7 ways to break out of a rut at your job

As the old saying goes, "If you keep on doing what you're doing, you keep on getting what you've got." Never are the words more true than when you've gotten into a career rut.

It's so easy to keep repeating the same motions on the job, and continue to get the same negative results, whether they're poor performance reviews, missed opportunities or the plain old "I hate my job" condition.

"At various stages of your career, you will get stuck," SixFigureStart career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine noted in an article she contributed to Forbes. "You feel like you have topped out at your job. You hear 'no' from a dream employer or to your request of your existing employer. You hear 'yes' and try something new, it doesn't go as well as expected."

To escape these draining, disappointing outcomes, you first have to commit to doing something differently, noted Ceniza-Levine.

She and other career experts and psychologist recommend these seven ideas for breaking through a career wall:

Look for similar options. If you've concentrated solely on a certain job at one company, switch gears. Try pursuing jobs simultaneously at their competitors, Ceniza-Levine recommended. Even if you don't really want the other jobs, any research involved will help you with your ideal target. "And the leverage you'll get from being active with the competitors will raise your value," she added. This "similar but related" approach works for internal improvements, too. If you're gunning for a raise to bounce out of a career rut, keep a list of equal but different demands, like a title bump or the option to telecommute a day a week.

Open a door outside your job. "If you're itching to try a new skill or launch an idea, you don't have to do this only in your job," Ceniza-Levine noted. "Start a side business. Volunteer with a non-profit. Take the idea to your professional association."

Quit postponing. Start examining this rut you're in and take steps to address it starting today. "When you procrastinate, you show yourself your activities do not matter, which sends a message to yourself that you are unworthy of your desires," noted psychologist Tracy Thomas, author of Dr. Tracy's Total Life Reset Manual. If you're guilty of constantly postponing career progress, look for a way to jump-start your activities.

Get to know yourself. In order to break the fear and paralysis that can keep you locked into a job jail, you must invest time and effort getting to know yourself, according to Julie Brush, founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer, a career advice column for legal professionals. "Without this awareness, you'll remain stuck in neutral indefinitely and your career and happiness will suffer," she said. 

While the soul-searching is tedious, the process is straightforward: set aside some quality time (or allot several blocks of time) and write down and answer the following questions. Get specific, advised Brush, providing 10 examples wherever possible for each of these questions:

  • What are your skill strengths? In what way do you excel socially, managerially, professionally?
  • What skills are lacking or just so-so?
  • What do you enjoy doing most? Examples include helping people, crunching numbers, taking risks, building things.
  • What do you not enjoy doing?
  • What kind of culture appeals best to you?
  • What are the key job qualities you need to be happy?
  • What are job qualities that would make you miserable?
  • Describe the perfect job: the role, the employer, the colleagues, the money, the title, the hours and the location.
  • Do any roles or other professions intrigue you? If so, why?
  • Would you be willing or able to go back to school or take a big pay cut to pursue a totally different career direction?
  • How much money do you need to be happy? Are you willing to trade money for other job qualities?
  • Do you have short, medium and long-term career goals? If so, are they still applicable or do they need a refresh? If not, you'll need to set them as soon as possible.

Consider the smallest steps. Just because you've topped out at your job, you don't need to limit yourself to the promotion-or-quit options, according to Ceniza-Levine. "Instead, look for less disruptive alternatives in-between [like] transferring to a different group or switching responsibilities with a colleague," she said.

You can also pursue a completely new job by breaking the process into what she calls "smaller success points." Your contacts may not know of actual job openings, for example, but they may know who runs the group you want or what backgrounds generally get hired. Or they may be able to give you some tips about the company culture. "If your networking is hitting a brick wall, your requests may be too big."

If you have to stay, change what you can. If it's currently out of the question to leave the job that leaves you numb or unhappy, work to make it more bearable, advised Peter Jones of the online career resource blog Job Network. Don't assume you could never find the root of your work blahs. Instead, "ask yourself which tasks you like vs. hate, what things challenge you and what things make you unbelievably bored," Jones noted. "You can always try and find a way to shift the balance to the good stuff by taking a little initiative and making a good case to the powers that be."

Jones' other top tips for improving at a job you can't leave include bonding with colleagues who radiate positivity, take online courses or professional development training whenever available and practice self-care.

"On bad days when you just can't stand it anymore, don't despair," Jones advised. "Instead, take a quick walk outside to shake off your bad mood. Go take a coffee—or an ice cream—break somewhere in nature."

Whatever you do, don't let small things that are out of your control sour your whole mood.

"Shake it off," Jones said, "and get back to the task at hand: improving your situation or finding a path out."

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