How to Dig Yourself Out of a Career Rut

The old Dolly Parton song "9 to 5" is the working person's anthem for good reason: It's a sassy rendition of what it feels like to be in a career rut. But no matter how many "cups of ambition" you have, if you feel like you're "barely getting by," with "all takin' and no givin'," you're not going to be an engaged employee. To stay fulfilled and progress in your career, you need to stay alert for signs you're in a career rut—and be prepared to dig yourself out of one.

career rut

Signs you might be in a career rut

A career rut can sneak up on you. Do you:

  • Find yourself grumpy on Sunday afternoons, knowing a full week of work lies ahead?
  • Make an increasing number of snarky comments about work to your friends and family?
  • Get distracted easily during the workday?
  • Feel more irritable or impatient than usual?
  • Experience psychosomatic symptoms during work hours, such as unexplained stomach issues?
  • Just feel bored with your work?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you might be in a career rut or at least teetering on the edge of one.

Ask yourself what's wrong

Once you've identified you're in a career rut, your next step should be figuring out why. The answer to that question determines what step you should take next. Give yourself space to step back from the daily grind and examine your situation. You might try journaling about your work situation, or you might even just go on a long afternoon hike to think.

Consider these questions:

  • Is a particular situation or person causing you dissatisfaction at work? Even an external factor, such as a lengthy commute, can cause employee engagement issues.
  • Do you feel like your company supports your future growth? Are there opportunities for advancement?
  • Are you simply bored? Maybe you've just been in your comfort zone too long.
  • Are you working too much? How long has it been since you took some time for yourself?

No right or wrong answer exists for these questions, and your reaction to a set of circumstances is entirely personal.

Take steps to dig yourself out

Once you've pinpointed the issue, consider what steps to take next, whether that's making changes to your current circumstances or even looking for a new position.

  • Start by giving yourself some time. Stepping away from your work will give you a fresh perspective. We all need time off to recharge and avoid burnout.
  • Is there a workplace change you could easily make to refocus? Perhaps pursuing a new professional skill or certification is the booster shot your career needs.
  • Is there a personal change you could make? Achieving work-life balance doesn't have to feel like a futile quest. If you like your work and your coworkers but are feeling less than energetic, check in with yourself in terms of sleep, diet, fitness, and leisure time. Would adding more exercise to your routine help? Would taking an art class inspire you? Should you listen to audiobooks to shake up your commute? Should you move closer to work? It's easy to blame work for your unhappiness—but sometimes it's not deserved.
  • Are there additional opportunities available in your company? If so, then consider scheduling a conversation with your manager to discuss new ways you might be able to contribute to the team.
  • Put some feelers out. Dust off your resume, and update your LinkedIn profile. Schedule coffee or lunch with mentors and former colleagues, and confidentially let them know you’re starting to keep an eye out for your next opportunity.
  • Apply for another job. Sometimes even knowing another option is on the table gives you a lift. You need to know you have options and that other companies want you to work for them. And you might just apply for the right job.

A career rut is not a fun place to be, but we've all been there—and we all have the power and responsibility to dig ourselves out.

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