creating too much chaos in your life? this jonathan fields trick works

Posted on October 30th, 2011

This week in Sunday Life I drop certainty anchors

By mind on fire

So lately I’ve become increasingly distrustful of the overly certain.

When someone puffs out their chest at the head of a dinner table to emphatically declare climate change isn’t happening or that their son will grow up to follow Collingwood or that the only smoked small goods worth buying are from such-and-such-purveyor-of-such-things, it sets off alarm bells. Because nothing is certain any more. No one knows anything for sure.

We can’t be certain we’ll knock off work at 5 tomorrow or that we’ll be having Irish stew on Wednesday night or that our plane will turn up. The only certainty, beyond death, is uncertainty. Oh, and the fact that uncertainty in the world is on the up and up.

So when a leader or some blinkered commentator issues a black or white pronouncement these days I immediately think, “Hmmm, you’re sooo struggling with the inevitable anxiety of these doubtful times”. Far from giving them credibility, their surety comes across as cringefully out of step. As evolutionary epistemologist Jeremy Sherman wrote recently, today “self-certainty is weakly correlated with veracity.”

Uncertainty is the new fear. Twenty years ago we felt fear and did it anyway.

Now we accept we don’t know, and use this to humbly grow ourselves forward. 

Or at least we do if we know what’s good for us. The research shows, over and over, that uncertainty – or an ability to flow with it – goes hand in hand with true creative success. It’s the very act of being in the unknown that sees us strive to know more, and thus stumble upon fresh ideas.

What distinguishes the new entrepreneurs from the rest of us who sit back waiting for our “moment” is an appreciation that we can no longer wait for a perfect understanding of a situation before acting. As Jonathan Fields, author of new book Uncertainty, reasons, “The only time we have perfect understanding before launching into something is when it’s already been done before”.

I spoke to Fields this week. He became so fascinated by this new not-knowing that he studied hundreds of successful creatives to determine what they were doing differently, culminating in his book, published this month. What did he find? “Happy, successful entrepreneurs ritualize everything in their lives but their creative work.”

That is, they eat the same breakfast every day, at the same time, they wear the same clothes, they do their emails at the same (finite) time of the day and buy the same laundry powder. At every turn, they banalise the minutiae of their lives, taking out as much unpredictability as possible.

Which is to say, they dropped as many “certainty anchors” around them as possible. These myriad little kite strings of certainty form a “psychic bedrock”, says Fields, holding us firm so we can then fly creatively and take exciting, brave risks in our work. “We can work comfortably with uncertainty when we know we’re grounded and safe in the basic parts of our lives.”

It’s like Mr Squiggle – he can only do his crazy squiggles when he has Miss Jane there to grab his ankle and steadily drag him back to earth from one of his jangly space walks. “Oh Miss Jane, Miss Jane, thank you Miss Jane!”.

I come across this phenomenon repeatedly in this weekly journey to make life better. I mean, it was only the other week I observed that successful people eat boring breakfasts. And every single productivity guru I’ve met has told me they follow a strict morning routine. And I can now see why. These rituals serve as a Miss Jane to their inner Mr Squiggles. And they enable them to prioritise the important, productive uncertainties.

Chatting to Fields I became aware of how often my anxiety around uncertainty stalls me from creating freely. I also became aware of how much banal uncertainty I surround myself with – I’m always running late for flights, I chop and change my morning routine and can never get to bed at a regular hour. The two tendencies are clearly connected. I think I actively seek uncertainty because routine somehow seems boring. But Field’s angle on the issue shifts this. I can see now the worth of keeping the unimportant stuff safe and predictable and, ok, boring. It’s so my kite can soar high.

What are you like with fueling uncertainty in your life? Do it too much? Is it make everything less certain and less anchored?


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  • Yay! I feel so much better about my obsessive breakfast routine. I have the same thing every day (Bircher muesli). And pretty much same lunch on working days (tuna salad). Great post, really interesting xxx


  • Shanina

    The author and business guru behind The Right Brain Business Plan calls this sort of routine a “left brain chill pill”. I’ve found it true that you creative right brain is more free to do it’s creative stuff if you have your nagging left brain chilled and happy with some form of structure and order.
    I don’t think I’ll never be big on morning routine, or regular bedtimes (I’m learning it’s a bit of a thyroidy/AI thing… depends what my body says on an daily basis) but I can do other little things to add order and structure, enough to stop the left-brain judgement and allow my creativity to shine out. Little things like the To Do list, knowing what money is coming and going, reviewing business plans, etc. And doing this left-brain stuff with colour, pictures, big sheets of paper, chunky textas… that keeps me engaged.
    Just saying.


  • Great Read and so true to my personal experience.
    I really relish the idea that certainty in one area feeds creativity,(with all the inherent uncertainty that this term implies) .. in another.
    It’s a wonderful transformative/alchemical notion and it’s great for me to see this expressed in this manner.
    Thanks !


  • Wow… this was a lightbulb moment for me. Thanks Sarah! xx


  • Mia Bluegirl

    So true! And hilarious! Especially the Mr Squiggle bit.

    From my experience, the more routine I have in the boring stuff, the more brain space I have to think about the fun & exciting things, and the more likely I am to say – let’s go to Canada! Let’s have a tea party! Etc. Cos I know the bed is made and laundry is done Sunday morning and I dont have to even think about these things.

    And the more I refuse to embrace being in the know, and try to be in the mystery, ironically the more sense the world makes! If is going to be topsy turvy chaotic Wonderland you might as well embrace it.


  • rach

    Your certainty about uncertainty makes me uncertain…


  • Jo

    Great post Sarah, and also really great comments, especially Mia Bluegirl. You’ve all given me dome Sunday night inspiration for the week ahead!


  • Stephanie

    I really think this is about the “decision fatigue” that you wrote about earlier this year. Every decision sucks up energy and the more one automates banal actitivies the more mental energy is available for priority items, as Mia noted. I’m like you in regard to creating all sorts of banal uncertainty in my life though, e.g. leaving bedtime open – need to work on that!


  • Christine

    Yes this post makes me feel so much better! I believe you wrote about decision-fatigue a bit ago, I find keeping my morning routine, my food and wind down incredibly boring day in and day out gets rid of that and lets my creativity soar in work, writing and adventures with friends. My routines have also become mini meditations in a way, doing them feels like coming home. Lovely post Sarah.


  • Dani

    As Gustave Flaubert so neatly put it, ‘Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.’


    Heather Reply:

    Ooo I love this sentiment!


  • Well, huh! That’s really interesting! I’ve never given that much thought, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks for the enlightenment!


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  • Lexie

    I think a lot of us love routine. For me, it’s being able to bomb myself with anxiety and fear and expectations and new, uncharted waters in the day; and being able to hold onto the little things like eating the same snack, reading the same blogs, watching the same television show or even just wearing the same pair of daggy pyjama’s. I think in a way, it reassures yourself.

    The constantly changing world can often make you feel like you’re losing yourself, and the ever mounting stress makes you feel like you’ve got no control. What routine does for both of them is reassure and reaffirm yourself. I think that’s mostly why we all do it. To gain back the control and self-certainty that we let go of so much throughout the day.

    When you think about it, if you have no control, you would never be letting go in the first place.


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  • beth

    Sarah, again, thank you! What a great post and one that truly resonates with me at the moment. Everything in our lives most so fast these days, the pace can be so daunting when you have a moment to stop and look.

    What I love most about the post is recognising this new way of looking at the act of a routine. I, like you, often reject routine for fear of becoming bored. But, I’ve never really given them a good go to give me some grounding that we all crave.

    You’ve inspired me! My husband and I were only talking about this topic last night, so I’m really pleased to have fun your post today and can’t wait to get some certainty anchors happening in our life!

    Thank you – looking forward to hearing how high your kite is soaring!


  • This makes so much sense for where I am at right now. I have a coach who says that there is so much evidence that repeated morning rituals really work to make us more productive throughout the day. Sadly, I go in and out of them. I find the days I adhere to them much more productive and focused. Brian Tracy the selling guy says he reads for an hour each morning before he starts his day which translates to book a week, 50 a year. He says implement what you learned that morning during your day.
    Taking all this in account means I have to get up earlier and earlier, 2 hours of yoga, 1 hour of reading, write my major goals every day, plan my day, breakfast, shower, dress, start work.
    And like you Sarah I find it hard to get to bed at a regular hour. As much as I try before 11.00 is unusual.
    This idea cuts to the core in many ways. It’s like you have the learn the rules before you can play with them – as a writer, a designer, an artist. Certain things have to be in place before true freedom can emerge.
    Thank you I’ll try to do this more consciously now and observe x e


  • Megan

    Thank you for this blog post 🙂 It’s a real reminder to focus time and energy on the things that really matter and to just get the little things done! I swear the question ‘what’s for dinner’ drives me nuts (especially when it’s not planned for)!


  • Jenny

    Thanks for this! Very interesting. As a shift worker it’s very hard to establish routine and structure, but this has given me a few ideas!


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    I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% certain. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks


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