This is part of an ongoing series created to supplement our upcoming book, “How to Future: Leading and Sensemaking in an Age of Hyperchange,” to be published in September 2020 by Kogan Page. Some items in this series are co-written by Madeline Ashby and edited by Susan Cox-Smith.
Over the past few months, we’ve logged onto numerous social platforms to find colleagues in the fields of research, strategy, forecasting and related fields posting messages like this:
“Sorry, I had to step away for a bit. The flood of bad news was too depressing. I took a break, looked videos of animals, and now I’m back.”
Of course, the torrent of wall-to-wall negative information, bad-to-worse statistics, rolling emergencies, theories (both conspiracy and legitimate), think pieces, scenarios, and other inputs have been as global in volume, scope, and bleakness as the pandemic itself. Even for ourselves, long-practicing professionals in the foresight and futures research fields who maintain a steady diet of signals and information — often from the darker corners of the world — this continues to be a difficult time that requires some critical insight-distancing.
We often get paid to think the unthinkable, to imagine the unimaginable, and then lean into the ambiguity or discomfort posed by the implications of our scenarios or analysis. We keep company with more than a few black swans, and sometimes, they come home to roost. In scanning the horizon, we’re frequently on the lookout for emerging issues that might, just might, careen unexpectedly into existing dynamics or trends, and eventually create an entirely new scenario that once seemed unlikely. There are always intersections or events we can’t fully anticipate, or understand how they may go against the existing protections of policy, planning, or design. Of course, we’re also looking for positives, the little-noticed sparks, or catalysts that could create an as-yet-unforeseen good. More often than not, keeping track of the “what ifs” is the central part of our work as professionals in a world of uncertainty, in both the short- and long-term.
With the echoic nature of the tools we use — primarily open-source social media, news, and research resources — the world right now is indeed a dark place to go to work. To quote writer Warren Ellis’s 2016 novella NORMAL, a too-close-to-home story about a futurist who is checked into a detox center due to a cognitive breakdown:
“Some people call it ‘abyss gaze’. Gaze into the abyss all day and the abyss will gaze into you.”
So, when almost all the information in the universe is available to you, and practically breathing down your neck, how in the world do you deal with the relentless exposure — much less sort and analyze what you’ve been exposed to? Even if you aren’t a future-watcher, and are just trying to keep up with fast-moving life-or-death data while still trying to do your day job, or protect your family, how do you hang on and not risk going dark when one moment can change everything?
We deal directly with this question in our upcoming book, How to Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange. It was written before the current current crisis, amidst the cascading uncertainties already thrown up by Brexit, Trump, climate disruption, and other global challenges. In the book, we suggest that “actively sensing,” or being someone who is generally always attuned and open to new signals, requires taking care of the equipment that allows you to do so.
This is true even in times when the news isn’t so unremittingly difficult to process. A sommelier doesn’t drink the whole cellar and then pronounce themselves an expert: they spend time examining not just the provenance of the material, but also their fleeting, instinctive, and (eventually) learned responses to it. Your goal is not to imbibe all the information available and give yourself a data hangover, it’s to develop and improve your ability to taste the important (and relevant) notes. This ability to scan at arm’s length takes on new importance when the news itself becomes difficult to digest.
Based on our own extensive experience over a few collective decades, here are some strategies that can help you manage in the moment as well as longer-term, and also aid you in avoiding burnout or diminishing your ability to scout or scan for signals that are useful.
Balance the load with a network
Even in less trying times, it’s good to share the scanning. You can’t consume all incoming noise for signals, and you shouldn’t. Split the information you’re consuming amongst your team, whether that team is your colleagues, family, friends, or your professional fellow travelers. Read different sources, sorted by local and global, social and technical, known reliable correspondents or experts, and so on. Sort the light from the heavy, the narrative from the data, or whatever way works best to keep you from carrying the burden of all of that cognitive load alone.
Individuals build specialized knowledge, develop good critical radar for sources, and track rises and falls in information trends quite well. A group with diverse interests, tolerances, knowledge of industry dialects and players, strategically spread across time zones, can work together to keep their eyes on the landscape, and save any one person from burning out on breadth, depth, and span of material. This approach can also help mitigate overly negative or overly positive views of one person.
Since the pandemic struck, we’ve found connecting broader networks of curious minds to be more effective. WhatsApp groups, various Slacks, and Discord instances have been useful, as they provide space for discussion of various stories and signals, and debate about emerging narratives, whereas aggregated link dumps such as newsletters don’t provide that valuable networking of insights. Open social forums such as Twitter and Reddit are more susceptible to values signaling and status-focused firefights, which in turn heightens, not diminishes, the anxiety around dealing with tough topics in difficult times.
Find new voices to learn from
In nearly every crisis or change of focus, we do a couple of important things: look for new sources of valuable insight, opinion and point of view, and check whether our ongoing resources are up to the task. In recent months, we’ve been pointed to or discovered dozens of smart, underappreciated regional experts, topical and technical specialists, or just people sharing valuable views of the world from where they stand, or from the point of view of their lived experiences as both people and professionals. These could be local reporters in different parts of the world, beat journalists who follow unheralded sectors, up-and-coming voices in think tanks or civil society groups, smart contrarians not seeking to be edgelords but intelligently challenge conventional wisdom, and most definitely people not like us who can share their analysis of the world from a different position.
Likewise, not every long-term resource or voice is still focused on the same topics they started with or has the same politics or known biases. People and institutions naturally drift, change interests, or position in power structures. It’s good to take a moment now and then to ask if the resource you follow, the feed you track, or the readers they attract are right for your needs. Keeping a constant check on the filter bubble is critical, and this churn of insights is incredibly valuable in keeping our own views fresh, challenged, and informed in ways we can’t inform ourselves. It can also help lift the fog around difficult topics, and provide new channels for understanding uncertain situations, or to recalibrate where you stand on challenging, hard-to-process issues.
Maintain some distance from the data
While it’s important to keep your distance from other people in this time of viral disorder, it’s also important to maintain a safe detachment from the information you’re collecting, even when it tells difficult stories—and you’ll know what “safe” means to you. One of the traps for many analysts or foresight experts is becoming co-opted by the topic, and advocating so strongly for one outcome that information becomes an opponent, driving the desire to parry contradictory indicators or contrary signals.
Of course, this is harder when it involves mass unemployment, injustice, large-scale dislocation, a pandemic disease impacting your street than, say, artificial intelligence or 3D printing. Nonetheless, even while this drama involves you as a stakeholder of an affected community, try to take a step back from the storyline and know that the data will change, and the signals eventually improve, degrade, or shift. The picture is never crystal clear right away, and it’s exactly the critical but dispassionate attention to new information that helps us gain clarity over time.
Skip the rabbit holes
There is a temptation these days to try to master every new complex topic that comes along. One minute you’re trying to digest graduate-level constitutional law on the fly, the next you’re learning epidemiology in just three weeks! In truth, none of us are doing either, certainly not well. While it’s good to know something about the topics of the day, trying to become a snap specialist in complex topics can come at the cost of understanding surface currents and patterns of sentiment or data, which can often be read without a deep knowledge of a field people spend their lives studying. Referring back to the previous point above, you don’t necessarily have to have a side in a debate to understand its significance, or to sense which way the wind is blowing based on tensions in a particular field.
Of course, it’s always useful to pick up some functional knowledge along the way. Some of this comes from your scope of research, as reading widely can often help you identify what the critical topics are. Some can come from finding reliable experts and letting them do some filtration for you. This is where building good critical research and thinking skills can stand you in good stead. Learning to let sources do some of the work for you pays off both in terms of managing your long-term exposure to sometimes toxic debates and can be a useful way to find out what’s worth burning valuable grey cells for, and what can be left for later.
Look up, now look back down
Lastly, take some time to let your brain breathe. Those of us who spend six-and-a-half days a week switching from screen to screen, poring endlessly across different domains can tell you: taking a walk, switching your attention off, letting someone else take the keyboard, or just changing up which sense get stimulated can save your brain from scanning burnout — itself part of the aforementioned abyss.
The relationship between information consumption and physical response is clear. A 2017 study from the American Psychological Association found that 56% of Americans felt stressed when consuming news media. The “intermittent reward” system that comes from the endless dread-scroll ignites all four major reward pathways in the brain. Constantly poking your brain (and those of others) to elicit these physical responses has a significant impact on general health, from sleep quality to blood pressure. Give it a break when you can. It will improve your ability to cope the information flow in the longer term.
Much of the above applies to non-pandemic situations as well as to periods of depressing or uncertain news. While we won’t always be in this seeming limbo-land of ambiguous signals and variable truth, good information scanning and sensemaking practices should stand up in more testing conditions, but also see you through smoother, less mentally challenging contexts. Learning to be a good active senser, or refining this capacity, in all weather is a foundation for better, more aware, more flexible future thinking and acting. All the more reason to treat this capability sensitively and thoughtfully.
You can pre-order How to Future: Leading and Sensemaking in an Age of Hyperchange and find more resources at howtofuture.com/buy.