Remember when you first started your current job? Just like in the early throes of dating, you found every interaction exciting. Even the Monday morning staff meeting! Your beloved could do no wrong.
But then, for many people, something happens. After a few years, you start to wake up every morning wondering “Really? Is this what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life?” Small irritations loom large.
But you don’t have to quit. It is possible to rekindle that old spark. Jesse Sostrin, a consultant and author of the new book Beyond the Job Description, notes that “The reality is you don’t have to love it. You have to fall in love with the idea of working at it.” Here’s how:
Years ago, while running a business for engineering and electronics conglomerate Siemens, Denice Kronau burned out. She blames a mix of ugly travel–flying to India for a four hour meeting, then flying straight back–and perfectionism: “I could play with PowerPoint up until the moment we would beam it up on the wall,” she says.
She planned to quit, but was convinced instead to take an unpaid six month sabbatical (which, by the way, is a great management tool). That gave her time to ponder her life. If a sabbatical’s not in the cards, use some of your vacation or personal days. In a pinch, even a Saturday morning at a coffee shop can work. Claw yourself time to think.
When were you last happy at work? What would you love to be doing with your time and your life? If the answer looks absolutely nothing like your current job, that’s fine, but it might. Kronau realized that, at age 46, she couldn’t retire completely, and “I didn’t want to farm or open a bed and breakfast,” she says.
“During the time I was off, I figured out I loved what I did. I just didn’t love how I did it.” She came back to Siemens to do various projects and other roles, a journey she describes in her book Falling in Love with Work. She is now the company’s Chief Diversity Officer.
If you’re having a hard time picturing what you’d like to do when you grow up, think about what you don’t want to do. “I think people can more easily say what they hate than what they like,” Kronau says. Is the opposite of what you hate what you like? Maybe not, but it might be a clue.
“Why do we wait until exit interviews to tell the truth?” Sostrin laments. It’s a good question. Many people assume their bosses know what they want and are ignoring them, but it’s just as likely that everyone’s caught up in their own little worlds.
“Most unmet expectations that lead to relationships breaking down were never spoken in the first place,” says Sostrin. “Instead of assuming you have made your case, make it again.” Propose your dream project. Ask to be put in charge of something. If you want more money or a flexible schedule, ask for that too. If your alternative is to quit, what do you have to lose?
Protect time on your calendar for the parts of your job you love. If that can’t happen during the work day right now, find some other time to do it (I recently wrote about a software engineer who got up to code from 3-5 a.m. before going back to sleep). Most of us came to our work for the stuff of our jobs, not the meetings, the emails, and the like. Those are necessary tools to do your job, but they are not the job itself.
Keep your eye on the prize. Phil Cooke, a media producer in Los Angeles and author of One Big Thing, a book about figuring out your passion, says “Most of my days are filled with budgets, research, pitching projects, writing, or travel. But the truth is, I produce documentary films that impact people’s lives! In the day to day distractions, it’s easy to forget my bigger purpose.” If you feel you’re not spending enough time actually reveling in that bigger purpose, try not returning emails for a few hours and see what happens.
As Siemens’ Chief Diversity Officer, Kronau still travels like a madwoman. But when she flies overnight to Europe from the U.S., she schedules her first meetings later in the day so she can take a nap or hit the gym rather than showering and going straight into her first event. If anything is lost in efficiency, it is made up for by her being much happier.
Cooke recommends looking at your surroundings. “Change your office,” he says. “It sounds silly, but spending years of eight- to 10-hour days in the same environment will drive anyone nuts. If it’s in your power, re-paint (even if you have to do it), change the furniture, the plants, or the wall hangings. Sprucing up the office is a shot in the arm for anyone.” Fixing a pain point is a little harder if the pain point is a person (see point #6) but you may be able to volunteer for an assignment that will have you working with different people most of the time.
That would be your own attitude. Smile. Thank people. Refuse to give difficult people power over your emotions. Consciously list one awesome thing that happened every day. Says Cooke, “Very often, we let the day to day frustrations cloud the bigger purpose of why we took the job to begin with.” He recommends that you “Look at the big picture of what your company’s doing and the part you play. Chances are, your position is far more critical than you realize.”