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Change Careers By Using the 'Sugar Grain' Principle

To shift fields in midlife, start with a manageable process

By Beverly Jones

(This article previously appeared on
The trick to shifting careers in your 50s or 60s is to create a disciplined change process and stick with it.

When I work with mid-career coaching clients, I often suggest a simple process that I’ve been exploring since I was a teenager. I call it the “Sugar Grain Principle.”

As a child of New Zealanders, I drank lots of tea and liked it loaded with sugar. But during my teen years, I worried about the calories. Kicking my sugar habit seemed tough. One day, though, I came up with a way of reducing the sugar volume so gradually I’d never miss it.

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Origin of the 'Sugar Grain Principle'

As I sat at the kitchen table, staring at the heaping pile of sugar on my spoon, I decided to start by removing just a few granules. In each of the following days, I tried to remove a few more. I kept at it, progressively lessening the amount of sugar from two or three spoonful’s to none. It took nearly a year, but I ultimately learned to enjoy sugarless tea without ever feeling deprived.

I was so intrigued by the power of creating change through small, painless steps, I started applying the Sugar Grain Principle to other aspects of my life. For example, I became better at keeping my room neat by building little habits, like spending five minutes cleaning each morning.   
A 7-Step Process

Today, I often suggest the Sugar Grain Principle to mid-career clients looking for a new direction in their lives. Here’s my seven-step process to do it:

1. Start with a vision of the career you want. Begin the “Sugar Grain” process by creating, as clearly as possible, a picture of what you desire in your next career phase.
You needn’t define a precise destination before you get going, but you may be surprised at how much you already know.
List the elements you want in your work. One way to begin is by identifying the good and not-so-good aspects of your current situation.  As you find the negatives, rephrase them as positives for your next-job wish list. For example, if you’re bored, reframe that into “I want work that’s varied and interesting.”
Think too, about new skills you’ll need to develop and embark on a plan to get them.

Next, imagine it’s three years from now and you’ve moved to a new professional path. Figure out what made those years so productive and satisfying. You may want to add some of those elements to your wish list.

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Consider, too, what else you want in your life. Certain values or interests might be important in shaping your career. If you want to spend more time with your grandkids, for instance, maybe “no weekend work” should go on your vision list. Or perhaps you want to live in a different climate.

2. Organize your vision. Now, break your wish list into categories. I often ask clients to create a “mind map,” a colorful, branching diagram with the power to quickly portray complex concepts or projects.

Start your mind map with an image or keyword in the center of a page. From that center, draw main branches, spreading like the spokes of a wheel. Label each branch to represent a sector of your life and fill out the details by adding smaller branches to the main branches.

3. Add a category for your job search. Now that you have a vision of where you want to go, add a branch on your map (or a section on your vision list) related to your possible job search.


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If these items don’t show up anywhere else, you may want to include: expanding my network; reconnecting with people I know; building my social media presence; developing new skills or experience or acquiring certifications and methodically exploring fields a step or two removed from my own.

4. Commit to a pace. Once your know where you want to go, decide how quickly you need to move. That will determine how many things you commit to doing each day, or week, or month, for each category you’ve identified. The power of the Sugar Grain process comes from your commitment to keep up your pace even when you feel like you’re out of ideas or don’t have the time.

5. Begin a list of small to-do’s for each category. You’ll want a list tor each area on your map. They might include sending an email to an old contact or spending an hour setting up your LinkedIn account or exercising for 30 minutes.

They needn’t be related to one another; sometimes they’ll feel pretty random. But over time, patterns will emerge.

6. Maintain records.  Keeping track of the things on your lists is important to the success of your process. Your recordkeeping will help you see your progress, bring you new insights and inspire additional to-do’s. Whether you keep records on paper or in the Cloud, is up to you.

Logs often work well because you’re more likely to stick to, say, an exercise if you record each minute you spend on it. Logs can illustrate your efforts, reinforce your commitment and help you see the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Journals are another method. They can promote self-reflection, help you explore and keep track of new ideas and give you a way to manage frustration and setbacks in the course of your transition.

7. Finally, enjoy the Sugar Grain Process. Once you get going, your small-step agenda will seem to generate its own energy. You’ll start feeling confident that it’s taking you somewhere interesting and important. 

Often a client who has completed a career shift will say something like: “I’ll kind of miss the Process. It was getting to be really fun.”

Beverly Jones is a leadership and transitions coach who runs Clearways Consulting in Washington, D.C., and Rappahannock County, Va. She is the author of "Find Your Happy at Work" and was formerly a lawyer representing energy clients, universities and nonprofits. Read More
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