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Have you ever felt like you were stuck in a rut at work? Like your job was going nowhere, and you didn’t know how to get a new career you could feel passionate about? Do you remember the days when your job was new and exciting and you looked forward to getting to do it? If you’re wondering what happened to those days as you force yourself to go into your workplace, you may be dealing with a career rut. The good news – it’s totally normal, and today we’re going to cover how to get out of a rut at work.
Stuck In a Rut at Work – What It Is
When you started your career, you likely felt some sense of excitement. Maybe it was because you didn’t know what, exactly, each day would bring. Maybe it was because you were fresh and this was new. But those days feel like they were a long time ago, and now you force yourself to go into work. It feels like the movie “Groundhog Day,” where each day is the same thing. There’s no joy in your career.
The good news is, it’s entirely possible to get out of a rut. If you’re proactive enough, you can get it before it transforms into full-on burnout.
Rut or Burnout?
What’s the difference between a rut and burnout? On the surface, not much. In my opinion – as someone who has suffered from varying degrees of both rut and burnout in her previous jobs – it has a lot to do with the level of negativity you suffer from.
When I was in a job where I felt trapped in a rut, each day felt the same. I went to work, did my tasks, left. The tasks were all fairly similar day after day. There was no real variety.
Burnout was similar, but with the addition of such a burning hatred for my job that it transformed me as a person. When I was burned out on my job, I needed antidepressants just to cope with it.
If you’re stuck in a career rut, you can still function normally outside of work. When your attitude towards your job begins to impact your life outside of work, that’s burnout.
If you’re in a rut, the time to act is now. You can possibly recover from career burnout, but it’s much more difficult, and many people find that the only way to do so is by switching careers entirely.
Related: What is Career Burnout?
Stuck In A Rut – Why Does This Happen?
Before you can fix the problem, you need to know how you wound up there in the first place.
If you want to know how to get out of a rut at work, you need to know why you fell into one to begin with.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to use the example of Tim. Tim is a paper salesman who is good at his job, but isn’t thrilled with it. So let’s examine why Tim might be in a career rut.
- The excitement is gone: much like an aging relationship, the spark is gone. The pride Tim took in his new role, especially the first few weeks when he was telling people yes, he is a paper salesman now – that’s gone.
- You’ve mastered your role and lack a challenge: Tim was assigned to sell the 20lb white paper (you likely know it as printer paper). Tim is amazing at selling printer paper. Tim can sell printer paper to a national security organization where they don’t print anything because no one needs to have state secrets lying around like that. But Tim hates printer paper. It no longer represents a challenge. Tim wants a challenge. Tim wants colored cardstock.
- People are competing for new roles and promotions: Tim knows there are openings that come up occasionally for posts like Assistant Regional Manager. But Tim has to compete with his co-workers, like Dwayne, for the position. Instead of a community of collaboration, he is stuck in a community of competition.
- Your work/life balance is skewed: Tim, like many people, took some time to get firmly into his career before starting a family. Tim now has a wife and kids, and is struggling to balance his roles as paper salesman, husband, and father.
- You want deeper meaning in your life: the company Tim works for produces paper from newly-cut trees. Tim is becoming increasingly passionate about recycling and wants to see paper produced with recycled content. He’s not happy that his company pretends recycling isn’t A Thing.
- You changed jobs and are struggling: Tim uses his experience as a paper salesman to move to another competitor. His new boss puts him in charge of selling 40lb paper. After all, since Tim was an expert at selling 20lb paper, this should be easy, right? But Tim is struggling with selling 40lb paper, which causes him to question if his decision to change jobs was right.
It has been suggested that on the whole, job satisfaction levels tend to follow a U shape – with high job satisfaction at the beginning of your career, a lowering and leveling off in the middle, and increased job satisfaction as you approach retirement. Some of these factors certainly contribute. But how do you recognize when it truly is a rut?
How to Recognize When You’re In A Rut
If some of the “whys” have happened to you, you are at increased odds of falling into a rut. Other signs you may be in one:
- You’re questioning if you want to continue in your career field.
- You’re feeling very “un” – unhappy, unfulfilled, unmotivated, unsatisfied.
- You are less productive and efficient.
- You find yourself looking for excuses to take the day off.
- You’re feeling stressed, burned out, or depressed.
Remember – if it’s just impacting your work life, it’s probably a rut. If it’s impacting your whole life, it’s burnout – and that’s a little more serious.
Related: LSP 007: Dealing With Burnout
How to Pull Yourself Out of a Career Rut
Cool – so you know you’re in a career rut, but what do you need to do to fix it? Fixing a career rut has a lot in common with fixing career burnout – although unlike burnout, you don’t usually need to resort to finding an entirely new career.
The first step is to identify exactly what your problem is, and then find the solution for that problem. I know, easy, right? But a large part of this is going to rely on simple communication skills.
Is your job lacking excitement? What new responsibilities could you ask about adding on?
Are you competing with other people for promotions? What can you do to help yourself stand out?
Do you seek deeper meaning from your career? Can you propose initiatives that would get your company active in the community or positively change something?
Are you struggling with a new role and feeling in over your head? Be honest with your supervisor and see if they can provide any worthwhile advice for you.
Remember – your supervisor is not a mind reader. You need to talk. You need to be able to communicate what’s going on. It’s not fair to get mad at them because “they should know.” You need to communicate when you’re having a problem – so make sure you’re doing that!
Find Meaning In Your Job
Sometimes, bringing the meaning back to your job can help bring the interest back. Tying into what I just mentioned, you can start by asking your supervisor to give you more meaningful tasks. If there’s something you particularly want to work on because you feel like it’s actively making a difference – ask about being assigned to work on it!
Assist your co-workers with their tasks when possible – especially if you have newer employees that you can assist in a mentor-like capacity. If your workplace offers any sort of official training program, see about participating.
Do a random act of kindness each day for someone. If you can do it anonymously, even better! When the water cooler gossip is wondering who’s doing the nice things for everyone, you’ll get some satisfaction and that particular glow that just can’t be duplicated.
Set Meaningful Goals
Give yourself goals to work towards – whether those are personal or professional. Make sure your goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound. Set one, five, and ten year goals. Put some effort towards your goals on a daily basis. Giving yourself something to work towards can be immensely helpful.
Increase Your Level of Difficulty
Add a challenge to your work. What can you learn to help improve your work and take on harder tasks? What are the requirements for becoming a supervisor – can you achieve those qualifications (even if you have no desire to supervise people)? Can you ask to be assigned the harder tasks? For certain personality types (high achievers), being stuck in a job without a challenge is a sure path to a rut or burnout.
Find a Mentor
Remember that concept of the U shape in job satisfaction? Find someone further up the curve than you are. Someone who has been there, done that, and can help encourage you in your career.
It may be that your current position, by its nature, is just not enough for you. Are there any positions that would be a better fit? If you’re unsure, talk to people at your company and see what other options are out there.
Improve Your Life Outside of Work
This is getting back into “burnout” territory, but having a higher quality of life outside of your work time can positively impact your on-the-job performance. Are you having a difficult time at work because you have a mattress that needs to be replaced, and you’re not getting quality sleep? Are you distracted thinking about your relationships? Having a higher quality “personal” life will help your work life improve.
Improve Your Life At Work
How much do you cooperate with your co-workers? Having a sense of teamwork, the feeling that you’re “all in this together,” will make you feel more positive about your job than feeling like it’s a cutthroat environment where you’re all fighting to survive. Find one person to band together with to start, then extend it from there.
Change Your Mindset
There’s a lot to be said about the power of your mindset. When you start grumbling and focusing on the fact you hate your job – you’re going to have a bad day! Find three positive things to focus on when you’re tempted to be negative.
Yes, You Can Break Out Of Your Career Rut
I hope this article has given you some help if you’ve been stuck in a career rut – and if it feels like this won’t be enough, I encourage you to go read up on burnout and see if you might be stuck there instead (that’s fixable too!).
People are often stuck in a career rut because they find their jobs to be unexciting, unfulfilling, or the same thing on a daily basis. Just because you’re stuck in a career rut doesn’t mean you have to stay there! You have the power to turn it around!
Clark, Andrew, Andrew Oswald, and Peter Warr. 1996. Is Job Satisfaction U-Shaped In Age?. Ebook. http://www.andrewoswald.com/docs/jooparticle.pdf.
“Beware The Mid-Career Slump (Paywall)”. Mindtools.Com. https://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/mid-career-slump.php.
“Coping With A Midlife Crisis (Paywall)”. Mindtools.Com. https://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/midlife-crisis.php.
Has this resonated with you? I’d love to hear from you….
What action are you going to take as a result of reading this article? Let me know your thoughts below. Remember – your observations may inspire someone else who needs help to act.