Rhonda Scharf explains how to break out of your career rut

Are you in a career rut? Do you find yourself bored with your job, not quite as excited as you used to be, and perhaps wondering whether there isn’t something better out there?

You are not alone. Career ruts are common. It’s easy to get stuck in the day-to-day. Add in the stress that comes with working in a pandemic, and you may find that your mental health is suffering. You may wonder whether your job is even worth it. 

On the other hand, I’m also willing to bet that the thought of getting another job is almost as stressful. We are afraid of spending the rest of our careers where we are, and we are afraid of making major changes.

Habits become habits because they’re easier in the moment. It’s easier to stay than leave. It’s easier to complain than do something about it. We need to rewire ourselves so that we act differently and see things differently.

There is no magic formula to getting yourself out of a rut. It just takes effort and a willingness to try something new. Here’s a roadmap that can help you get out of a career rut:

Look at the root of the problem

It is perfectly okay to admit that you’re in a rut and no longer passionate about your job. Give yourself permission to accept that reality, without judgment. Then, dissect what happened along the way so you can see if there is another way forward.

Ask yourself why you took your job in the first place. What was it that attracted you to it – was it the money, the fact that a friend worked there, the flexible hours, the benefits, the commute? Are those things still the same, or have they changed?

Years ago, Caroline was my office manager. She lived nearby and had three school-aged boys. She loved the flexibility that working with me gave her. I was happy to provide her with summers off so she could be with her boys. We coordinated her work schedule with the boys’ school schedule. It was a dream come true for her. 

A dream, that is, until her marriage fell apart. Then, she needed a job with full-time hours and benefits. While we worked very well together, the job didn’t satisfy her financially anymore, and she became unhappy. 

Perhaps you work at your company because the commute is reasonable. You may have thought each day about how fortunate you were to work at a company that was so accessible to you, and that little factor kept you happy – until we all began working from home because of the pandemic. Then you lost your daily reminder that you love your commute, and maybe you don’t love the commute to your home office as much (in fact, maybe it’s not quite long enough).

What would make you happy again? Would more money do it? Probably not. It wasn’t money that caused the rut you’re in. Studies show that money is typically not a motivator when other factors are in play – in this case, the new reality of working from home. So, if you think money will push you out of your rut, you can expect to be back in it again a few years from now.  

Sit down and ask yourself why you started in the job you are in. Reflect on what has changed at your workplace and in your personal life. Once you see what has changed, you can think about whether a new job will solve your issues, or whether you need to make changes in your own life.

Understand your priorities and talents

What motivates you now? Priorities change over time. What are your professional talents and interests? Experiment with different areas of work to see if you’ve just become bored with the routine of what you do every day and to find out if there’s some way to change that. Ask yourself what you are good at, what you enjoy, and what you look forward to doing in your job. Define your dream job based on your values.

Write each task you do on a Post-It and stick it to the wall. Organize the notes horizontally on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is you dislike this task so much you avoid doing it at all costs and a 10 is you love this task and could do it all day long. You may not have any 1s, or you may not have any 10s, but you will have all your tasks grouped from low to high. Now, imagine you have a magic wand that can eliminate those tasks you have no desire ever to do again. 

What disappears from your job? Is there any job left over? What do the remaining Post-It notes tell you? Do you really hate what you do, or is it just a few things you wish you could get rid of? Would getting a new job get rid of those tasks, or do those tasks go hand-in-hand with the profession you’ve chosen?

Maybe it isn’t the tasks that are the issue, and you realize that it’s your values that are causing the problem. Would working with a different team help? Do you have an issue with your company’s values not being aligned with your own, or is there a misalignment with people within the department? 

Focus on the big picture

What do you get from your current job? What does it give you mentally, physically, socially, intellectually, and potentially even spiritually? What is missing?

Each day, can you find three good things that happened at work? Three things that went well? Or can you only think about what went wrong each day and the feeling that you are not thriving?

What do you need to get from your job to make it good again? Is it reasonable to expect a company or a job to provide that, or do you need to take some steps to ensure it is part of what you do at work?

Getting out of a rut requires some hard questions and hard actions. We need to examine why we’ve fallen into the rut and challenge ourselves to embrace change. If you’re on autopilot in your job, you need to force yourself to be more in the moment. The optimal conditions in which most of us are satisfied at work are when the challenge level is just right – your job isn’t too hard, and it isn’t too easy. 

Some quick and (relatively) easy suggestions

  • Maybe you need a vacation (especially if you’ve been working from home the last year and are tired of your own four walls), even if that vacation is in a shed in the backyard without your mobile phone or laptop.
  • Be a mentor or find a mentor. Each requires you to think differently about what you’re doing. 
  • Imagine you are writing an article on how to get out of a rut. What would you suggest people do? Draw on your own experience to see what you’ve done in the past or what you’ve seen others do.

Sticking your head in the sand and hoping things improve will not work. Take responsibility and accountability, grab hold of that steering wheel and get out of the rut you’re in.

Rhonda Scharf, CSP, HoF, GSF is a Certified Speaking Professional, Hall of Fame, trainer and author based in Ottawa. She helps organizations feel motivated and educated through her interactive, realistic and fun training programs and keynote speeches. If ... (Read More)

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