Welcome to The New Abnormal. (And 6 things to do about it)

14%. That’s the percentage of people who self-describe as “very comfortable” with change in my workshops.

This article is for the other 86%. For the early part of the lockdown experience, people openly opined about when things would “recover” or “return to normal”. Then as things drug on and one wave turned into the next wave and time stretched into longer and longer periods of uncertainty, the conversation started to focus, not on a return to normal, but on The New Normal. The problem with both of these well-intentioned, but far astray thoughts is that there is no New Normal. Nor will there be. We are entering The New Abnormal. And it’s going to be here a while.

The truth is the rules are different now than what we’ve ever experienced in our lives and most of us are unprepared to deal with this level of sustained change. Usually, we try to crowd our uncertainty into a smaller and smaller box, so sustained uncertainty is not something most of us are practiced in. But we don’t have to give in to panic over a future that doesn’t settle back in and continues to morph and evolve. We just need to reframe our thinking and learn new skills we haven’t prioritized developing before. But, alas, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The past vs. the future

In my innovation work with communities across the country, I ask people whether the past is a good predictor of the future. Over 75% of people say yes. Then I ask whether the past and the future look alike. Over 80% of people say no.

Think about that: we somehow think that the past predicts the future but agree that the past and the future don’t look alike. The reality is we only have one data set to compare our experiences to: the past. Which means that even if the past is not actually a good predictor of the future, we are inclined to think it is a good predictor because it’s the only data set we have.

Occasionally, something we identify as a pattern will repeat itself and in that moment we have found all the evidence we need to reinforce and fully ingrain the adage “history repeats itself” into our psyche—no matter how much more often we see facts to the contrary. We also mythologize the past (for of a variety of complex reasons), and look longingly for moments from the past to “get back to” even though that is not just unlikely, but laughably unrealistic. So basically, we’re wired and taught to think the past is something we should get back to and we can get there because history repeats itself.

Only one problem: that's not how it works. There were days before smart phones, the internet, TV, radio, indoor plumbing, cars, the wheel. There were days before the black plague, yellow fever, polio, and yes, COVID. Then, even though it took a while, each of these events and inventions changed how we operated as a society entirely. But we are not anywhere near shaking out the uncertainty of this moment, and to pretend we are nearing the finish line will do more psychological harm than good.

I get it. The uncertainty of the future can feel uncomfortable. Especially now. It’s been a lot of forced and sustained change—and most of that change hasn’t been positive. People like black and white, but not gray. But please recognize that is where we are as a world, as a country, and as a society: squarely in the gray. We want things to get settled into a new normal again. Here’s the catch: The New Normal is not happening now—and it will be some time before that changes.

Welcome to The New Abnormal. Why no New Normal?

Uncertain market forces, significant civil and social unrest, war, hyperpartisanship, brinkmanship, unclear work-life balance, inflation, massive federal cash infusions, The Great Resignation, supply chain issues, shifting to endemic care, multiple school controversies, regular climate crises, an unparalleled mental health crisis—and on and on.

Every single one of these societal and economic forces are out of alignment or maintaining a precarious balance. These issues are in a constant push-pull on the back side of a global event that hasn’t ended yet. We’ve already seen multiple variants and it is likely there will be more. The question is whether the future variants become more virulent and transmissible or less. These issues are all in the gray at the moment—and continuing to flux. And as we try to shift our resources and focus among so many complex issues, we continue to plunge ourselves deeper into debt. I don’t mean financially (although that too), but emotionally, socially, and societally. So we need to prepare for sustained uncertainty as these things sort themselves out. Some of these will be slow change. Some will be all at once. But "normal" is a ways off.

What do we do about it? 6 steps you can take now.

1)    Put on your oxygen mask

First, as an individual, recognize you need to put on your oxygen mask first. Just like on a plane, you need to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others. It’s understood and expected on a plane and it should be expected for us as well. People just don’t take the time because of a variety of reasons. Time to yourself is necessary and allows you to help others better by helping to take care of you. It is not selfish. It is responsible. So start there. Form a 5-minute habit that is all yours. If time allows, grow your habit to 15 minutes. If not, block the time religiously and take it. Don’t make excuses, form a habit of self-care.

2)    Hit the reset button

Next, hit your mental reset button to right now. Not the past. Let go of the notion that the days of yore are making a comeback and focus your energy on what happens going forward. Not compared to a return to the past, which was never going to happen anyway, but towards a tomorrow that you can influence, impact and invent. If you think of this uncertain state as how things will be for the foreseeable future, it will make the wild shifts in societal focus much easier to swallow, and make the breakthrough moments of old-school normalcy seem like a small vacation.

3)    Active anxiety processing

Be active in processing your uncertainty and anxiety. Make a list of things that have your mental attention by writing it down and then highlight which of those things are in your control, which you can impact, and which are not. Use a green, yellow and red highlighter. If they are in your control (green), get to work on one of these things today—whichever is the quickest and easiest to get done. If you finish the green items, move on to the yellow items (impact). Ignore the red items as you cannot do anything about it at this time. Or have a ritual where you right down the green and the yellow and burn the red list. Anything that will let you stop expending mental energy on events beyond your control for now. As the list of things you can control and impact gets tackled, the list of things you can’t will seem less daunting.

4)    Embrace the gray

Another way to build up your mental resiliency is becoming more uncomfortable with ambiguity in small ways. When you’re driving, take a random turn and use that to try and get home. Bonus points for not returning to the “normal” route. Order the favorite dish of the server or coffee of the barista, instead of your favorite. Pay with nothing but cash for a week. Set the radio to a station you wouldn’t ordinarily listen to. These small traumas will allow you to learn how to become increasingly okay with uncertainty and prepare you to be much more mentally resilient in the gray. Side bonus: this technique is a powerful creativity tool as well.

5)    Find your Real Currency

Recognize that moving away from something is not the same as moving towards something. This is why The Great Resignation will become The Great Regret for many. And we are already starting to see that in studies a few months in. After a few months to a year, the shine of the new job wears off, the pay bump or promotion is forgotten and your connection to the meaning of the work is still the missing piece of the puzzle. Understand your Real Currency in life and then go after the next opportunity.

6)    Lower the bar

Last, but not least, lower the bar. Give everyone that you can permission to take their foot off the gas. Employees, peers, bosses, friends and family alike. It will take all of us and this is not what most of us are taught—or have ever practiced. And certainly not on the scale we need it. We are taught to push harder, jump higher and set a new bar to achieve. That hard work and more work are the key to being successful. Sometimes that can be true. But certainly not right now. We need to learn how to slow down. Lower the bar. Eliminate the unnecessary. Stand still.

We need a collective societal deep breathe—but we weren’t taught how to do that and it’s not what’s been rewarded. So do what you can to help others. Give them grace. Give them gratitude. Cancel meetings. Lower the goal. And take a breath. The goal is to have a return to sustained societal productivity faster by giving our human resources a chance to heal.

Think of our human resources as an athlete with a serious hamstring injury right now. If we take some time to rest and heal, we can return the workforce to full speed a lot faster than if we keep running with the injury. So do what you can to help ease this collective burden. Not forever. For now.

Yes we can

While this may seem a bit bleak, it's not. We will get through this and adapt. The Great Abnormal is here and all about learning along the way and recognizing that the old patterns don’t hold. We need to do a collective shift and empower ourselves in this new paradigm by embracing the suck, leaning in and doing a reset. We can build new resiliency skills, lower the bar and finding our currency. We can form a habit. We can do it together. Team Us!

Go Back