Noticing transitions

Illustration of a figure running

It’s almost nine o clock, and I’ve been trying to get one of the kids to bed for over an hour after spending the last two running bath and book duty. I narrowly escape falling asleep in their bed but eventually make it out and down the stairs, only to run into a sea of dirty dishes calling. I’m annoyed that I can’t now do, you know, MY THINGS, and say something less than perfect and frankly not very loving to my wife. It takes a while, but eventually the air is cleared, and things resume a desirable shape. A lingering feeling remains though, that this is a pattern that I repeat all too often.

What happened? I was enjoying the time with the kids. I actually enjoy laying bed with them and running through my playlist of bedtime songs or playing a news reporter reporting a news story for the day. The mood was blissful just a moment ago. But something happens in between being a Dad and the next thing I do as a husband or maybe as a friend or one of the many other roles that I play.

I’ve been noticing transitions more lately. They’re hard to get right. The transition between a creative project and tedious admin. The transition between work time and personal time. Between being with a romantic partner and with friends, being alone and being with others. We’re in a big transition currently (referring of course to the whole human race coming off quarantine), and it’s struck me how much of our lives are determined by how we manage transitions. Of course, it’s not just the big transitions that matter, it’s the small ones that really add up to making the difference in how we experience our days.


the process of changing, or a change from one form or condition to another

It’s just after six and I have a few more things to tie off at work but they can wait until the next morning. After banging on problem-solving all day my brain feels like it’s been paddling hard upstream all day and all I can think about is not doing anything and enjoying one of those cold liquids in the fridge 6 feet behind me. I log off and head out of the office into the next room, only to jump into another stream (the roaring family river) running just as fast, and quickly need to switch gears – there’s a Frozen-themed horse farm being attacked by transformers for crying out loud! My mind doesn’t respond quite as quickly as it should though, drifting back to the problem I was just working on again and again, and it takes me a long time to be present. Self-consciousness and doubt fill in the gaps in the meantime. Eventually, I am able to get in the flow, but it feels like I’ve drifted downstream farther than I had too.

Hour-by-hour transitions are where our habits, good or bad, are made. They are where our roles in life, and how we want to show up, are realized or not. Transitions are where our resistance to discomfort makes itself known. It’s hard to leave one thing undun or to accept we can’t do what we thought we were going to do.

I struggle mightily with transitions and have been trying to get better at them. There is no shortage of advice out there, and it just might work for you:

  • Use a verbal or physical cue (like a timer, or a phrase “Shut down”) to signal to your mind that it’s time to transition
  • Take a minute to write a list and look at your calendar
  • Prompt yourself with a question before starting the next thing, like “is this going to get me what I want” (from or the focusing question from The One Thing
  • Slow down and take a minute to pause/do a short meditation in between activities
  • Speed up and go into the next activity with the same intensity that you had in the previous activity
  • Take inventory of what you have complete control over and what you don’t

And on and on…

Two things stick out as working well for me in managing transitions better.

The first is physical activity. Doing something physical before, or during, a transition is almost always a good way to get out of my head and feel better, whether that’s wrestling with the kids, going on a bike ride, or just doing 10 minutes of exercise. My neighbor several years ago said that this is why he rode a motorcycle to work and back. The physicality of the riding was stimulating, and not draining like a car journey can be. I know people who run or bike to work as well and am surprised that it’s taken me this long to realize the second-order of benefit for these people aside from avoiding traffic. Being physical makes you present.

The second, and probably the most important thing, is simply noticing when I’m transitioning. I can’t make any progress in being better unless I do this part well. Notice when I’m moving to another area of the house, notice how I’m feeling, notice what is happening with those around me. Be aware of the pace. Do I feel rushed and disorganized or ready and anxious to move faster?

The question of “what is important for me to be doing and how do I want to show up” is what I want to have an answer for during a transition, but I can’t do that without being present and noticing. It’s in noticing that you can give yourself a chance to transition well.

“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become reality.”

Earl Nightingale

I’m getting better at it with practice. It helps to write out my activities each day, look back and think about how I did, use physical queues like my office door sign, use natural transitions, do mini-meditations, and ultimately try to not worry about it too much if I mess up.

Now I have to go as there’s a stuffed animal tea party being attacked by super villains in the next room that needs my attention. Time to transition!

5 responses

  1. Interesting topic, transitions are something that has always been difficult for me too, especially transitioning from work to home life. You’ve put a lot more thought into this than I have, I’ll consider trying a couple of techniques you mention.

    1. Thanks Alex. It’s only been recently on my mind, but the thing about people building in a motorcycle ride/run in between work and home is something that is too often overlooked!

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