This morning I was talking to a guy about our career history and how we had progressed over the years. The conversation took place during my Spanish lesson so it wasn’t the most comfortable chat I’ve had but I think in his broken English and my terrible Spanish we were trying to say the same thing… that we were in Barcelona because we had been in a bit of a rut in our lives and fancied a change. For me, this was a personal rut and for him a professional one.

I’ve met a few people over the years that have progressed continuously in their lives, either by getting promotion after promotion in their career or by following those traditional paths in life (university, job, house, marriage, kids etc.). These people I think are generally the exception to the rule. Most of us at some point have hit either a plateau that makes us wait for the next step in our lives or a rut that makes us stop completely. Some clever people (mostly women) that I know have created a natural plateau around the time that their personal lives start to affect they’re professional, such as my beautiful sister-in-law who is just about to have her first baby. She has reduced her work commitments in the run-up to her maternity leave so that she can enjoy her time off and not worry about returning to a crazy high pressured job while the baby is still the demanding aspect of her life.

Again this isn’t common, most of us come to a grinding halt entirely by accident. These ruts we get stuck in do not come with any prior warning signs they sneak up on us like the flu or gaining a few pounds in weight! Professional ruts are harder to detect because we have less control over their appearance than we do personal plateaus. Most of us invest more in our own lives and so want to make changes as soon as we feel down or bored. Professional ruts tend to sneak up on us because we have been in denial far longer than we know and I do think as an assistant it can be particularly hard to avoid these pitfalls because it is so difficult to get promoted in our profession and or move away from our everyday routine.

So what causes a career rut typically? Here are a few telltale signs you are on your way to being stuck in a rut or can’t read this blog over the hole you are already in:

  • you are bored, unmotivated and unchallenged
  • you can do your job with your eyes closed and standing on your head
  • nothing you do makes a difference, and you’ve lost interest in trying
  • you can’t create or innovate new ideas for all the red tape and bureaucracy in your company
  • you can’t keep up with the pace of the work and no one in your company has noticed

The terrible thing is that most of these signs led to real underperformance, missing deadlines, forgetting tasks and falling behind your colleagues and peers. Getting stuck in a rut doesn’t necessarily get you fired, but it certainly won’t win you a promotion or a pay rise anytime soon.

It takes a very dynamic company or manager to spot the potential in their assistants and offer them something outside of the norm or break the usual stereotype that assistants either move up with their manager or they leave the company for something else. It is very rare for an assistant to be offered that opportunity so if you do grab it with both hands. For the rest of us, what can we do to avoid “stuck in a rut” syndrome or what happens if we are already deeply buried in that hole?

If you are at the plateau stage, waiting for your next move here are a few ideas to avoid the rut:

Gain a little momentum

Think about small manageable tasks you can take on that interest you, nothing that is going to rock the boat but work that you enjoy, are good at and that no one else is doing. Is there a small piece of admin work that you know you could polish up easily that will help your colleagues (putting a holiday request form online for example). We don’t want to make waves; we want you moving again.

Look over your shoulder

Are there any young assistants in your company or anyone that wants to move up to your level? If so, think about ways that you can offer them advise or go all out and offer to mentor them. It is always good to look back and what you have achieved and why you are where you are. It didn’t happen by chance so by embracing what you have done and passing on your knowledge may help you move forward too.

Don’t start sprinting

There isn’t a finish line here, and it is silly to race forward without taking the chance to reflect on why you feel like you do. Take some time out, take a holiday or a few days away from the office to regroup, take responsibility for what is happening and think about what you can do to change things up. If you start trying to race away from how you feel chances are you’ll encounter another plateau sooner or later.

What to do if there is no room for moving forward if you are indeed stuck in a rut so deep you can’t see any way out? I hate to say it but leaving is a good option for you. Starting a new job, moving to a different industry or even moving to a different town can rejuvenate you. It is a difficult decision to make, but I’ve never regretted making that choice when I’ve been stuck in ruts before. In fact, more often than not I’ve wondered why I stuck it out for so long.

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