Make Progress on Career Goals Even During the Holidays

Even during busy times like the year-end holiday season, you can make progress on your career goals–just not in the ways that you think.

This time of year, people will often share their regrets about not having accomplished things they set out to do. Some refer to tasks specific to the holiday season, like sending cards or baking Christmas cookies. But many others will tell me about bigger objectives like changing careers or returning to work. Some will wish they did more toward an important personal project, like writing a book or starting a side business.

To make progress on career goals now seems pointless.

I get it. It’s a busy time of year. It’s understandable that you will postpone working on certain things until the new year.

But, I’d like to suggest a different approach. Take advantage of these busy last weeks to pick up some habits that can help you in the new year.

Yes, I know—you may be traveling, attending family gatherings and festive functions, or needing some downtime. I understand that it’s hard to squeeze in one more thing. But these are easy, tiny action steps to try now because they have the potential to make a big difference later.

Moreover, they will mitigate the feeling that you have fallen behind.

  1. Get sleep. Nearly everyone can use more sleep right now. And sleep is the most effective cognitive enhancer at your fingertips that you’re probably not using.
  2. Laugh (or at least smile). If you can’t find opportunities to laugh, at the very least make yourself smile by putting a pencil across your mouth and biting down on it. Surprisingly, getting your face to make a smiling expression can lift your mood!
  3. Take note of how you give. At this time of year, people exchange greetings and gifts. Rather than going through the motions of giving or seeing it as an obligation, find ways to connect with others more deeply. Maybe it’s telling your teenage nephew how much you appreciate his playing with your young child. Maybe it’s noticing how someone went out of her way to do something for another person. Whether or not you send holiday cards, consider sending others short heartfelt notes (or emails or texts) all year long, when they don’t expect them. Remember, giving is a key to success.
  4. Find your joy. Specifically, notice the activities that help you feel focused, strong, and energized. Determine the things you do (as opposed to the things that are done to or for you) that make you lose track of time. Maybe it’s chopping vegetables, teaching your aunt to use a feature on her smartphone, wrapping presents, or untangling a string of holiday lights. These activities are different for each person. Whatever they are for you, discover them now, so that in the new year you’ll be able to do more of them in either your personal or professional realm. (See also #7.)
  5. Relax. Let yourself off the hook. Take a walk, or take more baths or showers. Stop thinking about the day-to-day stuff, to give your brain a break. When your brain is off task and relaxed, it can make unexpected connections that can help you solve problems and devise creative solutions.
  6. Look for the good. Don’t think or say, “Another year has passed, and I still haven’t done ____,” even if it’s true. Anyone can easily come up with a long list to fill in that blank. Instead, actively look for the good things that have happened to you in the past year. If that’s hard to do, start by finding one good thing that happened to you in the past 24 hours. Then continue to look for the good every day. The brain tends to focus on what’s bad and what’s missing; start retraining yours to seek out the good and the abundant. Reinforcing this habit is likely to make you feel happier in the coming year. (You might also want to try other shifts of thinking as well.)
  7. Observe what you’re attracted to. Talk to someone you’ve been wanting to get to know better. watch a movie even though you’ve seen it before. Eat your favorite food. As you do, don’t just enjoy it but try to figure out exactly why you like it so much. This helps you build the muscle of understanding what kinds of activities you’re drawn to (as does #4). If you’re looking for a career change, or make any sort of change in the coming year, the more you can fill it with things you intrinsically appreciate, the better.
  8. Be curious. As you gather and meet people, don’t worry so much about what you’re going to say. Rather use your curiosity to keep the conversation going. So many stay-at-home moms, for example, worry about how to answer “And, what do you do?” I suggest practicing a simple answer, by sharing what you’re focused on learning right now. For example, “I’ve been trying to teach myself how to be a better photographer.” Then, ask a question and listen carefully to the answer so you can ask another question based on what you’re most curious about.

There is always a lot to do at this time of year, so I’ve tried to suggest small ways to make progress on your career goals that are easy to incorporate into what you’re already doing. Try to pick up one or two of these new habits that feel most relevant to you.

If you’d like to learn more, I’m giving a workshop on this topic for the Georgetown Alumni Association. The good folks there have generously made this open to the public!

This is an updated version of an older post from December 2015.