Careers

The Best Time to Retune Your Career? It’s Probably Right Now

561368557
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Hero Images

January is the big month for buying gym memberships. The excesses of the holiday season leave many of us looking to make improvements in our lives — a search that often leads straight to the elliptical machine.

But what about your job and career? How have those been working out?

Many people spend most of their waking hours at work or thinking about work. In the dim chill of a Monday morning in January, the prospect of another year at a job that fails to satisfy can be daunting, if not downright depressing.

Is it time to ask for a raise, or to look for a new job altogether? Or do you just want to be happier where you are?

More from The New York Times:
Where to go if you forget your Hotmail password
SpaceX says it's ready to launch rockets again
Growing a different Apple

You've come to the right place. New York Times reporters and columnists have tackled these topics in recent years, asking the questions you may have now, and are ready with answers.

Asking for a Raise

Do your research, practice, and don't go asking for a gift.

The impulse to ask for a raise may have come the moment you learned what that lazy co-worker was making. But that doesn't mean you should walk into your boss's office and deliver an ultimatum.

Experts have told Times reporters over the years that preparation is critical to improving the chances of success when asking for a pay increase.

Research salaries in your field, collect your "attaboy" or "attagirl" testimonials, rehearse your arguments (yes, finding a friend to play the boss will help) and don't chicken out and make your request via email. Set up a specific time to meet with your boss and signal that it will be an important conversation, one management expert said.

How should you approach the talk with your boss?

"You've got to go into these discussions with a clear sense that this is something you have earned, not a gift from your boss," said Kenneth N. Siegel, an industrial psychologist and the president of the Impact Group, a leadership consulting firm. "Focus on what you've earned, not what you deserve."

The fact that women still make about 80 cents for every dollar paid to men has been partly attributed to the differences in the negotiating process itself. One study, described by Tara Siegel Bernard in her article "A Toolkit for Women Seeking a Raise," found that women who asked for pay raises were seen as less attractive employees than men who asked for raises.

But women were more likely to be granted a raise, the study said, if they framed their request with language that showed that they cared about maintaining good relationships at work. "Make the company the focus," said Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

If your company is going through layoffs, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to keep quiet about seeking a pay increase. If you still have your job, that probably means you've been handed more responsibilities. You may be doing yourself a disservice by not speaking up.

Be prepared if your boss says a pay increase is out of the question — she may be willing to offer more vacation time or a better work schedule instead.

Finding a New Job

Quitting and moving on defy convention. Books and apps offer encouragement.

Finding job satisfaction may require more than a higher salary: It might mean packing up and taking your work elsewhere. Quitting can be the first step toward reinvention. The Times reviewed three books that encourage unhappy employees to walk out the door and start again. The process may be a struggle, but these books point to success stories.

In "Mastering the Art of Quitting," for example, Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein reject the "myth of persistence." The book, said our reviewer, Liesl Schillinger, "breaks down obstacles to quitting, illustrated by exemplary stories of men and women who had the courage to gracefully quit jobs that did not satisfy them."

App developers are getting into the job-hunting act in a big way. The App Smart column reviewed several new job-search apps, including one, Indeed, that gathers job postings from a wide range of sites and makes them all easily searchable and viewable.

Another app, Switch, "is designed to work a lot like the dating phenomenon Tinder: Job listings matching your interests are presented as one-page summaries, and you swipe left if they are not for you, and right if you like them," our columnist, Kit Eaton, wrote. He also recommended some helpful résumé-building apps.

But remember, a job in hand may be worth two in the listings. The Times's Workologist recently answered a letter from a reader in a "do-nothing" job. Rather than wait for the position to be eliminated, the reader asked if it made more sense to ask to be laid off. The Workologist's reply: Be proactive and propose new projects or initiatives to the boss. A new job search may be inevitable, but don't give up the current position without at least a modest effort at reinvention.

Bill Burnett, left, and Dave Evans, instructors at Stanford University, in California, May 13, 2016.
Jason Henry | The New York Times
Bill Burnett, left, and Dave Evans, instructors at Stanford University, in California, May 13, 2016.

Finding Happiness at Work

You know what makes you happy. Pursue it by changing the routine.

Gallup regularly asks people if they are "engaged" at work, meaning involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their job. Fewer than a third said yes in the most recent poll.

To reverse this, a group called the Energy Project wrote in the Sunday Review section about how employees are vastly more satisfied and productive if four core needs are met: physical (opportunities to renew and recharge at work); emotional (feeling valued for contributions); mental (being able to focus on important tasks and define when and where to get work done); and spiritual (doing more of what they do best and enjoy, and feeling connected to a higher purpose at work).

All good to know, but you sit in the third desk to the left, not a corner office. How can you make improvements to your work environment?

First, it helps to remember the role randomness plays in our lives. Luck is loud and clear when a person wins millions in a lottery. But it plays a much more subtle and elusive role over the course of our lifetimes, starting with the fact that we did not choose our parents or the quality of the schools where we grew up, Robert H. Frank wrote in an Economic View column.

"Almost every career trajectory entails a complex sequence of steps, each of which depends on those preceding it," he said. "If any of those earlier steps had been different, the entire trajectory would almost surely have been different, too."

Mr. Frank's point is aimed at public policy — that a generation's "luck" can be heightened by increasing investments in public education and other resources.

But if randomness plays an invisible role in our careers, we can kick-start that kind of unscripted energy through improvisation. Two Stanford professors teach a popular course — and have now written a book — that contends that happiness can result from being more improvisational in life.

If you aren't happy at work, don't assume things will naturally get better. Instead, according to the professors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, take the initiative to explore changes. Their process, described by Steven Kurutz in an article in September, is experiential — they urge trying new things and add that failure is part of the exploration. If the first step feels like a good fit, the authors say, take it a bit further.

Don't assume that there's one optimal version of your life, they say, and that if you chose wrong, you've blown it.

"There are lots of you," Professor Evans said. "There are lots of right answers."

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times.