Is your career stagnating? Here’s what to do about it

The alarm goes off. You wake up. You lie in bed contemplating the day ahead. What do you have to do? What new projects do you have planned? What gets you excited? Nothing. Today is a day like any other day. If any of this sounds familiar, you may be in a rut, or in other words – stagnating. And you’re not alone. In a 2015 poll, only 32% of employees in the US categorised themselves as ‘engaged’ at work.

This is problematic, as it’s important to keep growing in both your professional and personal life. If you’re bored with either or both, it could lead to depression, loss of productivity, and even health issues. So, how do you know if you’re suffering from stagnation? Here are 5 symptoms you should look for, and what to do about each one if you have it.

Symptom 1 : You’re not doing anything different

is your career stagnating
Do you feel like this at work?

If every day is the same old same old, that’s a problem. Whether it’s the type of task that’s the same, or your way of handling it that doesn’t differ, or you’re getting the same suboptimal result – you’re missing a vital element of freshness and surprise in your life.

What to do about it: Change things up, of course. Even in the most monotonous of circumstances, you can still make small adjustments. For example, let’s say you hate working on the garden. You hate struggling with the lawnmower, you get hot and sweaty trimming the hedges, and you can never get any flowers to grow. Next time you’re mowing the lawn, try putting on a set of headphones and blasting some of your favourite tunes. Instead of just trimming unruly stems, try creating shapes in the hedges. And instead of trying to coax those obstinate rose bushes back to life, try planting some new types of seeds instead. It might not seem like much of a change, but it’s something different to keep yourself entertained while you work. The human brain likes new things, so give it something unexpected to keep it excited.

Now, take your other life circumstances. Figure out how to change things up in relation to work or life. Can you find a new (perhaps better) way of performing other routine tasks (try one of these 50 cleaning hacks next time you’re cleaning your house)? Do you want to tackle different types of projects? Maybe you just want to try a new sandwich for lunch today. Whatever it is – keep things fresh by changing things up.

Symptom 2: You’re not being challenged

career progression
OK, so what’s next?

Once you’ve been at something for a while, you often have things down pat, and it gets too easy. You might have started out a bit slowly, but soon your proficiency and speed picked up. But your interest and excitement started dipping. Now, you might not have felt challenged in weeks.

What to do about it: Try a new challenge. For example, try to do something left-handed. Some researchers have postulated that using your non-dominant hand to perform simple tasks challenges your brain, so in order to keep up, it makes new brain cells. While the claims that using your non-dominant hand could make you smarter and more creative may be overstated – certainly becoming more efficient at performing tasks with both hands is very useful. Now set a new record for yourself with your left hand.

In the same vein, if you’re feeling too comfortable at work, or in life, you should look for opportunities to push yourself. At work, you could try accelerating your career progress by beating your own past performance, or a record set by a colleague. During your workout, you could push for more reps, heavier weights, or longer training times. At home, you could fix that leak that’s too small to get someone out for (but too loud to ignore). Or tackle that 5000 piece puzzle you bought 5 years ago. Basically, anything that pushes you to do something out of your comfort zone is good.

Symptom 3: You’re not learning

career path
Do you feel like you are learning, growing and being challenged?

When you start to learn something new, it’s often difficult, but also strangely exhilarating. Day by day, you see your skills improve, which is deeply rewarding, and highly motivating. If you haven’t felt that sense of achievement from having learnt something – anything – new in a while, you need to.

What to do about it: Sign up for an online programming course. Start dance lessons. Learn a new language. Ask your neighbour for gardening tips. Get new cookie recipes from a friend. Take a career test to see if you should improve your aptitude in one or more areas. The things you can learn in both your personal and professional life are endless (and you can easily match with people to help you on Kalido). Unlike school, the curriculum is entirely of your own choosing. So, even if you were never a fan of ‘studying’, you’ll be surprised what a difference ‘learning’ can make to your lifelong health and happiness.

Udemy offers a huge range of online courses for everything, from audiobook production to reiki to basic drawing. TED Radio Hour covers topics both entertaining and informative, from whether chimpanzees should be given rights, to how to build humane cities, to how to make better decisions. And Duolingo is just one of the hundreds of online platforms that can help you learn any language you want, from Spanish to Mandarin to Romanian.

Symptom 4: You’re not striving for any goals

career choices
Where are you now and where do you want to be?

You don’t necessarily have to have a 5-year plan. But you should have some goal in mind, no matter how small. If you wake up each day without anything to strive for (even if it’s just completing another few pieces of that puzzle), you’re just floating through life.

What to do about it: Make some short-, medium-, and long-term goals. For example, you could try ‘finish report by 2pm’, then ‘head to gym for 1 hour workout’. During the weekend, you could plan to ‘catch up with college buddies’. At the end of the year, you could aim to ‘have enough saved for overseas holiday next year’. If these sound a lot like items on a To Do list, it’s because making a list is a great way to hold yourself accountable and to stay motivated. Tips on how to make the most of your list here.

Symptom 5: You don’t find joy in anything

career test
Is everything just … meh?

This is perhaps the most damaging effect of stagnation – your career choice or life choices no longer bring you any joy. You’re simply plodding through each day, going through the motions without emotionally engaging in anything.

What to do about it: First, stop plodding. The difference between stagnation and actively hating something is that the latter provokes enough of an emotional response that you’re motivated to change it. Stagnation, on the other hand, saps you of all motivation to change things. That’s why once you’re in the rut, it takes such a long time to climb out of it. But it only takes one small step to start your journey towards more happiness.

Instead of accepting that life is the way it is, and continuing to do things exactly the way you’ve always done them – stop. Take time to think about your life, your career, your health, your personal relationships. Take stock of everything and critically evaluate what brings you joy, what doesn’t, and what should. Think about things that used to make you happy, or could potentially make you happy. Now make a conscious decision to pursue happiness. Yes, happiness must be pursued – it doesn’t just happen.

You may find that you have lots of work to do – on yourself, your personal relationships, and your surroundings. You might need to work on your communication to improve personal relationships (tips on how to do so in this article). You might need to cultivate more inner peace (check out this video on meditation for beginners). You might need to speak to a career coach or life coach. Whatever avenues you decide to pursue, remember that it only takes one small first step: counterintuitively, you must stop what you’re doing. That’s easy enough, no matter how large the rut is that you’re in, or how long you’ve been in it.

Whether you’re suffering from one or all of the symptoms of stagnation, it’s always good to take stock and make improvements. And remember that you don’t have to do it alone. Your friends and family, and potential new friends and family, can help you find a renewed sense of purpose and joy in life.