When it comes to being productive, it’s best to embrace uncertainty



A lot of us in the research sector instinctively believe that we can become more efficient by careful planning. We enforce these plans by making to-do lists, deciding when we will leave the house and arrive for appointments, and by reminding ourselves (and those around us) that we have a plan to follow — and this plan must be adhered to.There’s a secret you might not like to hear — but I need to be honest.If you think you’ll ever find a plan which works perfectly: you’re kidding yourself.We’ve all been in situations where we felt proud for having our time neatly organised into an effective plan, only to experience events or interruptions which totally dismantled it.

We don’t have total control over our day, and pretending that this control is possible with a good plan is a recipe for frustration and self-blame

And when that happened, how did you feel? I’m betting you found yourself feeling frustrated, flustered, and likely directing some negative feelings inwards. It hopefully goes without saying that these feelings aren’t just counterproductive to the task at hand, but over time they can erode away our enjoyment of the present moment as time is divided into either ‘the plan’ or ‘failing the plan’.

The truth is, if you could already be doing better, you would be. The absence of a definitive and watertight plan isn’t the reason you’re having problems staying productive.

It’s time to realize — and accept — that we don’t have total control over our day, and pretending that this control is possible with a good plan is a recipe for frustration and self-blame. Life doesn’t give us much certainty. We could be working in our dream position for a great employer, but even then we can experience problems and unexpected life events which quickly throw that situation into jeopardy. Nothing can ever be guaranteed, and life loves to throw us unexpected curve-balls.

And of course, we don’t need to look any further than 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic for a case study on uncertainty. This is a year where all of us are discovering that even the best-made plans are always dependent on some degree of chance.


I was once a salaried member of staff at a good university, enjoying working on my own grant and having fruitful collaborations. I was expecting my third child and excited to be working in my preferred field of research; it seemed like things were all pointing in the right direction.

Then, due to an unexpected visa issue, my employment was terminated very suddenly. And just like that all my certainties were knocked off course.

Although it was a difficult experience, it still helped to teach me a lot of valuable lessons — mainly: you must embrace uncertainty rather than simply try to smother it with plans.

After this incident, I quickly brought my half-filled coaching practice to full capacity and I continue to enjoy working as a coach in my own company to this day. It is thanks to the termination of the university employment that I have embraced this new path.

I know it’s tempting to think we can be protected from life’s difficulty with good plans, but we really can’t — and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can discover what’s really within our control.


The good news is that there are a couple of things that you really are in control of — and once you understand these, you can take charge of your day much more effectively.

Here’s what you can control:

Your thoughts

Your beliefs

The actions you take

And that’s it! That might sound like little, but it’s plenty.

These three aspects will transform how you work, and I love talking about them. During my coaching sessions I go much deeper into each of these categories, but let’s take a moment to look at how you can change your thoughts and beliefs to create a more positive set of actions.

Examine your thoughts

Here’s a quick exercise.

Think of a large project you’ve been trying to achieve. Usually with my clients this will be a research paper or perhaps a thesis for their PhD. Think of a similar large task you’ve got on your agenda.

Now, write down all the thoughts that come to mind when you think of this project. All the insecurities you might have, all the beliefs you have about your own abilities, your knowledge, the support of your team members — anything which plays on your mind when you think about the project. It might be more effective to write these down by hand, rather than typing them on the computer.

Here are some common examples I hear from my clients:

I don’t know enough

I don’t work fast enough

I’m too old to be doing this project

The project is too hard for me to accomplish and I’m going to fail

My supervisor doesn’t like the way I work

Once you’ve written some of these down, take a quick break to stretch your back, then look at them again. When you do this, I want you to think objectively about each point, and decide whether what you’ve written is the absolute truth or just a feeling you have towards it.

If there’s somebody you trustto see it, perhaps give them the list and see what they think (often other people are much better at being objective about our situation than we are!).

Once you’ve identified which statements are just thoughts and not the objective facts, I want you to try something different.
Take a fresh sheet of paper and begin to turn each of those negative thoughts around.

For example, we could turn this statement:

“I don’t know enough”

Into this:

“I am learning everything I need as I move along with my project”

Or we could turn this:

“I don’t work fast enough”

Into this:

“I define my own pace”

That last one has been especially powerful for me. I used to constantly berate myself for not being fast enough, but now I have chosen to embrace the idea that I choose my own pace in work and life: and this has been transformational.

Try this exercise, and once you have written your new statements I want you to put them somewhere you will see them every day. I know it sounds a little silly, but seeing these statements will plant seeds in your mind which will grow and over time will unlock greater confidence and productivity.


Your thoughts, beliefs and actions will also define what opportunities you notice and are able to take advantage of. These opportunities can’t be planned for — and this is why embracing uncertainty will make them easier to spot!

We’re so used to blaming ourselves for not following opportunities which were presented to us, but the truth is we’re often completely blind to these when they appear. One of my favourite teachers once told me:

“All the opportunities for doing what you want are right under your nose!”

And this advice always stuck with me.

For example, if you believe that it’s a sign of weakness to accept help, we’ll miss the opportunity to enjoy the support of a friend or colleague when they offer to cook us dinner one evening or perhaps go a little out of their way to give us extra help on a project.

Every successful person in your field has asked people for help

Asking for help is difficult for many people, and especially clients of mine (usually women scientists and researchers) who might feel that it means they aren’t good enough. But by asking for help, and learning that it’s okay to do so, you’re able to harness the resources of people around you and give yourself a powerful tool in getting the results you want.

I assure you: every successful person in your field has asked people for help (or had someone helping them). It’s a skill they will have mastered, and it’s one you can too.


Another problem of having a ‘great’ plan, is that it doesn’t take into account all the times we get called away to help solve someone else’s problem.

How often have you had all your work set up and ready to go, but you’ve had somebody walk into your office and ask if you can help them out with something instead?

Just because we have a brilliant plan for getting our work done, it doesn’t mean other people will recognize and respect that. You’ll always have people around you requesting your time and energy, so to be efficient you’ll need to prepare for those occasions.

One of the most effective ways you can prepare is to learn the skill of saying “no” and setting boundaries around your time.If you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, it’s probably because you haven’t been saying “no” enough.

If the issue belongs to someone else and it isn’t in alignment with your priorities, you don’t have to do it — you really do have a choice! It is nice to be helping others, but if it always happens at the expense of the progress on your own projects, then it is not good.

Your time, your energy and your attention are your precious resources, and you’re entitled to protect them. You just need to learn to do it.

I hope you find these strategies useful, and I’d love to hear your stories of how they can be applied in your own situation!

Author Bio:Dr Olga Degtyareva is Productivity Mentor at Productivity for Scientists Ltd.