Planning is pretty fun. You get to draw charts, schedule things, and anticipate all the benefits and achievements. Even planning for obstacles and difficulties has a certain appeal, because at this point it’s all theory. Theoretical challenges are immensely more comfortable and enjoyable than the real, prickly, bigger-than-anticipated challenges that you actually encounter beyond the planning stage.
But even tackling those big, hairy challenge monsters is exciting and, if nothing else, beneficial. The difficulty itself may not be enjoyable, but you know that by conquering it, you’ll end up on the other side: victorious! Stronger! And with whatever perks come from having conquered this particular challenge.
Transitions, though, are a no-man’s land. Transition is the in-between, the wilderness of waiting, the forest of fatigue. In transition, you’re past the planning stage but not yet free to tackle the obstacles and make progress. You’re just hanging in mid-air waiting for something to happen, waiting, holding, paused. In a transition stage, all you can do is anticipate.
Transitions and Anxiety
Change is stressful, even if the change itself is a positive one for you. When you’re in the midst of anticipation without the ability to take action, you can quickly find yourself overcome with anxiety.
“If you’re anxious, you find it difficult to talk yourself out of this foreboding; you become trapped in an endless loop of what-ifs,” says Robin Marantz Henig, discussing the anxious mind for The New York Times Magazine.
That’s exactly what makes a transition so stressful: you’re unable to act, you’re anticipating change, and the only thing you can do is think about all the possibilities. Given our human tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive, it’s no wonder that our minds often fill with the worst possibilities rather than the best ones.
Depending on what type of transition you’re in, you might be facing chaos in your physical environment as well. If you’re getting ready to move, for example, your home might be a landscape of moving boxes and piles to be sorted; having your physical environment disintegrate while your mental anxieties accumulate is a deadly mix. When you’re stressed and anxious, you want the comfort of familiarity. Having your physical environment disrupted rips that comfort away and adds to the mental stress.
To handle transitions well, then, doesn’t just mean we need to continue on as normal. Transitions require a little more from us. We need to reduce our anxiety and cope with the chaos while we seek to maintain some level of normality, productivity, and, we hope, sanity.
Reduce the Anxiety
To reduce transition-induced anxiety, start first by acknowledging that the cause of the anxiety is real, valid, and out of your control. Although transitions vary in duration, nature, and cause, generally the most disturbing element of a transition is that it’s not ours to control. For one reason or another, we’re waiting: on something to happen, on someone to follow through, on a certain time, on documents to be signed, on the deal to close, on a solid answer, on finances, on some factor that we can’t personally control.
We might try to reduce anxiety by pretending it’s not real or simply acting as if it’s silly to be anxious. It’s far better, however, to acknowledge that your anxiety is real than to ignore it. Talking about your anxiety can help relieve it. Find a friend who’s willing to listen, and share what’s on your mind, no matter how silly you think it sounds.
In fact, hearing how silly or unfounded some of your anxieties are can help you let go of them. If talking to a person isn’t possible, journaling is a good substitute. Keeping a “thought diary” can help you identify what you’re actually worried about and assess if it’s realistic or not.
Takeaway: Anxious thoughts are most powerful when they stay trapped in your mind. Getting them out with a counselor, a trusted friend, or in a journal can help you let go of some of the emotion attached to your anxieties. It can also help you to assess your anxieties a little more objectively and, in doing so, release some of that worry.
Cope with the Chaos
Transitions might disrupt your physical living space, your work environment, your family life, your daily routines, or any of the other markers you use to maintain “normal” in your life. That’s part of why transitions are so disturbing to us: when we’re waiting on change, we can’t yet start adjusting to it and creating a new normal. We’re just in limbo, knowing that a change is coming but unable to adapt and make it our own. We feel out of control as we see the chaos of transition eating away at what feels comfortable and normal, and that feeling only escalates when we anticipate bigger changes coming in the future.
A key part of coping with the chaos of transition, then, is to find small but real ways to maintain control over our lives. Sticking with your daily routines, even if in a reduced or tweaked way, can help you hold onto control of your life in the midst of transition. If you have a morning or evening routine, an exercise routine, or another daily practice, stick with it. It’s okay if you just go through the motions. It’s okay if it feels strange and pointless. Going through the motions is the point: walking through a familiar routine helps ground you when other parts of your life are flying off into the unknown.
Another key way to cope with transition is to hold onto the measures of self-discipline you’ve established in your life. It can be tempting to binge on eating, sleeping in, skipping your work-out, or staying up too late when your life is in transition. But those excesses can actually make you feel even worse; sticking to your limits helps you maintain a sense of identity, of autonomy, and of the power of your own will.
Takeaway: When the chaos of transition makes your life feel out of control, look for small, real ways to reclaim some control over yourself, your life, and your choices. Even simple acts of self-discipline, like exercising or saying no to sweets, can remind you that you have power over your own life and future.
Maintain Normal Productivity
Depending on the transition you’re in, you may not be able to maintain your normal levels of productivity. However, you can maintain some level of productivity, and that will help you hold on to your sense of normal and keep your daily life somewhat calm and focused.
The first step is to identify what you can do and what you can’t do during your transition. If your work is in the midst of restructuring, for example, you may not be able to get the funding for that new project released. Don’t frustrate yourself trying to do the impossible. Instead, look at what you can do: can you wrap up old projects? Finalize documentation? Follow up with customers? Organize and improve your workflow?
Focus on making recognizable progress; set small goals that you can achieve in an hour, an afternoon, or a day. Once you’ve reached one goal, give yourself a small reward, then set and work toward another goal. A key to staying productive under stress is seeing your work and your current situation as a challenge rather than a threat. When you gamify your productivity with short-term goals and immediate rewards, it’s easier to see each day as a new challenge with possible wins ahead, rather than as a threat with potential pain or discomfort waiting.
Takeaway: During transitions, don’t worry about normal productivity. Instead, pursue possible productivity. Trying to do work as usual when nothing is usual can simply frustrate you. Focus on small wins, adjusting your goals as needed to make realistic progress each day.
Do you have any tips or strategies for how to stay calm, handle the chaos, and be productive in the midst of transitions?