How do I know when it’s time to make a change?
Lots of us are wondering this. It’s no surprise.
Before I took a break from writing this newsletter, I asked readers about what topics they’d like me to address when I returned. I received a handful of responses, almost all of them a version of the same question: How do I know when it’s time to make a big change?
I received that question from a woman in New York, who is unhappy in her job and contemplating doing something different. Another reader wrote that she is considering a significant personal shift in her life, but isn’t sure where to start. And I heard from someone feeling stuck in multiple ways who confided in me that, “I feel like I am slowly dying inside. I have one precious life and I feel I am not honoring it.”
As surprising as it was to receive the same question from multiple people, the question itself wasn’t unexpected. Our most difficult times often bring clarity. They shock us into remembering that, as that last reader noted, we have just one precious life and it’s on us to decide how we want to live it.
As of today—August 24, 2021—it has been 531 days since the COVID-19 pandemic began. By this point, our hopes for a more carefree summer, thanks to vaccinations, have been all but dashed. The Delta variant is spreading like wildfire across the U.S., especially in the South, and COVID cases and deaths are on the rise once more.
In many ways, it feels like we’re forced to take several steps back. We’re once again cancelling plans; once again weighing the safety of certain situations; once again worrying about loved ones, especially those who are more vulnerable; once again being extra-vigilant about remembering masks and sanitizer and the distance we keep from others.
It’s exhausting. And it’s no wonder that we’re questioning whether there’s a better life out there.
For many of us, the pandemic has resulted in a lot of time to think. It’s given us time to experiment with new ways of living—with things like working from home, tightening our social circles, taking on new hobbies, and doing less. The people who wrote to me have all have had time to dabble in new things, mull over their life decisions, and consider making big changes. But as Herminia Ibarra recently wrote in Harvard Business Review, thinking about change is just the first step.
“That’s a good start,” shared Ibarra. “But if there is one thing I have learned from decades of studying successful career change, it’s that thinking on its own is far from sufficient. We rarely think our way into a new way of acting. Rather, we act our way into new ways of thinking—and being.”
So, how do we move from thinking to doing? And how do we know in the first place whether a change from the norm is what we need?
I can only speak from my personal experience, from watching friends make big life changes, and from the anecdotal experience of mentoring dozens and dozens of journalists over the years, but I’ve found—time and again—that if you’re asking whether you should make a major life change then, yes, it’s probably time for a change.
If you are unhappy in a relationship and have tried what it takes to improve things, it’s probably time to move on. If you’re miserable in your workplace and have run out of options to make things better, it’s likely time to look for a new job. If you’re depressed by your current living situation, one that can’t be fixed by a coat of fresh paint, it’s possibly time to move.
That’s not to say that big life changes are ever easy—or always possible. There are exceptions, of course. You can’t opt-out of being a parent. Some relationships and situations deserve much more time and effort for improvement before moving on. And sometimes, such as in the aftermath of a sudden death, it’s best to give yourself space to grieve before making a rash decision.
After Jamie died, I waited 11 months before quitting my full-time job and becoming a freelancer. I waited three years to try to get pregnant. And it took me more than four years to sell my Florida house and move back to Georgia.
Becoming a freelancer, having a baby, and returning to Atlanta were all things that I was fairly certain I wanted to do when confronted with how maddeningly short life can be. For me, the catalyst to make big life changes was obvious: Jamie died, and everything in my life was suddenly different. My timeline was prescribed, too; mental health experts suggest waiting six months to a year after the death of a loved one before making any big and permanent changes.
But for many of us, the catalyst and timeline for change might not be as clear. Instead, we feel a vague and aggravating sense of unease, the idea that something is wrong, but no clue as to what alternative might be right. This, I think, is the point where those readers might be. “I don't know where to start, where to look,” wrote one reader, who works in finance. “I feel paralyzed. I don't know what my ‘gift’ to the world is, what I am meant to do.”
Last year gave us more time to think, while also raising some major existential and moral issues. Both the pandemic and the widespread Black Lives Matter protests exposed how many of our systems are broken. They made us realize, in a host of uncomfortable and necessary ways, how unsafe and unstable the world can be. They prompted many of us to wonder if we could or should be doing something more meaningful with our lives.
These are big topics to ponder. And, like Ibarra noted, there’s a real danger in overthinking them and never taking any real action.
One of my favorite tricks for transitioning from thinking to doing is to give myself a deadline. I learned this tip from my friend and former coworker, Kristen Hare, who patiently listened to me rattle through a variety of work complaints, well before Jamie died.
I’d gripe about this and that, versions of the same things I complained about the week before, and then would ask Kristen what I should do. “Every time I find myself unhappy but unsure about making a big life change, I make a date with myself,” she’d tell me.
Kristen explained that she would pick a random date—usually three or six months from her current moment of unhappiness—and block off time on her calendar for reflection. During that date in the future, she makes a note to check in with herself. Am I still as unhappy as I was six months ago? If the answer is yes, then it’s time to start taking action towards a big shift. If it’s no, then Kristen tries to identify what changed to make the situation better.
I have recommended this tip to countless people over the years. I also recommend making the most of the time between the moment of unhappiness and the date in the future. It’s an ideal period to volunteer for a project at work and learn some new skills, or to shake things up by trying out a new weekend routine with your significant other. Instead of counting down the days until your self-imposed moment of reckoning, you can use this in-between stage to try out some new approaches and mindsets.
And then, when that date comes, you make a choice. You decide whether to leave your job or dump your partner or sell your house or have a baby. You stop wondering and you start doing.
It’s a powerful moment, one that many of us have avoided out of fear. Instead of being stuck in limbo between old and new, that self-imposed date gives us an opportunity to choose something different. Even if your choice is to stay put, it’s different, because you’ve now chosen to be there.
There’s no right or wrong. What’s important is that you make a choice. And I can’t think of a better time than now—well, maybe six months from now—to stop thinking and start doing.
p.s. Are you debating making a big change in your life? Tell me about it! What are you thinking about? What, if anything, has kept you from taking action? Share your story by replying to this email, leaving a comment, or sending me a message. I’ll compile responses in Friday’s newsletter.
As always, I will credit readers by first name only (or keep them anonymous, if preferred). Friday newsletters are only accessible to paying subscribers—a truly lovely, thoughtful, and empathetic community.
My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who has made several small changes in her life over the past few months. It feels good. Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash.
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