Just start

We talk a lot about the perils of procrastination and how important it is to begin wherever you are. Whether you’re aiming for that first 5k run, filling out your tax return or starting a business, there’s a lot of benefits sometimes in seizing the moment and making a start. 

When the task ahead seems overwhelming, baby steps and not giant leaps are what we should aim for. You may be running slowly but you’re still lapping everyone else on the sofa right? 

But what if our desire to escape the discomfort of not doing by taking action, any action at all, actually stops us from achieving real transformational change and growth?

Sitting with discomfort

It’s a very human thing to dislike uncertainty. We keep ourselves busy to avoid uncertainty and the disruptive thoughts and questions that creep in, during quiet moments. Our thoughts are sometimes trying to tell us that something isn’t right, that we need to change.  Change, however, can be uncomfortable and difficult and so we avoid it. We can go to great lengths to distract ourselves from what we know needs to change, by putting energy into projects or relationships, even when they are no longer serving us. 

Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges was first published in 1980. Bridges takes his reader through a road map of the transition process that every individual will go through in their lives. 

We might see change as something to get through and leave behind as quickly as possible. Bridges argues that transition is a process with distinct phases that we will journey through constantly and repeatedly in our lives and careers. 

What is different about this book is that it acknowledges that change and transitions are necessarily painful and confusing. Rather than encouraging us to find strategies to rise above or outrun the confusion and hurry on to the next stage, we are encouraged to embrace this time, seeing it as a natural ending and the start of a new phase in life.

Phases of transition

Bridges takes the reader through the three phases of any transition:

 – The Ending. Every transition begins with one. Too often we confuse them with finality. A fresh way to think about endings is key to how we can begin anew.

– The Neutral Zone: A time of reorientation. How can we make the most of it?

– The New Beginning: A successful new beginning requires an understanding of the external signs and inner signals that point the way to the future.

I thought this little book could give me an interesting perspective on change and transitions and how these impact individuals. My background is in internal communication and I’m interested in ways that good communication can facilitate organisational change.

What I didn’t expect was that it would have so much relevance to where I find myself now.

Change in life and career

My children are fast approaching the end of their school days. I have spent the last 17 years trying to work out how to juggle a career with being a mother to them.  I don’t know a single woman with children who finds this easy. Perhaps some find it easier than others and everyone’s experience is different. The only way I could make work work for me, was to constantly compromise, sometimes in favour of my career and other times in favour of the family, but it was always a compromise. 

In the next four years, both children will leave school and embark on one of the first of many transitions into adulthood and independence. I’m anticipating and readying myself for the transition that this will inevitably spark for me. What will the next 10 years of my career and life look like when there will be, hopefully, fewer calls on me to make compromises? 

How do I want to spend this time and what are my priorities? How can I continue to make a meaningful contribution to society and my family while spending more time attending to my own needs?

Asking big questions

These are big questions and there isn’t a day that goes by at the moment where I don’t find myself ruminating on them.

“What do I want, but no, what do I really want? Really? And what else?”

I dislike change, or at least I need time to work up to it and embrace it. I’ve come to accept this as a feature of my sensitive nature. Typically I rush through the discomfort and discombobulation of the ending, to arrive at my new beginning, preferably skipping out the neutral zone altogether.

With the help of Bridges’ little book, I can see that this may have led me to miss out on past opportunities for real transformative growth in my life. 

The neutral zone

The neutral zone is a deceptively powerful place to be if we can accept the inevitable discomfort that comes with it.

The neutral zone offers time to reorientate and reflect, to shake off old ideas about ourselves and old familiar patterns. If we don’t give ourselves this time, we risk returning to old patterns. Like pulling on a well-worn pair of jeans, there’s comfort in familiarity.

In Michael Bungay Stanier’s foreword to Transitions, he quotes a metaphor that as a swimmer, I find appealing. “When you’re swimming underwater the longer you can hold your breath, the more interesting a place you’ll eventually pop up”.

As I approach this next phase, I’m willing myself to linger for a while in the neutral zone. It will be uncomfortable at times but maybe, just maybe, if I can resist the urge to rush through it, I’ll pop up in an unexpectedly interesting place.

Melissa McConnell

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