Field Notes: The empowerment of accepting the mess

July 2, 2019
  • Change Management
  • Competencies
  • Professional Well-Being
cluttered desk with a range of items such as glasses, pens, papers, smartphone, and more scattered

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

by Amy Harth, Research Analyst, DeVry University

“I have no idea where to start. I’m so overwhelmed.” 

Sound familiar?

Our lives are full of conflicting responsibilities, commitments, and internal and external pressures. Whether you call it time management, prioritizing, process improvement, strategic planning, or change management, navigating competing demands and moving through change isn’t easy. It’s messy. So how do we deal with that?

Challenges of change: Planning and grace

Change can be invigorating, necessary, and well-managed -- but still be messy. That messiness is necessary too. It’s part of discovery. Even changes we want can be uncomfortable. Learning new things takes time and effort. This can be scarier when we don’t even know what we have to learn. Some kinds of change require a leap of faith and figuring it out as you go. Some kinds require careful planning. Most require both. 

Both our students and colleagues experience these kinds of change throughout their educational journeys, as do we. In my own recent experience completing a PhD, there were aspects of writing my dissertation that required meticulous planning and others that were best accomplished by diving in and seeing where it would lead. 

One lesson I learned is that while I have been able to hold many big projects to a rigorous timeline, this timeline shifted innumerable times. And that was O.K. The careful planning was still important and necessary. The grace to shift the timeline was just as necessary and important. 

Accepting the mess

Shifting timelines may not sound like a big deal, but they can cause a lot of stress. For ourselves, our students, and our colleagues, transitions and new experiences are mentally, emotionally, and physically difficult. They can feel chaotic. They can be chaotic. 

To deal with the mess, here are three steps that have worked for me: 

1. Admit/realize that it’s a mess.

2. Get (sort of) comfortable with the mess.

3. Get through the mess.

It’s really hard to clean something if you don’t know it’s dirty! Similarly, it’s hard to adjust to change if you don’t know it’s changing. Sometimes, so much is going on that you don’t realize the experience is overwhelming or requires new or different approaches. 

Admitting that the situation is challenging and realizing how it is making you feel can be empowering. Your feelings are information that can help you get comfortable with what is happening. 

For example, in a recent transition, our department acknowledged we needed more technical support from a vendor, and not getting it felt disrespectful to our skills. This helped us identify that we needed a new vendor who could provide a technology solution that met our students’ needs and technical support that honored our expertise. 

While the change to a different system was challenging, we were able to get comfortable with the messiness because we felt respected by this transition and knew it was in the best interest of our students. 

Once we realize we’re in the messy stage of change and we got sort of comfortable with that, then the fun began! We could work to get through it. This is where all our skills in change management, process improvement and strategic planning, among others, helped us shine. But before we get too entrenched in managing the change, it’s important to remember that while this portion of the process will feel better, there will still be discomfort. Accepting that discomfort, and recognizing that this is a growth process, helps us recognize the benefits of taking time to be gentle with ourselves and each other. 


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