You ever get the feeling something’s off? Like the things that used to bring you satisfaction just aren’t doing it for you anymore? I have. The first time I felt it, I was a work-at-home mom with school-age kids and a half-time gig as a freelance writer. I was making good money and had a network of clients who trusted me, but I was bored. I needed a fresh start.
With her friends dispersing to colleges across the country, I thought, my husband and I could actually pull up stakes and go somewhere new. So after talking it over, we decided to sell our house and move across the country to a whole ‘nother state.
There were other reasons, too. My husband had left his job as artistic director at Theatre Cedar Rapids to start his own digital art business. And I wanted to be closer to where decisions were being made in my company, which was under new management. Our daughter’s choice of Arizona State University for college sealed the deal: Arizona.
So we loaded what we could fit into one big truck and drove 1,500 miles to Scottsdale, Ariz. It was November and, winter-weary Midwesterner that I was, it felt like a chill wind nipped at our heels as we drove out of town.
3 steps to a fuller, more satisfying life
One thing’s for sure: change is as constant as death and taxes. The trick is to know when it’s your turn, then have the courage to set a new course. Here are some pointers.
Do a system check.
Feel the feels.
Envision the life you want to lead.
Now let’s talk about each of these steps one by one.
1. Do a system check
You can’t fix something you don’t know is broken, so the first step is to decide if something’s out of whack. Here are a few signs it’s time for a change:
- You turn down new opportunities out of fear.
- You feel numb or often not well.
- You start lying to yourself and others.
- It feels like you’re banging your head against a wall.
- You find it hard to get out of bed in the morning.
Think about the last time an opportunity presented itself — a friend offered you free tickets to an event or a colleague asked if you’d help with a project she was stoked about. What did you say? More importantly, why? Be honest. Did you turn down those tickets because you really had a conflict, or did it seem like too much trouble to drive from work to the theater on a Tuesday night?
2. Feel the feels
This is the part of starting fresh many of us would rather skip: actually letting that feeling of wrongness wash over us. It’s so much easier and less uncomfortable to jump directly to Step 3.
But here’s the thing: we all need to have our emotions recognized as important. Not just by others, by our very own selves. This requires actually admitting three things:
- What happened.
- How it felt.
- That it sucked.
Depending on the level of disappointment or damage, it might take days, weeks or months of carrying that emotion around before the edges begin to soften and it doesn’t hurt so much. As Emma Johnson writes in her post, “How to Know When It’s Time to Change,” in order to move on you must:
- Embrace the anger, fatigue, resentment or fear that plagues you. There are no wrong emotions.
- Identify exactly what is wrong. Acknowledge that you are the common denominator.
- Let go of ideas about how your relationship, job and lifestyle should be. Accept how it is.
To do this, you have to look straight at whatever’s bothering you. Yes, it might be painful — who wants to admit their job is no longer fulfilling or their marriage has run its course? Ugh. Who wants to remember unhappy events? But you have to do it. Then give yourself time to feel afraid, mad, abandoned, sad — whatever. Because you will wake up one day ready to move forward.
3. Envision the life you want to lead
The final step in making a fresh start? Figuring out what to change. After all, you might easily fix what’s bothering you with small changes in your daily routine. Or it could require something more — leaving a relationship, finding a new roommate, or taking a pay cut for more meaningful work.
Borrow from business
Corporations use a process called “envisioning” to identify new opportunities and brainstorm new products and services. The problem, of course, is that all of us are so rooted in what is, we can’t see what could be. In “4 Strategic Thinking Exercises to Envision Future Strategy,” Mike Brown uses the example of electric cars to illustrate this universal human tendency.
Those of us who’ve been stopping at gas stations all our lives, says Mike, assume that there will need to be EV charging stations on every corner, just as there are currently gas stations on every corner. But the reality is, electric cars take longer to “refuel” than gas-powered ones, so charging stations will need to be located near places where we spend several hours — shopping malls or movie theaters, for example. Not on every corner.
Adapting the model for personal use
If we’re biased by the present reality while dreaming up new products, we’re even more biased in our personal lives. We get comfortable with our routines and relationships and are often unwilling to admit there’s anything lacking. We simply can’t envision a different, happier, more hopeful future.
Some practical tips
Many people find that stepping away from the distractions of their day-to-day lives helps open their minds to a future they haven’t yet imagined. You might try:
Find a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted. Take a comfortable seat (these are great), and close your eyes. Focus on breathing slowly in and out through your nose. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back. Then silently listen for an answer to, “What do I really want?” This works to find direction in personal areas, as well as professional ones. Read this article for more ideas on what to ask.
MJ, my friend of many years, finds it easier to meditate when in motion. If you’re like her, pick an activity — hiking, trail riding, kayaking — that makes you feel calm and removed from the hustle and bustle. My husband and I watched the moon rise from the 2,300-foot Dobbins Lookout in Phoenix a few nights ago. Watching the lights of America’s fifth-most populous city wink on makes my mind float free of worries and to-dos. A perfect spot to find direction.
Paying closer attention
You’re actually full of clues about what’s not working and what you want to do next. It’s just that most of us don’t listen to ourselves. Notice (or ask your partner or friend to notice) when you get most excited about a cause, project or idea. This is a sign that you’re passionate about whatever you’re talking about. When you see someone else get flushed and excited in conversation, tell them to pursue this, as it’s obviously a passion of theirs.
Going back to nature
If meditation or cycling can’t put you in touch with your true feelings, try a wilderness adventure. Sarah Grace Nadler, a licensed Mental Health Counselor and adventure therapist in St. Petersburg, Fla., says that human development peaks during moments of physical challenge and meaningful experience. If you have the time and money, try an adventure trip like Outward Bound for Adults. Testing your physical limits can have a freeing effect on your emotions and willingness to take risks.
Ideas for various stages
As in all things, the change strategy that works for one probably won’t work for everyone. As we move through life, our ability to make significant lifestyle changes ebbs and flows. Here are some ideas for various groups looking to start fresh.
Recent college grads
According to the American Psychological Association, millennials are the most stressed-out generation in history. My children are millennials, and they both suffer from stress.
Needless to say, stress makes it hard to tune into your inner voice and actually hear your own wants and dreams. In addition to meditation, you could:
- Get out of your own head by volunteering through VolunteerMatch, Idealist or Points of Light’s HandsOn Network.
- Go abroad to teach or volunteer. Perspective is a powerful thing.
- Enroll in Outward Bound’s 30-day Pathfinder program for help finding your purpose.
Single / first-time parents
Parenting makes it very easy to focus on the demands of your child, putting your own needs on the back burner. It’s even harder for single parents, since there’s no built-in “other” to hand the baby off to. Some tips for creating space to make plans for change:
- Create a support network that frees you to spend time doing something other than parenting — say, taking a class or volunteering.
- Assess your interests and strengths by taking the Strong Interest Inventory, Self-Directed Search, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Career Ability Placement Survey.
- Find one thing that nurtures you and has nothing to do with parenting — a hobby, a sport — and commit to it.
Laid-off or dissatisfied professionals
As bad as it feels, this is an opportunity to move toward a better place than the one you’re in (or just left). The good news? U.S. job openings just hit an all-time high. Here are some ideas on how to start fresh, taken from “Work Reimagined: Uncover Your Calling” by Richard J. Leider and David Shapiro:
- Use the authors’ calling card exercise, whereby you review 52 “natural preferences” or strengths and narrow them down to your top five, then one.
- To pinpoint your passions, review your calendar and bank accounts to see how you spend your time and money.
- Answer two questions: If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently? What would you do if you found out you had just one year to live?
Although American seniors continue to work at the highest rate in 55 years (many into their 70s), the search for meaning and purpose is as relevant for them as for any age group.
Here are some tips to start fresh:
- Throw out the title you’ve been using to introduce yourself — marketing executive, finance pro — and replace it with something that fits who you want to be (World traveller? Political blogger? Novelist?).
- Join all the groups you never had time for. Quit the ones you went to out of obligation.
- Adopt the designer’s mindset toward trial and error described by author Ayse Birsel in her book, “Design the Life You Love.”
During the two years I spent teaching English in Thailand after college, I met a ragtag bunch of English speakers from around the world who all happened to be living in Bangkok. Australia, the U.K., India, New Zealand, Canada — among them were a surprising number of retirees and widows. I remember thinking at the time, “I’m going to file this for future reference in case I find myself in the same place one day.”
Our biggest enemy? Inertia.
For some, change is thrust upon them. A marriage dissolves, perhaps, or your company closes and you find yourself unemployed. Or maybe your house floods and the need for action is immediate and obvious (chop, chop! Get that 13 inches of sludge out of the front room!). For others, the dissatisfaction that signals a need for change sneaks up on them.
Some of us can actually go for years without admitting something’s wrong. We are creatures of habit, and many of us put our heads down and continue doing the things that have always worked in the past. We drive the same routes to work, eat at the same crappy food trucks for lunch — long after we realize we’re not having much fun anymore. According to Bernadette Logue of The Daily Positive:
“The problem many people have is that they linger too long in situations when change is exactly what is needed … preferring to stay with what is familiar.”
Maybe this reluctance to take the interstate to work instead of the slower side street is coded deep within our reptilian brains. Maybe it served to keep us from taking life-threatening risks in the wooly world of prehistoric cave life. Who knows? What I do know is that it gets in the way when the winds of change begin to blow.
Create space for a fresh start
Marsha Nieland, my Anusara yoga instructor of many years, says it’s not enough to make up your mind that you want change. You also need to create space for change to happen.
So clean out your closet. Get rid of the things you’ve never liked and aren’t sure why you kept. Move your desk closer to the window. Then use these tips to start envisioning the life you were born to live.
Also published on Medium.