When life is in limbo, our routines get disrupted. How can we stay productive and at peace during life's transition times?
Managing the challenges of transition times
We’ve talked about the value of routines, planning ahead to keep life moving smoothly, but what about when you can’t? What do you do when your life is in transition and you can’t really plan ahead, and your routines get thrown out of whack?
What are Some Transition Times?
As discussed in this episode, transition times are those times of our life when we are moving from one stage to another. We know the new is coming, but we're in a holding pattern, waiting, or else we're adjusting to the beginnings of the new. Common transition times include:
- Moving from one home (or office) to another
- The birth of a new baby
- New job
- Empty nest–when the last child leaves home for college (or for good)
Why Do Transition Times Create a Particular Challenge to Productivity?
21st-century life is challenging even just on a day-to-day basis. But transition times come with some features that bring unique challenges to our productivity, both in the sense of getting things checked off the to-do list and in the sense of making a life that matters.
Transition times disrupt your routine.
We all have routines and habits, many of them unconscious, that make our life more efficient. Routines let us act automatically, without having to think or consciously choose, which makes everything faster. During transitions from one phase of life to another we lose the efficiency of the familiar and of being able to do things without thinking. Everything takes longer, so we don’t get as much done as we're used to, which can be frustrating and discouraging.
How can we turn the challenge around? Instead of letting the disruption frustrate and discourage us, we can instead look at it as an opportunity to take a fresh look at our routine. Autopilot can be efficient, but it’s no way to live your life.
When our routines get disrupted, we can either lament the fact that we are not able to be as efficient, we are not getting things done as quickly, or we can say, “All right, here's a chance to look at my routine and ask myself what can I change. Let me take a look at this routine. What can I put in place that would be better or more nurturing?” By doing this, you can make it a positive opportunity — a chance to be purposeful, intentional, deliberate; to be present; and then, on purpose, to streamline our routines.
Transition times disrupt our environment.
Often, the kinds of transition times we’re talking about bring some level of chaos to our physical space and to our lives. You have a new baby, a graduation, and visitors come to stay. Or you’re moving, with boxes everywhere. This sense of chaos can be disorienting and discouraging and can disrupt our ability to be productive.
Take the time to use the skills we’ve talked about on this show to manage that chaos (for instance, check out episode 109, Emergency Stress Protocol, and episode 135, for ideas about what to do when it's “all too much.” Create pockets of calm and order in an otherwise chaotic environment.
Transition times disrupt our emotional equilibrium.
Transition times, when you're leaving one stage of life or home location behind and moving toward another, come with a host of potential emotional disruptions. There may be ups and downs, a cycle of sadness, excitement, anger, or confusion. The emotions can be overwhelming and distracting, which may keep us from staying focused, so we may be accomplishing less in the course of a day simply because we have a harder time keeping our attention on the tasks we are working on.
The emotional roller coaster can be exhausting. There are a lot of studies about what happens in our minds and our bodies during stressful times. The hormones activated when we’re stressed lead to this.
Turn this challenge around by shifting the perspective and intentionally using this as a time to be more aware of your feelings and of the thoughts causing them. Spend regular time sitting with these emotions, feeling them, and then perhaps journaling about them.
This doesn't come naturally to many of us. Our instinct is to avoid negative emotions. The sadness that we're feeling — we don’t want to sit with that. This is part of the way our minds and bodies have evolved over the centuries of human existence, from a time when avoiding pain was necessary for survival. Our brains think pain = danger. We don’t want to feel the negative emotions. We don’t want to experience them. We resist and resent them. (And we do this without even realizing we’re doing it.)
This resistance burns energy and attention that could be spent in better ways. Sitting with emotions, especially negative ones, is a skill that comes with practice. You can practice this skill during these transition times.
Transition times bring uncertainty.
The uncertainty makes it hard to know what to do next. It can throw us off balance. If you don’t know what’s next, it’s hard to plan. There's an anxiety that comes from anticipating change but not yet being able to act. This anxiety an underlying emotion that many of us have during these times of transition.
Awareness is important. Put a name to what you're feeling, and find someone you trust to talk to about your anxiety. If you don’t have someone to talk to, consider journaling to get the thoughts out of your head and onto paper or a screen, where you can look at them.
Along with the anxiety and uncertainty of this phase, you get the feeling that your life is outside your own control. It feels like there is nothing you can do.
Ask yourself, “What can I do? What do I know?” For example, if you’re moving but haven’t yet found the house and don’t know when, perhaps you can’t plan what’s going to go where or when, but you know you’re moving, so start taking steps such as sorting through belongings, donating or disposing of things you won’t take, packing things you’ll take but don’t need (clothes for the season you’re not in, holiday decorations if not to be used before moving). Find the action that you can take, and focus on that.
Think about which parts of your regular routine you can maintain. We can easily feel off-balance, but think about what you can maintain that is regular and familiar to you.
Look at self-care, such as sleep, fitness, and regular mealtimes. Consider setting up bookend routines such as one thing in the morning and one thing in the evening — something that is comforting to you — and set up some routine that feels familiar and reassuring, that helps you find your center again, while everything is in limbo and you’re waiting for the next step. It can be something small such as a cup of coffee in your favorite chair in the morning, listening to a certain type of music in the evening just before bed or a chapter from a book you love.
Transition times are stressful.
Change–even good change–brings stress. Stress hormones, including cortisol, which streams through your body at times of stress, can leave you exhausted and, as one writer puts it, “wired but tired” (“12 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain”). If your body is exposed to too much cortisol for too long, it can lead to health problems, like weight gain, digestive problems, osteoporosis, hormone imbalances, heart disease, and more. (For more info, check out “12 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain”).
If you are chronically stressed, it impacts your brain as well. Cortisol can actually kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus (the part of your brain that stores memories), and can shrink the prefrontal cortex (the part responsible for decision-making and impulse control). (Learn more: “Under Pressure: Your Brain On Conflict”). You become forgetful and exhausted because your brain is in survival mode. Every tool and technique that helps us deal with stress becomes important during these times.
How Can We Stay Productive Anyway?
We can rely on all the things we’ve talked about in the past to manage our time and energy. If nothing else, during these challenging times develop the habit of writing things down. The anxiety and stress that comes with transitions can impair your memory, so give yourself a break, write things down so you don’t have to worry things will be forgotten. You can write down:
- What needs to be done.
- Things you’ve already done. (give yourself a pat on the back).
- Things you’re not going to do for awhile.
- Things you need to remember.
- A list of little rewards and pleasures you can look forward to.
- People who can help!
More ideas for staying productive:
- Break projects into small tasks, and chip away at them, a little at a time.
- Ask for help, both in actually doing the things that need to be done and in just supporting you through the challenging time — talk to someone!
- Create pockets of order where you can. E.g., if you’re moving or just had a baby or whatever… and the house is in chaos, can you find one space that you can make tidy and pleasant?
- Take care of yourself physically: eat well, get plenty of water, sleep, get some exercise, and get outside if you can.
- Manage your mind and remind yourself that a transition time is, by definition, temporary. It won’t last forever.
- Focus on the positive.
If you look for the good, you’ll find it.”
- Give yourself some grace. Recognize that even good transitions can be hard.
Remember that transition times can be transformative as we move into the next phase of our lives.
What do you think?
What did I miss? How else do transition times affect us, and what can we do about it? How have you managed the transition times in your life? Do you have any tips you could share with the rest of us about how we can stay productive during those in-between times? Share your questions and ideas in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Links:
- “Handling Transitions Without Losing Your Productivity (Or Your Sanity)”
- “How to Survive Transition Time”
- “Stress: Your Brain and Body”
- “What Happens in Your Brain When You’re Stressed”
- “Under Pressure: Your Brain On Conflict”
- “How Stress Changes the Brain”
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