Unexpected things happen. Injury, illness, home emergencies, client emergencies, school holidays, sick days, last minute projects, surprise visitors…
What do you do when things don’t go to plan? Do you tighten the reigns in an attempt to keep control? Are you screaming with stress on the inside while trying to maintain a calm swan-like exterior? Do you give up on the day and try again tomorrow, next week, next month or even next year? Or do you double and triple your efforts in a bid to cram it all in and somehow still get everything done?
Everybody is different. Some people thrive on spontaneity and last minute pressure. Some people excel with careful planning. But even the most spontaneous of people can find themselves overwhelmed with chaos, and the best made plans can be derailed.
Whatever your natural tendency, the key to productivity and sanity is in how we respond when things don’t go to plan.
There are times when we may not have much control over our circumstances. In times like these, the choices we have are in how we respond. Here are three strategies to help you create those choices:
Ask “What does this mean?”
When things don’t go to plan, a common response is to think it’s all gone wrong. But has it really? All of it?
Similarly, when we make a mistake, or our actions don’t bring the results we hoped for, we may feel that we have failed, blown our chance or that it was not meant to be. As a result we respond accordingly. We stop trying, we look elsewhere, we let ourselves be put off or sidetracked.
Perhaps a more pointed question is: What am I taking this to mean? And what does it actually mean?
Does an ill child really mean all your work is blown out of the water? Or can it be more a case of rescheduling commitments, rethinking how you do get some things done, or rearranging how you work so you can cuddle a sleeping child at the same time?
Do scuppered plans really mean “I can’t do it”? Or is it actually “I’m not going to do it right now”?
Do cancelled appointments really mean you’re being unprofessional, unreliable and letting everyone down? Or is that just the meaning you have attached to it?
Is the bump in the road really a sign that you should give up entirely? Or does it just mean stop, wait, find a different way, or even keep going?
Stress and overwhelm is often more about the meaning we give to something, than the thing itself. Recognising the difference can help us to choose how we respond on the inside to what’s happening on the outside.
Reframe “I have to” into “I get to”
When you find yourself in a situation where you feel you have little control, you might notice yourself repeatedly saying “but I have to…” or “I can’t because I have to…”
“Have to” can be a powerful driver to help you stay on course and see something through difficult times. However, when what you have to do is not what you actually wanted to do, it can also leave you feeling helpless, a victim of your situation.
Instead, try replacing “have to” with “get to”.
I first heard this from a fitness trainer, who noticed that by reframing “I have to go to the gym to lose weight” into “I get to go to the gym to lose weight” his clients felt much more empowered and took more control of their progress and their fitness.
The same goes for changing plans. Instead of “I have to look after my daughter because she has chicken pox” for example, try “I get to look after my daughter when she is ill.”
Notice the difference. One is an obligation. The other is an opportunity. One feels heavy and imposed. The other feels empowering and conveys choice. It gets me thinking “actually yes, I do get to give her cuddles. I get to be the one who holds her and comforts her, and that’s a good thing!”
This has a knock on effect too. The more aware you are of choice and opportunity, the more you notice possibilities and create choices to move forwards.
Shift your focus from “I can’t” to “I can”
There are some things that we can’t control. There are some things we don’t even have any influence over. But if you focus solely on things you can’t do, your mind will draw a blank, you’ll feel stuck, frustrated and helpless. In contrast when you shift your focus from “I can’t” to “this is what I can do” your mind starts looking for different perspectives, options and ways forward.
An exercise I like to use personally and with my clients is Steven Covey’s Circles of Influence and Concern.
Draw two circles, one inside the other. In the outer circle write down all the issues concerning you. All the things that are taking up your thought, energy, attention, time. This is your Circle of Concern. In the inner circle, write down the things you can actually do something about. This is your Circle of Influence.
Your choice in this case is Action or Accept. Instead of getting stuck in frustration over the things you can’t take action on, you can choose to accept those things, and direct your attention towards the things you can influence, control and do something about.
Next time things don’t go to plan, use these three tools to create choices. Get clarity on “What does this really mean?” Turn obligation into opportunity by replacing “I have to” with “I get to” and shift your focus from “I can’t” to “I can”.
What do you do when things don’t go to plan? Share your thoughts and strategies with us in the comments box below!