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Breaking Free from a Job Rut

Who isn’t feeling job stress? With U.S. unemployment at 10 percent, even those of us with jobs are feeling out of sorts: less stability, more pressure and perhaps the haunting question, “Is this all there is?” Then there’s the survivors’ guilt that reminds us, “I should be thankful just to have a job.” Sometimes this thought helps; other times, it only adds to our angst.

It’s possible, of course, to feel thankful and “stuck” at the same time. There are two ways to deal with this latter feeling: one, by changing the situation, and two, by changing your response to it. Taking both ways into account, here are six tips to help you break free:

1. Accept how you feel, but don’t let it poison your attitude—or your performance. Maybe you’re feeling bored. Burned out. Restless. Overworked. Underappreciated. Maybe you’re turned off by the company culture or your relationship with your boss. Sometimes, the dissatisfaction has more to do with your personal life. You like your job in Seattle, let’s say, but you’re tired of being away from your family in Chicago.

Whatever it is you’re feeling, accept it, rather than trying to rationalize it away. But at the same time, recognize that venting at work is only going to make you more miserable, and hurt your chances of improving your lot. Vent instead to God, a career counselor, your family and friends (sparingly, so they don’t start screening your calls), and/or in a journal.

2. Figure out whether you need to repair or replace. Sorting out the answer can take some time and discernment—and the solution isn’t always obvious. For example, I heard of one worker whose remedy for a bad boss was not to leave the company but to help his boss find a new job! I’m not suggesting you take this approach yourself, only pointing out that the most brilliant solutions may not be the first ones that pop to mind.

3. Take control of your professional development. A twentysomething I know recently confided that she wasn’t learning anything new from her job, and her boss—a nice guy—didn’t have anything new to teach her. So she decided to read books, study for the GMAT and generally pull together her own professional development plan. Ideally, this wouldn’t be necessary, but in reality, it almost always is. Even in the best circumstances, who’s going to care more about the development of your gifts than you do?

Your commute is an ideal time to listen to audio books or podcasts—anything to feed your mind and soul something educational or inspirational. The longer your commute, the greater the opportunity. For example, five hours of travel per week translates into 250 hours per year, which translates into more than six 40-hour weeks of prime learning time.

If your goal is to move up or move on, what knowledge or skills could you gain in six weeks’ time, that would most help your cause?

4. Talk to your boss (in a constructive way). Assuming you and your boss have a good rapport, and you’ve determined the situation may be salvageable, share your concerns. Just be sure to focus on solutions and opportunities, rather than problems and difficulties. For example, instead of complaining that you’re bored, try asking how you could be groomed for greater responsibilities—or possibly take on a new project that would expand your contribution. The more of the solution you’ve already figured out, the more likely it is that your boss will help you.

If you’re not learning anything new, consider getting involved with a professional association, or finding a mentor—someone who can teach you another aspect of your company or industry. I have always found it helpful and energizing to talk to other people who know more than I do.

5. If necessary, target your new job search. As Richard Nelson Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?, once said, “Have a Plan B for everything, except your spouse.” If you’ve determined you need to look for a new job, here are three points to include as you target your search: your desired location, your desired field or industry (this will determine what you talk about all day), and your job function within that field.

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Once you start applying and interviewing, you can also evaluate other factors, such as opportunities for growth and the dynamics between you and your future boss. There’s an old saying, “People don’t leave companies—they leave bosses.” So if you find a boss you like and respect, you’ll be well on your way to job satisfaction.

6. Resolve to finish strong. The young woman I mentioned earlier, who’s not learning anything new on the job, continues to exert the drive and self-discipline to excel. She’s not only a top producer in her company, she’s known by those she works with for being an “upper.”

What difference does this make? All the difference in the world. In the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul wrote that we are all slaves to one of two things: sin or obedience. Our example, even in something as ordinary as our jobs, is an opportunity to imitate Christ and draw others closer to Him. (Is there any better job than this?)

Monsignor Dennis Clark wrote, “At this very moment, you are building the house that you will live in forever.” (Click here to see the comment in context.) Likewise, every day with your job performance and attitude, you’re helping to write the story you’ll tell—and that others will tell—when you apply for your next job.

Gina DeLapa is the director of Real-World Etiquette, LLC and an adjunct instructor in the University of San Diego graduate counseling program.

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