Dear Annie: What can you do if you’re bored with your job, but you’re kind of stuck with it (at least for now)? I arrived here about four years ago, when my husband’s employer moved him from its headquarters in a major city to a bigger position based in a smaller metro area. At first, I felt lucky to have landed in my current job, partly because I was excited about the opportunity to make some interesting changes here, and partly because and there really isn’t anywhere else nearby where I could find comparable work. Besides, I do like the company and the people I work with.
But the job itself has become so routine and unchallenging that lately I’m finding it harder and harder to drag myself in to the office every day. Granted, this isn’t the world’s worst problem, and I feel like a big whiner for even asking, but do you have any suggestions on how to get my mojo back? — The Thrill Is Gone
Dear T.T.I.G.: First of all, I don’t agree that you’re a big whiner — or, if you are, then so are more than half of all U.S. workers, according to a recent Conference Board poll. Slightly over 50% of employees surveyed told the researchers they’re dissatisfied with their work. (Dept. of Glass Half Full: That’s nevertheless the highest level of U.S. job satisfaction since 2005.)
Still, people often have practical reasons for staying put, notes Laura Berman Fortgang, a longtime executive coach best known for her terrific TED talk on how to change careers. She advises clients to approach re-inventing their jobs with what she calls “the three A’s: Assess, adjust, and advance.” See if these three steps work for you.
—Assess. “Make a list of everything you don’t like about your job, or everything that bores you about it,” says Fortgang. Be as specific as you possibly can. Many people who feel restless suffer from a “vague malaise,” she adds. “But if you don’t name it, you can’t change it.” Even things that may seem like trivial details, such as an exasperating daily commute, belong on this list. Then, on the opposite side of the same page, write down what you do want. Pay special attention to any aspect of your job, however minor, where you still feel a spark of enthusiasm.
“One way to focus your thoughts about this is to ask yourself the question, ‘What do I want to be known for?’” Fortgang says. “Sometimes, when people really look hard at this, they realize they’re spending the smallest amount of time on the things that matter most to them.”
—Adjust. Once you have a clear mental picture of what you’d like to do more of (and less of), start making some changes. Fortgang says most of the managers she meets underestimate their employers’ willingness to let them renegotiate their job descriptions. “It’s a lot less expensive and disruptive to make you happier, within reasonable limits, than it would be to replace you,” she says.
In practical terms, that means that if, for example, one of the things that makes you dread going to work in the morning is dull meetings, “go to fewer of them, or change the way they’re run,” says Fortgang. Or let’s say your nerve-wracking commute means you start every day in a cranky mood. Can you work from home a couple of days a week? “It may take some time,” Fortgang says. “But the point is to start shifting closer to what you really want.”
This may mean learning to say “no” to time vampires that don’t get you any closer to your, or the company's, goals. One of Fortgang’s coaching clients, for instance, was a manager in R&D at a big food company. “When he asked himself, ‘What do I want to be known for?’, the answer was creativity and innovation,” she recalls. “But he was spending a lot of time on things — like being fire marshal for his floor and organizing the annual department picnic — that didn’t contribute anything to that.” Once he reallocated more of his energy to what he really wanted to be doing, he enjoyed his job a lot more, and ended up with a promotion besides.
—Advance. You mention that, when you started this job, you were excited about making some “interesting changes.” Have you looked around to see where else in the company that experience might be useful now? Fortgang notes that, “Sometimes people feel ‘stuck’ in their roles because they’re not meeting enough of the people who could connect them with more challenging assignments and projects.”
A proven way to raise your visibility inside your company: Make a name for yourself outside it. Fortgang often recommends to middle managers that they increase the odds of being noticed by higher-ups in their own companies by, for instance, networking at industry conferences and speaking at trade-association events. “It all comes down to exposure,” she says. Sometimes you can be tapped for bigger opportunities simply as a result of lunching with more people. Especially if you happen to be an extrovert, this can be fun, too.
One more thought: When was your last vacation? If you take as little real time off as most American managers do, a break might do wonders for your frame of mind. It’s not unusual for people to think they hate their jobs, says Fortgang, when they are really just burned out. "If it’s been a while since you got away from work, try it," she says. "You might come back refreshed and recharged.”
Got a career question, or a workplace dilemma? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.