small stuff!
  5. Only attend to that which you can do something about right now! The rest may be revisited later to see if it's something you can do then, or put aside, ignore, or forget.
  6. Winning: What does that even mean? Clearly define what winning will look like, feel like, be for you. You need to know where you are going, or you may well arrive somewhere else.
  7. Knowing who you will be/want to become is also where you are going, and may be more important than what happened in the past.
  8. What are you committed to?
  9. What life's rules are the ones that you live by - want to live by? Choose, test, revise, and discard until you feel it/they are right for you.
  10. Some people are toxic for you. Avoid them whenever possible. They may be perfectly good human beings and still be toxic for you.
  11. Choose goals that are small enough to achieve and big enough to matter.
Aim high, keep getting up, and keep trying, to the best of your ability--right now!

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About Work/Life English
For over 35 years, Work/Life English has been dedicated to improving the lives of English language learners. We offer a comprehensive range of fun, effective English language improvement lessons and activities to help adult education ESL educators successfully engage their English language students and improve their English competencies, leading to a host of positive effects in students’ professional and personal lives. Better English, Better Life. For more information, visit

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