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Feeling Stuck? 3 Simple Steps to Shake It Off

Even the most successful leaders get stuck in their careers. Here's a surprisingly simple way to break through and achieve your goals.
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It happens all the time: you're trying to solve a tough problem and you get stuck. You rack your brain but the answer just won't come. Asking around doesn't help. Neither does the internet. Bummer.

We all know what that's like. It's damn frustrating. But when it happens to your career, it's far worse, especially if you're one of those people who expect a lot of themselves. I'm like that. I live to accomplish things and I always want to know I'm going somewhere. So when I get stuck, it really weighs on me.

Perhaps the biggest problem with getting stuck in your career is the time factor. It can go on for years. After you've exhausted every source of advice, you get that sinking feeling like you're just spinning your wheels and going nowhere fast. It can really get you down.

So quit wasting time searching for a magic solution to your problems and listen up. Here's a simple and foolproof process for getting your career unstuck.

Step 1. Ask yourself what you want to achieve next.

One of my favorite quotes is from baseball great Yogi Berra, who famously said, "If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there." Call it obvious and silly all you want, I've seen countless executives, entrepreneurs, and business leaders try to run companies without a clear goal in mind.

If you have trouble figuring out what you want out of the next stage in your career, then at least come up with a list of possibilities and start eliminating them one by one until you've narrowed it down to a short list. Then try to get really specific about what you want to achieve and eliminate what you know you don't want to do.

Why bother? Simple. There's a world of opportunity out there so you've got to rule out the vast majority of options so you know how to focus your efforts. Otherwise you'll be all over the map, you'll never find your way, and you sure as hell won't get anywhere.

Step 2: Figure out what's stopping you.

That's a big, hairy question so here are some straightforward ones to help you figure it out: Why won't your current situation get you to where you want to go? What skills, capabilities, or relationships are you missing? What are you doing wrong or what should you be doing differently? What will likely derail your plans?

In the business strategy world we call this a gap analysis. It's the same thing with individuals and their careers. This is where you get to take a long, hard look in the mirror. If you're not entirely honest with yourself about what's stopping you or will likely stop you from achieving your goals, you'll never get there.

Once you've figured that out, check to see if you set the bar too high or too low in the prior step. Are your goals at least achievable? Are your expectations within reason? Are you taking a risk that you're not financially prepared to handle? Don't get me wrong. It's good to take risks, but they have to be in line with your risk tolerance at this point in your life.

Don't be afraid to iterate between steps one and two until you're comfortable with your goals and what you need to do differently or gaps you need to fill to achieve them.

Step 3. Come up with an action plan and do it.

This is where people--even experienced executives--usually fall down. This isn't the easy part; every part of this process is hard. That's right, I said this would be simple; I never said it would be easy. After all, nothing worth achieving in life is ever easy.

What you want to do here is come up with a relatively detailed action plan including milestones you plan to achieve, when you'd like to achieve them by, and the next step you need to take in the process of achieving each one. Keep it on your computer or print it out and post it in your home office or wherever you're likely to see it every day.

Be disciplined about it. Have monthly meetings with yourself to review your status and update your "next steps." If the schedule has slipped, that's okay. You can modify it from time to time and reset the dates. Just be aware, if your schedule is constantly slipping, you may have bitten off more than you can chew. In that case, you may need to iterate once again.

Finally, some words of encouragement. These days, people are very good at wanting but they're not very good at sticking with it. They want things and they want them now. But here's the thing. Careers don't work that way. So, when you get itchy for good things to happen too soon, don't get discouraged and quit. Stick with it. That will set you apart. And that's why you'll succeed.

IMAGE: Ty Milford/Getty
Last updated: Jun 19, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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