I once had a client in the legal industry who hated his job but was so busy at work that he had no time for his job search. He worked long hours (12 was routine, but days could be longer and include weekends), so he was too exhausted to do much else by the time he got home. His schedule was volatile, so it was difficult to make plans – say, for networking after work or certainly for interviews. Finally, his workday included few, if any, breaks and always involved other people more senior to him, so it felt impossible to break away during business hours.
He couldn’t afford to leave without another job lined up. He was miserable on the job but too busy for a job search that would enable him to leave. His situation mirrors other clients I have coached and many unhappy readers who contact me for career advice.
Here are four suggestions for how to make time to find a new job even when you feel trapped in your current job:
1 – Push the boundaries – both at work and with your own comfort zone
It may feel like you have to work through lunch yet again, but have you tried just leaving your desk (or in a virtual environment making yourself unreachable for 30 minutes or an hour)? Have you tried taking shorter breaks throughout the day or stopping work at 5p at least one day per week? What would happen if you took a two-hour lunch?
Changing your work schedule to carve enough time for your job search requires that you push boundaries both at work and with yourself. At work, you risk the ire of your manager and/or colleagues who aren’t used to you not being available at their beck and call. However, by continuing to always be available, you reinforce those expectations and essentially box yourself into a tight schedule. Since this is the way it’s always been, you will feel uncomfortable when you try to change things, which is why pushing out your own comfort zone is so critical.
Experiment to see how much autonomy you really have over your schedule and to expand your comfort zone for what is possible. Shorter, more frequent breaks may be more palatable than a longer stretch. If that’s the case, keep a ready list of job search actions that can be taken in 15-minute sprints – e.g., three people you can reach out to, one company you can research. Do not assume that a few minutes here or there is insufficient for your job search. A few minutes several times a day can add up to a significant amount of time. Tweaking his work schedule (which largely was about expanding his own comfort zone to do so) is what my legal industry client did and was all that he needed to move into a new career.
2 – Use your PTO
As you work to push the boundaries at work, don’t forget to maximize your time out of the office, especially vacation time and personal days (aka, paid time off or PTO). Some companies allow you to take personal days in half-day or even shorter increments, allowing you to stretch your PTO across multiple weeks. If your goal is to be in a new job, better to use your PTO for that job search over a vacation that may just stress you out, thinking about returning to your miserable job.
Another advantage of PTO to look for a new job is that there are some job search tasks that require a longer stretch of focus and uninterrupted time. For example, you may want several hours to update your resume, LinkedIn profile and other marketing materials. You may want to spend a day mapping out what companies fit your target interests and researching them to identify where you fit and who you can network with. If you are in the interview stage, taking a full day off, even if you have just one or two interviews that day, helps you stay 100% focused on the prospect of a new job and not pulled back into the negativity of your current job.
3 – Negotiate a part-time schedule or even a sabbatical
I have seen many people do a thorough and thoughtful job search using just their PTO and some unannounced tweaks to their work schedule. However, if you really feel like you can’t break away during the workday or even have uninterrupted official time off, then negotiate for official flexibility with a part-time schedule or even a sabbatical. If you are worried how asking for a lighter schedule might be perceived, remember that the whole point for negotiating this schedule is to enable you to leave, so who cares if your request is met with some suspicion?
That said, you still need to work with your manager and colleagues post-sabbatical or on a part-time basis (or back to full-time if your request is denied). Therefore, make your request in an assertive but respectful way, and be prepared to negotiate for flexibility. Don’t reference your job search, of course. Instead, point to a need for some personal time off (don’t cite a medical reason because your manager may ask for documentation, and you never want to lie). Personal time off can be interpreted many different ways, and you don’t have to go into too much detail. Current events (the pandemic, social unrest, economic uncertainty) have increased the stress level for many – even Michelle Obama has been impacted.
4 – Ask your manager for ideas
Finally, let your manager know that you’re feeling stretched (don’t say you’re miserable!) and ask your manager for recommendations on how to cope. If you have a sympathetic manager, they will care about how you’re feeling (after all, feeling your best will help you perform at your best). If you have a difficult manager, broach the subject with a mentor or trusted adviser at the company, who may have new ideas or advice on how to get your flextime or sabbatical request approved.
You may be worried that telling your manager you are struggling will imply that you can’t handle your job. That is one risk. However, another bigger risk is that you do nothing, burn out and your job performance actually suffers. If you think it’s hard looking for a job now, just try it after being fired for poor performance.
Don’t be afraid to aim for “good enough” on the job
You probably are working as hard as you are because you don’t want to be fired for poor performance. However, there is a big range between strong performance and getting fired, and you probably are working harder than you need to. Your performance should be good enough to get strong references for your next job and to keep your promises to your manager and your colleagues. “Good enough” is a baseline for performance that is much different than going above and beyond. Missing a meeting here and there, taking a slightly longer time to respond to emails or handing in complete, if not spectacular, work is good enough.
If you really want to leave your job, you have to make the time to land a new job. That time has to come from somewhere, and some of that time has to be during regular business hours. Do a good-enough job, and save the extra effort for your job search.