I changed jobs during Covid. It was October 2020 and here in Melbourne, while the case numbers soared with no plateau in sight, we were experiencing Lockdown 2.0: no eating out, no hosting friends or family for delectable dinner soirees, no leaving the house but for meeting one of four government prescribed reasons. No fun. However, plenty of being at home, Uber Eats, baking sourdough, learning new instruments and plenty (too much) of Zoom.

Having been a lawyer for my entire career, for some time I had already mentally made plans that the next role I intended to move into would be a business role. One that would position me on the sporting field as an offensive or mid-field player – most certainly moving away from the role of goalie. I wanted to change my game. And so when the opportunity arose to make that shift I said yes and didn’t look back. But that’s not to say I didn’t feel mixed and conflicting emotions. For a long period of time I oscillated between anxiety and excitement on a daily basis; but at some point, the penny dropped and I realised I would always be bouncing between these two key emotions because we make some our best decisions in both a personal and professional capacity whilst in these emotional states of mind.

Anxiety and excitement are physiologically the same

An article I came across in Forbes magazine described how physiologically anxiety and excitement are actually exactly the same. That is, both manifest in us that sense of hyper alertness, sweaty palms, elevated heart-rate, shortness of breath and possibly a sleepless night or two. That butterflies in your stomach feeling. However the underlying drivers behind these emotions is what differentiates them; anxiety is driven by a sense of fear, whereas excitement is underpinned by feelings of joy. As mentioned earlier, we make big and small decisions all the time in these states of mind. Having an awareness of these underlying drivers is key to harnessing effective decision making in the professional roles we play when we go to work.

Decision making 101

When we are experiencing anxiety, we are feeling afraid of the various permutations of things that could go wrong in a situation. When in this state, our brains are wired and primed to focus on survival. For example, those who have young children who have caught Covid will empathise with this frame of mind. That moment when the positive PCR test came through, the decisions you made at that point in time would have been purely about survival: how will I take care of my child? How much time will I need to take off work? OMG my mother was babysitting a few days ago does she need to get tested too? Contrast this with the emotional state of excitement, when your brain is open to possibilities and opportunities, and planning for the year ahead: holidays, career change, life goal setting.

Now apply this to a business/work/professional context. Business decisions can be framed in the exact same way: decisions about survival are targeted at shorter-term thinking aimed at maintaining daily operations, getting through the business as usual activities and keeping the lights on. Tactical decisions. On the other hand, long-term ideas targeted at maximising business opportunities and investigating possibilities? That’s the strategic decision-making right there. Game-changing business transformative initiatives come from this collective team headspace.

We need to do both but depending on what stage your businesses are at is what determines the prioritisation to each area. Put simply, you cannot be working on changing the game if your house isn’t in order. So the question we should be consciously and regularly asking ourselves when we walk through the (likely virtual) doors of our workplaces is this: Am I making calls that will ensure survival, or am I making calls that chase opportunities? Having clarity of thought in the types of decisions you are making will ensure you time those decisions appropriately, and ensure you not only survive, but thrive.

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