If you’re constantly checking your phone at work and dreading the thought of going into the office — not just on Monday mornings, but on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, too — you might already know you’ve got a motivation problem. But before you give notice, take a deep breath.
Feeling listless or unhappy at your job is almost always a sign that something needs to change, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to pack your bags and head to Mexico to teach scuba. Or move back in with your folks. Or go into massive debt while you wait for that dream job to land in your lap.
“Don’t make any rash decisions,” Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster, said in a phone interview. First, “you need to diagnose the problem.”
To get started, start by creating a document listing out all the tasks you complete each week, and home in on the parts you enjoy versus the parts you dread. Include everything from what you did to whom you worked with. Then identify why exactly it is that you didn’t like particular parts — was it boring, overwhelming or were you just being micromanaged to death?
Next, it’s wise to look at what’s going on in your personal life outside of work. Are you just as unhappy after work as you are while you’re on the job? If so, it may not be the job that’s the problem, and seeing a counselor might help you figure out what’s bringing you down. But if it’s definitely the job, then it’s time to do a bit more digging to see how you can shake things up for the better.
Here are seven steps you can take to refresh your career, from the tiniest pivot to a serious reinvention.
1. Escape your comfort zone
It never hurts to start a refresh by trying on a new perspective — and that aforementioned document you created can be a guide to your bliss. Feeling low energy? Consider volunteering for a new project at the office to spark your enthusiasm or asking to work from home one day a week; a few smart negotiation tricks can help you make your case to your boss.
Alternatively, if your biggest problem is feeling anxious at work, another approach is to use your free time more effectively to decompress. (Sometimes stress can become a default — and getting out of your comfort zone might simply mean relaxing.) Start taking half-hour walks at lunch, which have been shown to help you relax, or give yourself some dedicated “me time” each night after you knock off work but before you Netflix and chill. You may even be able to take advantage of a free work perk, like a discounted gym membership, to shake things up.
The idea here is to make small changes that ease the immediacy of your discontent before seeking out a quick solution you’ll regret. For some that might mean getting a little more organized with your time — while for others it might be exactly the opposite.
Another way you can dip your toe in a new world is by going on interviews — even if they are simply informational. “Just the act of interviewing makes things a little bit better,” Salemi noted. Not only will you get a better sense of your prospects outside of your current role, but it also helps to assess your current situation more objectively, since you’ll have a point of comparison.
2. Step up
The most obvious way to feel better about your current job might be through a pay bump or a promotion. Of courses, bosses almost always want something in exchange for paying you more, so you’ll need to attach yourself to winning projects with measurable results. It helps to first seek out a workplace mentor who can help you polish your game so management appreciates your star-player qualities — ideally ones you can describe and quantify, whether its bringing in new clients or launching a successful or creative initiative.
If you ask your boss for a raise and they don’t want to give it to you based on performance, it can help to have an ace in the hole. A higher paid job offer, preferably in writing, is the most effective approach, but it comes with a key caveat: Don’t mention the counteroffer unless you are willing to take it — because there is always the chance that your boss will consider that your resignation and wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Ouch.
A softer negotiating tactic is to gather industry salary data. Start with sites like Glassdoor or PayScale for an initial ballpark figure. The trouble with those figures, however, is they may not be granular enough to reflect your personal experience level or the current going rate in your area. For that, you’ll need real information — either from friends at other companies or through interviews for actual jobs. And along the way, who knows? Maybe you’ll hear of a gig you’d be happier at after all.
Lastly, consider talking frankly with trusted coworkers about your compensation and theirs. While not everyone feels comfortable sharing this information, some do, and learning where you stand can help give you the confidence to ask for more at a current or future job.
3. Look within
Now, let’s say you’ve tried meditative walks or negotiating projects or pay at your current gig — and nothing seems to make you happy. Does this mean it’s time to quit? It’s possible, but you still should remember that getting a new job, whether across the street or country, is a huge leap.
So before you start brushing up the old resume, it’s worth taking one last look at your current employer. “You don’t need to change your entire career to satisfy yourself personally and professionally,” career expert Heather Huhman said in a phone interview.
In fact, it can sometimes be easier to move ahead or diagonally at your current employer than wading out into the unknown, because you already understand the company culture and have relationships with people there.
You’re also more likely to have a better understanding of what skills are valued and what it might be like, say, to assume a different role or move to a bigger department. The key is making enough of a change that you are truly in a new position, not just a superficially-tweaked version of the old one.
If you want to dip your toes in the water before making a full onslaught, start by talking to people in the department where you want to work, whether it’s at a happy hour or over a cup of coffee.
These coworkers are likely to give you the heads up on what the boss is like, what the demands are and where there are gaps you could fill. If it sounds like a good fit, then by all means go ahead and make a case with the hiring manager or your human resources contact to see if you can make the switch.
4. Side gig your way to a new career
Of course, not all problems can be solved by staying at your current job. But for those test-driving a more dramatic change, consider first offering your services for free during your time off — to make sure it’s a good fit.
That’s what Patrice Banks, a former materials engineer at Dupont, did before opening up her own auto repair shop just outside Philadelphia. Keeping her six-figure day job enabled Banks to enroll in night classes at a technical school and learn the ropes as an apprentice at local shops — without going into debt.
You may still decide to keep your side gig a side gig, and that’s okay, too. Huhman, for example, started a podcast in 2015 called Beat Infertility “because I was going through infertility myself,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s something that interests me very much. It’s a huge part of my life.”
And even though she now has a book deal in the works on the subject, Huhman said she has no plans to quit her full-time job as the head of a public relations company. “The main thing to keep in mind here is that you don’t need to change your entire career to satisfy yourself personally and professionally. I started a side project that I could work on at night and on weekends,” she said.
5. Adapt to a scarier change
Got an itch you truly can’t scratch in your current job? In that case, it’s time to find a new gig or maybe even start over in a new city. Perhaps you’re an aspiring tech entrepreneur, trapped as an accountant in Toledo, Ohio. Moving to Silicon Valley or other tech hotbeds like Seattle and New York could open doors for you. Or maybe you need exactly the opposite — like a move to a place with better work-life balance.
To help you figure out what you want deep, deep down, check out the Payoff’s previous guide to career introspection: Start by listing out your “gifts, passions and values” to help narrow down the types of jobs that could fulfill all three.
Next it’s time to get down to brass tacks and apply for new jobs. Start by making a list of places you’d like to work, checking in with people you know there for available jobs, then expanding your search on Indeed, Monster and LinkedIn (where you can privately let recruiters know you’re open to contact here). While it helps to cast a wide net, always customize your cover letter and resume every time you apply for a new job.
Considering moving to a new city? First take a breath and do your homework on the new location, rather than jumping out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. The easiest way to move is by looking for a job in your current field, rather than switching cities and careers at once.
If possible, consider taking the new location for a test drive first, too, before you move. “I recommend temporarily relocating,” before fully committing to a move, Huhman said, to make sure both that you like the new locale and that you can afford it. Which mid-size cities offer promise? Think Charlotte, North Carolina, or Orlando, Florida, for a solid job market and decent wages.
To switch fields altogether, first check out job growth projections at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ occupational outlook handbook and tap your current network for insider tips on breaking into the new field. You’ll also need to retool your resume to accommodate a career shift.
Once you nail the interview, be sure to play up your transferable soft skills. For example, even switching from sales to nursing requires communication skills, and your friendly disposition will be a huge asset when comforting patients. While you may feel like a fish out of water while trying to make a big career leap, chances are the hiring manager called you in because of your unique background, not despite it.
6. Hit the books to totally reinvent yourself
Perhaps you have the passion for a new career but not the knowledge or credentials: Clearly no one wants to undergo surgery by someone who holds a degree only in French literature. So whether you want to pivot from sales to medicine or want to ditch that law career to become a chef, some kind of education is most likely in your future.
Even if you aren’t planning to do an entire 180, you may want to consider additional education to accelerate your career. “Bachelor’s degrees are the new high school diploma,” Huhman said, adding, “if you’re going to go back to school, you need to make sure whatever degrees you are going to be going back for [are] actually going to be beneficial.”
So before you hurl yourself into higher learning, make sure you have a plan to financially support your pursuit of a degree. Unless you want to remain at your current job and attend school at the same time, you may want to investigate whether you can attend school full time without your current salary. Is it possible to either completely quit your job because you saved so much cash or do side gigs while you study full time?
You’ll also need to figure out if that higher degree will pay off. Typical student loan monthly payments might be about $350, which means jobs in engineering and health care should pay you well enough to cover that student loan debt. Be sure to apply for financial aid directly with the school. This typically involves filling out the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal loans, along with staying on top of deadlines.
Advanced degrees can be especially pricey: For example, law school can leave you with more than $170,000 in student loan debt, which mean you might need to earn more than $200,000 a year to comfortably make loan payments. Considering only 35 out of the 197 ranked law schools report that grads net salaries of more than $100,000, chances are you’ll be struggling financially in the early years of your career. So it could pay to think outside the box when it comes to your area of study.
You may also want to consider going to school part time while you stay with your employer. They may even subsidize the costs. Lastly, be sure scour for scholarships and use some of these smart hacks to lower the costs of books, food, housing and more.
7. Get lost — and find yourself
Finally, if all else fails, the best way to move forward in your career might actually be to take a time out. Maybe you’re burned out at your job. Maybe you know you need a change, but aren’t quite sure what that is and don’t want to dive back into school or start applying for jobs quite yet.
What you really need, in other words, is a chance to get a little lost. And that can mean anything from spending a year surfing in Hawaii to hopscotching across the globe. Finding a way to weave in some volunteering if you do go abroad is a great way not only to expand your horizons, but to create a conversation-starter with future employers when you finally return from your travels, noted LinkedIn career expert Blair Decembrele, who added, “I’m a huge proponent of taking time off.”
While it may seem financially daunting, If you get your ducks in a row, you might have a better shot at pulling it off than you realize. In her blog, A Little Adrift, Shannon O’Donnell tells how she took 328 days to travel through 15 countries, including Croatia and Nepal, for about $18,000 in 2008. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to about $21,000 in current dollars.
Of course, if you don’t have that kind of cash lying around, it’s wise to start aggressively saving months or even years in advance — so you don’t have to worry about going into debt while you follow your bliss. Stashing away about $850 a month for two years in an interest-earning account will get you to that number in 24 months. But if you would be happy with a three-month break instead, you’ll need even less time to save.
Then you can finally say goodbye to that lousy job and start the next phase of your fabulous life.
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