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How to Improve Your Career and Do More of What You Love

People spelling the word love with their hands.

If you are feeling unengaged at work, underutilized, or overall miserable, you may be thinking about your next job move. You have likely perused and may have already haphazardly thrown your resume at an interesting opportunity. If you are like most people, you may be dedicating one night a week to your search, hoping something will excite you.

But neglecting to spend the time evaluating what you want in your next job makes it difficult to know what to target. If you are stuck in this rut, you may go to an outside source, such as a career assessment or high-priced coach, to tell you what direction to take. While this can be beneficial, there is an easier way to get started.

Focus on starting small and simple

If you think about it, you are trying to identify what you like and don’t like, right? As a career coach and job-search strategies trainer, I work with plenty of individuals on the job hunt and find that many of them complicated evaluating their next job move by not assessing what they liked and disliked in their current role, and what shifts would make a positive impact on their lives.

Below is a story about a young professional I worked with who successfully took action to improve his career and how you can do the same:

Jeff's story: A case study in figuring out what you love, and how to do more of it

Jeff was a few years out of college and in a nonprofit development role. He found that he didn’t like what he was doing and seemed to have trouble pinpointing the pieces of his job that he enjoyed.

I suggested he take five minutes before he left work each day to write down what he liked and didn’t like about it. I recommended keeping it simple; draw a line down the middle of the page with likes on the left and dislikes on the right.

During that time, he did not try to evaluate one day against the next; he simply made his likes and dislikes list for each day. After two weeks, Jeff reviewed all his entries and was able to identify common themes. The results were remarkable. Jeff discovered that he enjoyed interacting with constituents, which he previously thought he didn’t like. He uncovered that it was the circumstances around his meetings and the lack of clarity of goals on meeting outcomes that frustrated him.

Because of this exercise, Jeff was able to take two action steps that made a big impact on his career.

  1. He had a clarifying meeting with his supervisor to establish meeting goals. This allowed him to focus on the relationship-building aspect of the process (which is what he enjoyed).
  2. He realized he actually did enjoy development, but he didn’t particularly like the type of organization he was doing it for at the time. While the mission was admirable, the issues didn’t matter much to him in his personal life. He realized that finding an organization that aligned with his personal interests of helping at-risk youth would be ideal. Having this renewed focus helped him to target his networking activities and secure a development role in an organization that he was passionate about.

Starting with five minutes a day for ten days may help to uncover what you want in your next career move.

What did you do today?

There’s a reason to start with today rather than writing about what you did yesterday or the day before. Test it out by taking a moment to ask yourself: “What did I do at work or school yesterday? The day before? Last week?” Sit down and think about the activities you were involved in each day over the last week.

You’ll likely find that it is extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly what you did. If you are like me, there are a few meetings or one event that stand out, and the rest feels like a blur of emailing.

Let’s start with today.

Action: Set aside five minutes at the end of each day for the next ten working days to record what you liked and disliked about each part of your day

What activities did you enjoy doing? Which were challenging or didn’t light you up? Record this exercise in a physical journal, Google document, or a notes app on your phone. What matters is that you complete the exercise consistently. My recommendation is to use a few simple sheets of paper or a notebook. Draw a line down the middle and on the left put likes and on the right put dislikes.

Make every effort to complete this before you leave work. Once you leave, your perspective and mindset changes.

As you record, feel free to personalize it. Write in shorthand, phrases, or long-form, or use pictures and other visuals instead. Your main goal is to record what happened during your day and put them into one of two categories: like or dislike.

Do more of what you love

At the end of ten days, set aside time to reflect on your list. It can be helpful to get an outside perspective, so consider sharing it with a friend or family member. Reflect on all ten days and identify themes in each respective list. Now consider what is behind those themes. Ask yourself if they involve people, process, policy, function, etc.

At this point, you should be getting a clear picture of what you like. Use this information to focus on bringing more of the activities you enjoy into your workday. Reflect on whether you can effectively do this at your current location or if you’ll need to pursue a new role. Here are some questions that may help:

  • What percentage of time are you able to do the things you like in your current role?
  • Have you shared with your supervisor what you enjoy and asked how you can build on that?
  • Are there other roles at your organization that embody many of the activities that interest you?
  • Do you have the flexibility to shape your current job description?

Action: Create a plan to get more of what you love, based on your reflection

For example, Jeff crafted his plan once he discovered what he can control in his work day. This started by having a frank conversation with his supervisor about what he liked and how he could do more of that. He found that his supervisor was receptive to the conversation and even commented on how much she appreciated knowing how she can help Jeff feel engaged at work.

The most challenging part for Jeff was feeling comfortable acknowledging to his supervisor that he didn’t like parts of his job. He had to get past the notion that he was supposed to act like he loved every part of his job to his supervisor. Jeff saw an immediate impact on his productivity, which he measured by acknowledging how engaged he felt at work. He found that he was excited to tackle the things he cared about because he was actively managing the parts of his job he didn’t like.

Naturally, if you increase what you like about your job, the things you don’t enjoy will diminish in importance. The reality is there will always be a portion of your job that you don’t like; the key is keeping that portion as small as possible.

Make a plan to attack the parts of the job you don’t like as Jeff did

Here are a few simple steps:

  • Schedule the things you don’t like early in the day. Get them off your plate early so they don’t weigh you down.
  • Reward yourself for tackling the projects you aren’t looking forward to.
  • Work on that idea you are excited about at the end of the day so you can leave the office feeling energized.
  • Talk to your supervisor and coworkers about your battle with the areas you aren’t as excited about. You’ll be surprised that others may share or be able to help with your plan.

For Jeff, identifying very clear action items for his current situation and his future made a big difference. Like him, you can aim for short and long-term action steps based on what you uncover. For the short term, ask yourself, “what can I do to impact my situation today?” A sample goal could be talking to your supervisor or rewarding yourself for completing an undesirable task.

For the long term, start to research roles at your current organization and other organizations that encompass more of what you love. A long term goal could involve positioning yourself for a different role at your organization. You can begin by doing informational interviews with people in positions that pique your interest.

While you may not feel completely confident as you transition your career, using your current role to guide you can help you form clear action steps to move your career in the direction you want. One thing you can be certain about is that, if you start today, you won’t regret it tomorrow!

About the Author: Tom Dowd joined Muhlenberg College in February of 2016 as executive director of Career Services. He is a career development educator and career coach with more than 11 years of experience creating and delivering career programs for diverse audiences in higher education, nonprofit, and corporate environments.

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