How to know when it’s time for a big career change

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After deciding to take a one-year sabbatical-style career break to focus on my daughter during her senior year in high school, I received dozens of emails, texts and calls from other women leaders. They were intrigued and wanted advice on how they could make a similar decision. They described being in situations comparable to mine: desperately wanting to put family first, holding on tight to career ambitions, and wanting to make a difference and be there for others — while recognizing they were sacrificing their own well-being.

Whether to make a big life or career change is no easy decision, and I’ve coached and consulted with many women leaders around this dilemma. Many of you are in situations where you could make bold — maybe even radical — changes, such as stepping away from a career for a designated time, changing careers altogether, or taking back control of your time and well-being while remaining where you are and continuing to do the things you want to do — just differently.

Making a big life or career change deserves a great deal of reflection. I’ve identified five activities that can help you get clarity on whether it’s time to for a change:

  1. Take a look at your point of view on life and work.

    Take time to sit in reflection and go back as far as you want — maybe even to birth or early childhood. Identify the significant, life-defining experiences that have shaped you. As a journaling activity, write two separate short reflections: first on your thoughts, beliefs and experiences about life, and then about work. In the book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans describe this as “lifeview” and “workview,” and they emphasize the importance of capturing the perspectives through which you interpret, organize and understand the world. Similarly, in the book My Life Map, authors David Marshall and Kate Marshall suggest a visual representation of your life's journey instead.

    Next, with your thoughts and experiences in front of you (whether written or visual), evaluate the ways your points of view are aligned or incongruent with your life, and what it means for you moving forward.

  2. Use reflective tools to learn more about yourself.

    Consider using reflective tools to provide further insight into who you are. Two of my favorites are the Four Tendencies quiz by Gretchen Rubin and the CliftonStrengths assessment by Gallup. Begin with the free online Four Tendencies quiz. It’s a personality profile that reveals how you respond to both internal and external expectations, and it can provide insights into optimizing mental models (or mind-sets) and self-talk to facilitate lasting change. Rooted in neuroscience and positive psychology, the CliftonStrenghs assessment uncovers which talents you rely on to build relationships, think strategically, execute plans and influence others to accomplish goals.

  3. Notice What’s Behind Your Emotions.

    Take time to identify and name your feelings about your current situation. This is an opportunity to distinguish between your own emotional energy and what is occurring around you. You may, for example, recognize that you feel frustrated, overwhelmed and restlesswhile you also feel that the impact you’re making is deeply rewarding and exciting. You may realize you’re no longer interested in the work you’re doing and might feel more invigorated in a different organization, department or role. Or you may see that your dissatisfaction and fatigue result from a constant influx of change that’s wearing you down. After naming your feelings, consider your alternatives. What are the emotions you want more of in your life and work?  

  4. Listen to your gut.

    I’m talking about “gut” both literally and figuratively. Our bodies are very honest with us. Interestingly, your brain has a direct effect on your stomach and intestines. Sometimes gastrointestinal problems are telling you loudly and clearly that a change is needed. If you find yourself frequently remedying your symptoms, the necessary change may be a visit to the doctor, a tweak to your self-care regimen, or a realization that your stress has become extreme and you need to build more stress resilience.

    Your “gut instinct,” or intuition, is also important. Sometimes you may need to gain a deeper understanding of your current situation, but often there’s no need to talk to all your family and colleagues, ruminate over things, or get another opinion — you just know. Owning the power of your intuition allows you to stop searching for answers and trust the authentic inner voice that is steering you from your heart and soul.  

  5. Consider your ideal future.

    Free of family or societal expectations, what would you be doing? Oftentimes, we move at warp speed toward what’s expected or popular: more money, status or advancement. But perhaps you’re really seeking more of what Martin Seligman describes in Authentic Happiness as “positive emotions, engagement, authentic connections, meaning and purpose or a sense of accomplishment.” Imagine the possibilities! How would it feel to reimagine your life and work?

Pay attention to how you feel as you complete these exercises. If you find there’s a disconnect between where you are and where you want to be, then it may be time for a change. If you have some discomfort or questions, explore further. Maybe you simply need to communicate what you need or set new boundaries — or have an honest conversation with your supervisor or spouse. Or perhaps the desired change is internal and requires challenging your assumptions and shifting your perspective.

When it comes to deciding about big life changes, these five activities are effective, simple and, for many, life-altering. If things remain unclear, give yourself permission to try other activities and to revisit these steps as often as needed.

If these activities resonated with you, I'd love to hear your comments below!