Just like everything in life, there is an ebb and flow to your work and your career. There will be times when your career is in a relatively steady state — simply something that you do on a daily basis. At other times it will be moving forward like a river in flood or an angry sea, pushing you about and, hopefully, driving you forward. Knowing how to act in each of these scenarios is important to your overall well-being as well the the success of your career. If you don’t know how to manage these periods of ebb and flow, you could be doing yourself and your career a great disservice.
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Let’s first talk about the ebb cycle, as I believe this is a far more common state than flow. You are often quite stable and settled for large portions of your career. You get a good job, do it well and perhaps progress upwards through a company without much stress. You do the work and you are rewarded for it. Simple, right? Unfortunately, such stable periods of your career can lead you to become complacent and even bored. If your work doesn’t provide you some challenge it can easily become repetitive and dull. When you find yourself in these ebb periods, you need to find ways of making your work more interesting, more challenging and more enlightening.
If, at the current moment, your job isn’t challenging you, you need to find ways of challenging yourself. These ebb periods are the time to learn something new, something different, something that might be useful in the future. Do it now, when work is stable, as you have time and attention that might not be available in the future. Become an auto-didact (self teacher) and bring new facts, new skills and new knowledge into your life and career. Too often, we are so happy to have some stability in our lives, we start to wallow in our own comfort. Sure, it can feel nice to not have to worry about your work, but it can also be a trap. Develop small goals and challenges for yourself to ensure that you keep growing and don’t stagnate in your career.
The opposite of ebb is flow. When your life and career are flowing it can sometimes feel frightening. Challenges, both good and bad, can come at you quickly and you might begin to wonder if you can cope. You spend your time reacting to these new challenges and new situations without having a lot of time to think about them. Too much of this activity and you can find yourself tired, overwhelmed and even, eventually, burned out in your job.
When you find yourself in these busy, high-stress times, you need to seek out moments of calm and reflection amongst the storm. Yes, you will be incredibly focused and busy at work, but you also need to consciously find those moments of relaxation and reflection in your day to balance the frenetic activity. Too much of anything, even a good thing, can often be very bad for you as a human being. One cocktail might make you feel relaxed and calm, 10 cocktails can leave you sloshed and filled with deep regret, both physically and mentally the next morning. Don’t fall into the work equivalent of binge drinking, Know when to work. Know when to rest and recharge.
You have to take care of yourself, as no one else is going to send you home when they feel you have worked enough. It is easy to lose yourself in the midst of an exciting project and work far harder and longer than is healthy. Take good care of yourself and you will accomplish far more than if you drive yourself to the edges of your stamina. Taking a break doesn’t mean you are lazy (which is what we can feel sometimes), but rather that you are taking the time to recharge to face the challenges with a fresh mind and body.
In my career, I have seen many people who take on the busy times in their career as a sort of martyrdom. The talk about how many “all-nighters” they pulled, how many family events they had to miss, how much coffee they had to drink, etc. I have never been impressed with this, as it shows they don’t understand the law of diminishing returns. Sure, they may have worked all night long, but how good was the work they created? In most cases, it is subpar, simply because they are too tired, too overwhelmed to do their best work. It would have been far better to have gone home, gotten a good night’s sleep and hit the project fresh in the morning. Don’t fall into this trap. Manage yourself and your energy to do your best work, not just any work.
Be aware of the ebb and flow nature of any career and adapt accordingly. Use the ebb times to build new skills and new knowledge and then carefully couch your energy and attention when the flow times arrive and you find yourself busier than you ever thought possible. Such attention can keep your career and life balanced no matter how calm or active it might become.