Change vs. Transition: Why Most People Will Fail at Achieving Their 2011 Goals

Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture.

–William Bridges

I can easily say that I learn as much from my clients in the course of a therapy session, then perhaps they often learn from me. At the end of each day when the last client has left the office, and I lock my door and head home, I am grateful for the many insights that come in my interaction with them.

Recently, one very astute client declared during session, “I love change, but hate transition.”

I was instantly intrigued. My blog for many years has had the tagline, “Transitioning Life’s Journey“, and transition is a topic that I speak a lot on, and that has been an important concept in my own life. But I don’t think I have thought much about the difference between change and transition.

And there is a big difference. Failure to differentiate the two can lead a person down two very different paths.

In the book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (HT: to my dad Timothy Smith and my friend Adam McHugh for suggesting this book to me) William Bridges differentiates the two very nicely:

Our society confuses them constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn’t. Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job. It is the birth of your new baby or the death of your father. It is the switch from the old health plan at work to a new one, or the replacement of your manager by a new one, or it is the acquisition that your company just made.

In other words, change is situational. Transition on the other hand, is psychological (bold added for emphasis). It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t ‘take.’ Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change; but it seldom deals with transition. Unfortunately for us, it is the transition that blind-sides us and is often the source of our troubles.

And that is the very reason for why many of the changes that people hope to make in 2011 won’t “take.” They will spend all their time making the situational changes, but little or none of the psychological changes.

A husband and wife will commit to change some habits and commit to more date nights, but they may do little or nothing of the psychological work to build and maintain an emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological connection. Date nights alone don’t make for an improved marriage.

A pastor may make changes to the mission of the church he or she pastors, but may have dealt with little or none of the psychological issues in their own lives that may hamper them from effectively bringing about the change. New mission statements don’t make for a new vision.

A recent college graduate may make the change to move to a new city for a new job, thinking this is the answer to their loneliness and feeling of disconnection, but may do little or nothing in the way of dealing with psychological issues that are at the root of the problems. A change of scenery doesn’t create connection.

Change can come easy, but transitioning will take work. So don’t commit to just changing this year, but commit to transitioning.


  1. by nick charalambous on January 6, 2011  9:01 am Reply

    Never thought of the differences either. Seems to me that Christian life, properly understood, is ALL transition, right? The change has been made. Now we're just transitioning our mind and heart so that our hearts and minds match our standing before the Father! So many folks still in the "spiritual milk" stage simply have change and transition confused, too.

  2. by Rhett Smith on January 6, 2011  12:26 pm Reply


    I love your insight, and the connection to moving from just change to the mind and the heart transitioning. I like how you connect it with "spiritual milk". Gives me a lot of food for thought here.....


  3. Pingback : Tweets that mention Change vs. Transition: Why Most People Will Fail at Achieving Their 2011 Goals | | Rhett Smith:. Transitioning Life' Journey – 2011 Focus:. Pastors, Marriages, Young Adult Transition --

  4. Pingback : Some Links to Start off 2011 | leadingyourchurch

  5. by David Herbert on January 13, 2011  4:00 am Reply

    I like this distinction between change and transition. I think you are right - we don't recognise that there are the two things happening in our lives.

  6. by Gary Reed on January 14, 2011  12:08 pm Reply

    I like this post Rhett, when I first read it late last week. True the psychological reorientation required for transitions is huge! This relates to Ministry Care's next E-letter on "Accountability in 2011", finding relational support in completing plans for 2011. I hope it's okay to put your post link for further reading. Thanks for your thoughts here! Gary

    • by Rhett Smith on January 14, 2011  1:54 pm Reply


      Thanks for the comment. Feel free to put the link on that list....and can you add my email to that list as well?


  7. by Joyce Glenn on April 18, 2012  5:08 pm Reply


  8. by Joyce Glenn on April 18, 2012  5:19 pm Reply

    Also want to say 'Thank you' to Rhett and Nick for shining increased light on TRUTH helping to diminish the vail of darkness.

  9. Pingback : RHETT SMITH » | Therapist Writer Speaker — Practicing Marriage and Family Therapy in Plano, Texas » Change and Transition: Re-Defining and Re-Negotiating Your Marital Roles

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