Can you move from ‘when’ to ‘if’?

Remember life BC – as in ‘Before COVID’? I don’t know about you, but it seems quite surreal for me now. I watch things on Netflix and notice people within 1.5 metres of each other, or having drinks in a bar, or going out to the movies, and it ‘registers’ in a way it would never have done BC.

There are lots of things I miss about life BC. But there are others I don’t.

How about you?

I don’t miss my kids’ hectic schedule of activities; the constant time pressure; the frustration of travelling on congested roads and sitting stationery on a freeway in queues of traffic. It wasted my time, sapped my energy and depleted my soul. I don’t miss the habit we had fallen into of constantly needing to ‘be somewhere doing stuff’ and that that rarely meant being together doing nothing. 

There’s lots of talk at the moment about when things open up and when they get back to normal. I’m thinking more about if I want them to.

When is such a useful word for leaders. It helps us keep ourselves and our people accountable – ‘That’s a great idea, when can we have the prototype ready?’. When means that we’re tying up loose ends, we’re putting a time frame on something and that brings with it a sense of control and certainty, which is why it feels so good.

Brain pleasers

Our brains love certainty. We have a deep and basic need to know what’s going on and exert control over our environment so that we can protect ourselves effectively and stay safe. Answering the question of ‘when’ gives us both of these.

When is also really useful for identifying triggers and cues. Behaviour change research shows that the most effective strategies to create new habits involve providing the brain with a cue or prompt to trigger the desired behaviour. This is the cue-routine-reward habit structure that Charles Duhigg first introduced in his book The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.

It can be summarised into a ‘when… then… so that…’ type sentence which makes it really easy to action. For example, ‘When I get to my desk, then I will take 5-10 minutes to write out my to do list and decide my priorities for the day, so that I can be intentional about how I use my mental energy. I’ll then get my coffee as a reward.’  

When hones us in on the critical cue that starts the behaviour cycle. It is our trigger.

The perfect excuse

But asking when can hold us back too.

It can provide us with excuses not to take action:

When I’ve done that course, that’s when I’ll apply for the promotion.

Excuses to avoid the work that needs to be done:

Now is not a good time, I’ll raise that performance issue when they’re in a better frame of mind.

Excuses to procrastinate:

When should I do this? When is the right time? When…? When…? When…?

When creates expectations, which can be valuable, but holding on too tightly to it can make us rigid and inflexible – and that makes letting go more painful.

Letting go of when may mean letting go of certainty and control, and that can feel scary. It may mean letting go of attachment to certain outcomes that you don’t want to, and that may make you angry. And it may mean letting go of ways of doing, living and being that you love, which may make you sad. 

Letting go of when may mean we need to create space for all of these feelings while we embrace the possibility of ‘if’.

‘If’ opens up our perspective to other opportunities and options; it means that we acknowledge and understand that we don’t and can’t completely control our life or the people in it. Unexpected things happen – some good, some less so – and we accept that as part of the mess and the magic of life.

So, rather than thinking about when we ‘go back to post-COVID normal’, I encourage you to think about the possibility of ‘if I go back to post-COVID normal’, because you have the opportunity to hold on to, and let go of, whatever you want to from your life BC… if you choose to. 

Two actions to help you assess your life BC

  • If I could let go of three things of my life BC, what would they be?
  • If I could take forward three things from my COVID experience, what would they be?

Three leadership resources I’m enjoying right now

  1. This article from McKinsey & Co recommends five leadership practices for responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges.
  2. I loved the hope and possibility in this YouTube clip The Great Realisation by Tom Foolery.
  3. When this is all over is not a mantra, it’s an invitation.” A wonderfully insightful article from Future Crunch highlighting some compelling reasons to think differently about everything after the pandemic.



Dr Paige Williams

Dr Paige Williams

International Speaker, Author, Mentor


Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.

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