How to Keep Playing When the Rules Change

Imagine playing a game. A familiar one that you’ve known for years. And you’re good at it. You’re really, really good at it.

Then one day as you play, you notice your tried and tested strategies aren’t working anymore.

You try making all the same moves that once led to smashing victories, but nothing helps.

You lose one game. Then another. And then another.

You can’t figure out what happened.

Because no one told you that the rules of the game changed.

Not only that, no one explained the new rules.

Now, if you want to keep playing the game that you love so much, you have to figure it out all over again. And move forward knowing that at some random point in the future, the rules will change again.

In this situation, what would you do?

I recently came across a study in which participants faced this exact scenario and I think you’ll appreciate the results.

Brain cartoon 5-4-2020

After all this situation isn’t all that farfetched; it actually happens all the time in the game of LIFE. And the recent circumstances that you and I are dealing with due to the COVID-19 pandemic are just one example. Smaller changes to the rules of the game happen all the time with your team at work, your family at home, and in every other area of life you can imagine.

As frustrating as it is to face this reality, researchers have isolated a characteristic that can help you keep playing—and keep winning—when the rules of life change. It’s called cognitive flexibility.

time to change 5-4-20

Cognitive flexibility is one of your brain’s high-level executive functions. It’s the mental ability to shift between focusing on two different concepts or to consider multiple ideas simultaneously.

In one study, researchers set out to determine if improving executive function would support obese individuals in breaking habits that are known to contribute to obesity.

Spoiler alert: Improving executive function did help the participants to change their habits and lose weight.

And here’s something cool: one of the ways they monitored the participants levels of executive function (and later determined this test more specifically revealed levels of cognitive flexibility) was by using a game.

Participants were given a deck of cards which had various quantities of shapes of differing colors on them and were asked to sort them according to one of these properties. However, they weren’t told which property they were to sort the cards according to; they had to infer what the rules of the game were based on feedback they got about whether their sorting choice was correct or not.


After the study subject started getting repeated correct responses, the rules of the game would randomly change, and a new property was now the characteristic by which the sorting was to be done.

In the picture above, for example, imagine the initial sort property was color. The correct answer would be #1. But then later the rules changed and the sort property became shape. The “new” correct answer would be #4.

The fewer sorting errors that a participant made after the rules changed indicated a higher level of executive function, specifically cognitive flexibility. They were more adaptable to the new situation, rather than continuing to try solutions that were right in the past but were no longer working.

Make sense?

And like I already mentioned, the more cognitively flexible an individual was, the more successful they were at adjusting the habits that were making them unhealthy. In other words, it wasn’t just that they were getting better at sorting cards. As their cognitive flexibility improved, they got better at LIFE.

For you and me, and especially for those of us who are managers leading a team and our clients through the COVID-19 pandemic, cognitive flexibility hasn’t just been something nice to have; it’s been an essential quality for the success of our teams and companies. The rules have changed. And rather than continuing to try to do the things that we’ve “always done,” we’ve had to respond quickly to continue to move forward. Old habits haven’t served us. And if we had continued to do the things we used to do, we would’ve seen our organizations suffer, becoming more and more unhealthy.

Still with me?

At this point, you’d probably love to know what you can do to become more cognitively flexible.

new rules 5-4-20

I’ve got a self-coaching session below that can get you started. But first, I think it’s important to note that the current situation is a great opportunity to develop the skills we wish we had before COVID-19. Getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things are essential to developing great flexibility.

Another huge help is working to see things from another perspective, something I work with my clients on during every coaching session.

In closing, if you’re still trying to attack work and life using pre-COVID-19 rules, STOP IT. Start paying attention to the feedback you’ve been getting from within yourself and from the people around you and start flexing to figure out the new rules and adapt to them.


Here’s a self-coaching session to get you started.

In my coach training, we called this exercise “The Mentors’ Table.” (Shout out to my fellow coach Sara Whitman for reminding us of this exercise in a recent post in our Resilient Leaders Facebook group. You can get in the group by clicking HERE.) It works well because it helps to shift you out of whatever state you’re currently in by activating your executive brain areas as you imagine your situation from the perspective of someone else, a mentor of your choice. Shifting from your first person perspective to someone else’s definitely helps you to “flex” your cognitive flexibility muscle.

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Take a few moments to think of a situation in life or in business that’s been weighing on you since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving you feeling disappointed or frustrated.

Rather than disappointment or frustration, what would you like to experience instead?

Imagine that you can get advice in this area from anyone (and I mean anyone). Choose 1-3 people that you would love to sit down and ask one question about how to get the results you want out of this situation. Write their names down.

Now, before you sit down and get advice from each of those people, write out the exact question that you would like to have answered. Start it with the words “How might I…,” so you can get a quality answer from them. 

Picture sitting down with each of your “mentors” for today. Close your eyes and see one of their faces. Take a deep breath and ask your question. Then imagine their response. Write down whatever comes up for you in response to the question. Do this for each person you chose to give you advice.

Before wrapping up, look back at each of their responses. What’s most meaningful to you in what they “told” you? 

Finally, what might be the teeniest, tiniest, easiest action step that you could take moving forward to honor the most valuable advice that you got?

Thank you so much for being a leader who is determined to become even better no matter what. You got this. If I can support you in any way, please let me know.


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