How to Create Purposeful Change in Uncertain Times

Four tips to help you find more purpose, impact, and fulfillment in your work

Posted Mar 04, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Tirachard Kumtanom/pexels
Source: Tirachard Kumtanom/pexels
  • Focusing on goals for change amid immediate demands and distractions is a challenge for many.
  • For some, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for self-reflection and reinvention. 
  • Manageable steps such as "saying no" more often and reflecting on what matters most may help you reorient toward a more purposeful work life.

If you set resolutions or goals for the year, you might already be reevaluating them. How many goals have you actually remembered to stick with? How much have your habits and daily routines really changed?

If you answered "few to none" and "very little," you’re not alone. This year, sticking with your resolutions may seem especially challenging: How do you shape a vision for the future amid so much uncertainty? 

You likely know that conventional methods of abstract goal-setting, wishful thinking, and dream boards rarely help you fulfill your aims. That’s because dreams can be slippery. Between getting a child on Zoom for school or making your next meeting, you might catch a glimpse of what you dream for this year. And then, two minutes later, you forget.

Why? Because our precious attention is our most valuable resource and yet – all too often – we squander it by overextending or distracting ourselves with shiny new ideas and what we think we “should” be doing. We compare ourselves to colleagues or friends who pack their schedules and juggle the roles of parent, partner, and professional with superhuman facility. 

But here’s the thing: Responsibilities are like balloons. 

We see someone holding a massive swarm of multicolored balloons and we think, Oh, how fun! when in reality it’s taking every ounce of that person’s strength and energy to keep themselves tethered to the ground. 

So, how do we choose less to have more? How do we make decisions differently this year so we can advance our best ideas and endeavors without exhausting ourselves, crippling our relationships, or compromising our principles? 

How can we rise wisely and inch closer to our goals while remaining grounded in what matters most?

First, let me explain what I mean by “rise wisely.”

What it means to rise wisely

Neuropsychiatrist Dilip Jeste has been studying aspects of wisdom for over 20 years. As described in his book Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good, he and several international experts in wisdom conducted thorough research to derive some consensus on what was characteristic of people who exemplified wisdom.

Among those characteristics was “Balancing decisiveness with acceptance of uncertainty.” In other words, a person can accept "different but equally valid perspectives… and that things change, including one’s deeply held thoughts and beliefs.” Yet, even acknowledging that uncertainty, Jeste writes, “[o]ne must act when action is called for.”

Another wisdom trait this group identified is “Reflection and self-understanding.”

The two qualities connect, of course. The leader who makes space for reflection can let her evolving values and strengths filter her decisions. This opportunity, not that one. This initiative now, and this one maybe later. And she can articulate why.

The year 2020 certainly tried our patience with the unpredictable, and you likely made some unexpected decisions. I know I did. Crises strip away the superficial and force us to examine who we are, what we value, and how we want to grow. 

Out of all the knowledge workers and business professionals I worked with, the ones who thrived in the past year recognized the national shutdowns and stay-at-home orders as a unique opportunity for self-reflection and reinvention. They embraced the challenge of making purposeful changes to the way they lived and worked. They were decisive and intentional in choosing their path forward. 

While you can’t predict the future, you actually can map the unpredictable future in a way that prepares you to respond to almost any unbidden surprise. Here are four tips to help you rise wisely and find more purpose, impact, and fulfillment in your work.

1.   Say no to more and yes to less.

It’s surprisingly difficult for people to say no. That’s because your mind likes to say yes to every fleeting distraction that feeds your novelty-loving brain. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to sensory overload and burnout.

Unfortunately, our brains don’t have the bandwidth to pursue every new opportunity that comes our way. We have finite time, energy, attention, and resources and when we spread ourselves too thin we only dilute our energy and ideas.

Try saying no more often. It may be uncomfortable at first, so start with just one area in your life: work, friendships, family, etc. Be specific. Write it down. Then reflect on why. How do you think saying no to more ideas, opportunities, requests, and distractions in this realm will positively impact your life, work, or relationships? Write that down too.

2.   Focus on what matters most.

Your capacity to focus is fragile. That’s not because of a character flaw. In our fast-paced, tech-fueled lives, it can be hard to identify and prioritize the tasks that align with our values and long-term goals. Start by taking a “decision inventory.” Review your week’s calendar and acknowledge just how many to-dos you have a choice about.  

  • What tasks are you deciding to pay attention to? 
  • What endeavors are you deciding to prioritize? 
  • What goals are you deciding to aim for?
  • What key decision are you avoiding?
  • What key decision this week could improve how you experience life?

Then ask yourself, Why? Why this, and not that?

You might be surprised by how much you unconsciously assume you "have to" or "should" do. 

3.   Make time to dream.

It is our capacity to imagine, to create something into being, and then to cooperate in ways that make life better for more than just ourselves that helps our species not only survive but ultimately thrive.

To dream is to infuse our prioritized actions with purpose. But how do we make deliberate time to step out of the immediate in order to get clarity on the important?

  • Steal 15 minutes in the morning to read or listen to something that stimulates your dreaming faculties. 
  • Break up your work day with walks and allow yourself to daydream. 
  • Dedicate a notebook to the musings that pop up during these periods of self-reflection and daydreaming.

4.   Ask yourself: What could be next?

In the Digital Age, where success is measured in analytics and data guides every business decision, we tend to think that we have to fit into a certain mold or follow a particular formula in order to succeed. We just have to do it better than everyone else. But research at Harvard’s Dark Horse Project points to the fact that the path to fulfillment, meaning, and achievement is individual and winding, not standardized and linear. 

“Dark horses” are the people who blaze their own trails, who harness their individuality to fuel their pursuit of purpose and prosperity. The key to their success isn’t formulaic: It’s a mindset. It means staying in integrity through periods of profound challenge and change.

What if this year of disruption were your wake-up call to try something different, to live your days differently, or to advance that dream endeavor you’ve been putting off?

One day soon all of us will reemerge. Who will you be then? And what could be next for you and the patch of the planet you elevate?

References

Jeste, D. V., & LaFee, S. (2020). Wiser: The scientific roots of wisdom, compassion, and what makes us good. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Rose, T., & Ogas, O. (2018). Dark Horse: Achieving success through the pursuit of fulfillment . New York, Harper Collins.

“Why 80 percent of New Year's resolutions fail.” (n.d.). Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2015-12-29/why-80-percent-of-new-years-resolutions-fail