Coasting at work? Here’s how to get ‘unstuck’

When you’ve plateaued.

FORTUNE – Early in my career, I got stuck.  I spent a couple of years at Working Woman magazine as the assistant to the business editor.  Business writing was a good fit for me, so when I left I was determined to land at a place like Fortune or Money.  Neither would have me.  Nor would any of their competitors.  Working Woman didn’t have the street cred; my clips didn’t have the heft.

So, I floundered for a bit.  I worked for a travel magazine, freelanced for New York and Manhattan, Inc., spent six months in cooking school. And then I took what some of my journalist pals saw as a crazy detour:  I started applying for jobs in equity research. One of the editors who interviewed me for an entry-level (read: fact-checking) job at a business magazine had suggested I get an MBA.

The idea of going deep into debt for a degree I wasn’t sure I wanted wasn’t appealing.  But as I ruminated on his comment, I realized he didn’t necessarily want me to have the credential.  He wanted me to know how to read financial statements and translate CEO-speak.  I figured I could do that and get paid at the same time – and over the next two years, as an assistant healthcare analyst at Dean Witter Reynolds, I did.  Getting hired at a business magazine after that experience was a breeze.

This story came to mind as I read Getting Unstuck: Break Free of the Plateau Effect, the new – and excellent – book by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson (also available as a 30-day email course). One of the suggestions is to take a step back in order to move forward. Who needs advice like this? Certainly the 70% of full-time working Americans who are, according to Gallup, actively disengaged – i.e. miserable – or just meandering through at work.

In fact, it’s those coasters that worry Sullivan most.  “When you are so acclimated to your partner or your career that you have grown numb, or when you stop listening to co-workers or customers. That’s when you “fail slowly,” which is the biggest disaster of any venture. When our senses get dulled, we are most likely at risk for a real bout of stuckness.”  Here, a few ways to find your way:

Put some limits on your decision-making process

Whether you’re looking at the investments in your 401(k) or the variety of Special-K products on the grocery shelf, there are often so many it’s tough to choose.  You wind up in what the authors call decision quicksand. “Our brains are poorly equipped to consider dozens of data points while making up our minds. Even the smartest among us can only handle 4 or 5,” Sullivan says.

At that point, two things – neither of them optimal – tend to happen.  We either punt.  Or we’re paralyzed. One way to handle this is to give yourself a time-limit in which to make a decision.  The flight you schedule or flat-screen you select in 15 minutes will likely be good enough.  Another strategy: Give yourself permission to make a decision without having every single piece of information or data.  Focus on a few that are truly significant.

Embrace structured procrastination

If you’re having trouble getting off the dime because you’ve got a list of things you should do – write a business plan, update your resume, etc.– none of which you really want to do, rank order them in order of importance. When your brain gets stuck because you just can’t get yourself to tackle the first, embrace that feeling – and jump to the second.  “Anything will be more appealing than that most dreaded task,” Sullivan notes.

Get rid of the interruptions

The authors conducted a study with Carnegie Mellon University and found that interrupting people in the middle of a test with the equivalent of a text or phone call reduced their scores by 20%.  It may not kill brain cells permanently, but it sends them on vacation. Try scheduling email sessions a few times during the day and abstaining the rest of the time. (Note: It helps if your phone doesn’t vibrate.)

Get your salary unstuck as well

If you’re plateaued, chances are your salary is as well.  The only way to get what you’re worth is to know what you’re worth.  “Flirting with other employers is the single best way to find out a) You are severely underpaid of b) You have it pretty good and you should work to keep your boss happy, Sullivan says.

Unfortunately, knowing what you’re worth is not the same as getting it.  Asking is still a prerequisite.  As the also excellent The Confident Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman points out, women don’t ask for enough money and we don’t ask frequently enough. “Fight with facts,” Sullivan urges. ”But please, fight.”  And remember, negotiations aren’t about making everybody happy and comfortable. If it feels uncomfortable, you are probably doing it right.

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