Pausing Panic: Personal, Professional, and Business Implications

To pause panic, accept, identify, and deploy yourself as a person who just happens to be a financial planner.​

Journal of Financial Planning: June 2020


William Marty Martin, Psy.D., is an associate professor at DePaul University and a financial psychologist at The Planning Center. An internationally acclaimed speaker, author, and researcher, he has worked for the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Tulane University, Xavier University of Louisiana, and the National Institutes for Health.

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We’re living through unprecedented times, and it’s having a major impact on our personal, professional, and businesses lives. These unprecedented times are akin to a catastrophic storm rolling toward you as you sit on the shore. This rolling storm is not a single wave but several waves with each wave striking fear, loss, grief, and anxiety.

These waves are hitting the shores of financial planning firms. The first wave was the coronavirus itself as a global pandemic but local disruptor, or what economists call an exogenous shock. Denial is a healthy response to shock. However, denial—if it lasts too long or is the only source of coping—paralyzes your ability to adapt. Panic is also a healthy response to an exogeneous shock. Like denial, panic is not a long-term option to solve problems and rise to challenges. Panic, too, if it lasts too long is paralyzing.

The second wave hitting the shores of financial planning firms was the sudden plunge of the stock market first marked by a market correction and then a bear market. Amid these plunges were the seemingly constant fluctuations of market prices up and down like tossing waves in the ocean.

The third wave hitting the shores of financial planning firms was the closure of businesses of all types other than those deemed providing “essential services” by a patchwork of state, county, and city regulations. Stay-at-home orders informed by public health recommendations related to social distancing, quarantine, and isolation fueled financial planning firms, estate planning firms, and other businesses in the financial planning ecosystem to offer services digitally and enable employees to work remotely.

The fourth wave was decisions about lowering costs, communicating with employees and clients, implementing risk management strategies, deploying earnings optimization strategies, and unleashing the spirit of innovation to address old demands and new demands with both existing and new resources. Regrettably, decision-makers in financial planning firms were faced with tough decisions about whether to get out of contracts with vendors, furlough staff, and even terminate employment given bottom line pressures arising from the first, second, and third waves.

A possible fifth wave cannot be seen but there are forecasts and predictions about what might be next—particularly with increasing pressure to “open up” the economy alongside knowledge that viruses such as COVID-19 do not conform to a “one and done” phase, but perhaps a second or even third phase, as was the case with the 1918 influenza pandemic. This possible fifth wave does not come with a firm timeline or precise information as to its impact, as measured by morbidity, mortality, stock market response, and economic response.

Each of these waves has the potential to erode our sense of security, meaning, structure, and well-being. Combined, each successive wave has the potential to deepen the erosion created by the first wave, unless we as individuals, professionals, and financial planning firms acknowledge the reality of not just the waves but the damage done, and the possible damage yet set into motion.

To Pause Panic, AID Yourself

Our challenge is to adapt to these exogenous shocks, acknowledging that the emotional response is greater than just COVID-19 as a global pandemic. You may be wondering how you prepare for such uncertainty without the decision-making tools of a Monte Carlo analysis and even when epidemiologists discuss their models on television and then say, “All models are wrong.” Here are three ways to pause panic when confronted with conditions of uncertainty:

Accept the fact that we are human and subject to the vicissitudes—sometimes cruel and sometime unjust—of a wider, natural, ecological environment in which we are prey not just predators.

Identify what is under your direct control, such as social distancing and hand hygiene, and in a disciplined not obsessive-compulsive way practice those behaviors that minimize biological risks and other risks related to the second, third, fourth, and possibly fifth wave.

Deploy all resources available to you and your network to create a situation in which you have more resources than the rising and fluctuating demands.

To pause panic, it is critical that you “AID” (Accept, Identify, Deploy) yourself—not as a professional, but as a person who just happens to be a financial planner. And remember that many of your clients are also experiencing similar responses to these five waves, although they may be focusing a bit more on one wave than you and expressing their feelings about it in a different way, too. There is no one right way to express your feelings. And there is no one right way to cope with the challenges confronting you as these five waves hit the shores of your client’s home, family, business, and community.

Personal Power Matrix

Another essential technique to learn or master during times of uncertainty in your life and the life of your clients is called the Personal Power Matrix.

You can use the Personal Power Matrix in three ways to more effectively cope with this global pandemic.

After you experience a pleasant (e.g., sense of mastery) or unpleasant (e.g., frustration) emotion, reflect upon not just the situation but how you framed the situation based upon the two elements of the matrix: degree of control and decision to act. Self-reflection enables you to decrease living your life on “automatic pilot.”

During a situation in which you are experiencing an intense emotion (positive or negative), hit the brakes and see if you can shift your emotions away from the negative or stay on the positive by becoming “present and mindful” in your response. A response is intentional. A reaction is a reflex.

Before a situation that you believe will be emotionally laden, prepare yourself like a pilot conducting a pre-flight checklist. Ask yourself these questions; doing so should increase the probability of experiencing a positive emotion and a greater degree of control:

  • Do I have control in this situation?
  • Do I have any influence if I do not have control?
  • Are my actions aligned with the degree of control I believe that I have?
  • Can I give myself permission to accept and let go?

Five Habits to Boost Energy, Enhance Immunity, and Connect with Presence

Self-care is essential for you as a financial planner, your team, your centers of influence, and your clients. Let your clients know that you value more than their investments. Let your team know that you value more than their performance. Let your centers of influence know that you value more than their referrals. Let your loved ones know that you love them enough to take care of yourself, as if you are an appreciating asset that must be fed, nourished, and nurtured.

Self-care is not an act of selfishness. You can both care for yourself and others. There is no right way to engage in self-care, but you can start with these five habits:

Care for your body as if you were a finely tuned, high-performing sports car. A high-performing sports car requires a regular source of power and maintenance. The owner and driver of the car are supported by the pit crew who focus on different parts of the car during a race. Any repairs needed are not delayed. If you imagine that you are the finely tuned, high-performing sports car, you would engage in these behaviors:

  • Sync your chronotype (morning lark, intermediate, night owl) with the optimal time of day to perform tasks.
  • Expose yourself to sunlight upon awakening and during the afternoon slump to recharge your batteries.
  • Eat and drink throughout the day rather than running on empty and then filling or even overfilling your energy tank.
  • Preserve your energy for high-value activities and challenge yourself to stop doing nonvalue-added activities (delegate such activities); and stop engaging in conflicts with individuals who do not care about you and you do not care about them.

Create a routine. One of the challenges confronting many individuals is the lack of structure that was automatically set by your work schedule based upon policies, procedures, practices, traditions, customs, and even legislation. A lot of this routine has been tossed up in the air with some individuals struggling to even know the day of the week. Those working at home may swiftly learn that continuous isolation and absence of a normal schedule can be mentally challenging. 

Having a routine can be helpful at any time, particularly if you are trying to establish healthy habits, but these routines can be particularly important when aspects of your life feel uncertain. The benefits of a regular routine include less stress, better sleep, more focus, enhanced predictability, increased certainty, and greater productivity.

To enjoy these benefits, set a consistent wake-up time and bedtime, at least during the traditional work week. On days off, try not to vary your wake-up or bedtime by more than one to two hours, particularly if you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up on time.

Confront the reality that you have more time than you recognize. Did you know there are 1,444 minutes in day; 168 hours in a week; and on average, 730 hours in a month?

Challenge the self-imposed barrier when you hear yourself or others saying, “I don’t even have a minute to do anything for myself,” or “I wish I had just an hour for me.” There are days when it seems as if you cannot spend a minute doing something for yourself, and there are weeks or months when it appears as if one hour is a luxury that you cannot afford.

Remember, feelings are not reality. Feelings are based upon our perception of reality.

The reality is that if you spent two to three minutes every hour engaged in a micro-break such as standing up, stretching, or engaging in deep breathing and you gave yourself permission to do this nine times in a 10-hour workday, then you would have invested 18 to 27 minutes taking care of you.

Financial planners live and die using calculations:

  • 18 minutes/1,444 minutes = 1.2 percent of your day (98.8 percent of your day remaining)
  • 27 minutes/1,444 minutes = 1.8 percent of your day (98.2 percent of your day remaining)

For those of you who remember the concept of opportunity cost, you may correctly ask, “What else could I have done with that 1.2 to 1.8 percent of my day, other than take care of myself?” This is a fair question. You could have grinded it out just a bit more. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote an entire chapter on “sharpening the saw.” You may view this investment as sharpening your saw and making sure your fellow planners and maybe clients sharpen the saw, too. You’re not very effective or efficient with a dull blade.

Another way to view opportunity cost is that if your health and well-being is being consistently overtaxed, you erode opportunity away from your life. If you fall sick, I can predict with a fair degree of certainty that you will spend more than 1.2 to 1.8 percent of your day trying to repair, recover, heal, and allay your aches and pains.

With 1,444 minutes each day, 168 hours each week, and on average 730 hours each month, you have the time. Do not expect a high rate of return when you have not invested in any assets. This is called magical thinking.

Nurture yourself by connecting with others. Many of us are spending far too much time alone, even with a house full of people, or simply being in an empty house, condo, or apartment. Even before the COVID-19 global pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that loneliness was a health challenge that needed to be taken seriously across the globe. With stay-at-home orders, social distancing, quarantine, and isolation, loneliness can be even more prominent.

Being tethered to technology day and night, even thumbing through your social media feed and occasionally sharing your point of view, is not a buffer against isolation and loneliness. And isolation and loneliness are not the same. Isolation is a self-imposed or other imposed separation from others for your own sake and/or for the sake of others—as in the case of COVID-19. Loneliness is the experience that there are no meaningful connections with others in your life, whether these connections are face-to-face or virtual.

Do not be fooled by having 2,000-plus followers, 3,000 LinkedIn connections, and 50-plus relatives and believing you are immune from isolation and loneliness. You are not. You may have no followers, few LinkedIn connections, and a handful of relatives, yet have one or two strong connections with others. These connections nurture both you and the other persons. To minimize the experience of isolation and loneliness, try these three tips:

  • Get comfortable with being vulnerable and seek out support from others.
  • Broaden your focus beyond your needs, wants, and aspirations and begin to focus on the needs, wants, and aspirations of others.
  • Accept invitations to engage, participate, and play—especially if you are an introvert and not likely to take the initiative to connect with others. In short, be approachable and responsive.

Connect with presence. When you actively seek to incorporate the previous four habits into your daily life (and not just your work life) you will likely experience a heightened level of awareness of the “here and now.” You will likely not be as internally distracted as before. If you’re thirsty, hungry, depleted, sleep deprived, and on edge, you are internally distracted. Your body is saying, “Pay attention to me ... and now.” If you continue to ignore those warning signals or quieten them with caffeine, prescription drugs, or other less-than-constructive coping mechanisms, they do not disappear but fester, and at times even grow and multiply to the point that you “hit the wall.”

The key to not only overcoming isolation and loneliness but also performing with ease, grace, and power, is to challenge yourself to practice these four habits knowing that many benefits will accrue and that you will really be there for others when interacting face-to-face or virtually.

Others know that you are there for them when they experience you listening at three levels:

  • Message level: you understood the content of my message.
  • Emotional level: you felt without judgment what I am experiencing.
  • Value level: you know those things that are important, meaningful, and essential for me and my life.

There are some challenges to connecting when interacting by phone or video conferencing. The emerging field known as telepresence originated by guiding mental health professionals on how to acquire and maintain a “therapeutic alliance” with clients. Several strategies might benefit you, your team, and your clients:

  • Get grounded and centered (minimize internal and external distractions).
  • Be attentive to sound quality, which is more important than video quality.
  • Stand up to boost your energy level, decrease distractions, and change your posture to decrease musculoskeletal strain from sitting crunched over a laptop.
  • Look into the camera lens as if you are looking directly at your team member or client.

When we feel connected with others, we also experience the support of others, which can lessen feelings of isolation and loneliness as well as enable us to meet challenges knowing that others genuinely have our back and we have their back.


Pausing panic during trying times is challenging, particularly when these trying times are marked by novelty, uncertainty, grief, loss, and some fear about our health and well-being. Financial planners are on the front lines in our fight against this global pandemic. Be kind. Be gentle. Be thankful.  

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