Creating a Realistic “Wants” List

On a bad day, we all want to win the lottery. And most of us have had a moment when the old country classic “Take This Job and Shove It” rang true. But when the bad days start to outnumber the good at work, it’s time to make a change—and the smartest place to start is by creating a realistic “wants” list that guides you to a more fulfilling professional life. Here is how to get started.

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Be clear on your purpose

First things first: What is your goal for this exercise? It is not to create a list of workplace fantasies that sow further discontent. As executive leadership consultant Ann Hiatt wrote for Harvard Business Review in December 2021, the name of the game is value alignment. When you are unhappy at work, it likely means your values are misaligned with your current role. For instance, if you are in a career-building stage of life, but your colleagues quit thinking about work at 5 p.m. on the dot, you may not be in the right place. On the flip side, if 60-hour weeks are keeping you from coaching your child’s soccer team, it might be time to make a change.

Ask yourself what is most important

Figuring out what your values are may be challenging. While we all have core values, as the above example demonstrates, these can look different based on your season of life. Grab pen and paper, and document the following to do a personal status check:

  • What are the pros and cons of your current role? Get granular with this list. Nothing is too big or too small. Do you like that your favorite coffee shop is around the corner from your office? Does the company dress code drive you batty? Do you wish you could have more opportunities to interact face to face with clients? All these likes and dislikes are clues to your ideal workplace. For instance, the chance to slip out for a latte mid-afternoon means you like flexibility and neighborhood is important. Dress code discomfort is either a sign you want something more casual or more formal. And if you are itching for client interaction, a desk job may not be for you.
  • How have your wants changed since COVID-19? Employees in every field have experienced seismic shifts at work due to the pandemic. The opportunity to work remotely has made many understand they crave quiet, uninterrupted time to complete their tasks—and also need a healthy amount of time for in-person collaboration with colleagues. Similarly, those who had to continue working in person during the scariest points of the pandemic may have questioned whether their career is worth the potential danger to a loved one.
  • How do your personal priorities align with your professional goals? Again, the answer to this question will change based on your season of life. This is a time to look at “wants” vs. “needs.” For instance, you might want a job that allows you to travel, but if you are the primary caregiver for an elderly parent, your needs likely preclude that. Similarly, a single person with no underlying health needs may feel comfortable with the risk of jumping to a startup, but someone with ongoing medical concerns likely needs the stability of a large company’s health insurance program.

Taking the next steps

Once you have defined your wants and examined your personal and professional values, it is time to consider next steps. Consider writing yourself an ideal “job description,” down to using keywords that might appear in a real job posting. Then, if you decide to start searching, you can look for postings that mirror your ideal. External resources, such as taking a career assessment test or speaking with a career coach or trusted professional mentor, may also be valuable.

No matter what ends up on your lists of “wants,” be careful not to rush into anything. You may find that the list of pros for your current role outweighs the cons—and above all, it is always preferable to be in the position of going to something good rather than running away from something bad.

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