My fingertips are burning where they touch the mug filled with hot coffee. I take a quick drink, set the mug down on the desk, and continue scrolling through the morning emails and notifications.

It’s 6:15ish. I just took the dog out and I’m working early today because I have an evening presentation that I want to rehearse a couple of more times before I launch into my first assignment.

The first email is a notice that the product I ordered, is no longer available. Another tells me about a meeting that needs to be rescheduled. Something has come up for the client. Another is a change in a Zoom link for a class I’m taking. My daughter’s teacher changed the remote schooling assignment and my husband just found out he needs to work late. I scribble out notes in my calendar. Adjust other appointments. Replace the product with another.

Then, another email comes in. The big presentation I have tonight — canceled. Are you kidding me? I’ve only been up an hour and my entire day has changed.

Agility is Key for Creators

If we’ve learned anything at all from 2020, it’s this: We are capable of managing great change and uncertainty. We are agile. We can adapt, go with the flow. And if we want to create a sustainable business, finish a project, grow, we must be agile. It’s the key to creativity and continuation, and essential to surviving in the marketplace.

Psychologists explain mental agility as the capacity to shift between different emotions, actions, options, actions, and ideas when needed. We are flexible, rather than rigid. This allows us to pivot, toss out one plan, when a better one reveals itself, and respond to changing situations in a calm, flexible way. Things may remain unpredictable but you trust in your ability to manage those fluctuating situations. You are nimble.

We may not like change, of course. I was stressed when my carefully planned schedule began falling apart. I experienced the stress and then moved on. But when we are agile, we can better deal with the stress of change. And, when we do, not only do we become more creative and confident, but we are also more innovative, responsive, and overall, better problem solvers. 

It’s not all good. Agility can be taxing. When we are challenged to adapt to multiple things at once, it’s tiring and after those days or projects are completed or resolved, I find I need to unwind after a day of shifting sands. Settle in on the back deck and listen to the birds or exercise. But then, I’m ready to go again.

Those who have a high degree of agility, but low resilience may have a higher risk of depression and anxiety and may be more prone to burnout, according to a meQuilbrium study. But agility can be protective too. Most people who have high degrees of agility and resilience, experience significantly fewer mental health issues.

Here’s how I think about it: If I want to keep doing what I do — be a maker, nurture a sustainable business, write, build, make, shape, inspire work that adds meaning and value, while being a present wife, friend, and parent — then one of the most important skills I can have is agility. And the good news is wherever we are starting from, on the agility spectrum — and for years I was on the low side — we can develop it like any other skill and become more agile.

How to Develop Mental Agility

1. Lighten up. A change — like a client pulling out at the last minute, or an assignment falling through doesn’t seem funny at first. But, can you shrug, sigh, and find the absurd humor in it? Then you can pivot in a way that will help you manage.

2. Rewrite the story. When things turn away from what you want or expected, change the story. So you lose that big client. How will you talk about it? Will you tell a story of failure and loss? Of disrespect? Or, will you talk about how you overcame disappointment to create a new opportunity?

When I was a new writer, I had an editor not only reject me repeatedly, but the last time, she laughed sarcastically, said I wasn’t good enough to write for her, and probably never would be. It hurt. I wallowed for a day. Then, instead of sticking with her story, I created a new one.

My story was about how I improved with practice and experience. One about how I regularly published books and articles. And I took actions to make those stories a reality. I sent out more letters of introduction and queries. Those did yield assignments. In my career, I’ve published hundreds of articles and four books. And something else happened that I didn’t expect. Years later, the editor who told me I’d never be good enough? She came asking me for a job.

3. Develop your signature blend of agility. Situations will change, but the way I approach them remains fairly consistent. This protects me from the road of rumination and reaction. It keeps me from behaving badly in the heat of the moment. Here’s my approach: I take in the info, clarify with questions, take a minute to breathe, notice my feelings, and vent, if I need, to someone I trust. Then, when I’m ready — and this can take a minute or a day — I say aloud, “I can figure this out. What can I do to make this work?” Then, I move toward that thing and get busy again.

Somedays the best way to adapt to change is to have a quick nap, or go for a walk outside. Sometimes it’s to get on the phone and reach out for another opportunity, immediately send out another query, or call in help. But this stage is always marked by an action that moves me away from the challenge and into a more open, creative state.

4. Accept what is instead of wishing for what isn’t. When we have our hopes and efforts pinned on a certain goal, a book release, a new client, our game launch, and it doesn’t happen it’s disappointing. It’s OK to feel that. Don’t avoid your feelings by wishing things were different. Wishing keeps you stuck. It prevents you from pivoting because when we wish something were different, we are only thinking about what isn’t working. Emotional agility, the ability to feel upset and move through it, is important. Accept what is. You don’t have to like it — your opinion of the matter won’t change the circumstances — but see the truth of what is, take a close look at it, and then you will have the clarity you need to work with it, expand on it, or turn toward something else.

During the pandemic when both my daughter and husband were home, it was difficult to find a quiet space to write. It was stressful. But me complaining, wishing it weren’t happening, was not going to end the pandemic. Instead, I became better at working anywhere in the house. Now, I don’t even hear when they call my name while I’m writing.

5. Recognize agility as an asset. When you need to back up, move a different direction, scrap one project for another, these aren’t setbacks. They aren’t failures. They are changes. And because you are agile, you can adapt and still create positive outcomes. This is a great asset. 

Consider the companies and contractors who have survived or even flourished this last year. They are the ones who adapted quickly to provide products in a new way, create great takeout meals or at-home entertainment programs, they are the ones who identified our changing needs and responded, who branded their product in a new way, Hello Zoom, and added meaning for the rest of us. These are the people who led the way with remote work systems and approaches that made it more productive rather than a liability.

This kind of agility isn’t perfect the first time out. I got plenty of messed-up take-out orders, but I reveled in the artists and chefs and programmers who offered up their energy and ideas, those who created fun drinks in Mason jars, or games and graphic novels or funny videos that took me out of difficult moments. I did business with those who tweaked the process and developed online sites and systems to accommodate shipping demands and product purchases. Those who showed up, brave enough to try new things in a different world. Their ability to shift turned me on to them, and created a new customer.

That’s what agility looks like. And you know what? For those of us who are doing our thing, our way, that’s what success looks like too.

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