You regularly check off assignments and you keep your boss happy. You often feel busy—even stressed—at work. At the end of the day, you come home and crash. These are signs that you’re working hard and killing it in your career, right?
Not so fast.
While you might think you’re challenging yourself and moving toward your goals, you could be confusing daily frustrations and roadblocks for actual growth. You could be living smack dab in the middle of your comfort zone without even realizing it.
That may not sound so bad at first, but if you stay there too long, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Our worlds shrink or expand based on our willingness to do things outside of our comfort zone. While this growth can feel uncomfortable, it often is what’s needed to propel you forward.
Unsure if you’re happy where you are or holding yourself back? Consider how long these four things have remained unchanged:
1. Your Paycheck
Did you accept a salary offer without negotiating? Have you been working year after year (and meeting all expectations) without asking for a raise? Warning: You are totally in your comfort zone around your paycheck.
What to Do:
Challenge yourself to ask for more. Attend a salary negotiation workshop or consult with a coach to boost your skills. Ask for a meeting with your boss to discuss your performance, and bring your courage along with concrete examples of your accomplishments.
You’re going to feel nervous (Everyone does!). Push through it. The plan is to grow your take home pay, but even if you’re told it can’t happen this time, you’ll have more experience standing up for your amazing work to build on in the future.
2. Your Network
You’re attending industry networking events, going to your company’s social events, and staying in touch with friends. But are you putting any time toward connecting with people who feel totally out of reach? How many industry leaders know your name? If the answer is none, you’re networking within your comfort zone.
What to Do:
Make a list of those people in your industry whom you admire and would absolutely love to meet. Then begin actively working to make a connection. Ask around to see if someone can make an introduction for you. Attend an event where they’re speaking and follow-up. Do a cold reach out over LinkedIn (Here’s how). You may get rejected a few times, but if you stick with this goal persistently, you could start a relationship that boosts your career.
3. Your To-Do List
There’s a difference between reactive tasks and proactive tasks, which are just what they sound like—things you do because they fall into your lap, versus what you seek out to further your goals. Email’s the biggest reactive task of them all. If your whole day revolves around it (especially, at the expense of your other work), you’re prioritizing work that’s there, regardless if it’s meaningful.
What to Do:
Identify one project that is high value to your organization and find a way to proactively put it into your day-to-day task list. Make sure you prioritize it over less-significant work. Initially, it may feel unsettling to leave an email unanswered for—gasp!—an hour, while you give something else your undivided attention. Over time you’ll get better at maneuvering the balance between important, non-urgent tasks and all those unimportant things that demand your attention.
4. Your Career Goals
Do you know what your career goals are? If so, are these goals that you personally care about—or are they ones that you attached to for the sake of it? This may be something you need to take some time to reflect on, because while it can be hard to see it at first, it’s possible to work very hard towards something that you don’t even want.
For example, you may be dedicating all of your time to advancing in your current career, but if you were honest with yourself, you know you’d actually rather be doing something else. It’s also possible to drift through your career without setting any goals at all. If either of these are happening, you are likely sticking with the familiar instead of pushing yourself towards growth.
What to Do:
Set aside others’ opinions and recommendations, and dig into what actually matters to you. What would be both compelling and challenging for you? Pick a goal that you don’t totally know how to accomplish, commit to it, and watch your abilities and confidence grow as you work towards it. This could be a small step like taking an online course or a larger one like launching a side business; what matters is that you feel it’s supporting your desired career trajectory.
Comfort zones are sneaky because they feel, well, comfortable. Obviously, I’m not suggesting you push yourself to do scary, uncomfortable things every moment of every day. But I will encourage you to add some productive discomfort to your routine. When you push outside of your comfort zone, you’ll know that you’re doing more than just busy work. You’ll be actively growing your skills, your confidence, and your career.