Five Habits that Keep You Stuck in a Job You Hate

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In my late twenties, I finally bought a house.

I was so proud of that house that I spent a lot of time (and a fair amount of money) on continuous projects.

I painted and re-painted; I hand-finished my own wood furniture; I installed another half-bath and a deck; I landscaped like it was going out of style.

It was a stressful time at work, and on Fridays I would quip to my office mates that I was going to spend the weekend doing “gardening therapy” to unwind and shake off the stress of the week.

And it worked, very well. By Monday I felt refreshed and renewed, and (mostly) ready to jump back into the fray.

But you know what those projects also did? They kept me stuck in a job where I was burning out.

How is this, you ask? Isn’t it healthy to have hobbies, interests other than work, and personal renewal?

Well, yes – to a point.

You see, it depends on the purpose these activities serve, and the amount of time they take up. SOME time spent on renewal is important. Yet, it’s very easy for these same activities to actually get in the way of your larger goals in life.

During that time I was doing all the house projects, I was NOT spending time setting up mentors, seeking expert advice on my workplace situation, learning what else was out there in the nonprofit world, setting 10-year career goals, or planning my next career move. I was just seeking comfort – and escape. It wasn’t until my thirties, when my son was born, that I could look back and see where all the time had gone.

So, if you are stuck in a job you hate, or a job that saps your energy, take stock. Which life activities renew you – and which are just distracting you?

Here are my top five choices. Which ones apply to you?

Do you let the steam out of the kettle?

Imagine a kettle that is trying to boil. Every time it gets close, someone comes by and opens the flapper a bit, letting out just enough steam that the kettle never whistles.

Many comfort habits are not renewing, but simply ways to numb the pain – a glass of wine with dinner, a chocolate bar when you’re stressed, a night of mindless TV. (This is different from endorphin-releasing activities that increase health and manage stress, like exercise, meditation, and laughter with friends.)

The whistle is your inner voice, telling you to get the heck out of that job. Instead of lifting the flapper with numbing activities, resolve to take the kettle off the burner entirely by changing your work situation.

Do your hobbies and projects eat up more time than you think?

Some of those house projects I did were necessary repairs; others were useful and increased the value of the house. Yet, others were completely unnecessary and distracted me from the larger issues in my life. (Did I really need to repaint the dining room three times?)

Try this: fold a piece of paper into thirds (or make an Excel document with three columns.) In the first column, list all of the hobbies and projects of your household from the past six months that you can remember.

Now, consider which items were/are renewal activities, and which might be distracting/escape activities. In column two, re-write all the items that help you renew. In column three, write down anything from column one that are escape activities (or renewal activities you do so much they become escape activities).

What do you notice? Where in your life is there room to replace escape activities with time spent on your career?

Do you fritter away your rainy-day or business start-up money?

Back when I was a Program Director, one of my staff decided he wanted to take an extended trip to Australia. Between his job and his own small business, he probably had a comparable yearly income to me. Yet, while I went years without allowing myself a significant vacation, he achieved his goal in eight months, and saved enough to spend over two weeks in Australia.

How did he do it? Simple; he paid himself.

Once he set his goal, and figured out how much he needed to save, he started cutting out the extras in his life. And every time he did so, he put the money in a separate savings account. He did this with little things – his daily Starbucks allotment went in there, as he drank supermarket coffee brewed at home – as well as larger payments, such as the difference between the rent for his tiny apartment and the larger one he could have afforded.

This strategy works because you focus on the reward of moving closer to your goal, rather than the sense of deprivement when you deny yourself your daily and weekly comforts.

Have a career goal that you think is financially out of reach, like starting a business or getting more training? Try paying yourself.

Do you read and consume media to entertain yourself, rather than to better yourself?

In my late twenties, I spent a summer month consulting and co-facilitating on a corporate teambuilding project in another town upstate. During our weekend down time, I noticed that my host’s kitchen table was filled with books about business, leadership, and the health care industry. He had a goal of reading one book a week – an ambitious project. I was reading also – but mostly science fiction, my favorite. (And, to be honest, I was watching movies at the end of the night more than I was reading.)

Within 5 years, he transitioned over and became an in-house trainer in the health care industry, with a significant increase in salary. It wasn’t until I saw the connection between his reading habits and his career growth that I began doing the same – with great promotion results of my own.

Give up your favorite unwind-reading or show? No – we all need that sometimes; that falls in the renewal category. Instead, limit the time spent on these and spend time each week with material that expands your knowledge base, feeds your true passions, and furthers your career.

Is your social circle is the same size it’s been for years (or: Are your co-workers your main friends)?

Now, if you’re a natural introvert like me, having a small circle of close friends that you’ve known for years is part of how you define The Good Life. (I’ve known all my "besties" for over 15 years.) Or, you may be extroverted, but you hang out with your co-workers more than anyone else. This is perfectly fine, in and of itself, and I’m sure they are wonderful people.

And, if you want to get out of a rut and into a new job or career, it will help immensely to expand your social network. Here are three reasons why:

  1. New friends (or at least new acquaintances) will expose you to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new networking opportunities. Networking is still the number one way that people land new jobs.
  2.  If your friends are your co-workers, they may have a vested interest in keeping you at your current workplace – either to keep seeing your lovely face, or to validate their own decision to stay at their jobs. As a result, they may not be the best support network to encourage you when you have moments of doubt in your job search.
  3. Making new friends is a great way to exercise your “change muscle” and get used to change in your life. This, in turn, will make changing jobs or careers feel more comfortable, more doable.

Am I telling you to dump your current friends? Definitely not! Hold on to the people that love you and make your life sweeter.

Just add some new spice into the soup, okay? Join a new club; revive an old hobby; do something on Meetup; join a professional organization; spend some time on LinkedIn; talk to people at that conference you needed to go to anyway; etc.

If something doesn’t feel right, give it time OR try something else. In time, it will pay off in wonderful and unexpected ways.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes!