Think of who you were before the coronavirus pandemic started—the plans you had, things you prioritized, and goals you were working toward. Now fast forward to today. Maybe, like so many people, you’ve found your understanding of what you want in life and at work transformed while navigating this pandemic—a time marked by profound loss and difficulty, but also a period of illuminating reflection and growth.
As life changed shape so entirely during COVID, the nature of work itself shifted dramatically, too, and in lasting ways. Against this backdrop of external changes, a lot of folks have found themselves increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs. And now that we’re at yet another point of transition—moving (cautiously) toward a post-COVID version of life in the U.S., with a job market that’s similarly showing signs of healing—a huge uptick in employee turnover is expected.
A tremendous number of people are planning to look for new jobs, or even change careers altogether, in the wake of the pandemic. Twenty-six percent of U.S. workers plan to look for a new job following the pandemic, according to one March 2021 study from Prudential, with other polls estimating that in this “talent tsunami,” closer to half of all workers will be seeking new employment. For younger workers especially, the need to move on is pressing; according to Prudential’s survey, one in three millennials say they’ll look for a new job once the threat of the pandemic is behind us.
It’s already beginning: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported record voluntary quit rates in April 2021, with 2.7% of nonfarm workers—that’s four million people—quitting their jobs. That’s a major difference from the start of the pandemic, when voluntary quit rates plummeted to their lowest levels since 2013. Increasingly, people are feeling a return of agency and less like they have to hold onto a job that no longer fulfills them.
Why So Many People Are Ready for New Jobs in the Wake of the Pandemic
Burnout is a big part of this trend. According to Mental Health America’s 2020 Work Health Survey, a full 83% of respondents said they feel “emotionally drained” by their jobs and 85% said that workplace stress has negatively impacted their mental health.
Beyond the prevalence of burnout, though, the pandemic led a lot of people to revisit their priorities. If you’re one of them, maybe you have new thoughts about the type of work culture you want to be a part of or the style of manager you want to work under. Perhaps the introduction of remote work freed you from the default necessity of working a job where you’re physically based, and maybe you now desire greater flexibility in when your work is done, too. Or possibly the root of your discontent is tied more to a desire for career growth and development that—with understaffed companies operating in all-hands-on-deck survival mode—you’ve stopped experiencing in your current role.
Of course, for many people, pursuing a new job comes not from a place of choice, but from outright necessity. As of May 2021, the unemployment rate was still more than 1.5 times as high as it was in February 2020, with Black and Hispanic workers the likeliest to be facing continued joblessness.
What You Need Before You Start Your Search
The pandemic forced us all into a state of constant reactivity as we combatted circumstances outside of our control. If you’re planning to look for a new job this year, make sure it isn’t a rushed reaction to the stress and fatigue you feel from your current job. You may know it’s time to leave, but leaving for the soonest available alternative isn’t always a recipe for long-term success—which is why having clarity around what you want is so critical before beginning your job search.
By strengthening your sense of clarity around what exactly you’re seeking in your next role, you’ll be prepared to start your job search from a grounded, intentional place—which will also mean setting yourself up for a more meaningful, sustainable work life going forward.
How to Figure Out What You Want
Here’s how you can achieve clarity and pinpoint what exactly you want in your next job.
1. Take a Time Out
This may sound counterintuitive—after all, you may have been waiting for months already. Even so, before introducing the stress of a job hunt into your life, take a moment to stop, let your thoughts wander, and allow yourself to reflect.
In order for this exercise to be truly effective, it’s crucial to block out all distractions and useless time fillers, says Jeff Harry, a positive psychology and play coach. “Simply allow yourself to get bored,” Harry says. “What I mean by ‘bored’ is stop binge-watching Netflix and looking at social media for one hour to really get bored. Block out all the noise and soon your intuition will start to whisper ideas that get you nerv-cited—nervous and excited.”
2. Get Clear on What Isn’t Working for You Now
To sharpen your clarity around what you do want, it can be helpful to start by first outlining what you don’t. What’s your real reason for departing from your current role? Is it your micromanaging boss? A lack of professional development opportunities? Or your company’s expectation that you’ll return to the office five days a week?
If you’re not immediately aware of what’s driving your discontent, or if you want to develop a more nuanced understanding of it, pay close attention to how you feel—both emotionally and physically—throughout the workday, advised Akhila Satish, CEO of Meseekna, a metacognition coaching company.
“Take note of what specifically in your job is making you feel dissatisfied. Is it a certain project you’re currently on? Are your hours impeding your work-life balance?” Satish asks. “Whenever you start to feel that physical reaction of frustration, write down the source of the feeling in a ‘frustration journal’ and start to identify what factors are a non-starter for you professionally.”
When it comes time to start researching companies and, later, to prepare end-of-interview questions, these non-starters can be a helpful guide. For instance, if your main frustration is a lack of flexibility in your job, you’ll want to look for organizations that list flexible scheduling and unlimited PTO among their benefits. Or if it’s management that isn’t cutting it, you may want to include a question for your prospective boss about their leadership style in the interview.
And give yourself permission to prioritize and find those things. “Look at your own mindset in order to define and obliterate every little reason that voice in your head tells you you can’t have or do what you want,” says career alignment coach Aly Brine. “The one that says, ‘This will never work for you,’ or, ‘You should just be happy where you are.’ Simply by being aware of these fears, you begin to remove their power and prove them wrong.”
3. Do a Values Assessment
Now that you’ve pinpointed what you don’t want, reflecting on your values is a great way to start figuring out what you do. In a journal or on a loose sheet of paper, jot down everything that comes to mind about your values and priorities, from what you hope to be remembered for to how you want to spend the bulk of your time at work and in life, says mindset coach Steph Nelb.
Visualize yourself at a values-fed, fulfilled place in your career. What do you see? Are you working remotely? Leading a team? Working at a company that offers particular benefits, such as tuition reimbursement or a mentorship program? What’s your job title, and roughly how much are you making? “Close your eyes and imagine your ideal life,” Nelb says. “What are you doing? Where are you? How do you feel in this new reality?”
You can use the above prompts to freewrite and see what you discover. Or if you need a little more structure to kickstart the process, try filling out this “Values Discovery Exercise” worksheet from Alina Campos, founder of The Coaching Creative.
Whichever strategy you use, “Make a list of all your values, then rank them,” Nelb says. “Which values are most important to you? Which ones are showing up in your daily life? In your career? If there’s a disconnect between your top values and what shows up in your career, take note.”
4. Find Your Flow Work
To better zero in on where your next step should take you, try doing what executive coach Karen Rubin calls a “Flow or Slow” exercise.
“Make a list of your work tasks for a week and note which ones lead to a state of ‘flow,’ where time flies, and which ones are painfully boring, causing the minutes to drag by slowly,” Rubin says. “Notice the kinds of work you most enjoy, with the goal of finding a role that allows you to do as much of these activities as possible.”
Maybe you, for example, are a social media manager who feels in your “flow” when conceptualizing campaigns, but you really don’t enjoy the nitty-gritty scheduling work. Joining a larger organization that has the resources to delegate scheduling to an intern or assistant and would allow you to focus your time and effort on strategy could be the right move.
5. Factor in What You Want to Learn
When considering your next role, don’t just factor in the things that have made you feel fulfilled at work to date. Ask yourself what direction you’re trying to grow in next, says Meaghan Wagner, a career and leadership coach.
“We often think of our roles in terms of what we bring to them and forget to focus on a core opportunity our jobs provide us: the chance to learn and grow,” Wagner says. “By asking yourself what skills you would like to learn or improve, you bring intentionality to your professional growth and at the same time, you can let go of the pressure to apply for jobs you have the skills to do but maybe don’t provide you the opportunity to learn in return.”
So if you’re an HR professional who wants to learn more about the ways technology can be leveraged to increase employee engagement and retention, joining a tech startup that has those resources may make more sense than moving to a big corporation where legacy systems rule, change is slow, and teams feel more siloed.
6. Turn to Your Network
Now that you have greater clarity around the type of role you want, the work culture you want to be a part of, and what you have to offer, it’s time to figure out what opportunities, practically speaking, are out there. Activating your network is one of the best ways to feel out how your needs and wants match up with roles and companies you might pursue—and then to go after them successfully.
If you’re feeling intimidated about making asks of your network, consider the fact that finding jobs through connections has only become more common during the pandemic, according to Muse career coach Jennifer Fink, a career strategist and founder of Fink Development. “Over the past year, I’ve seen reception for networking and informational interviews grow, as many people wanted to help all of those people who were let go during the pandemic,” Fink says. “I think that trend will continue for the next year at least, since so many people will be making pivots, and leveraging your network is one of the best ways to land a job.”
Just be sure that your outreach doesn’t come across as overly transactional. “Start to reengage your network by reaching out to ask how others are doing and what they are looking forward to in the upcoming year,” Fink says. “Don’t jump straight into talking about your job search—rebuild the relationship first.”
7. Consider Working With a Career Coach
If you’re still feeling uncertain about which companies and roles to go after next, getting the unbiased opinion and professional help of a career coach may be beneficial. Bob Slater, today a career coach himself, worked with a coach when pivoting industries earlier in his career.
“When I decided I wanted to leave my law firm—and the practice of law—after eight years, I hired a specialist coach,” Slater says. “After a few months of work, including personality, interest, and ability testing, we identified my new field as that of real estate development. A few months later, with his direction and accountability, I landed a good opportunity and took it. Hiring this career coach was the best investment I ever made.”
Even if you’re not on the cusp of a major career change like Slater was but are simply looking to land somewhere you’ll feel more fulfilled, a coach with knowledge of your field can help make your job search a more strategic one. (Not sure where to find the right coach? You can search and filter The Muse’s career coaches, who have different areas of expertise and can help with everything from job search and networking strategy to resume and LinkedIn reviews to new manager and leadership coaching.)
“The best coaches will unlock insights not just about what job you should take,” Slater says, “but also about who you are and what you value professionally.”