How to get your career back on track

Feel like you're drifting at work? Here's how to get back on course.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 22 May 2017

It would be nice to imagine our career moves as stepping stones in a long, satisfying and coherent arc. Chapters, if you like, in a career narrative. Except often we find ourselves stuck in a role that feels more like an interval - a break between acts that may not even be related. If this is you, welcome to the unhappy world of career drift.

Career drift isn't always unpleasant. It can be nice to enjoy the work you're doing without fretting overly about the bigger picture (hello mindfulness). But left too long, it becomes unsettling. You feel dissatisfied or bored. You look around at colleagues who seem to have a plan and wonder what yours is.

And drift can feel particularly dissonant in this 'age of accelerations' as The New York Times writer Thomas Friedman describes it. It's hard to justify coasting in a world that is operating at warp speed.

A lack of direction can have many causes. Boredom, burn-out, fear, demands on your time that aren't related to work but which drain your energy and creativity. Or perhaps you have reached the end of the line within your particular career or company and need to embark on a second act. So, what to do?

First, be self-aware. Are you coasting? If so, is that acceptable for a while? How long will you let it run? Set yourself a firm deadline.

Start exploring. Read widely, speak to colleagues and friends, make time to meet former colleagues and bosses. Your goal is to provoke fresh thinking about what interests you and about what your next move might be. As Friedman would say, be 'radically inclusive' in your approach.

But don't spend too long identifying your passion. Often we get the best results when we actually do stuff. Filling out yet another questionnaire about your true calling can be a way of avoiding action.

Become a career architect. Perhaps you don't see a desirable future role in your company or sector. So create one. What are you good at? What do you relish doing? How can those skills be put to use? Think outside of your department. This is where your conversations with others will give you an insight into gaps and opportunities.

Talk to your line manager. No one wants a bored or unmotivated employee. Discuss your strengths and your ideas about how to use them. Angle this so that it offers a clear benefit to your company, rather than emphasising how fed up you are.

Don't worry if you don't have a rigid plan. We attach a lot of importance to long-term goals but real life doesn't always work that way. Think in terms of 'progress' rather than 'final result'. What would move you forward right now? Get to that point and then revisit the bigger picture.

In Japan, career drift is linked to the term 'career mist'. You can't see the road ahead, and finding direction is hard. But, just like real mist, the state is temporary. The trick is to forge ahead rather than stand still. Once the mist has cleared, you can look back and see how far you've come, and crucially, what opportunities now lie ahead.

Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to or tweet @_coachingstudio


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