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6 Career Fixes

Body+Soul, March 2008

1. It's official: The bloom is off the rose. What used to seem fun and exciting is now a regular drag. Is it Friday yet?
"Keep in mind that the bloom comes off every rose -- whether it's a job or a relationship or a business," says life coach Cheryl Richardson.

The question you should ask yourself, she says, is whether you love what you do and are temporarily bored, or if you're experiencing some deep-seated despair. "If you're working for the weekends," warns Richardson, "you're wasting your life. If you suspect you're just in a lull, however, she suggests considering what you can do to make work more meaningful and fun again.

One of the best places to find ideas is your personal life. Incorporate elements that you enjoy out of the office into your daily work ritual. Meeting friends for a cup of tea or coffee, sharing a laugh, telling a good story -- all of these can and should be part of every day. The key is opening yourself up to making friends with your workmates.

You don't have to be BFFs, but sharing a few personal details (last night's horrible blind date or that embarrassing thing your kid did) can forge alliances that make the daily grind more enjoyable. In fact, a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that those who had developed a social network at the office were less likely to suffer from depression.

Sometimes, befriending coworkers takes a little initiation on your part. Start a company softball team or bowling league, organize a Friday afternoon happy hour in the kitchen, or see if that empty conference room is available for a post-work yoga class. Chances are your colleagues will thank you for taking the lead -- and you'll develop friendships that otherwise would have gone untapped.

Keep reading for more issues, including what to do when: the job takes over your life; there's no promotion in sight; the office atmosphere is negative; and your to-do list never seems to end.

2. Your office has the aesthetic appeal of an airport lounge and the coziness of a hospital waiting room.
An ugly office -- cramped cubicles; fluorescent lights; lots of gray, black, and beige -- does more than curb your enthusiasm. "Your immediate environment affects how you feel, so if your work space is depressing, you're not going to be as productive," says feng shui expert Jayme Barrett, author of "Feng Shui Your Life." She suggests creating a space that inspires and energizes you -- no major renovation (or corner office) required.

First things first: Pass on the standard-issue gray plastic office accessories and find items that you love from your favorite stores -- even if you do it on your own dime. "Invest in your space," says Barrett. Pick up a few baskets, faux-leather boxes, a nice lamp. These are your things, and you'll take them with you when you leave."

Some other ideas: Cover bulletin boards with colorful fabric, wallpaper your area with pictures of friends and family, add a small area rug. She also suggests bringing the outdoors in with a desk plant or fresh flowers.

If a window is not in your future, install a high-intensity light box that measures 10,000 lux. Studies have shown that exposure to light can increase brain levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood.

And don't forget to eliminate the obvious such as books on the floor, unsorted clutter, and piles of paper. "These all bring your energy down," says Barrett. "Keep only active projects visible. Everything else, especially finished tasks, should be out of sight."

3. As much as you love your job, it seems to have taken over your life. You never take a break -- and you're beginning to burn out.
Stop whatever you're doing right now and take a deep breath. Make that a few deep breaths. Before your brain goes completely on the fritz, ask yourself these questions: When was the last time I took a real lunch? What about leaving on time? And when was my last vacation? If the answer to any of the above is "I don't know," it's time to start putting yourself first and get your priorities straight -- and to realize they're your priorities to set.

"Work doesn't take over our lives unless we allow it to," says Richardson. "You need to set boundaries -- and if you're overwhelmed, then go to your boss and tell her that while you're committed to success, you can't succeed without some help. It's her job to help you manage it." Another word to the wise: Don't be a hero. "Nothing kills a hero faster than trying to take on more work than she can reasonably do," says Richardson.

There are steps you can take to make sure you're setting healthy boundaries at work. Start with getting outside for your entire lunch break. "When you change your geography and get some fresh air, you change your thinking," says Carol Ross, a career coach based in the Denver area. Ross recommends taking a midday walk or run -- even if that means eating at your desk later. Not only will exposure to natural sunlight boost your mood, it will get you out of your head by engaging all your senses and possibly triggering new and creative ideas.

Next, know when to call it quits for the day. Working mothers and fathers have a built-in excuse to leave work on time; those who don't have kids can find it challenging to turn off the computer at a reasonable hour. To create some structure, Ross suggests scheduling an activity right after work -- a yoga class or a date with a friend -- to get you out the door on time.

Once you do get home, put away your BlackBerry, email, and cell phone, collectively known as the electronic leash -- at least for a little while. "This sense of urgency is self-imposed," she says. "Very few 'emergencies' can't wait until the next day."

Lastly, take that vacation. Studies show that people who take regular vacations are less likely to have heart attacks, and they also report lower levels of stress and depression; they even have happier marriages.

Not only that, taking a decent amount of time off will keep you from burning out, allowing you to return to your job with newfound energy and vigor. Instead of complaining that you don't get enough vacation days, try using up the ones you already have. A 2007 survey conducted by found that 51 million Americans are vacation deprived, taking only 11 of the 14 days that they've earned.

4. With no forward or upward movement -- in position or salary -- you feel like you're constantly spinning your wheels and collecting dust.
In an ideal world, we'd regularly receive praise and money for the hard work we've done. But often, we don't -- and that puts us on the fast track for dissatisfaction. To avoid feeling like you're hitting a glass ceiling, take control of your own destiny rather than waiting for someone to hand you a promotion on a silver platter.

At larger companies, annual reviews offer a built-in time slot for you to get feedback from your boss on how you're doing and how you can improve. (Employees at smaller firms might need to initiate this process on their own.) But once a year isn't enough. "Keeping the air clean between you and your supervisors is the number one way to remain happy at work," says Rowan. She suggests touching base with your boss more casually each quarter -- over lunch or coffee -- regardless of whether you have a yearly review or not.

Prepare for this with an honest evaluation of your own progress. Are you meeting expectations and deadlines? Are you handling your responsibilities well? When it comes to raise time, do your research. Find out how much your peers are making (try or, which collect surveys from corporate human resources departments across the country to create databases of national averages).

"Go in to the meeting knowing what you're worth and what you want," says Rowan. "Even if you don't get the money, you may succeed in shifting your responsibilities so your job brings you greater joy."

And don't discount the power of a positive attitude. You can be the hardest worker at your office, but a sour demeanor will only keep you down. "People who are upbeat tend to be promoted more and have better job security," says Will Bowen, author of "A Complaint-Free World," referring to a review of 225 studies published in the Psychological Bulletin. The conclusion showed that positive emotions lead to success, not always the other way around. Researchers also found that people with upbeat attitudes tend to be more motivated, easier to work with, and more capable of managing stress than their grumpier peers.

5. The "vibe" at work couldn't be worse. Between the backstabbing and the negative energy, it's hard to feel positive about being at the office.
There are countless reasons sour vibes can bubble up at the office, and many of them begin as bad news. Word of pending layoffs, budget cuts, or a heated argument spread through the halls like lightning, touching off a frenzy of excitement and fear. And what's the first thing we do? We gossip.

While partaking in it may scratch a temporary itch, gossip does little to soothe ragged nerves. In fact, say experts, it can inflame them. But regardless of its shady reputation, gossip has an undeniable draw. "We all need energy, and gossip provides a quick and ready source," says Richardson. "It's like junk food -- fun and delicious in the moment, but it makes you feel bad afterwards." What's worse, the more depleted or frustrated you are, she says, the more drawn to this kind of bad energy you'll be -- and at some point, given gossip's dirty nature, it can come back to bite you.

To break out of the cycle, find a better, healthier reason to get together and chat: A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. showed that positive chatter can increase cooperation. In order to determine what is and is not okay to say behind someone's back, Bowen suggests this litmus test: Say anything you want, as long as you'd repeat it word for word -- with exactly the same inflections -- to the person you're talking about.

As far as bad work vibes go, consider whether chronic complaining might be dragging down your mood. According to Richardson, it's one of the biggest issues people have with their work environments. Why all the huffing, moaning, and groaning? "We do it when we feel helpless," she says. "And yet complaining, without action, accomplishes nothing."

She advises paying very close attention to your own griping, and identifying the issues that tend to trigger it. "You may even want to invite a coworker to help you out," Richardson suggests. "Give her permission to call to your attention whenever you start up again about the same old thing." Not only does this keep you from being a nuisance to your fellow coworkers, it also invites conversation and insight. Instead of constantly bellyaching about your problems, you can now start thinking about what you can actually do to solve them.

6. No matter how much you accomplish, it's never enough. At the end of the day, it feels like you've spent 10 hours climbing up the down escalator.
Between the phone ringing, email dinging, and nonstop meetings, it's a wonder anyone can stay focused. This makes it all the more important to maximize every second, minute, and hour you're in the office.

For Richardson, the solution lies in the focused to-do list (ones too long and detailed can be just as distracting). She suggests taking a 3-by-5-inch index card and, either with your boss or on your own, identify your overall top five priorities at work. Put the card somewhere in your line of sight, and consider it your gold standard.

"Now you have something to measure your to-do items by," says Richardson. "What items on your list support these top five priorities? Which don't? This can make a huge difference in how you work and where you expend most of your energy." Once you've determined what your top priorities are, all the extraneous work should and will weed itself out.

As for basic daily strategies to keep your sanity (and happiness) intact? First, cut back on email. This indispensable marvel has become a huge time waster, derailing our train of thought with interruptions that are anything but urgent. Timothy Ferriss, author of "The 4-Hour Workweek," goes so far as suggesting only checking twice a day, once at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. (and letting people know this is what you're doing). It's an impractical idea for most, but the general advice still applies: Get in the habit of checking email only when you're through with the project at hand.

And don't discount the power of a quick break. Taking short breathers throughout the day will reenergize you, allowing you to tackle your projects with a clearer vision. Ross recommends that clients schedule regular five-minute breaks to stretch, do some yoga poses, or meditate.

Tevis Gale, who creates mindfulness programs for corporations such as Google and AOL through her consulting company, Balance Integration Corporation, teaches employees to meditate at their desks. Try her approach when you feel you need a break: Lift your shoulders up and breathe in. Exhale through your mouth as you bring your shoulders back, opening your chest. Rest your hands in your lap, palms facing up. As you inhale, relax your eyes by softening your gaze; let your tongue relax. Breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale through the nose slowly and deeply. Repeat for 5 to 10 breaths. "Even just 30 seconds can calm your nervous system down," says Gale.

Text by Hannah Wallace.

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