The 2-Shift technique for reducing entrepreneurial anxiety

As a founder you’ve probably experienced your fair share of anxiety: The pang of fear felt in the pit of your stomach, or the dull throb of worry lingering in the back of your mind. You probably wished you knew a technique that could help with reducing these entrepreneurial anxieties. While a healthy dose of nerves can be a good thing, especially for in-the-moment performance, too much of it can be bad for our brain and body, as well as for the relationships in our business and personal lives.

To help with this, we recommend the following reframing actions. These tools are borrowed from longstanding psychology research and are effective at reducing anxiety by shifting certain patterns of thought and behavior. It’s called the 2-shift technique. At a high level it looks like this:

  • Shift your motivational/emotional world to get your behaviors to be all about positive action (rather than negative inaction)
  • Shift your social world to be all about fairness and stability (rather than dishonesty and instability)

Each shift comes with its own set of actionable to-dos. We’ll get to these in just a moment. But first, a brief lesson in anxiety and the brain is required. It’ll help us understand and apply the 2-shift technique more effectively.


The uncertain brain and the case of Nelly and Eddie

Anxiety is one of those things we think we know. But we really don’t. What would you say if we were to ask you, what is anxiety?

You might give an answer similar to our opening lines:“It feels like …” and then fill in the blank with a personal description of when you were anxious. But this answer just isn’t satisfactory. It doesn’t give us much to work with. A better answer needs a better question. So, perhaps the better question is “What leads to anxiety?” And the better answer in this case is: Uncertainty.

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Well, more specifically, the feeling of anxiety is the brain’s way of saying that the level of uncertainty in the environment is too high. The anxiety we feel is simply a triggered response that happens when the brain detects a certain proportion of uncertain or unknown information out in the world. We call this the brain’s uncertainty threshold.

Now this answer, we can do something with. With this answer we can see how anxiety is an adaptive (but highly sensitive) response from the brain to get us to pay attention to the sources of uncertainty in our world.

Interestingly, we each operate with our own uncertainty threshold. Some people’s set point is really low – the nervous Nellies who are anxious all the time. They run their business the majority of the time above the uncertainty threshold, constantly fretting about “what if?!” What if we’re unable to get the new hire for the team? What if the new competitor gets a next big round of financing and pushes us out? What if we spend 6 months building this system and there’s no product-market fit? We all know these types of people. You might even be one yourself (that’s okay if you are – all the more reason to read on).

nervous entrepreneur

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Then there’s the people whose uncertainty threshold point is really high – the steady Eddies of the startup world who stay the course and remain calm even when a thousand fires are burning around them. In fact, Reid Hoffman and other giants have been known to “let the fires burn.” We can’t help but wonder, what’s their secret? How do they do it? Well, it appears the old adage of “life is about being 10% of what happens and 90% reaction” holds true. The 90% is this uncertainty threshold we’re talking about.

Look at the two images below. These are the two uncertainty thresholds of the two extreme ends, the Nellies on top and the Eddies on bottom. Now for the sake of argument, let’s say Nelly and Eddie experience the exact same sources of uncertainty in any given day. The unknowns, the puzzles, the looming questions and fears – all of it. These events (numbered 1 through 6 in the figures) happen for both Nellie and Eddie, their brains processing that information equally (labeled “uncertainty processing salience” in the figures).

low uncertainty threshold

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certain brain

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As we can see, despite the exact same experiences and exact same information, Nellie’s brain triggers the anxiety response much sooner and to a greater degree because all it takes is that one uncertain situation or event for the threshold to be crossed (and the worrying to begin). But Eddie remains steady. His brain doesn’t trigger the anxiety response until he experience six sources of uncertainty.

Raising the brain’s uncertainty threshold

All this to say, the aim of the 2-shift technique is to raise the brain’s uncertainty threshold so that you can minimize the frequency of your anxiety experiences. The tools below are to help you become more like Eddie and less like Nelly. A raised threshold means the brain now requires more uncertainty in order to trigger the anxiety response. It means you can handle that much more of the puzzling unknowns and personal doubts and conserve your anxiety for when it actually matters most.

Now with this understanding of the uncertainty threshold, let’s get into the two shifts.

Shift your motivational/emotional world

The first shift is the motivational/emotional mindset shift.

All our behavior is governed through a combination of two systems of motivation/emotion: The approach system and the avoidance system (it’s these two systems that motivate the behaviors of most living organisms in fact). The avoidance system lowers the brain’s uncertainty threshold, while the approach system raises it. When you “see” the world through an approach lens, the brain seeks out (“approaches”) potential gains and wins rather than watching out for (“avoiding”) potential losses and punishments. Fear of failure or losing lowers the threshold, while hope of gaining or winning raises it.

So, naturally, you want to reframe your motivational/emotional thinking to be more approach- and less avoidance-based.

  • First off, download this simple excel sheet to find out your baseline approach/avoidance. This is very important as you need to know where you’re starting off from and how much attention you should give to these tactics. It will only take you 3 minutes to figure out. We’ve created this from a validated scientific tool.
    1. The 24 questions you will answer are listed in column B.
    2. Answer the questions using the following 1-4 scale: 1=very false for me; 2=somewhat false for me; 3=somewhat true for me; and 4=very true for me.
    3. After you input your answers (in column K), your Approach Score (cell N12) and Avoidance Score (cell N13) will appear. Importantly, look to your Personal A/A Score (cell N14).
    4. The Personal A/A Scoring tells you your priority level for the exercises:
      • 21 and higher percentage points says you’re very low in baseline approach motivation and these techniques are critical = very high priority
      • 10 to 20 percentage points says you need to consider working on the following techniques to get more approach oriented = high priority
      • 0 to 9 percentage points says you’re in better shape but you still need to work on getting more approach oriented = medium priority
      • -20 to -1 percentage points says you’re already starting at a decent place with slight room for improvement in your approach motivation = low priority
      • -21 and lower percentage points says you’re quite high in baseline approach motivation so you might only need these as a refresher from time to time = very low priority

If you’re medium, high or very high priority, you’re probably the nervous Nellie we talked about earlier. You have a very low uncertainty threshold and as a result can greatly benefit from the following tactics:

  • “Write” the wrong exercise: In your notepad write down a list of uncertainties in your business that you suspect are close to crossing your threshold (and triggering anxiety). You’ll know if they’re at that point if you experience a general uneasiness when you think about them (this uneasiness has certain physical sensations like numbness, stomach “butterflies”, tension in the torso region, etc.). Beside each uncertainty, list the domain or area that it’s tied to, like team, employees, financing, costs, equipment, etc.
    • Then, you write the wrong for each: Find something in the listed domain/area where you have some available resources that still allow you to run your business successfully. For instance, if you’re uncertain about the performance of one of your team leads, then counteract that with writing about how one of your other employee teams has been working extra hard on a project to see its vision come to fruition.
    • The point of this exercise is to pull you out of the trap of seeing what needs to be fixed or what needs to be improved. Our brain has a negativity bias. This bias will convince you that each of area of your business (and life) is a catastrophe and in need of fixing. All while forgetting about the good things. Of course we can always have more employees, more money, and more time … but thinking about the resources you have (or have had) and how it has led you to big wins, will raise the brain’s threshold and keep your anxiety at a minimum.
shift your focus when feeling anxious

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  • Prime yourself with action: Approach motivation/emotion is all about action and moving forward (hence the “approach”). Opposite to this, under avoidance motivation, the brain and body is in a state of inaction and watchfulness. It’s this heightened vigilance that lowers the uncertainty threshold, telling the person to be on the look-out for possible threats. Simple drills can be done to bring about states of action, which can raise the threshold back up to a more desirable level:
    • Physical action: The easiest is to physically move your body. Research on embodied cognition and motivation says that the brain and body are closely intertwined. If you’re in need of a threshold boost, take 20-60 minutes and get moving. You can walk or do a short exercise mid afternoon. You can even do a short burst of jumping jacks. Anything. Simply moving the body will be enough to raise the threshold.
    • Cognitive action: You can also do quick mental exercises that prime the state of action. This helps to get the mind moving. There are countless little brain training apps to choose from. But sometimes it’s best to keep it old-school. Have a book of crosswords, Sudoku puzzles, or word searches. You want the task to be somewhat challenging but easy enough that you can see you’r getting closer to a finished end point. This is the trick – actually seeing minor progress as you work towards finishing the task/game. The brain loves this. It’ll see other “close-to-completion” patterns in your environment, which prevents a lowering threshold.
cognitive action

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  • Anticipate the wins: Look for cues in your business that you know are likely going to work out – wins and gains that are coming down the pipeline. The key here is to focus on those gains/rewards that are going to happen for you in the short-term. You don’t want to look too far ahead to the future for long-term because these wins are inherently more abstract. You want to focus on the tangible wins that are right around the corner for you and your company.
    • Write out each win on a whiteboard for yourself (and if shared, for others) to see, and include all the benefits that will come out of getting that win. Underneath this, be sure to write the anticipated timeline of hitting that goal. Most important, when you get the win, ceremonialize its completion. A great example is having a bell in the office dedicated to just these sorts of events. Gather the team around, even if it’s for 5 minutes, to officially mark down the win. Make a toast.

Shift your social world

One of major perks of being a business owner is you have say over the type of workplace culture you want to create. When it comes to raising the uncertainty threshold and minimizing anxiety (for both yourself and others), you want the social element of your business to be as fair and equitable as possible. Shifting your social world towards fairness is key.

Our brains love fairness. It’s the basis of our morality, our sense of right and wrong. It’s even found in different monkey and ape species. By honoring this ancient drive, you create a social world that is a “just system.” Belief in a just system, whether it’s the economy, a family unit, a sports team or a burgeoning startup, gives the brain the impression that things are right with the world.

A series of studies shows that when people are experiencing heightened levels of uncertainty and anxiety, they actively seek out contexts and interactions that have greater levels of fairness. But you can also be proactive: Create mini-systems of fairness in order to raise the uncertainty threshold before the little (and big) anxieties even have a chance to set in.

  • Create systems of what Arianna Huffington calls authentic transparency. The shift in HR trends shows that workplaces are far more effective when people feel it’s okay to openly discuss issues. The traditional model was to guarantee anonymity and do things behind closed doors. Keep things hush hush. But this only breeds mistrust and sneakiness. We recommend having an open-doors policy for airing grievances. Hold designated meetings where anyone can drop by to discuss the issues openly with you. This should start right from hiring. When interviewing potential candidates, let them know that open and transparent conversation, even when it’s difficult, is the best way to create a culture of fairness.
arianna huffington

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  • Another way to create fairness to make sure everyone feels they have a say. One example is borrowed from Ray Dalio, founder and CEO of Bridgewater Associates (the world’s largest hedge fund). In his radical transparency principles, Dalio has a fairness system called “dot collecting.” It’s a live, in-the-moment data collection tool used in meetings that allows everyone to voice their opinion(s) about certain ideas, concepts, and other people without fear of reprisal. It creates a culture of openness, fairness, and balance.
    • Dalio’s team has a designated programmed tool for this, but you can simply use a survey program like Google forms, Qualtrics, Survey Monkey, etc. For example, during team meetings, people can have the survey open in the background and indicate ratings on different items like whether a person is communicating clearly, whether their ideas hold merit, or the extent to which the point is agreed or disagreed with, etc. The type of questions/ratings will depend on your business and team, but the point is to have all the responses go to an open-access page for everyone to see. The transparency is meant to show that disagreement, which is bound to happen, can be stabilized and can keep anxieties to a minimum because opinions are “out there” and openly expressed.
  • Give your employees a certain percentage of their time, say 5-10%, where they are free to decide on a personal project they’d like to work on. Many leading companies have implemented this policy, including LinkedIn’s InCubator, Apple’s Blue Sky, and Microsoft’s The Garage Program. Doing so provides employees with a sense of personal freedom and autonomy, creating a culture of fairness.
  • Have rules, but make sure those rules aren’t set in stone. Rules are the bedrock of fairness procedures and give people the impression that things are ordered and predictable. But they can backfire if they’re too rigid, hence why having them amenable to change is important.
    • In fact, don’t even call them rules. This word has a sound of permanency to it. Instead call them operating guidelines, or whatever else you prefer. Most importantly, democratize the process for how those guidelines are agreed on in the team. Have an open ballot system in which people can vote and rate the importance/value of keeping certain guidelines while abolishing others. Have a running list of all the guidelines and have dedicated meetings (once per quarter) in order to discuss potential changes. And no guideline is too small to consider. Do you have a shared system for contributing to coffee and snacks in the office? Is it a guideline that is in place for a reason? Make sure everyone has a say in this stuff.
operating guidelines vs rules

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  • Structure fairness in employee compensation and equity plans. Implement a once-a-year (or once-a-quarter) system where you and your team review the detailed list of all salaries and proposed raises/bonuses for employees. You should demonstrate how industry, market, and geographical benchmarks compare in order to reach an agreement on the fairest pay structure. Get your employees involved in the process and get their input as well.
  • Consider publicizing compensation and pay plans of all employees. These fairness transparency processes are showing immense benefits for companies, including setting up an environment that helps people cope with uncertainty. Whole Foods has been doing this for over 30 years but more and more, other companies are catching on and seeing the benefits. And now psychology research supports these fairness practices, showing that transparent pay even leads people to perform better in their job. An aside, a big part of this is proper communication: Check out our other posts for boosting communication skills, creating effective meetings, and reading others’ body language.


A step-by-step scientific guide to overcoming past, present and future anxiety


Conclusion and wrap-up

Remember these main points of the 2-Shift technique for helping to raise the brain’s uncertainty threshold:

  • Shift your motivations/emotions to encourage more “approach” type thinking. First, find out where your baseline approach motivation is. Knowing your level of priority, try the following exercises:
    • Write the wrong – counteract the negative with some of the positives that are happening.
    • Prime an action mindset – either through physical or mental action, get your body and thoughts moving in order to enter into an approach state.
    • Anticipate the wins – bring attention to the wins that are just around the corner and ceremonialize their completion with everyone.
  • Shift your social world to encourage a workplace of fairness and balance. These tools can help set up a just and fair working culture:
    • Have transparency practices that allow you (and your team) to rely on open dialogue, responsible disagreement, etc. through the use of open-access rating systems
    • Have fairness procedures that allow people to witness the rationale behind decisions (including compensation, pay, workplace rules, etc.) and to understand that all decisions are rooted in sound reason and equity.

One thing we want you to keep in mind with these exercises: The goal isn’t to get rid of all anxiety or to overlook all sources of uncertainty. We want some level of anxiety and uncertainty in our lives. Anxiety is an adaptive response that helps us know when things are amiss in our world.

What the 2-Shift technique does is it reorients your i) motivational/emotional world and ii) social world so that you can conserve your anxiety response. This means only responding to sources of uncertainty that are actually worth paying attention to.

Most of the things you experience as an entrepreneur aren’t worth all the anxiety and worrying over. There are lots of uncertainties, unknowns, doubts, fears, etc. That’s the name of the game. With a low threshold, you’d be constantly anxious without really knowing why. But with a raised threshold, you get the upper-hand in terms of being proactive and strategic of when (and how often) you feel anxious.

So remember, be a steady Eddie and let those fires burn. They’ll probably put themselves out eventually.