Micro Shifts: How A Change Of Focus Can Help You Move Faster Into Work You Love

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Image: Rafif Prawira

Feeling stuck and overwhelmed by this huge career change ahead of you? No idea what you should be doing to make progress? You might be thinking too big. Natasha shares a simple but profound mindset shift to help you get energised, confident, and into effective action.

When I tell you the story of my career change, I tell you the brief-and-romantic version.

I give you the highlight reel.

I was unhappy at work, I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to Greece, I came back, I saw a pattern in my Bookmarks toolbar on my internet browser, I sent ten emails to people who inspired me, and I started working, in a small way, for Careershifters.

What I don't tell is everything that that story skims and encapsulates.

I don't tell it all, because it would take years.

I'd have to tell you about the books I read; the blog articles; the magazines. I'd have to tell you about all the late-night lists I made; the content of the Sociology of Dreams module in my university degree; my French teacher when I was six.

I'd have to tell you about each of the emails I sent in the week my university flatmate and I did an experiment to see if letters of complaint or love letters to our favourite brands got us more free stuff (spoiler: love letters won by a mile).

I'd have to tell you about every job application I sent that went unanswered, the yoga teacher training I almost signed up for but didn't, the 30-day Project challenge I did while I was in Greece, the blog I started and dropped, the celebrity who picked it up and shared it online, the 232 conversations I had with friends about what we wanted to do with our lives, the moment I almost bailed on booking my flight to leave the UK, the fights I had with my father, every article I read that sparked new synapses in my brain without me ever realising it.

These days, I get to say it all in five words: "I made a career change."

It makes it sound like that's what I did. But at no point did I say to myself: "Right, here it comes, here's the change!" and then something changed.

'Career change' is a phrase that encapsulates thousands of tiny actions.

But that's not how it's talked about.

'Career change' is spoken of as though it's one thing someone does, in and of itself. It gives us a very high-level, highlight-reel angle on what happened.

Generally, it looks like a Light-bulb Moment, followed by a Resignation Letter, and then a Whole New Life.

We know it doesn't really mean that, but on some level, those are the stages that we believe this career change thing involves.

Lightning-bolt inspiration / big leap / smug Monday mornings.

Maybe retraining shows up there somewhere, if you're a particularly detail-oriented individual.

But all in all, it's just One Big Shift.

And this way of thinking about career change is a big part of what keeps you stuck.

The people who make career changes fastest, and with the least mental gymnastics and discomfort, are the ones who have shifted their mindset from 'One Big Shift' to 'Fourteen Hundred Micro Shifts'.

A Micro Shift is a tiny action – we're talking five-minutes tiny – that shifts you just a nudge forward on your path.

It's an email drafted; a phone number dialled; the deep breath and click of a button that signs you up for an event. It's getting in the car to go to that event instead of sitting on the couch, scratching. It's summoning the courage to speak to a stranger when you get there; walking into a pottery class; standing up to ask a question at a conference.

They're tiny. But each and every Micro Shift you make is incredibly powerful in both making step-by-step progress toward fulfilling work, and in re-wiring your mindset to something more productive, energised, and confident.

Here's why they're so great:

They're too small to argue with

If you're faced with a list of ten inspiring people that you have to reach out to and connect with, you're going to put it off. It feels like a big deal.

But emailing one person feels more achievable, right?

And yet, you can still find a reason why not to do it right now…

A typical approach used by meditation practitioners is to shrink the task you're faced with until you can't say 'no' to it.

Maybe you can't bring yourself to email ten inspiring people all in one go. But could you email one of them?

What about just drafting the email?

What about just choosing the name of the person you'll email and putting a slot in your calendar to write the email?

Simply getting a foot in the door (or throwing your hat over the fence) is half the battle.

And if you set yourself a tiny task to do, like putting time in your calendar, you may well find yourself thinking "Well, since I'm here now, I might as well make a start…"

They build motivation

Waiting for motivation before you take action is like shouting "GO! at a stationary car.

Career change is scary; no matter how much you want to make a shift, there's a huge pull to stay where you are. The familiar, the safe, the stable… to wait for a burst of motivation big enough to overturn all of those reasons to stay is to risk waiting forever.

When you start making Micro Shifts, you build your motivation through a series of tiny actions.

You do something small enough to reap a small, meaningful reward: let's say you set a timer for five minutes, and challenge yourself to find one inspiring event in your city in the next month.

And you do it – you discover a great talk happening this very weekend. It's not in your city, but it's not far.

That success – that discovery of something new and exciting – creates the motivation to move on to the next Micro Shift.

It shifts your mindset, tiny though the action was, to one of energy and curiosity and excitement to keep going.

And bit by bit, moment by moment, action by action, experiment by experiment, you learn and move and get inspired and excited by your own agency.

They add up

A Micro Shift doesn't sound very impressive, in and of itself.

"I wrote an e-mail!"
"I signed up for a workshop"
"I told the man at the corner shop I'm thinking about making a shift!"
"I came home after work and went right back out again!"

But when they're tiny enough to be can't-argue-with achievable, you make more of them.

And they become a wave of activity.

If you make 20 Micro Shifts this week, I can almost guarantee you'll have taken more action on your career change than you did last week.

Maybe even if you only make two.

Here's what Micro Shifters understand, that One-Big-Shift thinkers don't:

1. Every opportunity is worth exploring

With One Big Shift thinking, when we're presented with opportunities, we don't take most of them – because they don't seem big enough to make a difference to such a big goal.

It's incredibly unlikely you're going to get your Big Light-bulb Moment at this particular event you've been invited to, so why bother going?

You can't run your dream business and still do your day job, and you can't afford to quit, so why bother starting now?

Micro Shifters know there might be a Little Yes at that event. They might have a conversation with someone who sparks an idea that they could turn into a Shift Project later.

They know that writing the copy for the first page of their future website will get them inspired, which might lead to an energised chat with a friend, which could lead to a new connection, which might get them their first tiny-on-the-side-of-their-day-job client.

If there's an opportunity available, they'll find a way to take it, because any step forward, however tiny, is better than no step at all.

2. Every moment is useful

One-Big-Shift thinkers are masters of procrastination.

"When I have some more time, I'll be able to focus on my career change."

"When I have enough money, I'll be able to quit my job and make a shift."

"I need a chunk of a few hours to write some emails to potential connections."

"I'm not ready to take that course yet, but maybe in six months things will be better."

Sound familiar?

For Micro Shifters, five minutes is plenty to make a start on something.

Five minutes in line at the bank to write the first crappy draft of an email to someone inspiring (because once you have a first crappy draft, the mental barrier of that ugly blank page is gone).

Ten minutes to talk to a friend about an idea you've had, however vague and uncertain it is, to see what inspiration and possibilities they can think of for you (because in a week's time, when they come across something relevant, they can send it to you and spark something new).

A few hours to go to a talk on a subject that interests you (because it interests you, and anything that interests you is a Little Yes on the string of tiny light bulbs).

Micro Shifters take consistent, tiny actions – because every little step gets them further along the path.

3. Every person is an asset

I hear it a lot from One-Big-Shift thinkers: the deep loneliness that comes with trying to move a mountain on your own.

"Sometimes I wonder if I'm crazy for feeling this way."

"I can't tell X / ask Y / reach out to Z, because I don't know yet."

When you've got one huge task ahead of you: to 'change career' (or 'find my passion', for that matter), it feels like you have to have made a damn good start on it before you're worthy of getting any help.

How could you waste someone's time asking about how they started their business when you're not even sure that's what you want to do?

Why would that inspiring figure share their experience with you when you haven't got clarity about where you're headed yet?

Micro Shifters know that everyone they can speak to can help them move further along the way – whether it's an off-the-cuff mention of a useful resource, or a back-door introduction to the director of an amazing company they didn't even know existed.

They don't need someone to give them their 'big break' or impress someone that inspires them into making an offer. They're happy to say:

"Hey, I'm on this journey and I think talking to you could be a useful step along the road. Will you help?"

And in every micro interaction with someone, they learn more about how helpful, generous, and warm people can be.

4. Every dead end is a relief

One Big Shift thinking is all-or-nothing: either you've got the answer, or you haven't. And if you think you have the answer, and then it goes wrong, it's all a waste of time and you're useless and you have to start again.

Thought you might be interested in helping young people communicate better, and then discovered you don't really like young people? Game over, return to Go, do not collect £200.

Convinced that psychoanalysis is your calling, and then saw the tuition fees for retraining and can't afford it? You've failed, you big failure.

Micro Shifters multi-track. They've got a bunch of different ideas on the boil (because micro actions are small enough to juggle) and they're not married to any of them.

So when one idea turns out to be a dud, they can celebrate. That's one wrong path they're not going to go down – one giant mistake they've saved themselves – and one step closer to clarity than they were before.

Micro Shifts are not to be underestimated: they are 'career change'

The individual actions that make up a shift can feel like wading through treacle in the dark.

You don't really know where you're going.

You're trying things out without knowing if they'll work.

You're poking and prodding and making connections in some areas, and falling flat on your face in others.

But to make progress, you have to keep taking actions, even without knowing where they'll take you.

Tiny actions are easier to take than big leaps. They're less risky, less scary, and they get you that all-important motivation to keep moving forward toward the work you love.

To find some examples of Micro Shifts, I dropped into the Alumni group for our Career Change Launch Pad.

Here are some ideas you could play with this week, based on what they've been up to:

  • Find a class in your area that sounds like fun.

  • Join an online call with a bunch of other career changers

  • Ask an acquaintance if they'd be willing to sit down for a chat with you about what they do for a living

  • Set up an account to start a blog

  • Ask a friend to be your Micro Shift accountability buddy

  • Buy the first materials for the project you wanted to start

  • Think of one person who does work that really inspires you.

  • Write a list of reasons that this person's work excites you.

  • Turn that list into the first draft of an 'I-love-your-work' email to that person.

  • Click 'Send' to see what happens.

  • Invite a friend for coffee to talk about your career change.

  • Choose a 'hunch' or a 'maybe I might like this' idea and find a related event / class / community online

  • Join a Meetup community

  • Find the telephone number of an interesting company

  • Take a different route home from work

  • Put a notebook in your bag for career-change-big-dreaming on the train

  • Send a 'checking-in' email to one old connection of yours that you still admire

  • Tell one person about that crazy-unrealistic idea you have about what you might like to do next in your career

What ideas can you come up with for Micro Shifts to take this week? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.