During troubled economic times, we usually focus on people who are out of work. But that's not the only labor market problem a lousy economy causes. Because new jobs are hard to come by, people stay in jobs that aren't getting them anywhere or that they've outgrown. As a result, it's easy to feel stuck.
Feeling stuck can not only make your work hours miserable, it can sap the energy from the rest of your life as well. A recent University of Maryland study found that unhappy people watch 20 percent more television than their happier counterparts.
But here's the good news: you can take your career to the next level in the middle of a full personal life, and even in bad times. There's a lot you can do in just one week, 168 hours, to start moving. Here's the game plan:
1. Sunday night: Look at your schedule.
Block out 3 2-hour chunks of time for "strategic thinking sessions." If you have flexibility with your work schedule, this can be during the work day. Otherwise, show up early and enjoy your quiet office. If your workplace isn't amenable to this sort of thing (like you work in a restaurant or a busy ER), do it at home in the mornings, or after your kids go to bed. If you're currently taking care of little kids full time and are looking to get back in the workforce, do it during nap time, get a mother's/father's helper, or enlist your partner's support. The point is, commit to these 3 2-hour sessions. Even happy people watch more than 6 hours of TV per week. You can find the time.
2. Session 1: Try to picture what the next level looks like for you.
Write down your notes, or spend this time doing research (but NOT checking your email). Read trade publications to see who is doing work that sounds exciting to you. Write down what kinds of projects would make you excited to come to work on Monday. Two hours is a long time. By the end of 2 hours, if you force yourself to focus on this question, you will have something in mind that sounds like an upgrade to your life.
3. Session 2: Figure out the metrics and gatekeepers that can get you to this next stage.
During this session, figure out how you're going to reach out to three people who've done the kind of work or project you're looking to do. Do you know these people? Do you know anyone who knows these people? Start making phone calls or sending notes. Make it a goal to connect with at least one (and hopefully all three) before your next session, so you can ask about how they got there, and what they think mattered. If you can't get this done before your next session, it's OK, but a tight deadline often makes us more focused.
4. Session 3: Spin a good story.
Use this last session to write a profile of yourself a year or two from now. Imagine you're writing it for a local newspaper, or heck, the New Yorker. You're at a great new place in your career. Describe in the profile the steps that made it happen. Why are you doing this? Because writing a profile forces you to create a narrative arc that makes sense, and you can see what you need to do to potentially make this profile accurate in the near future.
5. Start a seed list.
Making a career breakthrough is partly about doing things now that could lead to good things happening in the future. Think of it like planting seeds. Not all will sprout, but if you plant dozens, at least a few will. So start a list. Every time you do something that is an investment in your career, write it down. Keeping a list helps you feel like you're moving forward, and not staying stuck in one place.
What led to your last career breakthrough?
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