Investing just a few hours per year will help you focus and advance in your career.
How much time do you spend thinking about your career? Hmm . . . tough question. Let’s try something easier.
Suppose you’re looking for a new job. How long does it take you? Not calendar days or weeks but in actual hours of time spent working on your job search.
You need to update your resume. Lots of time is spent looking for jobs. Each job may require an application and cover letter. There are hours upon hours of interviews, not to mention the emails back and forth to schedule those interviews and coordinating references. That doesn’t include travel time or networking events. Don’t forget time to research the company and interview prep. What about the time you spend thinking about if you actually want the job once it’s offered?
If there’s a great job that happens to come your way, maybe, if everything aligns, you’re looking at four to five hours. That’s the fish jumping into the boat. If you’re doing a full-on job search taking months it could be dozens of hours, scores of hours. Thirty or forty hours isn’t uncommon, or even twice that for some searches.
But it’s worth it, right? This is an important decision. This is where you’re going to be spending many of your waking hours the next few years. Not to mention this is where your primary income comes from. It may be a big component of your happiness, or lack thereof. Dozens of hours every few years seems like a worthwhile investment.
Now let’s return to: How much time do you spend thinking about your career?
How much time do you spend thinking about your career?
Wait, what? We just said dozens of hours when we need to find a new job. I’m not talking about a job hunt; I’m talking about your career. Not a specific, “Do you want this job?” but rather the meta questions. What type of job do you want? What roles? What level? What industry? What responsibilities and challenges? Where do you want to go? Is your current job getting you there? Where is it taking you? How can you get more out of your current job? Is the current job even making you happy? How can you move ahead? How are you going to grow and develop in the coming year? Where will you be in two years? Five years? Ten years?
I suspect for many readers the answer is zero. Zero hours. At best, some people may have had an annual review and spent a handful of minutes answering some form questions between trying to finish up year-end projects and thinking about holiday travel. Very few people sit down and actively think about those questions.
Just for additional comparison, consider the following. How much time did you spend last year (or maybe in non-covid times): Planning a vacation? A birthday (yours or someone else’s)? Shopping for an outfit? Shopping for some high-end electronic equipment? Binging some TV show you weren’t really into but you’re on the couch and the streaming service kept playing the next episode?
Next to your family and friends, your career is one of the most important aspects of your life. It’s certainly where you spend much of your time. Isn’t it worth spending a few hours per year on it? If you were giving a presentation, you might spend many hours and hours perfecting it. Even if you didn’t have that much time, you know that spending just an hour or two working on it is significantly better than spending absolutely zero time on it and winging it. So, if your current level of investment is zero, spending even a few hours a year on this is a significant improvement, at a very low cost.
OK, you’re convinced you should spend time on your career. But, um, now what? How do you start? What do you do?
Go to your calendar right now and schedule some time. At a minimum put a one-hour block on your calendar that repeats every six months. You’re allowed to move it a few days if you have a scheduling conflict down the road, but not by more than a week and you can’t cancel. You’ve now committed to investing two hours, out of an entire year, to thinking about your career. Good job!
If you’re feeling very motivated, you can make it quarterly. Alternatively, or additionally, you can block out a few hours this next week or two to get started on this. No matter what you do, you want to make sure there’s at least one hour recurring every six months. That’s the minimum.
(Hold up, did you just read the above but not actually do it? Stop! Do not pass Go and do not collect $200. Go directly to your calendar and schedule that recurring meeting. Then come back to this article. I’ll wait.)
Did you actually schedule recurring events on your calendar?
You’ve got the time committed, but what do you do during that time? Think through your career. If you’re not sure where to start, use these career planning questions. (You can do a web search for others but sadly most search results at the time of this writing are questions to ask someone about their career or interview questions.)
Don’t worry about getting answers, it’s the process of thinking through them that helps, even if you don’t reach a conclusion. You may find at the end of an hour you have more questions than when you started. That’s normal. You can keep these questions in the back of your mind, or write them down, until the next time in six months. For some people answers will start to come to you when you're sleeping, taking or shower, out for a walk, or during other unfocused times. You don’t need to push for answers. Again, it's the process that helps.
Think about where you want to be down the road. Then create a plan to get there. You wouldn’t get in a car and drive without knowing the path to your destination (even if it’s now given to you automatically on your phone), how can you drive your career without a destination and directions? Like a good road trip, it’s ok if you change your destination along the way, or take side trips, as long as that’s what you want to do. But you don’t just drive around with absolutely no direction or destination for days on end.
The above steps are a start, not a finish. Importantly, it’s much better than doing absolutely nothing, which may be where you were at the start of this article.
If you want to go further, spend more time thinking about your career, talk to other people about their careers, or absorb more career content in the form of books, articles, podcasts, or videos. Make a plan to develop skills that will help you. Maybe it’s taking a class or doing a project. It might be domain specific skills, or general skills like leadership, negotiating, networking, public speaking, etc.
If that last paragraph starts to seem overwhelming, step back. Don’t overdo it. You’re better off going to the gym for one hour a week steadily than trying to take on too much, say two hours three times a week, and giving up completely when it becomes too much. Small steps are fine. Two hours a year are fine. Really, anything above zero hours of effort, and you’re already ahead of most other people. Good luck with that first hour and let me know how it goes.
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