How to start your successful return to work after a career break

Here are unconventional and enjoyable ways you can start a successful return to work…even if you’re not quite sure what you want to do.

successful return to work
(c) / nikolapeskova

Several years ago, I had dinner with a bright and cheerful mom. She had quit her job as a lawyer to stay at home with her young children. While she was grateful and enjoyed her time with her kids, she was itching to return to work. She wanted to use a different side of her brain; she missed having colleagues. She wanted a sleek new wardrobe.

The problem was she didn’t want to go back to law. And, she had no idea what she wanted to do.

To make matters worse, her youngest was approaching school age, when she knew she would have more time. She felt the pressure to figure things out. But, didn’t know where to start.

“What do you think you might like to do?” I asked

“I REALLY don’t know,” she said.

“Oh c’mon. Don’t think—just tell me what pops into your head. If there were no restrictions whatsoever, what do you wish you could do?”

She then sat up, smiled, and laughed, “You’re going to think this is nuts, but….” And then she proceeded to tell me about her farfetched idea.

To protect her privacy, I’m not going to tell you what it was. It was certainly pie-in-the-sky.

What I can tell you is this. Her eyes lit up. She leaned in and appeared to grow taller in her chair. Her speech was rapid with giggles mixed in.

The unlikely place to start

I’m sure you, too, have some outlandish job you sometimes wonder about. Just pause for a moment, daydream and conjure up the most baffling career you are curious about.

For me, I always thought I might make a good spy. It’s so ridiculous. I’m a non-nimble couch potato who can’t think on my feet. I’m so ill-suited for the job. But, that’s why I might have a shot. No one would suspect me!

But, here’s the thing, this is where you start.

You start with something that lights you up. Something you think you would “enjoy.”

At the same time, please, please do not search for your “dream job.” I can almost guarantee, that it will make you stuck…and for two reasons:

  1. You are starting with the outcome. You’re going backwards.
  2. You are being perfectionistic. You’re trying to make things fit into neat boxes or trying to be precise. You want to control the situation and contain the uncertainty, but you can’t. Instead, you’ll just limit yourself.

Instead, you have to be creative and explore. Take baby steps using pleasure as your guide.


One baby step is far better than leaps not taken.

The Lighthouse Method®*

Start four lists to start a successful return to work

An easy and enjoyable way to get started is to start some lists. Lists are great because you can start fast and add to them in short periods of time as you go, later. Whether on paper, your computer, or phone, I suggest keeping them in a way that’s easily accessible to you.

Here are three lists you can try. For each, I’ve described how to start small and then expand or go deeper.

When you’re starting out, only give yourself 10-20 minutes. Rather than spend a lot of time in one sitting, it’s better to have short stints more often.

  1. Take stock of talents and strengths in all aspects of life. Start a list of everything that is going right and what you did to make it right. Work fast and make it as long as possible. Don’t edit. Don’t dwell. If you get stuck, put the list away and try again another day. When you feel you can’t think of anything more, start asking those around you. Ask loved ones, former colleagues, and friends to help you identify the things you’re good at. This is helpful because you may not be aware of what you’re good at.
  2. Make a list of people you admire. Alive or dead, famous or not, write down people you admire or want to emulate. Then, for each, list what it is about them you admire. If there are people on your list you can speak to, schedule time with them and simply ask them how they got to where they are. Or, ask them to tell you their story. Don’t ask for advice, just let them talk and ask questions you’re curious about. Later you can go back and think about what it is they did to make them admirable to you. It’s highly likely the conversation will lead you somewhere closer to identifying what you want or could enjoy. It’s also good practice for informational interviews.
  3. Start a wishlist. Write out specific job parameters you might prefer: location, hours, full- or part-time, employed or self-employed status, solitary work or work among colleagues, etc. Keep adding to the list as you think of them.
  4. Make a list of any job you would be willing to do for a day. The goal here is not to try them just to make the list as long as possible. After a while, you’re likely to see some patterns or even repeats.

How will you start your successful return to work? Which of these will you try?

This is a revised version of an older post first published in September 2009.

*This is an affiliate link where I receive a small commission from any purchases at no cost to you. Some of these funds will be donated to organizations supporting women and girls.