It can be terrifying when you feel like you are stuck in your career. I know it may be hard to believe, but it is a completely normal and common experience. Most people that I speak with, who have this fear, believe that it must mean that they have to make a 180° complete transition to feel better, but that’s not always the case. There are a variety of questions that you may want to ask yourself if you are feeling like you are in a career rut.

First, when you are in a career rut, you tend to feel like:

  • You have trouble facing the workdays. The weekends feel so short and like you have to compact all your happiness into these days.
  • The nights feel short and all you can manage are activities that just bring you pure joy (e.g., binge watching your favorite shows, playing video games, surfing social media) although they are likely not doing much to get you out of the situation.
  • You feel bored at work and the day feels light years long. When the clock strikes 5 or whatever time your day ends, you can’t believe it’s finally here.
  • You struggle to think about what’s next in your career because getting through the day feels like the only thing you can manage.
  • You feel stuck in almost every sense of the word. It feels hard to stop continuing the monotony. It feels hard to consider anything new. It feels hard to break the painful cycle or to do anything besides what you are doing.

Before you go to the 180° transition place, let’s do a 360° view of your situation. So, first let’s look at the easier causes to solve.

Are you burned out? 

  • Are you not engaging in self-care? Do you not even have an understanding of what self-care is for you or a routine that you engage in?
  • Did you just come off a very intense period at work?
  • Have you been working at an extreme pace with little or no vacation time?

If you feel like you may be burned out, you want to work on this first. Consider bringing a routine into your life that takes care of your physical, mental, and reflective self-care.

Physical self-care has to do with taking care of the body. I think that we often forget how bad sitting for so many hours is for your health and how connected the mind and body are. Consider how engaged you are in exercising regularly. During this period, cardio activity can have the greatest effect on relieving you. The magic numbers are 30 minutes 3x per week of cardio, which has been shown in research to be as effective as an antidepressant. You also want to think about physical activities that are useful in releasing tension and stress in the body like massage, stretching, and yoga.

Mental self-care has to do with practices that involve engaging in active problem solving and attempts to understand issues that may be coming up and what to do with them. I would consider some of those activities to be therapy, coaching, talking with mentors, peers, and family. Places and people that allow you to ventilate what’s going on and serve to validate your feelings and help you consider what to do.

The last type of self-care that I typically talk about is reflective self-care. This type of self-care is about being present and in the moment and they can include experiences like meditation, religious practices, mindfulness activities, and gratitude exercises. The goal is to practice being present, aware and to appreciate the moment.

If you have these things in place or put them in place and after a while, you are still not feeling out of the rut, keep all of these practices in place, and now ask yourself the next set of questions.

Are you in the wrong organization?

  • Do you still like the substance of the work, but the environment is killing the joy for you?
  • Do you see other people doing similar technical things and feel a sense of curiosity, interest or envy about their experience?
  • Do you want some type of external reward (e.g., an increase in pay, better title, greater benefits) and this gets in the way from enjoying the work?
  • Do you feel like you are in a toxic work culture that prevents you from enjoying anything about the work?

If you feel the job could still excite you if you just were doing it somewhere else, you may want to consider finding a new organization. The key is to do some work around what you are looking for in the next work environment, so that you are clear about what you need next.

A simple and easy exercise to begin that process is to “The 30 Things Exercise.” In this exercise, you list 30 things that you want in the next job and 30 things that you don’t want. For example, one of the things that you might want is “greater flexibility and the ability to work from home” and one of the things that you don’t want is “a micromanaging boss.” The reason that there should be at least 30 things on each list is because it helps you to see themes amongst the responses, and to get an exhaustive list. This can be incredibly useful as you start to talk to your network as they will likely ask you what you are looking for in your next role or organization and you will be able to provide a very thoughtful response.

And lastly, the 180° questions:

Are you in the wrong career?

  • Do you not enjoy the substance of your work?
  • Is it hard for you to imagine liking any role that you can see in your industry, even when you consider roles that are 1-2 levels up?
  • Do you feel very disengaged in the work and feel a loss of meaning (i.e., do you not see the purpose of your work, do you feel like it doesn’t matter)?
  • Are other careers and/or interests that have career potential taking up more space in your life?

If you are in the wrong career and you need to make a significant pivot, it’s not uncommon. There is an often cited statistic that no one can every find the source for that says that in the US, individuals change career 5-7 times in a lifetime. As a career and executive coach, I can tell you if it isn’t happening this often, it is still happening a lot.

In addition, I am a strong believer that we need greater career education in our schools and universities. We often don’t get taught systematic and thoughtful ways to make career decisions and there is a significant body of literature more than 70 years old that has developed scientific systems and ways to think about career decision-making. I always say this and truly believe that our educational system does a horrific job teaching us how to make informed decisions about our career development and often gives us faulty and limited information about certain careers.

How many times do we hear things like – “you won’t make any money in education,” and “if you want career stability choose accounting?” These simplistic assertions are not true for everyone and there is so much more to making career decisions.  Stability and economic security often stand in the forefront of career decisions making, but you can be stable and secure in a variety of professions even ones you would never associate with these qualities.

In addition, many people fear that you if you make a career shift you have to start at the bottom and that’s often not true. If you have had a career already, there are always a variety of transferable skills that you can leverage. You just want to develop a cogent narrative around the shift and leverage the skills and experience you already have and the network you have been building.

It can be scary if you feel like you are in the final category, and you need to make a career change, but there are ways to scaffold the change and make it slowly in pieces. You don’t want to make your career decision based on these types of narrowing viewpoints. You want to make career choices based on a knowledge of your skills, abilities, interests, personality type, motivators, values, work environment preferences, etc. and careers that have a good fit with those things and therefore, you. There’s definitely no guarantee in any career that you will always stay happy in a chosen field, but the greater knowledge you have about yourself and the career opportunities that are possible, the greater your chance of making an informed and thoughtful decisions about what’s next for you.

The key if you are stuck in a career rut is to be curious, ask yourself questions, and work through the easier potential solutions first before you go to the ones that require greater change and transition. As my post-doc supervisor so ingeniously said to me during my last year of training, when you are thinking about a career change, DO SOMETHING. The inertia only begets more inertia.

When you have been in a career rut in the past, what have you done to get out of it?