By Jeffrey Strain
While I currently work for myself, there was a time when I actually worked for a large corporation.
My time there taught me that corporate life wasn’t the career path that I ultimately wanted to walk down, but that didn’t stop me from learning a lot of solid advice from the mentors I met there that continues to be helpful to me to this day.
When it comes to your career, it is usually small things over a long period of time that add up to the success that you achieve. Getting into the habit of making small improvements on a daily basis will reap huge rewards in the long run. If you find yourself with nothing to do, whether at work or at home, here are 31 actions you can take to help improve your career.
Who Do You Respect?
Who Do You Respect?
If you do nothing else on this list the first time you find yourself with some free time, find yourself a mentor. Pick someone (or preferably several people) that you respect and ask them to mentor you. Most people will be more than happy to pass along advice that they have learned over the years which can be invaluable in helping your career. They will also be great people to use as a sounding board with ideas you have and help you figure out the best way to obtain the goals you are seeking to accomplish. A mentor can help you in many other ways during your career including making your advancement much easier. Finding a mentor is actually sound advice for all aspects of your life including finding a financial mentor.
Support The Support
Support The Support
Learn who the support staff are and go out of your way to be helpful to them. They do a lot of the grunt work and don’t get nearly the amount of appreciation that they deserve, so they notice when someone treats them well. When an emergency happens (and they always do) having the support staff on your side can be the difference between failure and pulling out success. From clerks and secretaries to cleaning staff, treat them well and you’ll never regret doing so when crunch time comes.
Get Them To Come To You
Get Them To Come To You
This is a little trick that I learned that produced great result for little effort and just a bit of money. Create a candy jar for your co-workers. Don’t get the cheap candy. Get the good stuff that you know everyone loves. It took me some time to perfect my method of deploying the candy jar and you may have to experiment to get your deployment right. I put it out only when I had free time to chat, otherwise I would be interrupted too often. I also learned to lock it away when I went home or it would be empty when I arrived the next morning. What it did do was keep me up to date on all the happenings in the office. When people stop by to grab some candy, they will tell you things that are going on that you may otherwise miss. I found that keeping abreast of this information helped me to better understand the dynamics that were taking place which helped with my career.
Don’t Do It Later
Don’t Do It Later
Procrastinating has always been a major problem for me and something that I still work on today. If you can identify how you’re procrastinating and create a system to discourage yourself from doing so, you will dramatically increase your productivity. My big vice was watching TV far too much and I’ve had to ween myself from spending too much time on social networking sites as well. Once I find one place where I procrastinate, I’ve learned that I will eventually replace it with another, so it’s a continual process. I have a whole list of things I have done to improve my productivity. Once you have identified places that you are spending too much time, take steps to reduce the amount of time you spend on them and instead use that time to further your career.
Timing Is Everything
Timing Is Everything
It may not seem like a big deal to be on time when all meetings start 15 minutes late, but it is if you are the person that is causing the meeting to start late. One boss I had would actually lock the door of the meeting room once the meeting began. If you were late, you were out of luck. While this is a great way to quickly learn to be on time, it’s not a method that most people are subjected to and they may not realize that being a few minutes late can get them a bad reputation.
Being on time actually means arriving to meetings a few minutes early. Co-workers that are running the meeting will appreciate your promptness and you will get a reputation of being reliable. The same goes for work that needs to be handed in to your boss. Learn to hand it in before it’s due — this will show your organizational skills and get the reputation of being highly responsible. If you find that you are always a bit late or rushed to get things done, use your free time to get ahead instead of waiting until the last second.
Pinpoint The Essentials
Pinpoint The Essentials
One of the biggest myths in business is that those who work the hardest are the ones that get ahead the most. Working hard is important, but working smart is just as important. Working smart means pinpointing the areas within your job that are essential to your group and to the company. Once these have been identified, focus most of your resources in those areas. This is one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from my mentors. Take some time to look at your job and understand what parts of it are the most essential to others both inside and outside your work group. If you can pinpoint those important areas, you become the person that people come to when things need to get done.
Become A Listmaster
Become A Listmaster
I used to think that making lists was useless, until I started making them myself in a way that was useful for me. I actually have two lists – one is a list of all the things I want to do and one is my daily must-do list. On the daily must-do list, I only place the three most important things I have to do that day and I will work on those three things until they’re done. Once finished, I can go to my general list and choose projects from there. If I don’t finish, then I keep working on that list of three the next day and until it’s done. This ensures that I get done the things that I may not like to do as much so that they don’t constantly get delegated to the end of the longer list. How you develop your own list may be very different, but creating a system will help you to accomplish more at work in less time. Once you complete something, don’t throw the list away. Instead, date and file them in a work completed folder. This will allow you to have a documented list of all the tasks you’ve accomplished which you can take out at your next performance review or when asking for a raise.
Who’s The Boss
Who’s The Boss
I’ve had both bosses I liked, and ones that I could have certainly lived without. Even the ones that I didn’t particularly like, I found that talking with them and discussing their expectations was always a better career move than trying to avoid them. For the bosses I did like, it was a great way to get their support for the career advancements I wanted to make. No matter what the relationship, being able to talk with your boss about work expectations will almost always help your career much more than not talking. If you haven’t talked with your boss lately, set up a time to do so and spend some time writing down the topics you would like to discuss.
Second & Thirds Can Be Good
Second & Thirds Can Be Good
Even though I was the worst student ever when it came to foreign languages in school, I’m living proof that absolutely anyone can learn a second language. I have no doubt that all of my high school language teachers would roll over in their graves if they knew I was proficient in Japanese. Being proficient in a second language can open up a lot of career opportunities and is well worth pursuing if you have an interest in one. There are plenty of resources online including those developed by the Foreign Service Institute to help you along. Learning a foreign language can give you a huge leg up if you have thoughts of working for your company in a foreign country.
There are far too many people who believe that education ends as soon as they walk across the stage and receive their college diploma. In fact, education is a never ending pursuit even if you aren’t taking formal classes. There are a large number of classes that you can take, or skills that you can obtain, that will make it easier for you to advance in your career. Even if you are not sure, take classes that you have always wanted to try. You’d be surprised at how knowledge that doesn’t seem relevant to your career can end up being useful down the road. It’s definitely worthwhile talking with your personnel department to see if they will help pay for you to obtain these skills. Many will. Best of all, it’s easier than ever to take classes while working full time with online education.
Redo Your History
Redo Your History
It’s always wise to have an updated resume on hand just in case. If you haven’t done so in awhile, take some time to look over your resume to update it and improve it. Make sure that you have a few copies in your briefcase so that they are always ready to hand out. Having a resume ready is a great way to make a quality first impression and instantly shows your organizational skills to anyone that may be interested in hiring you.
It used to take a lot of effort to network. While you still need to spend time and effort doing so, Web 2.0 has made it a lot easier to make new contacts with people that have similar background and career interests. If you haven’t signed up yet, consider joining Linkedin (and feel free to add me if you get the urge) which can greatly expand your networking resources. If you have already joined, take some time to explore and find some other people you may want to contact.
One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years that will help you in any career you choose is to stay in contact with people that you meet. This can be an easy way to improve your career, keep network lines open and create new network contacts. There are probably more than a few professional contacts that you have made that you haven’t touched base with in awhile. There are probably a number of people that you have never met, but that you would like to make contact with. Spend a few minutes sending out emails to some of these people to reestablish contact or create a new contact.
Call To Arms
Call To Arms
For the exact same reason that you should send out some emails, you should also make a few phone calls to catch up with peers and others. Calling is a more direct approach that will make sure that your message doesn’t get lost in all the other emails the recipient receives. It’s surprising how many times a contact phone call can lead to a new career opportunity that would have never developed had you chosen not to make the call.
An easy and effective tool which I often used when I was working for a large company was the lunch break. When I first arrived, I found myself in a new city and at a new company where I knew nobody. Inviting people to talk over lunch conveniently solved the problem of me not liking to eat alone. Later I continued to make lunch dates because of all the advantages that came from it. Lunch dates give you an opportunity to talk with people about ideas you have in a more informal setting than in the office. Making a lunch date is also a excellent way to network and catch up with peers and mentors, or to meet someone new you’ve wanted to talk to. If everyone seems to be too busy with their work schedule, lunch (and even breakfast) is an excellent time to set up a get together.
Make Things Eventful
Take some time to research what meetings, presentations, talks or events are taking place in your field of expertise and sign-up to attend. Not only will you likely gather some good information that will be useful in your job, these are excellent places to meet new contacts and expand your contact network.
Don’t Be Afraid To Associate
If your career has an association, go beyond joining it and make an effort to be a regular participant in it. Most local chapters are always looking for people willing to lend a helping hand and doing so can easily put you in the position to meet those higher up in the organization. Again, this will expand and open you up to a wide variety of new contacts. It will also help you keep up with the newest developments in your chosen career, which has many advantages.
Show Some Appreciation
It’s amazing what a sincere, hand written “thank you” note can do for the amount of time it takes to create. With email and the paperless office concept, hand written thank you notes stand out these days and definitely leave a positive impression on the recipient. Furthermore, when you give thank you notes, the recipients know that the time they spend helping you was appreciated and therefore will likely be more than willing to help out in the future. If someone has recently helped you out in any way, take a moment to thank them. This is one thing that is hard to do too much of, so if you have any doubt, always choose to send the note of appreciation.
Reread The Writing On The Wall
This one is a big one for me. I rely on my spell checker far too often when it comes to writing. Sure, it will find misspelled words, but it won’t find those that are spelled correctly that are incorrect or sentences that contain poor grammar. I had a terrible habit of not rereading my writing before showing it to others, but I learned to after a number of embarrassing mistakes that should have never happened. Assuming that your writing is fine if it passes a spell check is a bad assumption to make. Get into the habit of rereading everything that you write whether it be an email, a report or any other work related document, especially after a spell check. You will avoid a lot of amateurish writing mistakes and look a lot more professional in all your work.
The Write Stuff
Along the same lines as rereading your documents, it’s well worthwhile to constantly work on improving your writing skills. Being able to put together reports, letters, proposals and other written information which draws attention to the important points among all the information presented is a great skill to have and will get noticed. Take some time to go over basic writing techniques when you have some free time.
Spend some time thinking about the impression you want your business cards to make and see if there are some changes that you can make to the ones you have to achieve what you want. I’m always looking for new business cards that are creative and will leave a lasting impression on anyone who receives them. Take a bit of time doing this and it may lead to an opportunity that would have never appeared if your business card was lost in the pile with everyone else’s.
Impress From The Start
One of the many reasons I decided the corporate world was not for me was because I hated dressing in a suit everyday to make a good first impression. That being said, there is no doubt that first impressions count. Dressing appropriately and having good hygiene and manners is important. It’s often the little things that will set you apart from the average person. Learn to make eye contact when speaking to people, smile, and know how to introduce yourself confidently. Always arrive to business meetings or appointments on time (or even better, a little ahead of time). Take a few moments to make sure that you are making a good first impression with everyone you meet.
Speak Out Loud
One of the things I used to fear most was to do public speaking. Over the years, I have learned to relax and don’t get quite as nervous, but when I first started teaching, even going in front of a classroom of high school students would have my stomach churning the entire morning before classes began. Being able to make a quality presentation is an important way to get noticed and improve your career prospects. Listen to the way that your favorite speakers deliver their information and make the effort to adopt that style into your own speaking. Join your local Toastmasters group to help you improve these skills.
Know The News
One of my mentors told me that I should read something about current events everyday before coming into work and it’s a habit I’ve kept to this day. I try to read at least an hour a day on a wide variety of topics. Some of the reading is related to my chosen career and issues that pertain to it so that I keep up on the latest news and trends, but I also read a lot of information that is outside my career. Reading helps to spark new ideas, it will challenge your thinking process and expand your knowledge base – all things that can be helpful in your career advancement.
Switch To A Higher Gear
I am one of the slowest readers in the world and struggled in college with all the reading that needed to be done. Being able to consume a lot of information is a skill that will always be a positive for any career, so learning to read and comprehend at a quick rate is a skill worth pursuing. There are a lot of speed reading tutorials on the Internet. I have been using Spreeder for my daily reading that has allowed me to get through a lot more information than I previously was able to do. Whatever method you choose, learning to read faster will ultimately help your career.
If your work area looks anything like mine, it needs a good cleaning at least once a week or it will quickly get out of control. I actually mark down on my calendar to clean my desk area every Friday afternoon, and it’s amazing what 15 minutes a week will do to keep your desk organized. Depending on the current shape of your office, it may take a bit more time to get to the point where all you need is 15 minutes to clean everything up. Start today putting aside 10 minutes a day to clean your desk until you have your work area in the condition you want, then you can move to maintenance mode. You will be pleasantly surprised at how much time you save looking for things, and an orderly office leaves a positive impression on co-workers and bosses.
Score Some Goals
This is one of those things that seems obvious, but I think a lot of people don’t spend the amount of time or effort on them that they should. I know I didn’t for the longest time. I thought I could get away with general career goals that I had in my head, but soon realized the power that comes with taking the time to write them down. What really helped me was to give myself a time limit to achieve these goals. While you may not always reach them, writing down specific career goals you want to achieve will get you a lot closer to them than not doing so. Consider setting them for various time periods: 3 months, 1 year , 5 years, etc. and then begin working toward them.
Establish Your Identity
Since I make my living this way, it would make no sense for me to leave it out. Creating a blog or website about your chosen career can be a great way to meet new people and share ideas. It can also be an excellent way to begin that part-time business that may eventually end up being your full time job, which is exactly what happened in my case. I have personally found that creating content helps to crystallize the things that are truly important to me. This, in turn, helps me realize what goals are most most important for me to achieve. Starting any type of blog or journal can help you to do the same. Just be sure that doing so will not get you in trouble with your company.
Give Yourself A Break
Taking breaks is something which took me a long time to realize really does work. It’s not the time you spend doing your work as much as how focused you are when you are working. Taking breaks, stretching and taking short walks can all dramatically improve your energy level so that you work better. Take some time to think about the signals. Mine happen to be going to my email (instead of finishing what I should be doing), closing my eyes to try and refresh them and my shoulders getting sore. Spend some time learning your personal signals that you aren’t performing at your peak. Know when to take a break and you’ll find that your productivity will dramatically increase.
I’m a firm believer that if you want to have the perfect job, you’re going to have to go out and create it yourself. While I have had many jobs over the years that I have truly enjoyed, it wasn’t until I started building my own sites and blogs that I realized what true passion for something was. Begin part-time and build slowly when you have some free time, but start the process today. Five years from now you will be so thankful that you did and you might even find that it ends up being your full time work.
Fall In Love
Learn to love what you’re doing, or begin looking for something else. Life is far to short to do something that you don’t truly enjoy. There are times when you may have to take a job that you don’t particularly like, but there is no reason that you have to be stuck there. If you don’t thoroughly enjoy what you’re doing, start implementing steps to get a job that you do love. There is nothing better than to get up every morning knowing that even if you weren’t getting payed a dollar to do so, you would still be doing the same thing that you are doing. It’s also much harder not to improve your career opportunities when you love what you do because the energy and enthusiasm you have for what you do tends to be infectious and draw people to you. If for some reason you don’t know what you love, start experimenting. That’s the only way to find out.
There are always plenty of things that you can begin doing that will improve your career as the above list shows. Pick a couple that you know you need to work most upon and keep at it. The more that you try to improve yourself, the more opportunities that will present themselves.