How to step into uncertainty, make progress, and find flow

Uncertainty makes it harder to make progress and do meaningful things. It can make you less grateful for the present and more anxious about the future.

When faced with the unknown, you can either take action or no action, do something or do nothing. The key is to focus on what you control and let go of what you do not. Without challenges, there is no growth. Without struggles, there is no flow state to learn and perform well.

Even though uncertainty and ambiguity are different, they are both the opposite of certainty, which the human brain prefers.

Uncertainty is the unknown. There’s an objective fact to be known and you don’t know it yet. It involves an either-or-situation.

Ambiguity is the quality or state of being ambiguous. There are different meanings and subjective interpretations of one thing. A word, phrase or event may be understood in two or more possible ways. Ambiguity may involve uncertainty, but it’s not an either-or situation.

When we have desires and preferences, uncertainty and ambiguity both cause frustration. We want more control so we can move ahead and get a good result. But the more we try to control the uncontrollable, the more tension and fear we build. This is the paradox of control.

We create anxiety when we worry over uncertainty or a negative event that is possible, but may not occur. We feel anxious when we can’t distinguish a real threat from an imagined threat.

In response to real or imagined threats, the amygdala part of our brain activates the sympathetic nervous system. This creates a faster heart rate and respiration rate, shallow breath, and adrenaline high. It releases cortisol and glucose and moves us into fight, flight or freeze mode.

Good anxiety is short-lived and heightens focus to perform a difficult task. The stress response is ideal and works for you. Meanwhile, bad anxiety is chronic and impairs your daily action. The stress response is in overdrive and works against you.

When uncertainty creates bad anxiety, you get stuck and progress stops. In their book The Progress Principle, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer say having a great inner work life is key to success. Your perceptions, emotions and motivations affect your performance. You do better when you have high intrinsic motivation and enjoy the process, as well as altruistic motivation to connect with and help others.

In easy conditions, progress is a straight line toward an end point. But when there’s uncertainty, progress is more like a feedback loop: you move toward a target, learn from problems and successes, rethink your goals and methods, remove obstacles to progress and add progress support, and keep moving forward.

To build momentum and motivation, you first make consistent or daily progress in meaningful things. This improves your inner work life, which leads to more progress.

Second, you add catalysts to support progress. This includes setting clear and meaningful goals, gathering resources, having autonomy, protecting time to do the work, and receiving help in different ways, whether through information sharing, brainstorming ideas, and collaboration.

Third, you seek out nourishers. This involves drawing from your own inner resources and making human connections that fuel positive emotions. Having a healthy mindset and supportive relationships keep you going.

To make the best of uncertainty, you welcome it, accept it or just experience it. Embracing uncertainty means you make space for it rather than run away from it. You see it as a unique path to great possibilities, and not just an obstacle to a safer path.

Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.

Here’s how you step into uncertainty, make progress, and find flow:

First: Define the right problem or challenge to tackle before you get into solution mode. A problem is an unwanted situation that needs to be solved. A challenge is a demanding task or goal that requires effort and skills to achieve.

When framing the problem, turn inward. Try solitude, which gives you the freedom to ask yourself key questions and mentally prepare for challenges. When you have alone time, clarify what’s meaningful to you. Instead of suppressing negative feelings, just notice how they manifest as physical sensations. Deep self-knowledge moves you into a more positive state to face the problem. For more on solitude, check out episode 65 of The Incrementalist.

Another way to frame the problem is to get an outside view. Talk to others and get a different perspective. Relationships can help you see your blind spots and notice your biases. Interacting with others is vital when you feel disconnected and prefer to not be alone. Having a sense of community helps you stay strong in the face of uncertainty.

Second: break up the problem or challenge into subproblems or smaller challenges. It’s easier to move through change incrementally.

Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, says we are works in progress and an infinite mindset involves constant improvement. He notes, “So there’s this notion in businesses that people fear change, which is fundamentally not true. People fear sudden change, you know. But incremental change is not threatening.”

Smaller, gradual changes are easier than sudden, massive changes because they bring more certainty. Divide the time scale for annual goals into time frames for quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily objectives. Your goals and objectives must be tied to your most important roles in your life, which can change over time and across seasons. When you make progress on what’s essential, you achieve easier wins and faster rewards for sticking with hard tasks. This discourages you from seeking instant gratification in social media, digital entertainment and other distractions.

Third: Set clear, daily goals to make consistent progress, get immediate feedback and exercise control. This is for stage 1 of the Flow Cycle, Struggle.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly defines flow as the optimal experience where your skills ideally match the challenge. It’s an altered state of consciousness where you’re so fully absorbed in the task that nothing else seems to matter. You’re fully present and have a high sense of control. When your actions flow easily, time speeds up or slows down, and the activity itself is its own reward.

Flow is not switched on by will or by force. But you can set ideal conditions to trigger the flow state. In his book, Art of Impossible, Steven Kotler explains you cycle through Flow in 4 stages. In stage 1, you struggle with the task and feel most frustrated as you fill your mind with information. The prefrontal cortex part of the brain is supercharged and your stress hormones are high.

In the Struggle stage, you show up and stay with the work. Study the details of the problem. Examine whether your mental focus, physical energy, abilities and skills match the challenge. You could set a specific target to help you move through the struggle. It’s okay to just take a small step. In any writing project, I simply turn on my computer and start typing. This might turn out to be a first draft or not. Instead of multitasking and procrastinating, just be present with one important thing and notice what happens. Set time blocks to hyperfocus on the critical task. Work on difficult problems when you’re naturally at your peak.

In the struggle, favor action over inaction to build positivity, energy and momentum. Stop complaining about the problem. Stop overthinking the challenge. Experiment, tinker, test, learn, and find clarity on what to do next. With deliberate practice and focused attention, you gain skills and self-trust. Both lead to competence and courage, which increase your tolerance for discomfort and resilience to uncertainty.

Fourth: Disengage from the problem or challenge and let yourself imagine, daydream and mind-wander with intention. This is for stage 2 of the Flow Cycle, Release. The default mode network part of your brain switches on and wakeful resting begins.

Stage 2 is for emptying your mind, taking a break, resetting, and reflecting. Indulge in scatterfocus by focusing on nothing. Avoid scrolling social media, binge watching TV shows and playing video games, which stimulate instead of relax the mind.

Nondigital activities are better at making you feel refreshed and recharged. Mindful rituals, daily habits, and start-up routines are ways to declutter your mind. Move and do low-stimuli activities that fit into your daily life, like walking, stretching, and watching clouds go by. Do light chores like doing the dishes, making the bed, and sweeping the floor. Ten to twenty minutes is enough to slow down and release tension.

Fifth: Zoom in on the task at hand and find the sweet spot where the challenge is the right match for your current skill set. This is for stage 3 of the Flow Cycle, the flow state. Flow means you’re in mindful state and you’re highly engaged with the task at hand. Your body releases performance-enhancing hormones, like norepinephrine (for focus), endorphin (for feeling good), dopamine (for mental sharpness), and serotonin (for mood balance). Your actions and awareness become one.

Steven Kotler says “The challenge-skills balance is often called the golden rule to flow. And the idea here is pretty simple. We pay the most attention to the task at hand when the challenge of that task slightly exceeds our skill set. “

In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly notes anxiety and boredom are two nonoptimal states, which are the opposite of flow. If the challenge is too high, you experience anxiety. If the challenge is too low, you get boredom.

Uncertainty means you lack the skills to match the challenge. So, reduce the challenge level to the sweet spot while you build your knowledge and experience. Break down hard and complex tasks into simpler and more refined tasks. Or give yourself more time to learn the skills. As you level up, you increase the challenge to find flow and avoid boredom.

Information overload and distractions affect the state of your mind. While you can’t always control your external environment, do what you can to reduce inner chaos and create calm focus.

For more on how to focus on your priorities and reduce overwhelm, check out my book, The Incrementalist. You can find it on Amazon and leanbpub. The links are in the show notes.

Finally, zoom out from the problem, take a break and rest. This is for stage 4 of the Flow Cycle, Recovery. Your flow state ends and you move into a normal state. You’re more aware of your surroundings and your focus declines. Because the flow state takes a toll on the nervous system, the recovery stage is essential.

Sleep is the highest form of recovery. But when it’s not convenient during the workday or between work sessions, a 20-minute nap will do. Recovery is also not just passive resting or not working. It may be a low-intensity, physical activity or a creative hobby. Gardening, hiking, playing piano, drawing, and sketching are examples.

Go outside and get some fresh air, if the weather permits. Forest Bathing – which is called Shinrin-Yoku in Japan – connects you with nature through your senses. Spend time in nature where there are trees, like in a forest, wooded park, or garden.

You can also enjoy indoor rituals, like brewing and drinking tea, or tidying up your desk for the next work session. Mindful, spiritual and religious practices like yoga, meditation and prayer, also fit well into the recovery stage.

In recovery, you form neural connections, consider the big picture, reframe and rethink the problem, integrate knowledge, and consolidate memories. By slowing down and being more intentional, you avoid making bad decisions, burning out and failing miserably. Recovery makes you more curious, adaptable, and open to uncertainty.

Apply the Flow Cycle to solve problems, rise to challenges, and make progress. And use the progress loop to decide when to act, when to step back and let go, and when to start again.

By tackling smaller problems sequentially, instead of one major problem all at once, you reduce uncertainty, move forward, and increase flow. When the change is big, uncertainty is normal. By making the change more incremental, you increase certainty and level up your skills at a more sustainable pace.

But even when the change is sudden and you must step into the unknown, you can be fully present. The now is when you have the most control to shape your future.

To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to productive living, you may reach out to me for coaching or speaking events.

If you have feedback or topic ideas, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at

I’m also making an online course that will help you do meaningful things with intention. It’s currently titled The Busyness Trap: How to Escape Overload and Focus on What Matters. For updates on the course, subscribe to my enewsletter at or The Incrementalist YouTube channel or podcast.

If you found value in this episode, hit the like and share buttons. And if you want to keep learning how to make big changes in small steps, be sure to subscribe. These things will help the show grow and reach you and others. Thank you being here and tune in again to The Incrementalist.

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© 2021 Dyan Williams