Dealing with uncertainty


I was recently asked to do a short-talk to psychology students on how to balance short-term performance and long-term goals. I try to approach each presentation I do with a slightly different twist and this time I focused on uncertainty. Feedback suggested it was a useful twist to take, so I thought I’d expand that short-talk into a blog post 🙂 Enjoy. 

As far as I can gather, the modern student confronts at least four levels of uncertainty: a state of ‘not knowing’ that can lead to psychological discomfort. 

For those in their 20’s the first level I call ‘neurological’ uncertainty. It basically refers to the fact that the human brain is still maturing well into the 20’s. Areas of the brain dedicated to attention, decision making, impulse control, personality, planning and setting goals are still locking in some of their final changes. We aren’t quite ‘ourselves’ yet and that raises the question ‘who am I going to be?’ 

The second level of uncertainty is your studies. Being at university is a period of rapid accumulation of knowledge and skills. You go from not knowing much, to knowing a lot in a relatively short time. That brings with it regular experiences of difficulty, confusion, stress and anxiety. It is marked by questions like ‘do I understand this?’, ‘can I do this?’ and ‘Am I studying the right degree?’. 

The third level of uncertainty relates to you life more broadly. Working out who you are, your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Forming relationships and starting families. Building your adult life and dealing with unpredictable challenges that come with that. This includes career and facing the discomfort of not always knowing where you will end up work-wise or what the next big steps are. You are confronting the reality that despite our best intentions, our lives don’t always work out how we want them to. 

The final level of uncertainty, which has been heightened over the past couple of years, relates to broader societal factors: pandemic, climate change, economic prosperity, political instability. Basically, uncertainty and worry about where the human race (and planet) are headed and the big existential threats facing us. 

Now, uncertainty is unavoidable and humans have prospered as a result of our ability to manipulate the environment in order to address different types of uncertainty. For example, barring financial difficulties, we don’t spend large amounts of time worrying about where to get food, we know that systems are in place to deliver it (e.g. restaurants, supermarkets). But there was time in our history where food availability was a fundamental uncertainty and we had to problem-solve our way around it. 

So some uncertainty is good. Its a motivator to solve problems.

I think of it a bit like stress. A little stress is good. It gets us moving in the morning. Uncertainty is a form of stress. It gets us out and trying to solve problems. 

But constant or severe uncertainty (like constant stress) can lead to excessive levels of worry and anxiety. Excessive levels of worry and anxiety, rather than pushing us forward, often end up having the opposite effect. They lead us to get stuck, to retreat, maybe even to self-sabotage. 

Anxiety, for example, creates avoidance and can lead to self-sabotage. Got an assignment or exam coming up that you know is hard? Notice your tendency to want to avoid thinking about it or working on it. But you know intellectually that the longer you avoid it, the more difficult it gets. You know that if you prepare at the last minute you risk getting a significantly poorer grade than you are capable of. 

Worry tends to get us stuck ruminating about the future and ignoring the present moment. For example, we can get so stuck thinking about our future career and fearing what is ahead, that we start to neglect what we need to do in the moment (e.g. your degree). Because the successful completion of that degree is central to taking the next step career-wise, you can see that you can quickly get stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy

So what should we do about these differing levels of uncertainty? Keep in mind that the suggestions below represent a mix of evidence-based principles and opinion. Treat them like mini thought experiments and assess whether they resonate with you and are worth exploring further. 



A healthy nervous system is one that can shift between states of focus/concentration, alert attention, high alert and deep rest.

What does it take to create a healthy nervous system? It is things you already know. 

Regular high quality sleep, good nutrition, regular movement (physical activity), periods of focused work and deep rest/quiet contemplation (e.g. meditation, relaxation, self-hypnosis, controlled breathing). 

I know that writing it that way makes it sound simple and in reality each of those areas mentioned (sleep, nutrition, physical activity, focused work, deep rest) are extensive topics in themselves. But the basic idea of nurturing one’s nervous system is simple to grasp. Your job, having grasped that, is to start acquiring enough knowledge in each of those areas to make meaningful changes.

Start with this guy –  


Your studies

Whilst the material we are learning in our degrees is novel and new and can lead to inevitable periods of confusion and uncertainty, the study strategies we use to learn that material can be more precisely described. 

Do you have a coherent study process/routine? Do you time manage effectively, utilise evidence-based study strategies, engage the supports that are available to you? 

If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ you’d likely benefit from some time reading our Evidence-based study tips guide or perusing the excellent resources offered by the Student Learning Support Service. Start adding strategies to your study routine that will enhance your ability to learn.  

The end goal is a set of reliable and effective study strategies that allow you to get your work done, on time, to the best of your ability, and in an efficient enough way to give you time to enjoy the other aspects of your life (family, friends, hobbies, work etc).

Again, I make this sound simple and I don’t mean to imply that I have got this all worked out myself. I am still modifying and changing my own learning/working strategies, but attention to doing so in recent years has helped me improve my productivity incrementally over time. Endeavour to remain interested in learning about learning.  



OK, so the idea that I have some advice that I can pack into a couple of sentences that teaches you to navigate the uncertainties of life more broadly is somewhat comical. There are so many scenarios to consider. 

But let’s focus a bit on career. 

I see many students agonising over whether they will get into a particular degree or profession. Some of that agony could probably be relinquished. 

To be clear, it makes sense to consider what kind of work you want to do in life and push meaningfully towards that. Career direction might be described by field/profession (‘I want to be a psychologist’) or by values (‘I want to help people with their mental health’). Some clarity about interests/desires/values helps us make more relevant choices and decisions in the present moment (i.e. what degree to start with).

But I generally discourage people from becoming too wedded to a specific idea about what they want their career to be. 


  1. There are lots of factors, outside of your control that will play a role in what work you end up doing.
  2. We overestimate how happy we will be getting the ‘ideal job’ and underestimate just how many different work options would make us happy. 
  3. Our hopes and dreams work-wise will shift and change as we have more experiences. I didn’t really get clarity on my work until my 40’s, having experienced a range of cool and not-so-cool working situations. 

A psychological goal here is to remain open to there being lots of potential work pathways that might bring you satisfaction. Think of it as many different futures in which you are equally happy and satisfied.  

That doesn’t mean you should just throw your hands up in the air and just go with whatever happens. 

There is a meaningful difference between having a very specific career destination in mind, versus having a good process in place for ensuring you are progressing forwards in your career. 

Progressing forwards in your career is a function of many things, but a number that are under your control:

  • Ongoing learning – being open to learning new things, developing new skills, trying new things
  • Doing the best you can at the task in front of you – tackling procrastination and avoidance to do the task in front of you to the best of your ability even if it is a task you don’t particularly enjoy
  • Building a healthy professional network – engaging with people in your field, acknowledging the good work they are doing, being generous and helping (where possible), sharing your ideas, building collaborations

Whilst obviously not a guarantee of success, these factors help open up new opportunities and possibilities, and it is these opportunities and possibilities that typically give rise to meaningful shifts forward in our work lives. 

I’ll acknowledge that some degree of ‘faith’ is required here: trust in the process. ‘If I work hard on the project in front of me, and open to learning and grow my networks through good people skills, I set the scene to progress forward in my career, even though I might not know yet what form that progress will take’. 

A good practice that I think can benefit people here is meditation. Meditation (which takes many forms) does tend to bring one’s attention to the present moment: the task in front of me, the person in front of me, the experiences I am having. That capacity to break oneself out of thinking too much about the past or future, and direct one’s attention to what is happening right ‘now’ can be extremely valuable in focused work, improving relationships, and identifying ways of thinking that keep us wedded to specific ideas. There are many apps that can start your meditative journey. I like Waking Up. 


On this level of uncertainty I am right there with you, swimming in all the worries and concerns about the big picture issues that might dissolve civilisation: climate change, political/economic instability, income inequality, pandemics, automation. 

Four strategies help me navigate this space. 

I limit my consumption of news on such topics. That doesn’t mean I ignore them. Rather, I try to extract, from the news I consume, practical strategies that help me take action on that topic within the confines of my life. I’m interested in news/reporting that allows me to generate a useful response (no matter how small), rather than news which simply elicits or maintains anxiety.  

I try to live my daily life in a way that reflects my beliefs about the importance of these issues. Am I recycling? Am I nurturing a garden? Am I limiting my consumption? Am I giving to relevant charities? Have I changed my diet? What can I do within my own scope of influence to take an active part in addressing these issues?

I (try) to focus on doing the best I can with the jobs in front of me. We all have a part to play in the community in which we live. Your current role might not have much of a direct impact on the existential issues of concern, but I suggest it does impact on the lives of others. Can you make it a positive impact? For example, my job is helping students with their mental health which doesn’t directly impact climate change, but it might provide a student in climate science with the tools to progress forwards and make a big mark in the field. We live in an incredibly complex and interconnected ecosystem. What you do matters, no matter how big or small those actions appear to be or how directly or indirectly related to certain outcomes they are.  

As you accumulate wealth, privilege, opportunity and influence, assume increasing levels of direct responsibility for those bigger existential issues. Donate money or time to organisations doing important work in those spaces. Start a business or organisation that works directly on the issues. Speak out on platforms that you have built or developed.   

Essentially, you are trying to put in place the conditions necessary to become a growing force for change, starting with what you can do right now, and building over time as your reach increases.  


Some concluding remarks

Uncertainty isn’t going anywhere soon. 

There are too many moving parts in the universe for us to predict it perfectly, and even if we could, would you want your life to be mapped out, with no ambiguity? Uncertainty can mean anxiety, but it can also mean opportunity, novelty, surprise and curiosity. 

The modern university student has to deal with a number of sources of uncertainty: neurological, study, life, society. That is quite the mental load to carry!!

Failure to find strategies to manage uncertainty can lead to anxiety and worry, which can, in turn disrupt the actions necessary to reduce it. Uncertainty can lead to more uncertainty. 

There are strategies to manage uncertainty though – choices and decisions we make about how we live our daily lives that can help us navigate it better. Looking after our nervous system, honing our ability to learn, honing our ability to focus on the task at hand and operating within our sphere of influence to live according to our values. 

These aren’t cures, but they are tools for making healthy progress in the face of unpredictability and change. 

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