The Practice of Optimism: How to Stay Grounded in the Face of a Crisis

By Dr. Michael O’Brien, O’Brien Group Founder & President


So while it may be easy to put blinders on and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, I encourage you to look inside yourself and recognize the opportunities you have to develop optimism today.

I read a Tweet yesterday that jokingly mused: “‘When this is all over’ must be the most used phrase of 2020.” How many times have you said those words these past few months, either aloud or silently to yourself? It’s comforting in a way, to skip ahead and spend some time imagining easier days ahead. But while these daydreams may grant you temporary respite, they do little to erase the challenges that await you every day until things do return to normal. In fact, while thinking about future is important, doing so at the expense of the present can have the opposite effect, eroding your team’s confidence at a time when they may need help feeling optimistic about the short-term.

In times of crisis, true optimism comes from engaging realistically with what’s in front of you, not wishing for a more favorable situation. In this article, we’ll outline a few of the practical things we can all do to generate optimism in our organizations, with our teams, and in our own lives — when we need it most. 

1. Make New Plans, Frequently
During times of crisis, things change faster than ever. Of course, we know that’s the case for visible, macro-level trends like market performance and local government restrictions. But it is equally true of invisible, intrapersonal elements, such as our ability to focus, our emotional availability, and our expectations of one another.

I encourage you to re-evaluate your expectations at least once a day, paying special attention to what might otherwise be unconscious expectations you have of yourself and others. Ask yourself: “What can I realistically achieve today?” “Am I asking too much of myself (or a colleague or loved one) this week?”

Be honest about what has changed since the last time you re-evaluated the situation. Consider where you’re working (working from home, especially if you have children with you, is probably not even close to working in your office), and what other emotional burdens you may need to address. Being honest will help you set realistic expectations for yourself and others and avoid the slide into pessimism and self-doubt that can creep in after a few days don’t go to plan.

2. Take Ownership of New Time
Almost everyone has seen their daily routines turned on their heads. Whether you find yourself working from home, working extended hours, or not working at all, many of us have found ourselves with new windows of unscheduled time. At first, it can be tempting to enjoy the “un-scheduled-ness” of that time, because “free” time can be so hard to come by. But there’s a hidden benefit to scheduling that time, even if it’s simply setting aside time to do relaxing things like reading or gardening. Setting (and achieving) goals for what you want to accomplish with your time can provide a huge sense of achievement and make the difference between feeling proud of a week gone by or disappointed in it — even if they were equally productive!

Perhaps there are books that you’ve been wanting to read. Landscaping or garden projects to attend to. A room that needs painting. Files to be cleaned up. Connecting with old friends. You probably already have a list. Now it’s time to get started.

3. Pace Your Intake of Information
During this pandemic, we can be easily overwhelmed with information about the medical crisis, the humanitarian crisis, the economic crisis and so on. Every day there’s a new report on the number of cases, new market projections, and new guesses about what the next few weeks might look like in your community. Individually, any one of those reports can be useful. But played on repeat every time you look at a screen, they can be more fear-inducing than anything.

As much as it may seem like the torrent of media is unavoidable, it is important to realize we have more control over our information intake than we may think. Be deliberate about how, when, where, and even why you consume media. Maybe it means not scrolling your newsfeed first thing in the morning or turning off the news station that usually runs on mute while you work. The important stories will find you anyway — it’s hard to completely miss those. But when you are no longer exhausted from constant media consumption, you’re actually better able to process the news and make it useful in your life. Set aside time to discuss those key stories with others with whom you can have civil dialogue, and you will realize that quality, not quantity, of information actually keeps you better informed.

4. Allow Yourself to Be Humbled by the Virus
If this pandemic has demonstrated one thing, it’s that we all have more in common than we let ourselves believe. Whether it’s deliberate or unconscious, we’re constantly building walls between ourselves — placing everyone we meet into neat boxes defined by “us” and “them.” But this virus is showing us just how superficial those boxes are to begin with. Times of crisis can conjure a powerful sense of solidarity as we realize not only how vulnerable we all are, but just how much power we have to make a difference for others. 

One way to nurture this solidarity is to consider the way you treat complaints. The way we handle these can reveal a lot about how we see our relationships with others. The next time you hear a complaint, don’t be so quick to dismiss it. Instead, consider it as a ‘request’ and ask yourself: “How can I be a force for good and help relieve some of this person’s pain?” Humbling yourself enough to see the pain behind a complaint — and to recognize that you may be able to alleviate it — is a powerful step towards building solidarity with those around you. Similarly, next time you feel a complaint on the tip of your tongue, turn it into a request. In doing so, you’re giving the other person respect and recognizing that they may be able to be a force of good in your life. By humbling yourself you’re able to turn a dead-end complaint into a pathway of action.

So while it may be easy to put blinders on and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, I encourage you to look inside yourself and recognize the opportunities you have to develop optimism today. For true, grounded optimism has the power to transform not only your perception, but to improve the lives of those around you.