Life is so full of ups and downs. Navigating uncertainty may not be that easy, and therefore one must always be ready to face unexpected twists and turns. Penny Zenker talks with coach, facilitator, and TEDx speaker Brenda Reynolds about the right way to build resiliency and utilize energy to prepare for anything that comes up in your life. She uses the analogy of driving in the middle of a foggy highway in this conversation, highlighting what it takes to increase productivity and defeat anxiety. Brenda discusses the right time to get off the road and take a break, as well as the importance of focusing on your low beams first before higher ones.
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Unlocking Your Productive Self By Navigating Uncertainty With Brenda Reynolds
I’m super excited to have Brenda Reynolds because Brenda is a specialist in dealing with uncertainty. She is a sought-after organization and change management consultant, speaker, coach, facilitator and she has worked with hundreds of major corporations, nonprofits and organizations, including Special Olympics, the Nemours Pediatric Health System, Nationwide Children’s Hospital and many more. She’s also a bestselling Amazon author and a TEDx speaker, a fellow TEDx-er.
Brenda, without further ado, I’m so happy to have you here. We’ve worked in a mastermind together and we’ve got many great discussions in the short time that we’ve known each other, so I’m excited for our talk.
We’re letting everyone in on our good discussion, Penny, so that’s exciting.
I said that you’re that expert in uncertainty. We are certainly in crazy times. You could say that we’re over the hump, but it’s the beginning. It’s 2021. We’ve just come out of 2020, but a lot of people still have major uncertainty in front of them for 2021. What do you think is the key to dealing with uncertainty?
It’s funny because I was thinking about conversations that I’ve had on some coaching calls with clients, and 2021 has different uncertainty in it. People are trying to figure out what does return to work look like and what are our new policies going to be for working in the office or remotely. I’m watching colleges try to figure out what graduation looks like. There’s a whole new set of uncertainties. What we’ve learned is the key, think to the future but then focus on the next things you can do because chances are the strategy to get there is going to change very quickly.
Not to get too fixated on the way that it happens. Is that what I hear you saying? It’s come up with some options and not be too married to any which one.
You know that saying, “Make a plan, God laughs.” That’s how you make God laugh by making a plan. COVID has shown us that, if nothing else.
I know a little bit about your story because I’ve read your book and seen your TEDx, but many people are meeting you for the first time. Tell us how you learned about this personally.
It’s interesting because I’ve worked with clients for a long time during times of change and transition in particular. In 2008, when the economy was taking a nosedive, my life decided to do the same thing too, which I know a lot of people can relate to. For me, that looked like unexpectedly divorcing, having two little boys, a consulting practice but no guaranteed income or benefits and a client who was asking me to come back internally and lead from inside of an organization. I made the choice to do that and navigate some very uncertain times. I can remember sitting in the sunroom of my then home with my face in my hands, it’s such a poignant moment. I remember who was in the room with me thinking I can’t see my way forward, and yet I did. Over time, I began to reflect on how fortunate I felt that I had the background I did because I was having to use the skills I would use for a client on myself.
It’s not easy. It’s easier to see it in someone else than it is to practice it ourselves.
That became the material for the book because I thought, “I wish more people had access to these tools, these ways of thinking and being.” In the book, while it’s been written for the leader, lots of people who are not in leadership roles read it and get something personal out of it.
We are the leaders of our lives, so we’re all leaders in that context. If you’re a parent, you’re a leader because you’re leading your children. I think we just sometimes have narrow definitions for things. When we open up those definitions, we see that it’s more applicable than you could imagine. Your book is called TBD. How do you come up with a name like that?
I love this story. I’m so glad you asked me that question. I started writing the book and went through 4,000 working titles. It felt like every three seconds, I had a new title and I was getting so frustrated. I went to this meeting in Philadelphia with about 30 of my peers. It was an introductory activity on a flip chart where we had to write down things that we were working on. I drew a little book, and on the cover, I wrote TBD. When it was my turn to talk, I said, “I’ve got this book. It’s about uncertainty and change. I don’t know what to call it. If anyone has a good idea and you’re good with titles, let me know. For now, I’ve just labeled it TBD.” They all in unison screamed, “That’s your title.” I still didn’t get it and I said, “No, that’s not my title.” They go, “No, that’s your title.”
The funny part of it is I was on this mission to find a title. It came out of the blue when I came home to open my manuscript and type the title in. Months and months prior, I had typed in TBD. In a weird way, it was there all along. When we navigate uncertain times, sometimes the answers, you can’t figure them out. They’re going to come as they can come. When we go on a big quest to force something to happen, we just chase it away.
Like the Wizard of Oz, I’m feeling like Dorothy. It’s always been within you. You find it. I feel that moment just welled up in me.
It’s hysterical because I still see some of those people on occasion and they are so proud that they titled my book.
Bring this around to people because the topic of the show is called Take Back Time. It’s about productivity, working smarter and those types of things. I find that a lot of people get stuck in uncertainty and those types of environments. It’s completely relevant to understand some strategies to help get unstuck to better manage uncertainty so that we can more productively move forward. What’s your take? How do you see the impact of dealing with uncertainty and its impact on our day-to-day and overall productivity?When we navigate uncertain times, sometimes the answer is you can't figure them out. They're going to come as they can come. Click To Tweet
It’s the muscle we have to build. The title is a play on words. We are good on action, the ‘to be,’ the determine part. The being with uncertainty is the part we struggle with, but it’s the muscle we need to build as leaders and as human beings. Some of the strategies that I use are pretty simple but powerful. I use this analogy of it’s like driving on a foggy country road. We think we’re slowing down in the fog, but we’re actually going faster and being more productive than we think we are. There are two things to think about relative to that.
Sometimes, when I was doing a long commute home from work years ago, it’s easy to think back on everything you didn’t get done that day. It’s a lousy way to end the day. I caught myself doing that all the time and then I thought, “This is a little crazy.” I’m going to do an inventory. I know I was productive. I’m going to do a mental inventory of everything I did and everything that moved me in a positive direction. Once I started doing that each day, I got to the point where I said it out loud in my car. I would say, “Damn, I’m good. This was a good productive day.” I call it my Damn-I’m-Good moment. When I catch that voice in my head telling me I haven’t done enough, I need to do more and what did I do, I stop and make the mental inventory. It just shifts your energy to deny ourselves that we’re more productive and we underestimate that.
We don’t know each other that long but I think there are so many commonalities in the way that we think and approach things. It’s funny because years ago, I also started that practice with a dear friend of mine. We would find ourselves beating ourselves up. The push it, do-it-person and never being satisfied with what was done and ending the day like that. We started in our coaching calls to talk about what are our wins, what did we get done and focus more on that, recognize and give ourselves a pat on the back. I like the, “Damn, I’m good.” I’m going to have to share that with her because she’ll love that, too. It’s those little cues that shift our perspective, that give us permission and allow us to let go of that worry, frustration or anxiety when we are focused on what we didn’t do.
For me, it was eye-opening too and it makes such a big difference to end the day with, “Here are all the things that I did” or once a week to see that you are moving faster than you thought. That’s a great practice for everyone. Let me just point this out for the people who are reading. That’s a to-do for you. That something to do is to shift the way that you end your day. It’s also a great transition from work into home so that you can put it away, put a bow on it, shut the door or whatever you want to call it and even if you don’t have a door to shut, to end of the day with, “Here are the things that I did that I’m happy with. I’m proud of that. I’ve accomplished something.” Start that on a regular basis. Everybody has got at least one thing to walk away with to do.
I’m so excited about that point. It’s not just the quantity of what you did because sometimes, you reflect back on your day and there was that one major thing you accomplished. That’s enough because that one major thing is moving something big forward. It’s not about, “Did I get twenty things done? Did I do something that was meaningful and important?” We can cut ourselves that little break too.
That one thing could be a big thing, even if it’s a phone call. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. I totally agree with that.
I’m going to say, “If nothing else, I’ve got to do my Penny Zenker podcast and that’s pretty cool.” It doesn’t matter what I did the rest of the day.
You know you’ll reach thousands of people and you’ll make a difference in their lives. That’s a good thing. We’re talking about productivity. One of the questions that I ask every guest is what’s your definition of productivity and why?
My definition of productivity would be taking meaningful and productive action. MEANINGFUL and productive action should move you toward a deeply satisfying life, whether it’s a work-life or home life. You can’t separate the two. Are we taking those actions too? Is it a meaningful and productive day is my equation?
What you are saying is that if it’s meaningful, it’s productive. I love what you said about deeply, satisfying life. I like the richness and the depth of that. Often, people come with higher-level definitions, and I love that you’re very specific with your words that really hone in on that meaning. It hits me when you say it like that.
That’s the why. Why do we care so much about being productive? It only matters if it’s getting us where we want to go or it’s eliciting a feeling, a life or an impact that we want to have. To me, those are my whys for productivity.
It’s a good point that you were touching upon that we get caught up in the trap, we think our worth is by the number of things that we do and how busy we are. I saw on LinkedIn a great set of circles that said, “Here’s your worth and here’s your work world.” They overlap only a tiny bit. I used to think that they were totally overlapping each other. There was this person, I wish I could give her credit and remember her name but it wasn’t someone that I knew, but I had just come upon it. It was so poignant that we are not worth any more if we’re busier or if we do more or any of that.
It’s funny you mentioned that. One of those concepts I talk about in my TEDx is the concept of doing things that are counterintuitive. When you’re in a fog and you’re eager to get to your destination, the last thing you may feel like doing is pulling off the road. Research shows it’s safer for you not to just pull over on the side of the road, but to literally get off the road, go to a parking lot and wait it out if you can. There’s a parallel there too. I catch myself sometimes, maybe on a Friday thinking, “I can’t walk away from my computer. I can’t walk away from the office. There are still so much to do.” Something happens where I have to. I traveled to see my son at college. I took everything with me to do work while I was there. It didn’t ever happen that I got to do any work. I was more charged up on Monday to pick up where I left off and get busy than if I had tried to jam a little bit of work in over the weekend. There’s something about that reset and moving completely away from it. It ends up being a productivity tip.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Tony Schwartz’s work, The Power of Full Engagement, and I’m reading it now. It’s on my desk as a matter of fact. The way we’re working isn’t working. He does a lot of research around renewal, how important it is and comparing with athletes. We are the corporate athletes in that context. The better the performers, the more sleep, the more rest that they need in order to perform better. It’s interesting that there’s that correlation. I love you saying, “You have to pull off the road.” I want to challenge you and the people on the show a little bit as if we were together. You know I do that because I did it earlier.
I can take it. Go ahead, Penny.
I want to ask you a question. You brought all this work with you and it’s no judgment. I do the same thing except for when I came back from Mexico. I did nothing and brought nothing. What would be different if you didn’t even bring it with you? Did you feel any guilt? Sometimes, the fact that we have it with us creates this pressure like, “I should do it.” Do you think you would have been even freer if you had left it at home?
I’m thinking that there was another part of me that would think it was a weekend where I might have had some downtime. I might have wanted to work on my second book and that would have been pleasant and progress too. I would have had the option to do that. I’m going back down to a game. I’m going to leave it all at home and let you know, Penny.Sometimes, it is enough to accomplish just one major thing the whole day. Click To Tweet
I want to propose to the people who are reading. If you’re like us, I do the same thing. I love what I do, so I don’t even consider it work. I bring it with me. There is a necessity, as you said, to put it to the side, put it off the side of the road and you keep going or going in a different direction. There is something important. I found it for me and I struggle with that. When I do leave it behind, I find that it frees me just that much more.
I would have to think it does. Even in my coaching with others, practice what you preach. We sometimes have to do it to realize the world didn’t end. Things are still okay. It didn’t take that big nosedive you thought it would because you weren’t working all the time.
Interesting stuff around the whole fog metaphor in terms of getting a little bit more done or being faster than you think you are. What else would be some tips that come around that metaphor?
I talk about when you navigate that country road and you get impatient, you flip on your high beams. Somehow, we think that’s going to help us. It’s like that impatience with getting more done. The fact is on a foggy country road, your high beams are the worst thing you can do. It obscures your view even more. The power is in the low beams. What I learned when I was going through my divorce and my life turned sideways was that the only way I could not freak myself out was to keep my low beams on. In a car where the low beams illuminate about 300 feet in front of us at a time and you navigate the stretch in front of you, the next stretch then becomes clear. You can see it but you can’t see it from too far back.
I do practices. It’s this interesting metaphor for staying present and doing what you know you can do now. That’s our only job. Think about COVID. It’s shifting. We can’t plan nine months or a year out. We may have to look at this month, this week, now, and that’s all we can do. It keeps me from getting stuck in the past or getting anxious about the future because the fog we’re in and uncertainty kicks up a lot of emotion. The fog comes from not being able to see the path forward and all the emotions that kick up the anxiety and fear. When I catch myself in anxiety and fear, I know my head is in the future. I need to reel it in and I’ll just say to people, “Low beams.” That’s all we can do.
I love that you’ve got all these cues that help you shift and to remind you of where you want to be and where you need to be. I advise everybody who’s reading for any uncertain times, it’s not just this year. As you said, 2008 for me was also a blow-up year, and I hear for a lot of people too. Every year brings its own uncertainty, so we have to have those things to fall back on.
Cut ourselves a break too, Penny. We are so hard on ourselves. Sometimes all we can do is low beams. For me, low beam shows up when I take a Post-it note. This is for the readers who say, “I can manage that.” Take a little Post-it note each day and say, “What is my low beam focus for today?” I try to only keep about three things on it, so it’s manageable and I feel success around it. It helps me to get the distractions, the other fog out of my way and just focus on those. That would be my low beam Post-its five days in a row. By the end of the week, I’ve been pretty productive.
I also talk about keeping it simple. Simplifying it. The more you can simplify during stressful times, the better. I remember Jocko Willink. He talks about Extreme Ownership and he talks in the military and the SEALs, I believe. I don’t remember which division. He talks about how when things are so stressful on the front that you have to keep your instructions completely simple or people won’t be able to follow it. The complexity then is part of that fog because the stress itself is the fog and then the complexity and everything on top of it. For business leaders out there, that’s what I’m also taking away from what you’re saying. It’s about keeping it simple for yourself and for your team, the more that’s going on in the environment, simplify.
Be careful with the potholes. One of the potholes is we start comparing ourselves to other people. What I’ve given myself permission for, and I heard you talking with one of your last guests about this, is this myth of, “If you don’t get up at 4:00 in the morning and start your day, you can’t be productive.” That does not work for me. My most productive hours are from about 11:00 to 6:00. I have a life where I can work those hours easily and I would rather work until 7:00 than start my day at 6:00 in the morning. I’ve finally given into that, and that doesn’t happen every day of the week where I can manage my schedule to my energy and my creative way I need to work. I don’t compare it to what other people do because those are my productive hours. 4:00 may be somebody else’s productive hours.
It also depends on what phase of your life you’re in. Some people who have young kids, that might be the only peace that you get when they’re asleep so early in the morning and later in the evening. You do what you can with what you have is important. When you can design it the way that you know that it works, then you should definitely do that. Since we’re talking about navigating uncertainty, I wanted to share with you, get your thoughts and have some discussions around one of my antidotes. In 2008, I was living in Zurich, Switzerland. I was also invited for a divorce, among other things, that happened in 2008. My kids were 1 and 3, and I was so worried and upset. I know you get what I mean. There were many emotions that are flying at that time. Your self-worth is in question, “What’s going on with your children and what does that mean to their futures?” All the questions that we ask ourselves.
I was living in a foreign country, “Do I move? Do I stay? What do I do?” I remember being in this whirlwind of funk in that fog and I read an article that was in Oprah Magazine. It talked about the addicts who were coming out of their time in the rehab and how they navigate because there are a lot of fears, emotions and things about, “Will this work? How do I keep this in place?” They talked about and used the analogy. I love that you’re using these metaphors and analogies. They talked about the kid’s game, Hotter or Colder. I tell this story a lot in different contexts when I’m speaking, but what happens when you walk into a room, you’re playing this game and you get in there? Nothing happens.
That’s what happens if you stop in the fog. If you want to, the equivalent of your low beams, what was for me and what I took away from that is you’ve got to take a step in one direction or another in order to get the feedback to know whether you’re heading in the right direction or not. With that feedback, you can determine, “Do I pivot or do I continue the same direction? Is it warmer? Great. I’ll keep going. Is it colder?” We get that feedback from different areas. I allow that game if we can gamify it, to know that all I need to know is what’s next. That’s my cue of staying present and keeping my low beams on. It’s the need to know what’s the next step and then we’ll figure it out from there. I have that faith that I’ll get the feedback I need to move in one direction or another.
I love what you’re saying, Penny, because we unconsciously assume that a step in the wrong direction is going to be game over. It’s like if you’re in that fog, you’re using your navigation system and you make a wrong turn. Do you remember the old recalculate voice that would come over? All it’s going to do is say, “I guess I have to recalculate. I need to turn left instead of turning right.” When I remember that most of the decisions I make are impermanent, there are very few decisions you can’t redirect. It takes the pressure off of me to always have to do the exact right thing because you can change it.
That’s an important point. I don’t know about you, but if I’ve been on vacation and sometimes I went down the wrong path or whatever, some of the most beautiful scenery was down that wrong road. It was when my boyfriend and I were in Italy, and we randomly went off of our path because we saw that there were some ruins. It turned out to be better than the Coliseum because the Coliseum was so commercialized. This one, you could go down into the bottom of the stadium and everything. Sometimes, those detours are the richest and the most rewarding. What if we just went with the flow?
Sometimes, what’s happening to us is nudging us out of this. Maybe the path for you is really clear before, but you’re on this path in telling yourself, “This is good enough. This is the path I’m going to go on.” When that disorienting event hits your life or your work world, it may be nudging you into something that’s even better. You had got complacent with things being good enough, but it could be better. That’s a cool thing, too.
I want to challenge you again because I know that there are people reading who are going, “You guys are just those positive people. It’s so annoying. You’re those positive people and I don’t want to be positive.” Is this about positivity?
Here’s what I think. It never feels positive when you’re in it. I’m keeping that real, trust me. It did not feel positive. Anytime I’m moving through some uncertainty, it does not feel great. It’s only in the rearview mirror that makes sense. You then look back and say, “I’m glad we made that little pivot on our trip. Look what happened.” In the moment, you might’ve been frustrated that you made a wrong turn. I can tell you for a long time, my disruption in 2008 did not feel like a gift of any sort. It’s like the gift of the fog is in the rearview mirror, the only one that’s in the rearview mirror. Can you see how far you’ve come and what you got from it?We unconsciously assume that a step in the wrong direction is going to be game over. However, there are always chances to redirect. Click To Tweet
For me, it has allowed me to practice what I preach. It has helped me relate to a lot of people who have gone through their own disorienting events. I came to realize the fog stood for it’s a freaking opportunity for growth. Sometimes the emphasis is on the freaking. You’re like, “What the hell is going on?” You’re freaking out and we equally have to be gentle with ourselves to know that’s part of the growth process. It is not always fun, Pollyanna and positive.
I often have to say to people that it’s not about positivity. I’m a positive person but I’m very pragmatic and very practical. Of course, when you’re in any type of a difficult situation, we’ve all had times where we’ve had someone we love die, close to death, illness or different types of things that hold us back. I think the thing is, like you said, you had different techniques and different things that helped you get through it faster. It’s not about being positive and saying it doesn’t exist and it’s not there. It’s about how to be more purposeful to get through it in the most productive way if I could say it like that versus getting stuck in it. You want to go through it, not to get stuck in it.
What can’t I control and what can I control? What practices can I employ and which ones can’t I if you can indulge this story to normalize this for people? I was coaching this CEO years ago. I walked into his office for our session and we usually sat at this round table for it. That day when I walked in, he had his head down on the table on his arms and he didn’t even look up when I walked in. I said, “What do we have to talk about today?” Without lifting his head, he said, “Everybody says to me, ‘How are you so insightful? You’re so smart about our industry. You always know the right move to make. You’re brilliant.’ I’ve got to tell you the truth because I don’t get to say this to many people. Most of the time, at best, I am one step ahead of everybody else.” I share that not to scare people, but to say even those people we think have it all, know it at all, are also taking it one step at a time, low beam strategy often, too.
They have their own obstacles, hurdles and different challenges, potholes as you would say in your analogy, we all have them.
I always say keep your eyes on your own paper because you’re not leading their life. They’re not leading yours. Your situation is your situation and what works for you.
Drive your own car.
It doesn’t hurt to have a few passengers in there. You know how even when you’re driving in the bad weather, if you have a passenger, you feel better. Know who those people are. Know who the people you’re willing to travel through that weather condition, who you can be real with, who can calm you down, who can help direct you and who can guide you. Know who your dream team is too.
I’d love to have people learn more about you, get ahold of your book and watch your TED Talk. Where can they go to get more information about you?
They can go to BrendaKReynolds.com. That’s my website, and almost anything you want to find about me will be there. You can access the book, which is on Amazon as well. You can see the link to my TEDx Talk on Navigating Transition Fog. You’ll see some products, the services we provide and some resources there as well. I’d love to see them there.
Thank you so much. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you’re like, “I wanted to share this with these people?”
I think we’re good.
I used to have an assistant who was in the house, so she’d hear my conversations. She’s like, “You’ve got a whole group of self-congratulation society and I said, “You should get one too.”
Good passengers to have in the car. I’m glad I’m in the car with you, Penny.
Thank you. Likewise, I see lots of further fun things for us to get involved with in the future. Thank you so much for all that you’ve shared, your stories and the analogy that runs through that people. I’m sure they took away some great nuggets to work with.
Thank you for having me and including me with your audience, Penny. I appreciate it.
It’s my pleasure. For all of you reading, thank you for being here and for being loyal readers. If you’re not a subscriber yet, go ahead and subscribe and share it with your friends. We have different experts on the show talking about different things. Everything from uncertainty to specific apps and tools that you can use, different strategies and marketing and all across the board in what can help you to live and work smarter. It’s not just working smarter because we do other things other than working. We want to live smarter. Maybe that’ll be the name of my next book, who knows?
Thank you for being here and remember, take at least this one thing that we said in the beginning that you could take away and do right away, which is at the end of your day, instead of looking at all the things that you didn’t do, go ahead and set up a practice. Start doing this on a regular basis to look at the things that you did do and then assemble what’s important for the following day. Give yourself a break, use that as a transition, give yourself a pat on the back every day for making it through and doing some things that are driving you forward. You’re going faster and further than you actually think. We’ll see you in the next episode.
- Brenda Reynolds
- The Power of Full Engagement
- Navigating Transition Fog – Brenda Reynolds TEDx Talk
About Brenda Reynolds
Brenda K. Reynolds is a sought-after organization and change management consultant, speaker, coach, and facilitator who has worked with hundreds of major corporations, nonprofits and organizations including Special Olympics, the Nemours Pediatric Health System, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Moen, and McDonalds to manage complexity, deal with the people side of change, and find clarity. For over 20 years, this thought leader has advised organizations, teams, and individuals as they navigate their “now what?” moments on the road to transformation.
This inspiring change agent draws on her extensive consulting, leadership, and personal experiences to equip audiences with easy-to-apply strategies for managing complex transitions that have the power to bring us to a complete stop when the answer to the pressing question “now what?” is not readily available.
Brenda is the author of the Amazon bestseller TBD-To Be Determined: Leading with Clarity and Confidence in Uncertain Times. She’s also the creator of the “Now What?” Transformation™ Clarity Card Deck and Kit for anyone experiencing a change and looking for tools to help them navigate uncertain times with resilience.
This TEDx speaker on Navigating Transition Fog is also an international speaker, Vistage presenter, and regular radio and podcast guest.