Getting Unstuck! 5 Guiding Questions to Point You in the Right Direction

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It can be one of the most difficult challenges you face during your career. You just feel “stuck”. You may not even be able to explain why or pinpoint the specific reason. When you do try and define how it feels, no one really seems to understand or relate to what you are saying. It can be frustrating. You may be dragging your feet to the office and feel unchallenged and not motivated to be your best, or you may just have that unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach that is telling you it’s time to make a change. But what change? And where do you even begin?

What’s an administrative professional to do?

The idea of being stuck means different things to different people. In my travels meeting many administrative professionals at conferences, workshops and training seminars, no two Assistants define what feeling stuck means the same way. It’s personal. We experience it at different times in our careers for different reasons. I have found, however, there is usually a common theme: it feels uncomfortable, emotionally exhausting and often creates unproductive side effects that can manifest in a plethora of ways.

What defines “being stuck” for you? Do any of these ring true for you?

  • Your routine has become mundane
  • You are working with a challenging manager or executive
  • You are dealing with stressful family issues that make you feel out of control
  • You have a lack of desire and motivation for your work
  • You have no clear career goals
  • You don’t feel challenged at work, yet don’t feel you have the ability to make a change
  • You feel trapped
  • You just “feel” stuck

One of the number one factors in getting unstuck is the fear we face in dealing with it. It’s just easier to remain in “stuck-ness” (is that a word?) instead of taking action to address the underlying issues. We just don’t know what to do. We talk a lot about feeling stuck and share lots of sticky stories with our family and friends, but we really don’t take sensible action. It’s a conundrum to be sure. One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves at this point is: “Who is working on the problem?”

Next, we don’t take action if we perceive the alternate solution as being “too difficult.” Let’s put difficult in the right perspective. You might consider having a crucial conversation with your boss about your responsibilities or his/her lack of appreciation for your work as very difficult and on some level it might be. However, not addressing the fact that the conversation needs to happen is going to result in a more difficult situation to handle. Just spending time worrying about a problem is not working on it! It requires focus and dedicated attention. It requires pulling out those high-level administrative problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Let’s think of it like a taco salad. You have to dig through the layers of cheese, lettuce, olives and beans to get to the meat! It’s the same with feeling stuck. It requires the taco salad approach! We have to be willing to dig deep and get to the meat of the issue. And that takes a big fork and a firm grasp!

Additionally, it can often be true that we haven’t made a firm commitment to take the action we need. A dear friend once gave me some simple yet profound and true advice when I was dealing with some serious flypaper. She said, “Lisa, you have to decide to decide.” Those three words sunk in and stuck (the right kind of stuck!) and I have never forgotten them. The fear of change can be debilitating. The options appear as unfamiliar territory and we just aren’t willing to take the risk. This initial phase of recognizing our level of being stuck and our commitment to getting unglued requires being consciously competent versus subconsciously incompetent. Which would you rather be?

Self-sabotaging behaviors that keep us stuck

Self-sabotaging Getting unstuck
Look for someone to blame (for anything from their height to their income!) Accept responsibility for your feelings
Send out invites to the pity party! No more victimization
Never listen to anyone with logical explanations Take sound advice
Use words like “never” and “always” which makes it impossible for others to disagree Accept that there are few absolutes in life
Make problems into obstacles Problems are not always negative and are the catalyst for personal and professional growth
Make negative assumptions (no one likes me) Remain positive
Be in control and in charge all the time Learn to let go and see all sides of the situation – have a healthy perspective
Minimize the effort; cut corners and do as little possible Means working hard
Go for the jugular! Requires being gracious and diplomatic
It’s you against the world. No one speaks your language Unite with others – seek advice and counsel from those who have experienced a similar situation
Act impulsively Be willing to dedicate the time for critical thinking

 

There are no shortcuts to discovering the perfect job, manager or workplace culture – there is just the journey. It requires 3 key elements:

1      Discipline: Daily documentation and awareness of personal choices.

2      Candor: Honesty with yourself and others and a willingness to have crucial conversations.

3      Courage: Commitment to preparing yourself to make tough choices and empowering decisions.

Sometimes, we know what we want to achieve, give up, improve, triumph over or resolve. Walking through the exercise below can help identify your roadblocks – and blast through them. (Based on work done by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey from Harvard University.)

1 Choose the

right goal

2 Acknowledge your part in the problem 3 Discover your competing commitments 4 Identify your underlying assumptions
Our goals are often disguised as chronic complaints; basically your biggest gripes contain information about what you most want. Start by thinking about what’s bothered you this past year (you’re stressed at work, you don’t get enough recognition; you and your boss don’t mesh etc.)

 

List what you do that works against this goal. Ask yourself “What am I doing (or not doing) to undermine my progress?” In this column be as honest and precise as possible, and avoid self-flagellation. Ask yourself: “What fears come up when I think of doing the opposite of what I wrote in Column 2?” For instance, someone whose goal is to delegate more work might realize what she is most worried about is others doing tasks better thus causing her to be a control freak. Start by looking at the secret fears you wrote in Column 3. These are driven by assumptions you’ve made. To unearth your hidden beliefs, answer the following questions: What have you convinced yourself will happen if you overcome your bad habit? Is this true?
       
Now think about how you might turn that general dissatisfaction into a specific goal as in “I want to delegate more at the office” or “I want to build a partnership with my boss.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Consider how your current behavior (Column 2) reflects your determination to keep what you fear most from happening. Competing commitments are often rooted in secret anxieties. (ie “I want to delegate” vs “I don’t want to give away all my work.”) Can you explain how you’ve used competing commitments to manage your life or emotions? Identifying the thoughts that sustain our immunity to change is important, but insight alone will not result in lasting change. Most of us operate as if our assumptions are facts. Write ways you can test whether your beliefs are true, starting with smaller experiments (“I will delegate one task”) and moving on to more significant examples.

 

Getting unstuck is not so much about effort as it is about moving forward with the natural flow of things. Think about great swimmers like Michael Phelps and Dara Torres. Their success in the pool is often measured in hundredths of an inch or seconds. In a recent Olympic race, Michael Phelps won a race by less than a fingernail’s length! What can we learn from this? It’s not the kick, but the reach that keeps us moving forward. Kicking provides energy and momentum, but just kicking makes the water an obstacle. When the focus is on reaching and stretching, the water then becomes a vehicle to move the swimmer forward. The same principle applies when we feel stuck.

5 questions to point you in the right direction

Take time to reflect and honestly answer the following 5 questions. Consider each one individually based on how you currently feel. Getting unstuck may not require drastic changes, just some tweaking, small adjustments and new strategies based on your honest answers.

1      Does this job allow me to work with people who share my sensibilities about life or do I have to put on a persona to get through the day?

2      Does this job challenge me and otherwise make me smarter – or does it leave my brain in neutral?

3      Will my current job open doors for greater opportunities?

4      Does this job represent a considerable compromise for my family’s sake and, if so, do I sincerely accept all of its consequences?

5      Does this job and the things I actually do day-to-day touch my heart in meaningful ways?

My suggestion is to write each question on a separate page in your journal or a notebook and read it several times before writing anything. Then, come back to the question and provide at least a paragraph or more on the response. Do the same with each question.

Once you have done that, go back to your responses and focus on the answers carefully. What themes do you see? Then, take time to consider whether your answers justify a more serious assessment that might require life changes and a plan for action. Your answers may provide you the insight you need to make simple yet defining adjustments in your routine, attitude, communication skills or time management that will help; you just didn’t recognize what you needed to do until you took the time to honestly answer the questions.

The questions will resonate differently depending on where you are in your personal sticky world. For many people, Question #4 is uniquely powerful because it addresses the challenges of values and choices. Those are very personal. However, if you are committed to getting to the root of why you feel stuck and want to begin a journey of self-discovery, it’s paramount to a healthy outcome that you honestly evaluate this question.

For me, this occurred when I was a young mother. One of my non-negotiable values was that I wanted to be home during the day when my children were young – yet since my husband was self-employed my job provided the health insurance for our growing family. This meant in order for me not to feel stuck working full time during the day and being away from my kids, I needed to find a position during different hours. I was able to find a great 36 hour per week job working 4pm to 1am at the hospital in the Medical Records department. My husband came home at 4.30pm so my kids were with the neighbor for 30 minutes in the afternoon. I did that for six years until my kids started school.

Was it hard to work that late and then get up early? Yes. I napped when my kids napped instead of diving into that new novel I wanted to read. But I didn’t feel stuck and I gained valuable administrative experience at that job and later transferred to the Human Resources department to work for the Director. From there, I got opportunities as a corporate Executive Assistant.

The reason this question is so important is not everyone can make the same decision I did – nor should they. Getting unstuck is not about what all the other Assistants are doing or not doing. That’s what makes this exercise challenging – it requires an attitude of non-judgment on yourself and others. The truth is, if you feel stuck, and want to get unstuck, but aren’t willing to get to the “why” and the “how”, most likely you will continue to feel stuck and you need to be OK with that and dare I say… here goes… stop complaining about it. Or, do what you need to do to remove yourself from the flypaper.

When these powerful questions are answered with thought and honesty, they can point you in the direction you need to go to make changes – subtle or extreme. Either way, the outcome will be empowering.

We only get one chance at life. It’s not something we can redo. We will, however, have more than one or two chances at a workplace choice during that life. To be our best, let’s focus on how we are living our lives within the framework of our jobs as administrative professionals, not the other way around. Look forward, not backwards, embrace each moment and generate positive energy that will rub off on the people around you. I can’t think of a better way to get unstuck and free yourself to be the best you can and deserve to be.

People don’t want to make that move because even though they are unhappy, it’s a known unhappy place. People get stuck in a rut when they think, “at least I know what I’m dealing with.” Clay Parcells, Right Management Consultants

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About Author

Lisa Olsen

Lisa Olsen advocates continuous learning and encourages administrative professionals to expand their potential, take initiative and engage in being “relationship engineers.” She is the co-owner of Admin to Admin, presenting fresh, stimulating and creative one day educational events for assistants. As a faculty member for the Especially for Youth program sponsored by Brigham Young University, she facilitates summer workshops for youth age 14-18 on leadership, integrity, spiritual growth and family values. If you are interested in Lisa training your assistants or speaking at your event, either virtually or in person, please email [email protected]

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