The Power of Transition Zones
Finding aliveness in the space between
Welcome back! I’ve spent the last few months offline and immersed in our local community. Today’s essay is about how I’ve slowly learned to embrace the space between. As a reminder, I write about reconnecting with the body, learning from nature, and nurturing our capacity to adapt. I also share about Intuitive Fitness and host the On Renewal podcast.
Over the last year, I’ve become a bit obsessed with transition zones.
It all started when we moved to our new house, which is surrounded by a forest. At the edge of our yard was an overgrown mess of brambles, vines, and invasive plants. They climbed up and choked out the trees. They wove together into a thick wall. I couldn’t see or walk through them.
Yet, everything changed when I hacked past this dense barrier into the forest. The ground was a mix of dancing ferns and wild ginger. The air was open. The trees had space to breathe. It was calm and inviting.
On the other side of the overgrowth was a different world. The edge marked the space between—the messy middle where change occurred.1
Transition zones like these are all around us. They exist in nature’s ecosystems and our built environment. More subtly, they also exist in the moments we shift through our days and evolve across our lives.
Transitions in Daily Life
Imagine the moment we decide to shift from working at a desk to going to exercise.
As we sit and work, our bodies are in one state—physically at rest and mentally in motion. From the vantage point of our office chair, the blood-pumping and heart-racing sensations of exercise often feel daunting and uncomfortable.
Yet, if we hack our way to the other side, these same sensations can become energizing and enjoyable. Our bodies feel alive. Our minds quiet. The momentum and movement pull us forward effortlessly. We enter a different world.
Much like the edge of the forest, the resistance exists in the space between. We bump into pesky but critical transition zones.
Learning from the Physical World
To understand how to navigate these transitions, it helps to look to our physical environment. And there’s no better guide than the architect Christopher Alexander, who spent his life exploring how we relate to the space around us.
His books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, highlight how we can design our towns, neighborhoods, and buildings so that they are more life-giving. Alexander often focuses on transitions and the relationships between components.2
Here’s what he has to say on the importance of an Entrance Transition:
“The experience of entering a building influences the way you feel inside the building. If the transition is too abrupt, there is no feeling of arrival, and the inside of the building fails to be an inner sanctum.”
Therefore Alexander advises us to create intentional transition zones:
“Make a transition space between the street and the front door. Bring the path which connects street and entrance through this transition space, and mark it with a change of light, a change of sound, a change of direction, a change of surface, a change of level, perhaps by gateways which make a change of enclosure, and above all with a change of view.
Intentional transition zones strengthen the boundary between two areas and help us experience change as we move between them. The space between is crucial to our experience on the other side.
Returning to Daily Life
We can think about transitions in our day in the same way. If the shift is too abrupt, we never fully arrive and settle into the new activity.
Rather than rushing through, we should nurture the space between to create conditions for change to occur. Let’s explore this with exercise:
Designing our Environment
The environment around us shapes much of our experience. The layout, light, and objects create subtle reminders and subconscious cues. Our setting evokes memories, emotions, and energy.
If I exercise surrounded by laundry and undone work tasks, I struggle to shift into the workout. And as much as I love working out in my home gym, other environments feel more alive for certain types of movement. Yoga at the studio on the river and calisthenics in the park just hit different.
Creating or discovering a dedicated place to exercise, even just a tiny corner, provides a destination. It gives us space to move into. It provides a threshold to cross and contextual cues to begin to shift us through the transition. It creates a physical shape and felt movement to the psychological and physiological change we want to experience.
Embracing a transition routine
Even after moving into a dedicated exercise space, it can feel like our energy hasn’t caught up with our body. Sometimes, even the warm-up activities feel daunting.
So it helps to have a transition routine that eases us into exercise. This can be anything that slowly and reliably elevates our physiological and psychological state. For me, a few minutes of light breathwork and spontaneous dancing always do the trick.
Repeating this transition routine sets the stage for the rest of the workout and creates a built-in milestone for the future. The simple activities become another threshold we move through in the transition.
On days I feel resistant to exercise, I focus on just getting to the exercise space and doing the transition routine. Almost without fail, my state then shifts and I feel pulled forward into more exercise. Knowing that the beginning will always feel easy and enjoyable reduces the perceived effort to get started.
Shaping Our Memories
The transitions into and out of activities like exercise also play a pivotal role in how we remember them. The beginning, end, and moments of peak intensity of an experience disproportionately impact our memory and impression of them.3
So, just as we have an intentional beginning to the workout, it helps to bring intention to the end. By incorporating activities that help us savor the sensations of exercise, we support our future desire to exercise.
Many Yoga practices embrace this through the bliss of Savasana— a final pose where one lies in complete stillness. The muscles relax, the breath slows, and the body shifts down as we integrate the previous movements.
Down-regulation activities like slow breathing, calming music, and darkness at the end of a workout also improve our recovery.4 By embracing an intentional transition out of exercise, we remember it more fondly and make it easier to start again.
These dynamics apply beyond exercise. Just ask any writer.
The book Daily Rituals, shares the elaborate tricks, transitions, and routines that famous creatives used in their work. For instance, Hemmingway intentionally stopped writing in the middle of his flow so it would be easier to return to the next day.
Transitions even matter with activities as innate as sleep. To improve sleep, the recommendation is to focus on your pre-sleep routine and the transition into the morning with early sunlight.
Embracing Transitions through Life
This may seem mundane and obvious to you. Some people naturally recognize and savor the space between. But much of modern life rushes us from thing to thing.
We’re encouraged to optimize every minute. To squeeze as much as possible into each day. To chase the next opportunity. To rush toward the next stage.
At least, this is how I used to live my life.
But now I see crucial transition zones in space between the seasons of our lives. If we rush through these, we lose something valuable.
It takes time to shed past stories and embrace new ways of being. We must face the uncomfortable task of clearing out the old and making space for the new. It can be messy, dark, and uncertain. Yet, there’s immense power in these liminal spaces.5
These moments ask us to let parts of ourselves die to open to whatever it is we are becoming. They challenge us to adapt and evolve. They invite us to be changed by our own lived experience. Embracing the space between means giving life the opportunity to work its magic on us.
Thanks for reading. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the power of transitions and the space between.
I've spent much of the last year clearing out this overgrowth. We can now see deep into the woods. Yet, this edge remains a fragile transition zone. If I do nothing, the overgrowth will return within a few seasons. I must steward the space by planting useful trees, shrubs, and ground cover. Expanding the transition zone will soften the edge to create a healthier and more beautiful boundary.
Some of my favorite patterns than involve transition zones include Neighborhood Boundary, Intimacy Gradient, Paths and Goals, and Positive Outdoor Space. For a preview of this Pattern Language, check out my friend Clayton Drodge’s Twitter collection.
Daniel Kahneman explains the concepts of primacy, recency, and the peak-end rule in his book Thinking, Fast, and Slow.
Andy Galpin highlights the way we can use tools like slow breathing, calming music, and darkness at the end of exercise to enhance our recovery.