How to get your career (and life) back on track after a major disruption

My husband had the weekend off during a basketball tournament in Macedonia (he’s a coach) and agreed to join some friends for dinner. Partway there, an accident blocked off the main road. Luckily there was a GPS (or Sat Nav) in the rental car.

It was getting dark by the time the GPS directed him to make a left turn onto a single lane dirt road. He pressed on for a few more miles until he ended up in the middle of a vineyard. Clearly off-track and with only half a tank of gas left, he was getting worried.

With no room to turn the car around, he retraced steps driving in reverse until he reached the wider paved road and was able to start driving forward again. It took patience (and rebooting the GPS), but he finally did get back on track to meet his friends in time for dessert.

Just as my husband found his way back after an unanticipated detour, you too can get back on track in your career when life throws disruptions your way.

Here are three steps to help you get back on track when life has disrupted your plans

  1. Take stock
  2. Go for small wins
  3. Focus where it matters

A great place to start is to take stock of where you stand

We’ve had an unexpected start to the year, and at the midyear point it’s hard to be sure of what’s yet to come. Thanks to the disruption, maybe you didn’t get to do what you wanted. Maybe you need to head in a new direction. Maybe you’re already onto Plan B, C or D.

Whatever the situation, you want to get on with life and keep moving toward your goals. And midyear is a good time to step back and consider the ways you are off track and what would make you feel on track.

Sometimes the feeling of being off track is worse than the situation you’re actually in. Like the project I told the team we would take on over the summer which no longer made sense when we looked at it in early June. At first it felt like a failure, but then I realized that not doing that project left us more time to focus on more important priorities. It was a blessing in disguise.

A useful way to take stock is by asking yourself these questions:

  • Which goals did you set aside that you want to bring back and which ones do you want to let go of?
  • To what extent are you actually off track and what would being back on track look like for you?
  • In an uncertain environment, what’s in your control and what resources can you leverage?

This leads us to step two.

When things feel unstable, go for small wins

When you’re behind on your goals, it’s tempting to make big sweeping changes to catch up and make up for lost ground. But in times of uncertainty and instability, that can be risky.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Professors Sitkin, Miller and See make the case that the best time for companies to adopt big, ambitious stretch goals is when things are going well and resources are plentiful. In fact, it’s a great way to keep a successful team or organization from becoming complacent.

On the other hand, companies that are struggling will be more successful in turning things around by taking small steps that improve their processes and stabilize their operations rather than making big, risky bets.

When you’re in an uncertain environment, the same holds true for your career.

The more off track you feel, the more you want to focus on taking small steps

Taking lots of small steps leads to creating many small wins. This helps build confidence and set up a stronger foundation from which to then go after those bigger goals.

For example, this may not be the moment to quit the job you’re bored with if your savings are depleted, but it could be the time to start training for the work you’d like to be doing in the future.

So if you’re operating from a position of strength, by all means go after those big goals in the second half of the year. But if you’re looking to get back on track, go after those small wins and build up your strength first.

Which takes us to the third step.

As you look for small wins, focus on where it will matter most

There are three areas you need to be regularly developing when it comes to being successful in your career:

  • How you work with people, including your relationships with stakeholders, the way you lead your team, and how you communicate with impact.
  • How you work on the business, where ‘business” refers to whatever work you are doing, whether it’s in higher education, non-profit, government, or corporate.
  • How you work on your self so that you’re self-aware and grounded with a well-developed presence and profile, and resilient.

Where will it make the biggest difference for getting back on track in your career to take action and focus your attention?

Here are a few examples.

  • If it’s about people, perhaps it’s the small win of reaching out to one person each day. They could be people you know but haven’t spoken to in a while, in which case it’s to reconnect and get back in touch. Or senior mentors to ask for advice. Or people you’ve mentored to see how they’re doing. Or all of the above. And don’t worry if they don’t get back to you. Some of them will, so just keep up your end of the bargain and keep reaching out. By the way, one of the mentees I reconnected with ended up introducing me to one of my best clients, so you never know. Just keep going!
  • If it’s about working on the business, it could be developing a new skill. A former colleague was pushed out of his prestigious management role to help a struggling unit with their personnel issues. While he regroups to get back on track in his career, he’s using this situation as an opportunity to develop new skills by training as a coach. Not only will this allow him to help the struggling unit, it will also give him flexibility to set up his own coaching practice on the side.
  • If it’s about working on your self, that could be to reprioritize your health and wellness. Another colleague has decided to use this time to bring back his goal of getting in shape now that he’s hit middle age. Just a few weeks into the training and nutrition regimen, he’s already seeing the difference in the mirror and feeling the difference energy-wise. And it has also made him more productive at work. Between sessions with his trainer, getting in 10,000 steps a day and preparing nutritious meals, he has fewer hours available to work, but is still getting it all done.

Never underestimate the ripple effect that small wins in one area of your life can have on everything else

Get your ripple effect started by deciding where to focus your efforts initially. Then focus on one thing at a time.

This article first appeared on MayBusch.com