Turn the Job You Have Into the Job You Want

What you get out of a job is a function of what you put into it

Illustration: Justin Cassano

Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert who wrote Off the Clock and Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is here to answer your scheduling questions. Check back every week for more advice, and send your own productivity problems to asklaura@medium.com. (Your name will not be used.)

Dear Laura: I’m not thrilled with my job, but in these uncertain economic times, it’s a steady paycheck. What can I do to become more excited about my day-to-day life?

With unemployment numbers rising fast, a reliable paycheck is a wonderful thing. But given how much of our lives we spend working, it’s frustrating to have a job that’s only about the paycheck. This is true even in uncertain times. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to turn the job you have into the job you want.

In some ways, a job is like a relationship. It’s easy to take any long-term situation for granted, but what you get out of a relationship is a function of how much effort you put into it. Acknowledging that there’s a problem is a good first step, but complaining about your unhappiness to higher-ups, in itself, is unlikely to help: Most managers would rather see you present a well-thought-through proposal than take it upon themselves to solve your malaise.

So spend some time thinking about what you can do to improve your day-to-day life. Ask yourself: When, over the past few years, have you been happiest at work? What could you replicate from those situations? What kinds of projects would you like to spend your time doing?

Next, think about how to make the case that you should shift some of your daily focus. From your manager’s perspective, what would be the upside of you spending more of your time doing the kind of work you prefer? Maybe you enjoy writing, and don’t have much opportunity to do it in your current situation. If you know your boss needs to deliver a big report about your department’s work, for example, you could offer to write a draft for her.

Perhaps your happiest times at work have featured particular colleagues. Check in with them frequently, and let them know you’re interested in working together more. If a favorite co-worker gets promoted into management, finding a way to join her team could quickly make your job more fulfilling. You can also do some sleuthing to figure out the most exciting departments in your company, and then work your internal network to be considered for open positions there.

Learning new skills is a great way to refresh your work life, and make yourself more attractive for new opportunities, internal or external. See if your company will pay for any courses or certifications. If that’s not in the budget right now, there are also plenty of free options — many of them available online.

There’s also great satisfaction to glean from building expertise. Not all thought leadership needs to involve a book or a TED talk. You can write a short white paper on a topic related to your job and circulate it around your organization, post a how-to article on an internal blog, or host a lunch training session or discussion.

Of course, the relationship analogy isn’t perfect — at some point, it may just be time for a change. As you work to improve your day-to-day life on the job, you can and should be simultaneously looking for opportunities outside your organization. Check in with your network — primarily to see how everyone’s doing in these anxious days, but also to put your name in people’s minds. Even in downturns, some people are still hiring.

In the meantime, you can look for satisfaction outside of work. In the midst of a crisis, many people are looking for meaningful ways to contribute to the greater good. Volunteering can answer this need, and is always a good way to shake things up. If you volunteer with professional associations or nonprofits associated with your industry, or mentor people in your field, you’ll meet people outside your company and you’ll likely find yourself feeling more excited about life too. That’s a double win.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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