A temporary departure from your professional career goals doesn’t mean that all is lost.

By Dorie Clark

For almost every professional, there are times when your career path deviates from what you might have hoped — for instance, a layoff, reassignment, relocation, or the need to take time off for health issues or caregiving. The pandemic, of course, has compounded the situation, especially for working parents, who may be facing multiple stressors at once.

In the short term, the situation is clear: If you or your spouse has lost your job, you need to earn income. If in-person schooling isn’t an option, someone has to stay home with the kids and supervise virtual learning. And if you’re the primary caregiver to children or other family members, you need to ensure you have the flexibility to handle any situation at home that comes your way.

Unfortunately, meeting those urgent needs sometimes means that longer-range goals get shunted aside. Over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, many professionals have found themselves turning down coveted career promotions in order to maintain flexible hours, accepting positions in fields they actually want to leave, or saying yes to jobs they’re overqualified for or unexcited about because they simply need the money.

Those decisions — while painful — may be necessary in the short term. But a temporary departure from your professional goals doesn’t mean that all is lost. It’s essential — and possible, even with a busy day job — to stay focused on your long-term career trajectory, so you can rebound quickly and get back on a path that feels right for you.

In researching my forthcoming book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, I’ve discovered a variety of ways that professionals faced with these tradeoffs can begin to take back control over their career arc. Here are four strategies you can employ.

Reframe the situation.

No one enjoys feeling like they’re stalled or “moving backwards” in their career. Indeed, research by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile shows that one of the most powerful indicators of employees’ mood and satisfaction is the feeling that they’re making progress toward a meaningful goal. If you view your career decisions as part of a regression, you’re almost certainly going to feel frustrated, angry, or ashamed. Instead, broaden your view: Your job isn’t the only element of your life, and even if you’re temporarily making less progress on that front, you’re advancing other goals that you’ve previously identified as equally or even more important, such as providing for your family economically or spending more time with them.

Dig to identify learning opportunities.

If a job isn’t what you’re looking for, it’s easy to write it off as something you’re doing “just for the money.” But even suboptimal situations can become powerful opportunities to develop your skills, if you recognize them and leverage them as a chance to learn. For instance, one leader I know — hesitant to leave her career amidst economic uncertainty — is leaning into her strained relationship with a querulous colleague and consciously attempting to get better at dealing with difficult people. Similarly, you might uncover hidden opportunities to develop new aspects of the job that align better with your interests (for instance, research into new technology) or that enable you to build your network.

Push back against standard options.

The choice may seem stark: pursue your dreams or succumb to necessity. But if we get creative, there are often many more possibilities than we might imagine (and certainly more than we’re initially presented with). For instance, one client I work with is a nascent entrepreneur whose new business was hit hard by the pandemic. Faced with pressing financial needs — and a friend who wanted to hire him — he debated giving up his business and accepting a corporate job similar to the one he’d left a year prior. After our discussion, he realized: Those weren’t the only two options. He’s now in talks with his friend about the possibility of converting the job offer into a consulting contract, which would give him the security he needs while building his new business, but still allow him to pursue his entrepreneurial vision. Remember, there are almost always more than two choices, and most offers can be negotiated.

Finally, harness small amounts of time toward your goals.

The pressures of the pandemic have left almost everyone feeling burned out and overextended. Under those circumstances, it may feel like a pipedream to carve out time for long-term professional development. But even small increments of time can be valuable if we harness them properly.

For instance, listening to a professional development podcast or audiobook instead of music while you’re exercising or running errands can result in dozens more books “read” over the course of a year. And one technique notoriously productive Wharton professor Adam Grant employs is to use the handful of minutes between meetings — which often get lost to chitchat or social media — to make progress on micro-goals he’s working on. It may not seem significant to leverage a spare three minutes to send a networking email or download a few articles on a topic you’re researching, but as Amabile’s aforementioned “progress principle” research shows, even these tiny steps forward can create a feeling of momentum — which is essential to staying positive during a tour of duty in a job one doesn’t love.

The past year hasn’t been easy for anyone. It’s easy to become self-critical when things don’t go according to plan. But by following these four strategies — and coupling them with a dose of grace and self-compassion — you can accomplish what needs to happen now and prepare yourself for the future you’ve envisioned.

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