Have you been on the fence about changing up your life? You know you need to be happier in the day-to-day—whether that’s in the arena of relationship, work, or anything else—but somehow you feel stymied or undone whenever you actually start thinking about a plan of action. Then you fall into the habit of berating yourself for procrastinating or letting life pass you by and that makes you feel even more unhappy and stuck.
There are many studies on motivation and goal-setting which can help us navigate those stuck-on-the-fence moments in life, and here are some tips drawn from that body of research and explored in my book Quitting—Why We Fear it and Why We Shouldn’t—in Life, Love, and Work.
- Get a bead on what’s holding you in place
Humans are loss-averse, as the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed, and tend to prefer avoiding loss at all costs, even when there’s a possible gain and a quantifiable risk. So begin by asking yourself whether it’s the uncertainty of the future that’s keeping you on the hamster wheel. You know the relationship or job isn’t the right fit but do you end up telling yourself that the next one could be even worse? If so, think about why you’re feeling so disempowered and fearful of loss.
Or are you afraid of making a mistake? People who grow up with a very critical or unsupportive parent (or parents) often see the main challenge of life as avoiding mistakes or failures; they tend to stay put and lower their sights because their fear of failure has a louder voice than the one that says “Go for it! You might be so much happier.” Is this you? If it is, you need to start thinking hard about what you want and how your behaviors are getting in the way.
- Stop thinking about what you’ve invested in where you are
This is such a common way of looking at things—more evidence of how we’re much more motivated by the specter of loss than the possibility of gain—that it has a name: the sunk-cost fallacy. You think about leaving and all that comes into your head is the time, energy, or even money you’ve put in and you suddenly begin to think that if you leave and move on, all of that investment will be lost. Of course, that investment is gone and can’t be retrieved whether you stay or go so that’s exactly why this train of thought is fallacious. But it stops many people dead in their tracks. So instead of visualizing where they could find themselves in two years if they made a move, they focus instead on the five or ten years they’ve put in. It basically glues you to the spot so if this is how you’re thinking, stop.
- Set goals and make a plan
Research shows that simply thinking about goals isn’t nearly effective as sitting down with pen and paper or your laptop and writing them down. It’s not enough to set a vague goal such as “make more money,” “find more satisfying work,” “find a partner who really cares about me;” you have to be much more specific about what it is that you want and how you intend to achieve that goal. The work of Peter Gollwitzer and others makes it clear that implementation planning—How are you going to do it? Are there back-up strategies in place? Do you have the resources or skill-set necessary to achieve your goals? —is what differentiates goal-setting from pipe dreaming. If you are thinking about leaving a relationship and all you think about is someone on a white horse rescuing you or you’re focusing on winning the lottery or writing a bestseller as the antidote to your career doldrums, you are kidding yourself. The story of how J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter may be inspiring but it shouldn’t be a model for a game plan.
- Anticipate your level of stress
While being on the fence hasn’t made you happy, you’ve been on it for some or all of the reasons listed above and what you really need to recognize is that since thinking about change is making you anxious, actually changing could produce more stress. The answer? Plan for it. Know why you stayed in place for so long and anticipate your emotional reactions to deciding to change things up. If you need support, get it ahead of time, especially if you are exiting something—a relationship, a job—that has been a big part of your life. Spend time really pondering how the change will impact you because the truth is that while change can be exhilarating, it can also be frightening and make you feel adrift. None of this should stop you from moving forward or make you feel you need to crawl under the covers and wait for the impulse to live a different life to pass. No. Unless you have a strong belief in reincarnation, what you see is what there is and you should live as you wish. Really.
- Be realistic and prepare yourself
Make sure that the goal or goals that you’ve set for yourself can actually be accomplished. Be reasonably confident that you have the skills necessary, that you’ve planned sufficiently, and that your sense of the timing is correct. Be sure that you have some versions of Plan B in mind if your initial plan doesn’t work out the way you expected. Using If/Then thinking— “If my first efforts don’t work, then I will try X instead”—can help ease the way for making adjustments and can help you from feeling defeated if the script turns out to be a bit different than anticipated.
While the culture lectures us not to be impulsive, the truth is that most of us tend to stay in situations that no longer serve us past the expiration date. The view from the fence, while comfortable at first, gets old pretty fast.
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