During the first month or two of coronavirus shutdowns, I set a clear professional goal for myself. I was working on a new personal finance book, one that I was doing quite a lot of research and organization for. I have this huge pile of notes, an outline of a book and more specific outlines of a few chapters.
I haven’t touched it in months. I just haven’t felt up to it. I can do the things I need to get done ,and do them well, but pushing beyond that right now feels genuinely like I can’t give it my best, and if I can’t give it my best, there’s really no point.
This sense of a loss of professional and financial ambition during these strange times isn’t just something I’m experiencing. I’ve heard about it from friends and from readers. I’ve read personal accounts of people feeling this way in various places on the internet.
For a lot of people, the drive to excel and push one’s career forward is flickering in this era. I read one article that described it as the “endless limbo,” and that’s a great term for it. It’s a challenge that a lot of people are facing right now. For many, the lack of professional ambition that’s occurring right now is something that will have a long-reaching professional and financial impact. For me, I had hoped to have a good first draft of that book done right now, but that hasn’t happened. When, or if, I get back to it, I’ll be far behind where I want to be. This period has meant that the book will be at best delayed and at worst abandoned.
For others, I’ve heard stories of people dialing back on extra education, side gigs, volunteering for projects and many other things. People are still doing their core jobs, mind you, but many, many people are drained and not going the extra mile.
So, what’s the solution to this mess? How can you reclaim professional ambition when the world around you is filled with such uncertainty?
1. Make time for genuine leisure, away from distraction
The most valuable space in my day is when I’m doing something that’s a form of genuine leisure and relaxation, something where I’m not responsible for getting a task done. I turn off things that might distract me and pull away my attention and allow myself to dive into a good book or a hike or a board game or making a meal or even just a walk around the block.
How does this help with losing professional ambition? If you’re spending more time away from work, doesn’t that actually make the issue worse?
The purpose of focused leisure time isn’t to distract, but to recharge. Recharging doesn’t happen when you’re distracted by work tasks or distracted by the events of the day. It happens during moments where you’re able to get completely lost in something that engages you purely for the sake of personal fulfillment. Pretty much any sort of physical activity qualifies, as do sedentary activities that actively engage the brain (reading, complex games, puzzles, etc.).
Just find something in that vein that you enjoy doing, block off some time to engage in it without distraction, turn off things that might distract you (put your phone in another room, for example), and just let yourself get lost in that thing. The best thing you can do is get so into it that you lose track of time, because that flow state will powerfully recharge you.
2. Give yourself space for genuine rest
By this, I mean to aim to give yourself the best night of sleep you possibly can. Go to bed without your cell phone and charge it in another room. If at all possible, go to bed early enough so that you don’t have to rely on an alarm to push you out of bed. Some people find that having quiet white noise helps them sleep.
Your goal should be to get the most rested and undistracted and uninterrupted night of sleep as you possibly can, and then make that a routine pattern.
During different stretches over the last few months, I’ve found this difficult to pull off. I keep diving into news close to bedtime, browsing through articles about the tumultuous state of our world even as I should be closing my eyes. In an effort to find “quiet time” to work, I’ve been aiming to get up early each day, but then I’ll choose to stay up late with my family doing something with them.
The end result is a lack of genuine rest, which compounds with the general anxiety of the moment to make focusing all that more difficult.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been aiming to just go to bed when I feel tired, without taking any device with me, and waking without an alarm even if I don’t happen to get up early. Although I haven’t returned to my book, I feel more rested than I have in months.
3. For now, focus on doing your core tasks well
If you’re investing the time to ensure that you’re getting genuine rest and getting some genuine leisure in, that means that you’re giving yourself space to recharge. That takes time — it’s not an immediate switch. So, what do you do in the interim?
My advice is to make sure that you’re doing your core tasks well and don’t worry about the extras. What is the reason you’re employed, the core reason that really provides value to your organization or your customers? Take care of those key things and do them well and put the rest on the back burner.
As I noted earlier, for me this means working hard to ensure that I have good articles for The Simple Dollar and that I’m also writing some “timeless” articles for a buffer against whatever may come. Your work will undoubtedly look different, but the core idea remains true: focus on your core tasks and get them done well while letting the others fall by the wayside for now.
4. Remember: quality over quantity
Almost every day, there comes a point where I’m sitting in front of the keyboard, with a pen in my hand, leafing through a book or reading an article, and there’s just nothing happening. I’m not able to come up with any meaningful thoughts or make any meaningful progress.
Sure, I could sit there and make myself write down some gibberish. I could browse through the pages of a book and not absorb anything. I could pretend I’m “working” when I’m actually browsing websites. The truth is, those things do nothing for me. They’re effectively just time wasted.
The best thing to do in those moments when work isn’t happening is to get up and do something else entirely. This is a good moment for some focused leisure. Go take a walk and get lost in the walk. Go get lost in a book. Turn off your phone while doing this. Let yourself just get lost in the thing you’re doing.
The quality of your work isn’t judged by the number of hours you spend beating your head against a wall getting nowhere with it. It’s not measured by the number of times each hour that you’re distracted, either. If you’re finding that you’re making no headway on your work, it does you no good to bash your head against it repeatedly.
5. Block your news and social media consumption
Make a block of time in which you read the news and social media, and the rest of the time you just shut it off and focus on other things. It’s undoubtedly important right now to pay attention to what’s happening in the world, but the truth is that much of it is not immediately actionable. You can read it and watch it and feel upset and outraged, but it doesn’t translate into meaningful action. Yes, of course, some of it does, but repeated views won’t change health restrictions in your area or when there’s a protest.
My approach has been to give myself a few periods each day where I am free to read news and social media and get caught up, but at the end of that period, it gets put away. I put my phone in another room, turn on a website blocker on my computer, and get back to work. If I’m doing leisure activities, I do that instead. Being addicted to the flow of unactionable news serves as a constant distraction, not just in the immediate moment, but also as a contribution to that constant state of anxiety. I find that silo-ing it helps a lot.
6. Reconsider your ambitions
Right now, many people are finding that the ambition that they once had for their career is now directed toward other areas of their life. For some, perhaps it is channeled toward their health as they recover from COVID-19. For others, it may be channeled toward their community or the broader world as they become more politically involved.
For me, I’ve realized that some of my professional ambition is now applied toward keeping my family on an even keel. We’ve all had our lives disrupted and our plans dashed and we’ve all faced some difficult personal news in the last months, and my knowledge of that has made me strongly desire to keep my family on a healthy track. It’s OK to go through a period in your life where your professional ambitions take a back seat to your other life ambitions. That might be a permanent change, or it might just be a temporary one. Don’t be afraid to lean into that change.
That may mean that, for a while, you view your professional life as merely a support for your other ambitions. It’s a way to turn some of your life energy into money so that you can use the rest of your life energy to dive deep into that thing that now burns the brightest for you.
This is one of the many reasons why healthy personal finance practices are so important, even in the best of times. Things can change. Your ambitions and dreams can change. Having a stable financial base means that you’re not forced to stay in one place by money restrictions when your heart is moving elsewhere. For now, it’s a good practice to be as careful with your finances as possible. Keep your spending nice and low. Build up a healthy emergency fund.
This way, if you come to realize that the changes in your ambitions are becoming more permanent, you can really lean into those changes without financial worry. On a similar note, if you find that your short-term changes in your ambitions have made your current professional options more difficult, you have money in the bank to help.
7. Don’t feel alone
It’s something that many of us are feeling. Many of us are struggling to excel at all of the things we need to do to get ahead in our careers. You are not alone in feeling this way.
As I was outlining this article, for the first time in a long time, I found myself wanting to open up the files for my book. I think that’s a good sign.