Articles > Leash the dog days to career benefit

Leash the dog days to career benefit
Globe & Mail, August 10, 2007

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Getting work done at this time of the year can be frustrating. Half the people you need to reach are out of the office. So why not take advantage of the slower pace to get your own work house in order?

Many savvy career managers say that this is their favourite time of year for re-evaluating their work lives. The lack of deadline pressures means uninterrupted time to reflect on what they like and don't like about their jobs, and plan how they want to invest their energies over the next 12 months.

Another advantage? Better networking. Professional contacts and co-workers are less likely to be in corporate mode, more relaxed and in better humour, enabling more meaningful connections.

So rather than fighting the vacation demons, why not shift your energies to your personal development? Here's how to use the rhythms of late summer to your career advantage:

Revisit old scripts

"I need this job because it's great for my resume, even if I hate the work."
"I only work this hard because my family needs the money."
"I will be fired if I refuse extra work."
"My boss sometimes acts like a jerk, but he really doesn't mean it."

Any of these sound familiar? We all tell ourselves stories about what we like and don't like about our work, and why we do what we do. Sometimes these stories are true, or, at least, were once true. Sometimes they were never true. Regardless, they tend to take on a life of their own - and persist well beyond their best sell date.

We change. Our environments change. And failure to periodically revisit whether these scripts are based on reality, or still hold true, can lead us seriously astray.

I know many people who continue in jobs they hate, having told themselves for too many years that "things will improve." I also know many people who have turned down great opportunities because they "can't afford the risk" when, in fact, their finances are in fine order.

These scripts also often involve projections about how other people would react to us making changes - a parent will disapprove of quitting a job and going back to school, or a spouse won't be happy about cutting back work and income to gain time. Yet, all too often, the other party has not even been consulted.

Even if others do feel this way, does it mean they are right, or that you should slavishly do what others, not you, see as important?

Reflect on your work

The job that was great last year may have lost its lustre. Or what once may have been a poor match might now actually be a better one. This is the time to figure that out.

Be prepared to have a tough conversation with yourself. What aspects of your work give you satisfaction? What aspects demoralize you? Has anything changed?

This usually involves some psychic excavation about what is most important to you, how your values are being met and what you are compromising. Sometimes, unhappiness is the result of one small thing that takes on disproportionate significance.

When people conduct a meaningful assessment, they often discover their likes far outweigh their dislikes or that the one small thing can be fixed. No job, after all, is perfect.

When you deconstruct your job, be precise in your thinking. Instead of saying, "I hate my boss" - which leaves little room to manoeuvre emotionally and no options but to be miserable or quit - consider what aspects of his or her behaviour are a bad match. Too controlling? Too hands off? Too critical?

Then you'll be able to decide whether you can come up with ways to overcome it, weigh whether you really can deal with it, or realize it's just too awful and you have to move on.

Identify meaningful goals

Before you get caught in the tailspin of business demands, consider what you want to accomplish over the next 12 months. A year from now, what is the one thing you'd like to be able to say you did that gave you a huge sense of pride? Do it.

Think broadly about all life arenas - from work to volunteering, artistic to athletic endeavours. The satisfaction from achievement in one will spill over into others.

Consider more education

At this time of year, many people think about going back to school to enhance their career prospects at their current employer, move on to a new career path or satisfy a personal aspiration. But it's not for everyone.

In making your decision, take into account the many opportunity costs (the money to fund further education if you do go back, the loss of potential future income if you don't pursue a higher professional designation, the time that will be taken away from family while you're studying, and the distractions from your job while you focus on the degree).

Consider, also, whether education will actually be the ticket to greater opportunities. Some midlife professionals are disappointed when they discover that employers would rather hire their fresh-from-school younger counterparts or that their previous experience in another profession is not recognized.

While younger workers usually derive significant career benefits, for most mid-lifers, the benefits are personal rather than professional; completing the degree never finished or pursuing the educational path not taken is among their most meaningful accomplishments.

Rid annoying to-dos

Whether it's organizing your files or cleaning out your in-box, get done the things you've procrastinated about.

Although completing these tasks may not be all that intellectually challenging, getting them out of the way, and out of your head, is always emotionally satisfying.

Cultivate vacation attitude

Become less time-urgent. Avoid the cult of busyness. Discipline yourself to respond to demands that are strategically important and meet personal and professional needs, as opposed to simply being on automatic pilot.

In other words, be intelligently lazy and engage in activities for the right reasons, realistically taking into account the cost of refusing. (Hint: Most people overestimate the negative consequences of saying no.)

Do something different

Stretch yourself. Show a different side of yourself to co-workers. If you are normally very reserved, share with colleagues something of a personal nature. If you are normally very talkative, sit back, ask questions and listen to others.

Engage in behaviour that feels a bit uncomfortable. Approach someone you wouldn't typically interact with and ask him or her to lunch. Ask one interesting, maybe even nosy question - something that pushes you interpersonally into new territory.

Pay attention to what you feel when you try out new behaviour. Do you like the results? Do you find it stimulating? What clues does it provide about what you may be missing in your life now?

Have a tough conversation
This is the best time to have that awkward conversation with your boss or a co-worker about frictions affecting how you feel about your job. It's never easy, but at least they are more likely to be in good humour.

If you find it difficult to discuss matters with the potential for conflict or hurting someone's feelings, jot down key points. Think about the consequences realistically; we tend to imagine the worst.

When you have that conversation, don't attack; instead, describe your personal feelings. Your work life may become more satisfying if you clear the air.

Make new connections

When people are more relaxed and less driven by time constraints, they are much more receptive to networking. So use the opportunity to connect with someone in another work area or someone about whom you have always been curious.

Ask insightful questions about them and their work. Establish a personal connection. Don't think about the contact's usefulness in purely professional terms but also as intellectual or emotional stimulation - an opportunity to add another smart or amusing person to your network.

Research opportunities

Start by shopping on home ground. Though we all imagine that people working for other employers make more money, get more recognition and put in fewer hours, the grass is rarely greener elsewhere.

Look at lateral moves you can make, or change the configuration of your current job to add new challenges. Sometimes it is necessary to move into a new work situation. Mine your network to meet recruiters and contacts from other companies. Use every opportunity to learn something new about another industry or an interesting trend.

If you are considering going solo, this is also a great time to look into whether you have what it takes for self-employment and for laying the groundwork for making the move.

Decide whether to move on

Know when it's over. If you can't stand your boss or are bored silly, chances are things are not going to improve, especially if you have already tried all of these tactics.

If you are truly miserable, nothing is worth it. It's best to be able to look back a year from now and know that you really did put your work life in order.

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