3 Strategies For Managing Life's Many Big (And Small) Transitions

It's hard to say goodbye to something familiar and comforting--be it a computer, schedule, or home--for something new. Use these tips to make change happen more happily.

You don’t want to be living in my house this week. (And what I mean by that is I don’t want to be living in my house this week.)

After three months of summer vacation, this is the week when my 12-year-old twins, Jacob and Sophie, finally went back to school.

Now, don’t get me wrong: They actually enjoy school. They love their friends, they have good relationships with their teachers, and they like learning. It’s not the school, per se, that’s the problem in our house this week. It’s the going back to school. It’s the transition between summer freedom and school year rules. It’s the transition between sleeping in and waking up in the dark. It’s the transition that causes short tempers, teary pleas, and bleary eyes. And while this particular back-to-school transition is temporary, facing transitions in work and life is permanent.

The great writer Isaac Asimov once remarked: “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” Of course, we all know that life itself is filled with ongoing transitions, and we need to manage multiple transitions, often on a daily basis. As a professional coach, I work with managers who need to manage the transitional phase between one employee leaving and hiring the next one. I help organizations that need to manage the transition between a senior leader exiting the company and the next one coming in to make his or her new vision known. And on an individual level, I work with people who need to manage the transitions between an old habit or behavior and the new one they are trying to adopt, the job they had and the next one they are hoping to get, or the old technology or process they had been using and the new one they have been asked to adopt.

I have found that, for many, the anxiety associated with having to say goodbye to something that they had already gotten used to and had learned to love (or live with) is one challenge in managing transitions. The anxiety associated with not knowing what the new state will look or feel like is another challenge. A third challenge is often the anticipatory anxiety that leads us to believe that what’s on the other side of the transition is something we won’t like, or won’t like us back.

I’m not just a coach--I’m also a client. I recently transitioned from being a decades-long PC owner to a Mac owner. I spent months (read: two years) gathering information from professionals, asking friends and family, reading articles, quizzing “geniuses” at the bar. I convinced myself that I would never be able to learn a new system, and also convinced myself that, of course, I could learn a new system. I walked into the Apple store a dozen times determined to buy a Mac--and walked out 11 times empty-handed. What made the 12th time different? I realized that I would likely be happy with a new PC or be happy with a Mac, but that either way, I would have to experience a transitional phase where I might feel less than happy for a period of time.

You know what? I survived my transitional phase. There will be more transitions to come. But for right now, I’m feeling pretty awesome about typing this article on my new Mac.

Being in limbo can feel like purgatory, but it doesn’t have to. Here are three strategies of managing transitions in work and life:

1. Admit that you’re in a transition.

One of the surest ways to make your transition harder is to avoid acknowledging that you’re in one. A transition is defined as a “passage from one form, state, style, or place to another.” By naming that you’re in a transition, you actually make it a “state” that you’re in rather than being “neither here nor there.” By naming that you are in a transition, you are likely to be kinder and gentler with yourself, be open to the fact that “not knowing” what’s ahead is a natural part of this state, and also attract other people who are in transition or who have made a similar transition who can support you.

2. Learn from previous positive transitions.

The bad news may be that you’re in a transition. The good news is you have a lot of experience in making transitions. In fact, you’re probably a pro! Think about previous transitions you’ve managed successfully. What behaviors did you engage in that made it work? What behaviors did the people around you engage in? What did you avoid doing? Who did you choose to be around or not be around? What did you most value about yourself during that transition that you can bring to the forefront here? (What if you have no positive transitional experiences? Then tap into what you’ve done in the past that didn’t work, and plan to do the opposite.)

3. Ask for what you need (and let people know what you don’t need.)

When I was moving from PC to Mac, I didn’t need to hear from lifelong Mac users about how fantastic their computer was. I needed to hear from people who had successfully made the transition that I was about to make. I didn’t need anyone to point out that this transition seemed to be taking me longer than it should. I didn’t need my kids to tell me to please hurry up and get comfortable with my new computer (so that they could finally have my old PC, which would replace my old-old PC). I needed support and instruction from others, as well as acknowledgement and patience from others and myself.

This first week of school will be behind us shortly, and another transition will have been successfully managed. But I know that many more transitions lie ahead (remember, I have two “tweens”) to be navigated with patience, strategy and, hopefully, a little bit of humor.

[Image: Flickr user Andrés Nieto Porras]

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1 Comments

  • Lisa C.

    Fantastic as always.  I once read a great book, Managing Transitions by William Bridges.  It boiled down to this:  Change is situational -- like a light switch.  Monday PC.  Tuesday Mac.  January the factory is open, February 1 it is closed.  TRANSITION is psychological, and is messy, emotional, takes time, isn't always rational, etc.  As we manage our own transitions -- and lead our teams and organizations through change processes -- it's important to recognize the difference.  The more we take care of the transition part, the easier (and more effective) the change part will be.