Most of us don’t consider rock bands the source of insightful career questions. But that’s just what The Clash offers us in “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”   

If you are in a position where you’re concerned about career issues such as upward mobility or the work environment, how do you know when it’s time to leave — or stay and try to work through the challenges? 

Often there are no simple answers and many possible choices: If you stay, how do you address the challenges? If you go, how do you leave without burning bridges, set goals for your next position, and then strategize and execute a job search? 

The human brain often perceives job challenges as a threat, defaulting to a defend-and-protect mentality, and makes up a story to rationalize the situation. These initial, instinctive reactions can frame your future thinking and become a runaway train that inhibits your decision making. 

When you were a kid, a crossing guard might have told you, “Stop, look, and listen” before crossing the street. That advice will serve you well when you arrive at career crossroads such as these — there are three simple ways to make sense of the situation.

Expand your view

When you perceive a job challenge as a threat, thinking capacity narrows and confirmation bias reinforces the story the mind generates. To slow the process and expand your perspective, study your thoughts through the following four frames. Take the time to capture your thoughts by writing or recording them to more objectively analyze them.

Frame one: See your story more fully

Take a few minutes and think about what story you are telling yourself about this job role right now. 

Then step back as an observer and replay the story. As you do, annotate it. What reactions do you see? What emotions are arising? What fears might be underneath? What protective impulses are in motion, such as fight, flight, freeze, appease, shutdown, or numb? Analyzing how your system reacts slows the runaway train.

Frame two: What else is possible?

Then consider what else could be happening in your personal life or with your boss or coworkers and generate as many different answers as you can. Think through what else in the broader context (economy, industry, organization) could be contributing to this job challenge. How could your story be wrong or incomplete? How could your own behavior contribute to this job challenge?

Frame three: What has worked/not worked in the past?

Reflect on challenging job roles you navigated through before and record: What strengths helped you then and how might they help now? What mistakes might you have made and how can you avoid them in your current situation? What is new in this situation that you need to explore further?

Frame four: What do you care most about?

Finally consider and document: What outcomes do you care most about for yourself and the people and world around you (in your current role, and for the future you desire)?

Engage with others

Talk with people you trust that have observed you in your role and ask them what they see. Note what attributes they see that are positive and potentially negative. Ask for suggestions as to what you can do better in the future. 

Seek out people with roles you want. Ask them how they got there, what challenges they faced, and what and who helped them along the way. Revisit the four frames you created earlier and consider: What makes sense to you now about your job role, and what choices do you see?

Commit and take small steps

How big a step is reasonable and appropriate to take now? Is it learning and growing in your current role, or is it time to go? If it is time to go, how would you like that to unfold? What are you ready to commit to now?

If you’re unsure, what is a simple, small, and reasonably safe experiment you can try today? Who could be a partner to learn with? Focused experiments enable you to learn and grow.

Allow for the time and space to work through the transition you’re in. Commit and take small steps to help you progress. Regularly reflect on what small things worked today and one thing you want to improve tomorrow. Be compassionate with yourself as you build courage and confidence to create from where you are now.

It is an illusion that change happens all at once. Life unfolds, as William Bridges writes, “In an alternating rhythm of expansion and contraction, change and stability. In human life as in the rest of nature, change accumulates slowly and almost invisibly until it is made manifest in the sudden form of fledgling out or thawing or leaf-fall. It is the transition process … that we must understand.”

This article was originally published on Business Insider.

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