Entrepreneurs face uncertainty on a daily basis – yet facing uncertainty can cause a lot of overwhelm and anxiety because our brains don’t like uncertainty. How are YOU dealing with this challenge?
In this episode you’ll learn about:
– Busyness vs productivity
– Why your brain tries to eliminate uncertainty
– How a common bias can steer you toward being busy rather than productive
Activity & Sense of Agency
In general, I think it’s fair to say that successful entrepreneurs are people who are driven and are good at motivating themselves. They want to get things done, right?!
They don’t like sitting around waiting for things to happen. They want to be in control and direct the outcome of a situation. They prefer being active over being passive. And I think a big part of that has to do with the sense of agency and ownership they derive from being active.
Your Brain Doesn’t Like Uncertainty — Here’s Why
Let’s dig a little deeper into why that sense of agency and ownership is so important.
As you might already know, your brain doesn’t like uncertainty.
It doesn’t like uncertainty because uncertainty equals potential danger. Why? Because put simply, your brain is an information processing machine that predicts the future based on your prior knowledge & experiences.
Say at some point in time, maybe as a young kid, you put your hand into a fire — maybe because you were curious what would happen or maybe because it was an accident.
Anyhow, you undoubtedly learned that a) fire burns your skin if you touch it and this hurts a lot and b) you should therefore avoid putting your hand into a fire again. Ok?
So your brain creates a rule or blueprint for how to act in the future to avoid harming yourself again. And next time you see a fire you might immediately remember that experience of burning your hand — either consciously or subconsciously — and you’ll make sure not to touch the flames again.
That’s a very basic example of how your brain keeps you safe by predicting what’s going to happen next based on your knowledge and experiences and then it steers your behavior in a way that is designed to avoid any kind of further harm.
Uncertainty = Unpredictable = Potential Danger
But when you face uncertainty, your brain doesn’t know what information or set of rules to rely on. It can’t predict the future because it doesn’t have all the information to make an educated guess. So it doesn’t know how to avoid harm and that’s stressful and can cause a lot of fear and anxiety!
It has to be on high alert so that it doesn’t miss any crucial bits of information. It has to work extra hard to scan your surroundings, make judgments, go through likely — and unlikely — scenarios in order to prepare you for what might lie ahead.
If you’ve ever waited for someone important to call you back or text you back and it drove you nuts because your mind came up with all sorts of scenarios why the heck you still haven’t heard from that person — you have witnessed how your brain tries to eliminate the uncertainty.
Maybe he doesn’t text back because he doesn’t like you.
Maybe he doesn’t text back because he’s busy.
Maybe he doesn’t text back because he forgot his phone at work.
Maybe he doesn’t text back because he was in an accident and is now in a coma. WHO KNOWS, right?!
It’s very stressful to mentally go through all those different scenarios without knowing which one is true. It’s an emotional roller coaster because each scenario comes with a different emotional response.
When you think he hasn’t texted back because he doesn’t like you, you might feel very sad and lonely.
When you think he hasn’t texted back because he’s forgotten his phone at work, you might feel annoyed.
When you think he hasn’t texted back because he has had an accident, you might feel worried and completely freaked out.
Choosing pain over uncertainty
You just want to KNOW so that you can stop unnecessarily worrying about all those scenarios that aren’t true, because the uncertainty is driving you nuts, right?! You want to know what’s true so that you know how to feel and how to react.
In fact, studies have shown that you’re calmer anticipating pain than anticipating uncertainty because at least that pain is certain.
In one study, researchers found that participants who KNEW they would receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told that they had a 50% chance of getting an electric shock.
That’s how much your brain despises uncertainty: It prefers a known bad consequence over an unknown or uncertain one.
Uncertainty & Chronic Stress
Now, this is where things can easily get out of control. If we don’t know how to calm our brains down again, that well-intended high-alert state can lead to a chronic hyper-vigilant state that ramps up your body’s stress response and puts your body into constant fight-or-flight mode.
Not ALL stress is bad, I want to make that very clear. You can’t and don’t WANT to avoid all forms of stress.
But our brains and bodies were designed for short bouts of acute stress followed by periods of relaxation.
And those short bouts of acute stress will actually help you stay healthy and flexible.
So I don’t want to demonize stress in general.
But CHRONIC stress has severe negative consequences for your mental, emotional and physical health and you absolutely want to make sure that you know how to regulate your body’s stress response in order to avoid that chronic stress.
Entrepreneurship & Uncertainty
Let’s go back to the ambitious, driven entrepreneur we talked about in the beginning. The one who prefers to be active because it gives him a sense of agency.
Entrepreneurship is hard in the sense that it forces you to face uncertainty on a daily basis.
In fact, you could say that uncertainty is the only constant or certainty that you can count on as an entrepreneur:
Will your launch go well or will you launch to crickets?
Will you be able to fill your program or is it going to fall flat?
Every day you have to make choices and take action even though you don’t know what the outcome will be.
Dealing with Uncertainty as an Entrepreneur
In general, there are 2 unproductive routes you can go down:
- Procrastination and doing nothing because you’re too overwhelmed to decide.
- OR becoming super busy and doing things just for the sake of doing things.
It’s the latter that I probably see more often in successful entrepreneurs who want to grow and scale their business to the next level.
And if that’s you, you know understand WHY you might feel this urge to be active and control your environment and situation: Taking action reduces the uncertainty you’re facing. It kinda collapses ALL the possibilities into ONE scenario.
In behavioral economics, the tendency to choose taking action over doing nothing is called activity bias or action bias and while this can be beneficial in some situations, it can also lead to making poor decisions about how you manage your time and energy.
Because this tendency often creates a fine line between having a great work ethic that helps you get things done and becoming a busy, burnt-out workaholic.
Of course, you need to take action in order to accomplish your goals. There’s no doubt about it.
But if you’re constantly hustling just to FEEL more in control and to FEEL more productive, you have a problem.
The Burnt-Out Hustler
If action becomes your default mode and automatic response, it’s based on impulse instead of logic. So you might do a lot of things that are less effective just for the sake of doing SOMEthing, which is often bad for the outcome of the project you work on.
Keep in mind that busyness does NOT equal productivity. You can be productive without hustling 24/7 and you can be busy without being productive.
Productivity is about doing the RIGHT things that will get you closer to your goals and doing them efficiently.
Business on the other hand might just be your coping mechanism for dealing with the ever-present uncertainty.
So the next time you find yourself restless and putting more and more things on your to-do list, take a step back and ask yourself:
Do I really need to do all those things to achieve my goals or do I do them because I feel anxious and I’m trying to control my situation?
Dealing with Anxiety in More Productive Ways
If you find that you’re keeping busy to manage your anxiety rather than to reach your goals and this is steering you toward a severe burn-out, feel free to reach out and talk about other strategies that you could use that can help you manage your anxiety while working less AND becoming more productive at the same time.
And if you give me 5 days (1h per day), I show you how to get your life back AND be more productive in my “5 Days to Getting your Life Back” productivity course for entrepreneurs that teaches you how to win back 1–2h of precious time each day so that you can DO less and BE more and enjoy all the things you love — without losing your competitive edge.
Use the discount code PODCAST for a 10% discount.
Claudia Garbutt is a molecular biologist turned mindset and high-performance coach for ambitious, mission-driven entrepreneurs who want to shatter invisible ceilings & create more inner peace, income & impact – without sacrificing their health, relationships, or happiness along the way.
She is passionate about empowering other entrepreneurs so that they can ditch worry, self-doubt & overwhelm and become confident CEOs and conscious creators of their dream lives.
To do that, she teaches entrepreneurs the fundamental mechanisms at the intersection of physiology and psychology that drive human behavior & wellbeing so that they can work WITH their brain & body instead of AGAINST them to stay happy, healthy & productive and achieve their goals with more ease & joy.
Claudia is German, a wife, mom of 2 kids and 2 cats, a runner, environmentalist, a cancer survivor, and a Top10 entrepreneurship podcast host.
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