When it comes to moving forward in one’s career path and thus improving one’s income, the biggest challenge is often finding the time to make it happen. Many of the most powerful career steps that people can take involve spending quite a lot of extra time outside of work to be able to pull it off.
Want to get a new degree? That’s going to mean a lot of evenings and weekends.
Want a new certification? Be prepared to spend a lot of nights and weekends studying.
Want to start going to professional meetings and conferences? Unless your job sends you, you’re going to be giving up your work time.
Want to join a local professional group? You’ll be going to meetings in the evenings.
There are quite a lot of people out there who want to advance in their career, earn more money, and take on new challenges, yet they don’t have the time to give to those commitments.
Take me, for example. I have a wife and three children at home that I actually want to spend quality time with each day. I’m also involved in my community in a number of ways. I want to be able to get adequate sleep at night, get some exercise to keep my health in a good place, and have at least a little time for leisure. To take on those extra steps needed to further my career, I would have to give up some, if not all, of those things, and that’s just not a life balance I am interested in.
What exactly can a person do in this situation where they have professional goals and want a higher income but the amount of additional time that they have to devote to their professional life is pretty small?
Here are ten strategies aimed at doing just that.
Stop Wasting Time at Work
Whenever you spend time at work doing things that aren’t helping you further your career, you’re wasting that time. When you sit at your desk idly browsing websites, you’re wasting your time. When you play with your phone or check what someone is saying on Facebook, you’re wasting your time.
That’s not to say that a little bit of thinking time isn’t useful – it certainly can be, particularly at creative jobs. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about time at work where you’re not doing anything that’s either furthering your career or helping you complete the task at hand.
In short, if you’re not actively working on a task at hand, you should be working on something that furthers your professional career. The time in which you’re on the clock should be filled with first the tasks at hand, then your professional interests.
Browsing social media or looking at memes doesn’t fall in there. Checking out websites isn’t there, either. If you need to do something relatively idle while you think, look for very low-impact cognitive tasks, like cleaning out your email inbox or cleaning your workspace or going on a walk (I used to be a “courier” sometimes when I needed to think, telling people I needed to go on a “thinking walk” and would be happy to take something somewhere for them, and I even do that sometimes now when I need to mail a few items by loading them in my backpack and walking to the post office.)
What if you don’t have a task to do and can’t “further your professional interests”? In that case, look for something to do. Find a task that needs to be done and do it. Take care of something that will make other future tasks more efficient. I will definitely get into ideas for both furthering your professional career and making your other work tasks more efficient in this article, but suffice it to say that wasting time at work is one of the biggest reasons most people aren’t as successful or productive as they might otherwise be in the professional sphere.
Document Your Efforts
Whenever you do any sort of significant work, document those efforts clearly. Simply keep a running journal of the project and things you worked on, with dates and times, to the best of your ability.
Mostly, this exists as a tool for you to use to clearly and factually lay out your quality performance during your next performance review. It can also help remind you of major projects and tasks you’ve contributed to when you pump up your resume.
Also, a good log like this essentially writes a resume for you if it’s organized well. It identifies projects and tasks and skills you’ve used a lot without you even having to think about it, giving you the material you need to write a strong and fully honest resume.
I do this by actually using time tracking software, namely Timery as a front end for putting data in to Toggl. I have several different work tasks that I have listed in there, and whenever I start a new one, I tap a button on my phone. When I’m finished, I either tap a “stop” button or a button for a different task. This lets me keep track of what I’m working on with pretty high accuracy, which not only serves as documentation, but helps me figure out some better strategies for using my time.
You can use a much simpler format. A notebook or a Google Doc that contains a brief description of how you spent each hour at work can be more than enough documentation for showing off your work performance.
Emulate the Best Performer
Figure out who the best performer in your department is, then emulate and, if possible, supersede that performer. Watch what they do, emulate it to the absolute best of your ability, and do it better if you can.
Don’t spend your time emulating people who put in half effort or don’t take their job seriously. Everyone notices this, and those people will be the people who hear “no” when they want a raise or a promotion. Those people will be the ones let go when cuts need to happen. Those people will be the ones who won’t get the boss’s ear when they want or need something.
Putting forth the work in a consistent, quality way is a way to gain a positive reputation, and that positive reputation is what you need to translate your efforts into an increase in pay. The best way to do that is to simply be the best around at what you do, and if you don’t know how to do that instinctively, emulate whoever is the best around at whatever you do.
I was almost never the best performer around at my job, so I found pretty quickly that if I figured out who the best performer was and did my best to match that person, I would usually end up in a good spot. It’s invariably worked. Over the years, I’ve emulated a quiet computer programmer from Korea, an affable database administrator, an intensely focused German biologist, and a very soft spoken lab technician from the Ivory Coast. Why? They were all the best around at a job that I was trying to do well, and in each case, emulating that performer made me way better at my job.
Identify an Informal Mentor and Build a Relationship
One of the most powerful professional tools anyone can have is a mentor, someone who is further along in their career path and can offer guidance and perhaps an occasional helping hand to help you along. I’ve had a few mentors over the years and they have made an enormous difference in my professional and personal life.
There are a few caveats, though. Most mentors would probably rather avoid that term, as it tends to evoke an idea of more time committed and responsibility than they would want to commit. A mentor tends to work best when the relationship is more informal – an occasional coffee or an occasional email asking for advice in a particular situation, in exchange for a helping hand when they need it. This person doesn’t necessarily need to work at your current place of employment, either – it can easily be someone in a nearby place.
A good way to establish a relationship with a mentor is to look for an opportunity to help someone much further along in your career path that you happen to respect, something that would go above what they might expect from you. Just help, put out your best performance on that help, and when they say thanks, simply ask if you could email them sometime if you’re ever struggling with a professional choice. And then sit on that for a while until you need to do so.
Over time, this will often slowly build into an informal relationship, and what you’ll find is that if you do your best when your mentor asks for help and don’t become a constant nuisance to your mentor either, this relationship will help you enormously, often in ways that you don’t see. Your name will be a name in your mentor’s mind when they are looking for someone to give an opportunity for or a recommendation for, and that can only help you.
Ask Your Supervisor Directly What You Need To Do To Earn Better Pay – And Do It
One good time to do this is during your performance review. Most jobs have performance review cycles of some fashion, and they usually involve supervisors mostly telling their employees that they’ve done a good job unless there’s a major problem in work performance. Go in armed with a detailed list of what you’ve done in the past year and what skills you’ve built, and when your boss commends you, ask directly what steps you need to take in the coming months in order to earn a performance-based pay increase.
If you don’t have regular performance reviews, simply spend a few months following the above strategies – working hard, emulating top performers, and documenting your efforts – and then ask for a meeting with your supervisor.
The key is to not immediately ask for a raise. They can easily tell you “no” at that point. Rather, ask for specific objectives that, if you meet them, will earn you a raise.
This gives you a checklist of things to do to be a top performer at your job, which will make it easy for you to request a raise. You simply state that these objectives were requested of you and you met them, so now you’re asking for the raise that was discussed. Most organizations are happy to pay someone who actually performs.
Choose Work Tasks and Projects That Expand Your Skill Set and Knowledge Base Rather Than Safe and Easy Ones
Many people choose tasks and projects in the workplace that will be relatively easy for them to accomplish. While they might be able to pull off those tasks with ease, they’re not building any new skills or honing existing ones along the way. In fact, over time, their skills will actually erode, making it harder for them to take on genuinely challenging tasks.
Your approach should be the opposite. You should seek out hard challenges, preferably ones where you can’t quite see the route to the destination but you know it exists. This will force you to build new skills and hone old ones while producing resume- and portfolio-worthy results.
Again, this circles back to the first tip: don’t waste time at work. Use your work time on tasks that are actually challenging and push you to get better. Over time, the tasks that were once difficult become easier, and the ones that once seemed impossible become merely challenging. Over time, you add more and more and more skills and results to your resume, and that will open the door to better pay in your current workplace or a better paying job elsewhere.
Sitting around and taking the easiest tasks is an effective way to bring home a paycheck for a while, but it doesn’t offer lasting security, it doesn’t lead to raises, and it doesn’t build a resume.
Take Every Opportunity To Present and Represent Your Work To Management and To Others in Your Field
Whenever there is any opportunity available to you or to people on your team to present the work you’ve done to others, particularly to upper management or to people outside your organization, jump on it.
Not only does this force you to work on your presentation skills (remember the previous piece, which is to work on things that push you to build skills), it also gives you the chance to make your name known to upper management and to people outside your organization. They’ll know who you are and, if the work you’re presenting is good, they’ll associate you with the goodness of that work.
If there’s one key thing I can suggest about presenting, it’s that humility and giving credit is virtually always what you should be doing. When you’re presenting work done by a team or even work mostly done by you, give tons of credit to everyone on that team and everyone who helped you. Point out when things were helped by others or done by others all along the way. Not only does this offer a sense of humility from you, it also demonstrates that you work well with others and with teams, which is something that is more and more valued all the time in the professional world.
When you have these opportunities to present work and meet people, use the time before and particularly after your presentation to connect with individual people. Offer to follow up with detailed answers, collect contact information, and then actually follow up. Your goal whenever you present should be to build at least a couple good relationships with the people in the room, and that starts with engaging with people who are interested, getting contact information, and following up.
Use Downtime at Work To Enhance Your Professional Presence and Network
If you still find yourself with occasional downtime at work, one effective way to use it to bolster your earning potential is to simply use that time to catch up with people in your field that you’ve established a relationship with. Look into what they’re up to, shoot them an email or a message on social media saying hello and asking about their new endeavors, and follow up on any messages or emails that you haven’t followed up on before.
I recently learned that someone I look up to quite a lot actually keeps a notebook that’s a list of people that he values and wants to make sure he stays in touch with. Whenever he follows up with someone, he crosses off their name earlier in the book and adds it to the most recent page along with a bit of info to jog his memory about what to follow up on next time. He spends a bit of time each day following up with people earlier in the book that he hasn’t crossed off in a while by simply giving them a call or a text or an email just to see what they’re up to and to say hello.
Another thing you can do to bolster your professional network and presence is to simply establish a professional social media presence where you talk about interesting issues and technical details within your field. If you’re keeping up with your skills and the latest changes in your field (as suggested earlier), you’ll have plenty of things to talk about and share. Share interesting articles you find, answer questions other people might have, and offer up a few good anecdotes about your professional work. Let a little personality through, too – talk about a hobby occasionally, for example, but keep it mostly professional. Share that social media contact with people in your field so they can easily follow it. I find Twitter is really well suited for this.
Refactor Your Systems for Time Management, Task Management, and Communication
Another really valuable thing you can do in your downtime that will help tremendously going forward is to sharpen your transferable skills and systems. This means improving your time management systems and skills, your task management systems, and your communication systems and skills.
For example, try moving to a more efficient digital calendar. Make sure that you have everything in there that might possibly be useful, and then move to using that as your dumping ground for all appointments and blocks of time. If you’ve already done that, consider making a “shareable” version of that calendar that indicates when you’re busy or not so that you can easily share that with others.
Move towards using an actual task management system that’s more robust than what it is you currently use. For some, a simple pen and paper checklist system will work. For others, a system like Todoist or Things might be what you need. Find a system, learn how to use it, and start dumping all of the things you need to do out of your head and into that system.
For communication, evaluate things like your email use (does your email signature provide good contact information? Do you sign emails professionally? Do you try to follow a “five sentences or less” structure in your emails?) and any reports you might have to regularly write (could they be better and more clear and more usable for the recipient?). Also, consider documenting many of the standard operating procedures you’re responsible for, as it will actually help you clarify the best way of doing things while also improving your ability to write and also producing documentation that will be valuable for your employer.
Those are all skills and systems that will prove useful to you right away, make you more efficient and productive going forward, and will be able to translate well to the next stage in your career.
Take Care of Yourself
A final tip: take care of your physical and mental health. The better you feel, the better you’ll perform professionally.
Eat a healthy diet. Minimize your junk food and fast food intake. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and don’t overeat. Drink plenty of water and minimize other beverages. Get some regular exercise. Just do something physical you enjoy that makes you sweat and breathe heavy, and do that for 30 minutes a few times a week. Get plenty of sleep – if you have to get up to an alarm most days, try going to sleep a little earlier. The time you “lose” to getting adequate sleep will be recovered by a much more alert version of you that feels better and more energetic. Try a daily meditation, prayer, and/or journaling practice – I’ll say that they all help me quite a bit and are well worth the 30-45 minutes a day I give them in terms of clearing my head and quieting my thoughts.
I could offer lots of tips along those lines, but I find that the list above really covers the core of it. If you’re doing those things, you’re going to feel a lot more energetic and a lot more capable in terms of handling the responsibilities on your plate. It won’t feel like as much of a drudge to put up good performance at work while also taking care of the other areas of your life.
Many people have busy lives outside of their jobs, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have professional goals or that they don’t want to earn a better wage. Often, the secret to that puzzle is to find ways to unlock more value from time you’re already devoting to work, and that’s exactly what these ten strategies aim to do.