How to Deal with Uncertainty

By Deanna deBara Posted July 20, 2020


We’re living in extremely uncertain times. COVID-19 and the resulting shutdowns have caused an economic slowdown that has impacted the vast majority of businesses. Businesses in the US were forced to shed nearly 30 million jobs between March and June—and while some of those workers have been with cases on the rise and many states considering another shutdown, the future for businesses still feels like a question mark.

It’s been a challenging, uncertain time in the business world—and that uncertainty isn’t going anywhere. So the task of business owners and corporate leaders during this time isn’t to rid themselves of risk—it’s to figure out a way to navigate it and continue to move their businesses (and themselves) forward.

Let’s take a look at three strategies you can use to deal with uncertainty in your business (and your life!):

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Anticipate—and prepare—for a variety of outcomes

Uncertainty is, by definition, being unsure of how things are going to turn out. So, if you want to deal with uncertainty effectively, one of the best things you can do is anticipate things working out in a variety of different ways—and then taking steps to prepare for each of those outcomes.

So, for example, let’s say you manage a sales department at a large software company, and you’re unsure of how many clients will continue doing business with you if the pandemic continues. There are many different outcomes you might experience in the current climate.

  • Some clients may continue working with you as before.
  • Some might need to put your business on hold.
  • Some might terminate their contracts to cut costs.
  • Some might go out of business entirely.

By anticipating each of these outcomes (and creating strategic plans for navigating each), you can be prepared for whatever happens, which makes dealing with uncertainty easier—and will ensure your business comes out ahead. So, for example, your planning might look something like this:

  • If all of my clients continue their current contracts, I will put X amount aside each month to help carry me through any uncertain times in the future.
  • If 25 percent of my clients terminate their contracts, I will spend 10 hours per week on business development to gain new clients. I will also reach out to all of my remaining clients to secure new projects and increase my revenue.
  • If 75 percent of my clients terminate their contracts, I will reduce payroll hours and start exploring alternate funding options to keep my business afloat. I will also start exploring diversifying my income streams by offering new services,

When you’re dealing with uncertainty, it can be challenging to know how things are going to play out. But the more you anticipate and prepare for a variety of outcomes, the easier it is to navigate that uncertainty—and the more likely it is that things will play out in your favor.

Focus on what you can control

One of the most challenging aspects of uncertainty is feeling like things are out of your control. But rather than ruminating on the things, you can’t control (which can make you feel powerless), why not shift your focus to what you can control—and take that power back?

So, for example, you might not be able to control whether you have a slowdown in your business. But you can control how you spend your time during that slow down—and use that time to improve your skills so you can bring more value to your clients once things pick up again. You can’t control whether clients need to terminate their contracts—but you can control the energy you put into business development to ensure you always have new clients in the pipeline.

The point is, in business there are always things that are out of your control—and that’s even more true during times of uncertainty. But focusing on the things you can control (and how you can continue to grow, evolve, and improve) is a much more empowering strategy—and will keep you moving forward no matter how uncertain things may seem in the moment.

Shift from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system

Uncertainty is stressful. And when you’re feeling stressed out, your body defaults to your sympathetic nervous system—also known as “fight or flight” mode.

When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your body reacts as though it is in danger—and, as such, is preparing to either confront the danger head-on (fight) or run away (flight). To prepare for either scenario, your body experiences several physiological changes; your body releases a cascade of stress hormones (including adrenaline and cortisol) and you may experience side effects like rapid breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and sweaty palms.

The fight-or-flight response also causes changes in the brain—most notably shutting down the neural pathways between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, making it harder to make complex decisions.

Being in fight-or-flight mode will make you feel nervous, stressed out, and overwhelmed—which isn’t exactly the state you want to be in when running your business.

If uncertainty is stressing you out, it’s important (both for your health and your business) to find ways to shift from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as “rest and digest”) which restores your body and brain to a calm, relaxed state—making it easier to navigate uncertainty and make sound, productive decisions for your business in the process.

There are several science-backed strategies for shifting from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system, including:

  • Get out in nature. Spending time in nature is a great way to destress. A 2015 study found that after a brief walk in the forest, participants experienced significantly increased parasympathetic nervous system activity, decreased heart rate, and significant improvements in experiences of tension, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion.
  • Try box breathing. Box breathing (also called four-square breathing) is a breathing technique shown to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, making you feel more calm and relaxed. Box breathing is simple; inhale for four, hold the breath for four, exhale for four, hold the breath for four, then repeat the cycle. By the time you’re done with a few rounds (aim for four full cycles), you’ll feel calmer and more centered.
  • Meditation. Meditation has a host of health benefits—and that includes increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity, decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity, and promoting calm and relaxation. (If you’re new to meditation, try starting with a meditation app like Headspace.)

Embrace uncertainty and use it as a growth opportunity

Dealing with uncertainty can be extremely challenging—and during the pandemic, all the uncertainty can feel like a lot to manage. But now that you know the strategies necessary to navigate uncertainty better, you’ll be better prepared to deal with whatever happens—both in your business and in your life.

Deanna deBara

Deanna deBara is an entrepreneur, speaker, and freelance writer who specializes in business and productivity topics. When she's not busy writing, she enjoys hiking and exploring the Pacific Northwest with her husband and dog. See more of her work and learn more about her services at


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