Feeling stalled in your professional life can be extremely frustrating.
And to make things more aggravating, you might not even be aware you've adopted habits that are pushing you towards a career rut. After some time, you may find yourself comfortably settled into your rut, becoming eerie familiar with frustrations around what you do. Because that's adulthood, after all. Right?
Whenever you feel down and lost at work, your professional self-esteem takes a hit, hindering your ability to perform. This is dangerous territory, and you could be on the verge of an important juncture. Let’s say you panic in trying to find your way out, and end up compromising by taking another job you won’t love. Not good. Hopefully, you're one of the lucky ones that instead reads this piece and finds a healthy way out of their career rut.
Are You In a Career Rut?
If you hate Mondays, welcome to the club. But that doesn't mean you're officially in a career rut. However, there are a few glaring signs that can be an indication your professional life is turning stale. Even though we know this happens to everyone, some signs are too dangerous to ignore.
Your job is becoming incredibly annoying and boring
One can assume that even Mark Zuckerberg hates his job sometimes. After all, fame and success don’t necessarily translate into happiness. But, if month after month you're finding your job is getting more annoying, more tiresome, and making you more angry than usual—that's a warning sign.
Compare your current mindset about the company you work in and the job you have with what it felt like when you started. Are you still as excited to take on new tasks, or proactively identify things that need work? Are you still learning, and do your coworkers actively collaborate with you? Are you still finding opportunities that let your creative juices flow? If you're answering no's after no's to these questions, then your antenna should be up right now.
Your work is beginning to suffer
Consider that you may already be self-sabotaging your job in a subconscious attempt to change things up. When you’re not content with what you do, you also stop being passionate about what you produce, and instead of looking at your work as an exciting problem to solve, you see it instead as annoying, overwhelming, or the result of someone else’s failure.
Maybe you miss deadlines, or overlook important details, trying to tackle each task as quickly as possible to get it out of the way. It can seems like a vicious cycle, because even when you dive in with gusto, it may be seen as inconsistent, and you might start blaming the company you work at for not caring about your rut. Of course, sometimes the root problem is the fault of the company or management. In this case, you guessed it, that’s still a career rut—even if you’re not as responsible for it.
You're always physically tired
Of course, if you're juggling a high-demanding job, odds are you'll be physically exhausted from time to time. But, when you're continually feeling physically drained as if your only way to stay awake is through a coffee IV, then something is not right.
When you experience a career rut, the lack of motivation creates an emotional drainage that can truly take a toll on the body. Suddenly, your back hurts all the time due to tensed muscles, your eyes are always tired, and your headaches have become a daily thing. All of these things are your body manifesting stress in different ways, due to a constant attention to work. After all, many of us spend several hours a day dealing with work-related things. And that's without accounting for those late emails your coworkers like to send around midnight.
"Are you okay?" is becoming common
If every other day one of your co-workers has come to ask, "Is everything okay?" that's a sign your rut is starting to show. But don't blame your co-workers for meddling. It's likely that you have your miserable face mask on, and that they've noticed some changes.
Most people start their jobs being bubbly, friendly, and excited. As it should be, after all, you're supposedly starting a new position with fresh opportunities ahead of you. But, those hitting a plateau start feeling uninspired, bothered by everything, and sometimes angry at the company itself. Even if you're an Oscars-worthy actor, eventually these discontents will show in your face, your work, and your interactions.
You're looking at job posts
This is the most obvious sign you're a career rut, but some people still don't make the connection. When people hit a rut, the solution often entails finding a new job.
While it's good practice to keep an eye on what's available in the market, continually looking at job posts and wishing you could land one of them is a clear sign that you're not happy with where you are at the moment. Whatever it is that has caused your career rut has officially driven you in another direction, as you strive to fill that void.
How to avoid getting stuck
Having a career rut seems avoidable from the outside—but it rarely is. That’s right, it’s perfectly natural and OK to get in a career rut. After that honeymoon phase, reality kicks in, and there's a sense of a routine attached to any job that can make even the most dedicated worker feel stuck. What’s important is knowing how to recognize it, and what to do about it.
Keep on networking
Networking is the fuel that keeps the career engine going, and it should never stop. People often forget that their jobs don't define their careers, but simply because you may have landed your dream job, that doesn't mean you should stop networking.
On the contrary, networking helps you stay updated with what's happening in your field. It keeps the door open for opportunities and partnerships that can mean great things for you, and even for the company you work for. Networking is another way to find new mentors that can help you prevent falling in these ruts in the first place, or help you navigate your way out if necessary.
Don’t think only of money
Earning a salary that supports your lifestyle is key in a long-term career. But, life isn't all about the money. When you start focusing solely on the salary, you start following opportunities that may not be aligned with your dreams and aspirations. Or, you may overreact when your request for a raise or promotion is declined, leading to a cycle of mistrust.
Here's where side hustles, hobbies, and other projects come in handy. Instead of aiming to dedicate your life either entirely to work, make sure you keep practicing your passion, or consider opportunities that merge the two. Look for ways to do what you love as a side hustle, or incorporate them into your 9-to-5.
Beware of comfort zones
Dream jobs actually do happen! Finding a gig with the right salary, pleasant work environment, and office perks can place us squarely into a comfort zone. But settling in can actually lead to stagnation if one doesn’t continually identify new goals and challenge themselves.
Once you find yourself in this position, getting out of it can be complicated. Convincing the mind to get excited about fear and uncertainty is not the easiest thing to do, but it can be necessary if your ambition is to grow further. Consider the opportunities ahead of you, whether you choose to maintain your current trajectory, or diverge onto a new path.
How to get out of the rut before it's too late?
Don't panic. There’s still time to do something about that rut. Before you succumb to stagnation, let’s talk about how to rocket launch yourself out.
Make a change—a real change
Odds are you've told yourself "my job could be so much better if only I..." use the rest of that phrase to frame your next steps. That could mean asking for a raise, positioning yourself for a promotion, getting a certification, or taking on a new hobby. Whatever it is, you must take some action to get the engine into gear.
Learn something new
This might sound like your parent talking, but it's true. Most likely there are a couple of skills, programs, or industry trends you'd like to learn about. They don't need to be directly related to your career, of course—although that's an added plus.
Learning something new will help your brain, and help you see your workplace through a fresh and exciting lens. Sign up for an online course, attend a talk near you, or ask your company to send you to a conference. Spark that creative engine and get back to your usual self.
Find a mentor
If you don't have a career mentor already—get yourself one with our handy guide. Odds are your mentor has been through not only one, but a couple of ruts in their lifetime. And guess what, they've figured a way out of them. Otherwise, they wouldn't be mentoring you. Their real-life experience can become a blueprint as to what you should do next.
Here's a warning in the case your mentor is a coworker. Be wary of positioning yourself as a lost employee who isn't sure about their role at the company. Instead of saying things like, "I feel stuck in my career, and I have no clue what to do," try something along the lines of "I'm trying to find ways to grow professionally, do you have any advice you can give me?”
Do some soul-searching
If no matter what you do, you still find yourself in the same place, you better do something extra. Taking the time to do some soul-searching is key to finding your way out of a career rut. Many times people choose careers based on their family, friends, salary, or what others would say. What’s more important is finding a career path that truly fulfills you as a person.
Try going on a vacation, or taking the time to meditate on where you’re at. Sit down and take inventory of the things you enjoy doing the most. Maybe you’re already spending time on something that you love more than your current career—perhaps that's the route you should take. In the end, only you can answer these questions.
One of the most gut-wrenching feelings you'll ever experience professionally is being in a career rut. Moving forward, keep your eyes wide open for warning signs, and if you see them, take action and prepare to hightail it out of there as soon as possible. Take control of your career life—you’ve only got one, and you deserve the very best.