I’ve spent most of the last year teaching survival tactics to keep your creative self alive and well when life’s chaos is giving you a beating. What’s the most important tactic I know? It’s the power of asking yourself the right four questions when you find yourself in a tight spot.
Question #1. What’s possible now?
When crisis hits, our brains kick into totalitarian thinking, cataloguing everything wrong about our situations and blinding us to current possibilities. After giving yourself a few minutes to react – shock, anger, annoyance, and frustration are all natural and can’t be avoided – deliberately force a shift of thinking toward what IS possible now? The good news is that the more you practice this shift, the easier it becomes. Sure, I’ve asked that question through gritted teeth. Sometimes it is genuinely hard to drag my brain off the negative. I’ve found, however, that even the tiniest possibilities make coping much more possible.
Question #2. What’s not possible now?
Many of us get into trouble precisely because we refuse to recognize the true limitations of a given crisis. If your spouse’s car accident injuries will pull your time and attention from your tight book deadline, own it now, not forty-eight hours before the book is due. It’s not easy, and it often feels like surrender, but it’s far better than denial.
Question #3. What do I need right now?
The “right now” is the crucial part here. At the start of a given crisis, you may need simply to get calm. Or at least calm-er. You may need someone who understands the process ahead of you better than you do at the moment (especially true in medical crises). Our “what if” tendencies gallop off in a dozen long-term directions, churning today’s problems into tomorrow’s catastrophes. Yes, the larger picture is important to consider. If we can train our brains to focus on the next solvable step, however, survival comes more easily.
Question #4. What do I want right now?
We often think of a crisis as “survival mode”—allowing only needs, not wants. That’s not necessarily true. You may need to eat, but you might also want someone to help you talk through your situation. Resist the urge to cast aside what might feel like “luxuries” until life calms down. Non-essentials that make you calmer, more comfortable, or a bit more cheerful are not selfish, but a wise form of self-care that can bolster your endurance or clarity at a time when you need it most.
These four questions can offer you the foothold you may need to get through the first hours or days of any crisis. I find these questions work for any size dilemma—from a missed flight to a parent in an emergency surgery. If you can shift your thinking from the knee-jerk reaction of “EMERGENCY! PANIC!” to “What’s possible now? What’s not possible now? What do I need right now? What do I want right now?” you will discover your coping abilities can be far stronger.
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As the bestselling author of over 30 books and the creator of The Chunky Method of time management for writers, Pleiter has met deadlines in the midst of some imposing traumas. Pleiter speaks nationally on creativity, faith, writing, and resilience amid life’s stormiest seas.