As soon as your alarm goes off, you’re in work mode. You check your emails while eating breakfast, organise meetings while brushing your teeth and respond to requests from your manager while getting dressed.
Under pressure from projects and deadlines, you power through to the end of the day with few breaks — ready to do exactly the same the next.
Sometimes, work can feel like running on a treadmill. People can feel like they’re working hard to the point of exhaustion, but without any sense that they’re moving forward. It’s easy to feel like you’re going through the motions without any real engagement and direction, which can negatively impact your happiness, wellbeing and motivation.
“When we leave our careers on auto-pilot mode, we often wake up much later, wondering how the heck we got here and feeling stuck,” says Lucia Knight, author and managing director of the career change organisation Midlife Unstuck.
“When we’re on auto-pilot, our learning muscles get flabby and our reactions to new situations get slower so we come less dynamic – which is risky in any economic market,” she adds. “But it’s easy to remedy, if you are prepared to invest some time, energy and focus.”
Feeling like a hamster on a wheel may mean you’re in the wrong job, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Even if you like your job, it’s still important to challenge yourself and switch things up every so often, to avoid feeling bored and unfulfilled.
So what should you do if you feel stuck in a rut at work?
“You need to get back in the driving seat of your career,” Knight says. “If you haven’t signed up to a training course in the last six months, now is the time to invest. Seek out a small online course that interests you out of work and start learning — you need to re-ignite your curiosity to start getting those flabby learning muscles into shape little by little before you tackle any big work issues.
“The more enjoyable the better — singing, cartooning, doing a yoga class, learning how to edit a video, writing a compelling article. Whatever floats your boat. Then move onto more work-related learning.”
If there’s one good thing to come out of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, it’s that online courses are plentiful and more easily accessible than ever before. A number of high profile universities like Harvard and Yale offer various free, online courses — MOOCs, or massive open online courses — in a variety of subjects.
Harvard University courses can be audited free or students can choose to receive a verified certificate for a small fee. The global university training partner Coursera also runs online courses, from health and languages to AI and data science.
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Speak to other people
It’s also helpful to speak to others who have stepped off a work treadmill and designed the next stages of their work to be more fulfilling and enjoyable. “This kind of recurring proof that change is possible is necessary for the brain to believe that it’s possible for you,” says Knight, who interviewed dozens of people who have done just that for her book X Change: How to torch your work treadmill.
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Think about what makes you happy
Decide what environments, people, structures and activities are getting in the way of you feeling in control of your career. Think about the last time you felt fully engaged and happy at work and consider why this was the case.
“It’s enlightening when you get it out of your head and write it down on paper – it makes it real and necessary to acknowledge,” adds Knight. “Answer this question: ‘If you could make one small positive change in your work tomorrow that is within your control, what would it be?’ Then do that tomorrow. Repeat the question tomorrow. This gives the control for change back to you but minimises the fear around making big changes.”
It’s also important to remember that your work situation may be out of your control, particularly at the moment. The monotony of working at home alone without seeing loved ones can make everything feel more difficult. Don’t bottle your feelings up — speak to your friends, colleagues and relatives.
“It’s really important to be able to get your feelings out of your head and discuss with someone who understands,” Knight says. “This is easier to do on the phone or on a walk rather than Zoom (ZM) as the constant, direct eye contact makes being open much harder.”
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