Tell Me Your Toxic Work Story

You don't have to be crazy

A few weeks ago I launched two online courses on using expressive writing--one to recover from a toxic workplace and the other on recovering from unemployment. The more popular course by far has been the course on recovering from toxic work. 

I have to say that this makes me a little sad, but also that I'm not surprised. Most of the people I know who are struggling with their careers feel this way because they are locked into work environments that are soul-killing.

There are different flavors of toxic work--from jobs that feel useless, to working with colleagues and supervisors that bring you down, to dealing with the burnout of a competitive, 24/7 approach to work with Amazon as the latest example of this.  It's a growing and incredibly harmful trend that I feel we need to be discussing more. 

I want to learn more about how you're feeling about toxic work.

Is this something you are facing?

How do you define a toxic workplace?

How does it make you feel and how is it impacting your life?

How are you dealing with it? 

Drop me a line in comments or email me at I want to know more about what you're experiencing. 

How to Jumpstart Your Stuck Career

Career quicksand
What happens when you feel like you're stuck in a career rut? How do you get moving in a different direction? I think we make things more complicated than they need to be. Here are three steps you can take. 

1. Admit that there's a problem.

The first step is to recognize and accept the reality of your situation. As I've written before, one of the most important things you can do when you want to make a change is to take a scrupulous, unflinching look at what's going on. Be clear about what is and isn't working and where you want to see change. The more honest and complete you can be in this inventory, the more energy you will gather to make change. (This is what some of the people in the Recovering from the Toxic Workplace course are discovering) 

One way to to do this is to simply write about your current experience. What is happening? How are you feeling about it? Who's involved? How long has this been going on? 

Another way to explore the situation is through visuals. The Career Clarity Image Sessions are a great way to get clearer about what's happening and they can help you see issues and connections you might miss through writing alone. 

2. Paint a vision of the future.

Robert Fritz, in his excellent book, The Path of Least Resistance, says that the energy for creation comes from the tension between our vision for what we want and the reality of our situation

In the first step, you looked at your current reality. Now it's time to paint a vision of what you want--what would your career look like if everything was in place?

This is where visualization can again be helpful. Michael Hyatt writes that he regularly uses visual techniques to jumpstart his creative projects. He says that creating a visual:

  • Makes it real.
  • Sparks passion.
  • Ignites creativity.
  • Forces clarity.
  • Defines a path.
  • Encourages positivity.

Your career is an act of creation and visualizing an outcome is a powerful way to create the necessary tension between your current reality and your imagined future. 


3. Build a Bridge

You have reality. You have your vision for the future. Now you just need to build a bridge from here to there. 

I encourage people to focus on taking small, daily actions that move you in the direction of your vision. Often it feels overwhelming to plan some major career overhaul, but by dedicating some time every day to building that bridge, you can start to create some real momentum. 

What kinds of things can you be doing? Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep a One-Sentence Journal--At the end of each day, write one sentence about your experiences. What did you learn? What questions are coming up for you? What was a small win for the day? This can help you track what does/doesn't work for you. 
  • Create a 6-month (or 3-month) plan of experiments--What are things you could try out? Maybe stretch projects? Learning new skills? Trying a side business or committing to reading some new books? Experiments are a way for us to learn more and to discover more about what we want to make happen. Plan these out in short increments with a focus on learning and you can start to evolve toward your new vision. 
  • Do some de-cluttering--Sometimes our problem is that we need to do some mental de-cluttering to make space for a new vision. If you're feeling bogged down by a sense of "there's too much going on!" work on doing some mental (and possibly physical) de-cluttering. You may also want to focus on creating more time for yourself
  • Schedule 50 Cups of Coffee--meet and talk with people who can help you clarify your thinking, learn more about a subject area, make new connections, etc. Relationships are the lifeblood of a career and the more we open up to diversifying our circles of connection and deepening those connections, the clearer things become for us. 
  • Ask more questions--When answers are in short supply, we may need to start asking ourselves more questions. Instead of pushing yourself to "figure things out," try focusing on getting more curious. 

Some Things to Keep in Mind

You didn't get stuck overnight. Career stagnation is something that develops insidiously, over time. So don't expect that you are going to get miraculously unstuck within a day or two. Have patience and let things evolve.

Also be aware that some of our sense of being stuck comes when our identities begin to shift and our jobs aren't keeping up. The things that used to engage us about our jobs may be changing. Or we are starting to care less about some things and more about others. Our sense of who we are and what we value changes over the course of our lives and often we get "stuck" when the personal changes and the professional realities are not in alignment. 

Finally, you will not begin to get unstuck until you are willing to try some things out that may feel risky or "out of your comfort zone." The only way to get free of career quicksand is to start pulling yourself out of  the muck and onto firm ground. At first this may feel strange. You are used to being in the quicksand. But soon, you will begin to appreciate being on firmer ground. But you have to be willing to step over to it first. 


Career quicksand

Are you stuck because you're mired in the quicksand of a toxic workplace? My new self-guided online course may be just what you need! 

How to Find Time to Grow Your Career, Start a Side Gig or Do Anything Else That Matters


Ah, time. If there's one thing we're good at, it's listing all the reasons we don't have the time to do the things we say we want to do. 

So many people I know have a great idea for a side business, but they don't start because they say they don't have the time. 

Other people tell me that they'd really love to explore changing careers, but they simply don't have the time to do it. 

Whatever amazing thing it is we want to accomplish in the world, our most enduring reason for not doing it is that we don't have the time. 

So today, several ways to find time . . . 

Keep a Time Log

Start by really looking at how you're using your time. For the next week, honestly log the hours you spend on your daily tasks. How many hours did you spend working? How many hours were spent sleeping? How many hours on exercise, chores, etc.? How many hours were spent mindlessly surfing the Internet or watching Netflix? 

Checking Facebook 5 times a day for 6 minutes at a time adds up to 2.5 hours in a workweek. What if you had spent that time working on your side gig instead? 

Manage Your Interruptions

While we're talking about how you use your time, let's talk about interruptions. Too many of us lose hours in our day because we aren't very good at setting the boundaries that will give us good opportunities to focus. Part of the reason we feel so exhausted at the end of a day filled with interruptions is because our brains are simply not built to constantly switch from one task to the next. 

Take a look at this article on managing interruptions and try using this Interruptions Log to track the flow of interruptions in a week. 

Once you've seen what's going on, look at ways you can manage these interruptions to buy yourself greater opportunities to focus in larger chunks of time. 

Use the Covey Quadrants to Assess Your Use of Time


The Covey Quadrants (above) are a REALLY useful way to look at how you're using your time. Ideally, you want to spend as much time as possible in the "Important, Not Urgent" column. These are the activities that will bring you the most satisfaction and that will get you closer to where you want to be. Sadly, many of us spend too much time in all the other quadrants. 

Pay particular attention to Quadrant 4--Not Important and Not Urgent. This is where  a lot of mindless TV watching and other distractions takes place. Instead of ending your day with 3 hours of Facebook and Netflix, try spending at least one of those hours on your own growth. 

Schedule the Big Rocks

Another Stephen Covey principle is the idea of the "big rocks"--the priorities in your life right now. If working on your career or starting a side business or creating that nonprofit you've been dreaming about is a real priority for you, you need to schedule that work FIRST, not last. 

This means literally putting times in your calendar when you will work on your project or business or career growth. These become your first priority and everything else gets scheduled around that. 

Use the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a nice way to help you chunk your time. 

Here's how it works:

  • Choose a task you want to accomplish.
  • Set a time for 25 minutes (this is called a Pomodoro)
  • Work on the task until the 25 minutes is up, then put a check mark on your sheet of paper.
  • Take a short, 5-minute break.
  • Every 4 Pomodoros, take a longer break (15-30 minutes--whatever it takes for you to feel re-charged).

Note that if you are interrupted during your Pomodoro, then you must either postpone the distraction or end the Pomodoro to attend to the interruption and start over later. The idea is that you are working in focused bursts of 25 minutes, so if that burst is interrupted by a co-worker, a phone call, etc., then you need to either end that Pomodoro and start over after you've dealt with the distraction OR you postpone the distraction until you finish the Pomodoro. 

Start by committing to do 1 Pomodoro a day to move your project forward. Then build from there. 

Get Up An Hour Earlier

Doesn't get much simpler than this. Commit to getting up an hour earlier each day. You can knock out 2 Pomodoros and start your day knowing that you've made your project your FIRST priority. This has the added benefit of setting the tone for your day, a tone that puts your growth at the center. 

Do a Month of Sundays (or Saturdays)

For one month, commit to spending large blocks of weekend time on your project. Seth Godin's altMBA project has people working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Sunday for a "5-week" sprint. How far could you move your career, side business, etc. if you committed to a sprint like that?

Change How You Talk About Your Time

Laura Vanderkam suggests that rather than saying that you're "too busy" to do something, you say instead, "This is not a priority."

So instead of saying "I'm too busy to work on my career," say "Working on my career is not a priority."

Or, instead of saying "I'm too busy to start my side business," say "Starting my side business is not a priority."

It may be that those things are true. But you may also find that as soon as you say one of these things is not a priority, you realize that it needs to be. 


Finding time to do what matters can be challenging. But it CAN be done. Stop saying that you don't have time to grow your career or start your side business or do anything else that's important to you. Instead, invest that energy in finding that time to invest in yourself. 



FrustrationFrustrated with your toxic workplace? I'm offering an online, self-guided course that can help you let go and move on! 

Why Denial Doesn't Work


One of the participants in my Toxic Workplace Course brought up the discomfort that comes with acknowledging to herself that she's in a toxic work situation. If she admits this then it opens up the question that she must DO something about it. And, of course, that feels REALLY uncomfortable. 

But the discomfort of acknowledging reality and the various implications of our current situation is NOTHING compared to what happens when we deny what is going on. 

Here's the thing.When we deny reality, the truth of our situation starts to pop up in other ways--usually physically.

We feel exhausted or anxious all the time.

We start succumbing to various illnesses.

We can't sleep. We can't eat or we eat too much.

We spend our off-hours in front of the TV or the computer, numbing ourselves out

We can also start to see our relationships suffering. We anger more easily. Or we want to isolate ourselves from other people. We are there in body, but are not present emotionally or mentally. 

We also see that our performance at work is suffering. We lose confidence in ourselves, our ideas and our ability to act. Our creativity suffers. We aren't doing our best thinking and we know it. 

All of these things can be insidious, invisible. And that's what makes them so dangerous. 

Here's what I've learned.

Don't fear the discomfort of acknowledging when you are in a bad situation.

Fear what happens when you don't. 

50 is the New 65 in the Job Market: 9 Things You Should Be Doing to Be Prepared


Last week I had lunch with my accountant and a friend of his who was laid off a year ago (at 62) and is now starting his own business because he can't find an employer who will hire him. We spent much of that lunch talking about how many people we knew who were in this situation. 

For the past year, I've been facilitating the Speedy Startup--a 12-week program to help people who are unemployed start up their own businesses. With only a few exceptions, everyone I've been working with is over 45, laid off and unable to find new employment. I'm recruiting for a new Fall class and finding that the trend continues. 

I also do a lot of  program work with "unemployment programs" in the US. Their biggest challenge is helping the 45 and over crowd find a new job. If these people do find new work, it's often part-time at a substantially lower salary with responsibilities far below their capabilities. 

50 is the New 65

The reality is that when it comes to the workplace 50 is the new 65 and we're seeing a lot of people who in other eras would have been at the peak of their careers, getting booted from the job market with very little opportunity to find comparable work once this happens. It's a phenomenon that's particularly pronounced in certain industries (like tech), but it's pretty widespread. 

We spend a lot of time advising new college grads on how they should manage their careers, recognizing that this s a period of transition. But I would argue that in our new normal, another period of transition we need to plan for is the 45+ transition

I know you're thinking this won't happen to you--you work hard, you're flying high in your career. But I'm telling you, that's what all these other people were thinking too. 

You may get lucky and have a healthy, satisfying career right up until you decide that you want to retire. But I wouldn't count on that. 


Planning for 45 and Over

Because lay-offs seem to heat up for people in their 50s, the time to start planning for it is in your 40s.

This is also when a lot of people start looking around and thinking "Is this all there is?" If they've had dreams of working for themselves or making a career change, this is when those dreams become more insistent. 

So what should you be doing?

1. Start Saving Up

Make sure you have a cushion of cash that's readily accessible, not socked away in a 401k, where you may have to pay penalties to get at it. This may be easier said than done, so that why you need to. . . 

2. Start Creating Multiple Income Streams

Stop thinking of your job as your only way of bringing in revenue. Start thinking about creating multiple income streams. This is the time to start developing side gigs.

The best time to work on developing new income streams is while you are still working at a full-time job that gives you some level of security. It can take a few years to begin generating enough revenue and you will be much less stressed if you work on your side hustle when you don't have the pressure of replacing your previous income. 

3. Nurture and Grow Your Relationships

Your relationships are going to help you grow and access new opportunities and provide you with support when you are laid off. Start paying attention to them now. 

Shift from networking on behalf of your company and start thinking about how to build your own circles of connection that will support and sustain you in this next act. 

Start making NEW connections. A lot of people in their 40's have settled into a pretty closed circle. But closed circles keep us from becoming aware of and accessing new opportunities. We are less likely to see new trends or possibilities. Broaden your connections and you will be better positioned for success. 

4. Develop New Skills That Are Relevant to Today's Market

If you haven't learned something new in the past year, you're already stale. You need to start working on a personal learning plan where you are developing new, relevant skills.

Don't rely on your company to tell you what training to go to. Look around. See what skills are in demand and start working on them. You can do this as part of developing your side gig or by working on side projects that interest you. 

Older workers

5. Be Alert to Signals That You May be "Aging Out" of Your Job

Monster has an excellent article on the signs to watch out for with your current company, things like promotions going to younger people and supervisors saying "You've been here so long!" 

Also stay alert to shifting trends in your industry and occupation. If you start feeling like you're on the outside, start getting nervous.

This is NOT a time to deny reality. You can't (and won't!) do anything if you aren't willing to see what may be coming down the pike! Again, it's tempting to hope that this won't happen to you, but believe me, you need to acknowledge and deal with reality. 

6. Start Keeping a Career Journal

Reflect on what is happening in your career--what you enjoy, where you're having success, etc. This will help you clarify what is going on at work and give you ideas for future direction and action. 

7. Document Your Successes

Create a portfolio and start keeping track of work products and projects. This can help you in job search. It can also be a great reminder of your competence and capabilities on bad days. 

8. Work on Your Layoff Plan

posted about this awhile ago and it's worth a revisit. Note that these are strategies that will help you jumpstart your job search if/when you are laid off. 

9. Acknowledge and Work With Your Emotions

I've been focusing on more "practical" things, but there's a BIG emotional component here. If you are starting to deal with some of the signs of aging out of your job, then you will often encounter anger, anxiety and sadness. There is often a sense of shame, especially in a society where we put such a high value on youth. 

If we don't acknowledge and deal with these feelings, we can find that we are taking things out on our families, our friends, our colleagues, etc. This, then, interferes with our ability to grow and maintain our connections, so it can be a pretty negative cycle. Use your emotions as a guide where you can. Try not to block them or deny that they are there. 

Use Your 40's To Create Opportunities for 50 and Beyond

All of us are working in a "new normal," where old rules are changing and the usual guideposts for our careers are shifting as well.

Although it's tempting to see your 40's as a time to just sit back and enjoy what you may have created, in reality it's a time to start planning for that next major phase of your career in your 50's. It's all about resilience and to craft sustainable careers for ourselves, we need to be alert and responsive to the new types of transitions that are likely to come our way. 

There ARE opportunities and we can create them. But to do that, we need to be alert, responsive and most of all proactive.

Manage your career before it manages you. 



If you're struggling with the emotional fallout of being laid off, you may want to check out my new online course, Recovering from Unemployment: A 7-Day Course to Help You Let Go and Move On. Only $9.99, this course is self-guided and can give you the emotional boost you need to get back on track with your job search!


What Have You Changed Your Mind About Lately?


I was reading an article in the NYT this morning about How to Live Wisely. It describes a course at Harvard designed to get students to think deeply about their lives. 

At the end of the course, students are asked to share one thing they've changed their minds about as a result of their participation in the course. The course is meant to be transformational and, of course, transformation doesn't occur when we cling to old habits, beliefs and emotions.

This got me thinking about how open we as "adults" are to changing our minds. How many times do we approach a "learning" experience not with the intent of opening our minds to new ideas, but looking for ways to have our old ideas confirmed? I've been guilty of this on numerous occasions, I know. 

Many of us hunger for transformation. We want to shed the skin of what doesn't work for us and don a new way of being or feeling. This happens in our personal lives, as well as our work lives.  Yet to do this, we must be willing to change our minds. 

We cannot experience a transformation as long as we are clinging to the safe comfort of our old ways. Transformation MEANS change, so we have to let go. 

If we are feeling stuck, yet hungering for something else, maybe the first question we need to ask ourselves is 

What have I changed my mind about lately? 

If the answer is "nothing," then we need to do something about that. 

To learn and grow, seek not to change minds, but to have your own mind changed. 


FrustrationFrustrated with your toxic workplace? I'm offering an online, self-guided course that can help you let go and move on! 

Using Your Emotions to Identify Your Core Career Needs


I've been doing a lot of work around using design-thinking to improve career services and one of the things we've been talking about  is the need to understand how people are FEELING in order to help them figure out what they need next.

Our emotional states are a powerful indicator of what we need. 

In our careers, I've found that people tend to think that any concerns, issues, etc. they are having about their work is a sign that they need new, better or more information

But that's not true. In fact, information is often not what we need at all. At least not initially. 

Take a look at these core emotional states that we often feel in our work lives and the corresponding needs that they indicate. You'll see that in most cases, you need something other than information!


StalledCore Emotion-->Stalled

Are you feeling stuck, like you just can't move ahead? Does your job feel like Groundhog Day? 

Core Need-->Inspiration

For folks who are feeling stuck, inspiration is your core need.

How can you get inspired to take action? Often, we need exposure to new people, new thinking, new environments. How can you stretch your wings and try something new? Maybe you could do a 30-Day Challenge with yourself? Or take on a stretch assignment? Maybe you need to start thinking about multiple income streams.  Look for ways to inspire yourself.


DiscouragedCore Emotion-->Discouraged

Have you lost enthusiasm for your job? Maybe you're losing confidence in yourself or in your skills?

Core Need--> Emotional Support

When we're discouraged, we need emotional support to help us get back on our feet again. We need to be around people who can bear witness to what we're feeling, who can listen, acknowledge our feelings and remind us of our greatness and of our ability to resolve whatever may be causing us to feel discouraged. 



Core Emotion-->Panicked

Sometimes we're in a panic about our careers. This usually happens if we've been laid off or we are worried that we will be laid off. 


Core Need-->Address "Emergency" Needs

If you're in panic mode, it can help to deal with the basics. If you are just worried about a layoff, now's the time to work on your Layoff Plan. There are things you can do now to get prepared, just in case. 

If a layoff has already happened, focus on the basics. Here's some good advice from Forbes on setting yourself up right as you make your exit. And here's a great list of very practical things to pay attention to. 


ElatedCore Emotion-->Elated

Sometimes we're on a high when it comes to our careers. Things are going really well and we just feel great. That doesn't mean that we do nothing. This can actually be a clue that we need to. . . 

Core Need-->Channel Momentum

This is where we may need to look at how we use that excitement we're feeling to take some serious action. How do we channel that positive emotion into making the right moves or building the skills we need to take on a new, exciting challenge? Enjoy the moment, for sure, but also use it to propel you forward. 


ExploreCore Emotion-->Exploring

Sometimes we just start to feel curious about other possibilities. What would happen if we made a career change? Or started our own business? Or got serious about developing ourselves in a particular area? 

Core Need-->Structure and Guidance

When you're in the exploration phase, this is when you are most in need of information. If you're thinking about starting up a business, for example, you'll want to understand more about what's involved, what you would need to do to get started, etc. 

Structure can also be helpful--a plan, participating in a coaching or accountability group, giving yourself deadlines to make things happen. How can you pull together what you need to make a decision and move ahead?

More Than One Emotion. . . 

Most of us feel more than one emotion at a time. It's entirely possible to be both panicked at losing a job AND a little bit elated. In fact, this is fairly common.

You can use these ideas, though, to get a feel for what kinds of help and support you might seek in combination. If you're feeling both panicked and elated, then make sure you deal with whatever your concerns are AND that you give yourself a way to channel your positive emotions into some forward action and movement. 


The important point here is that our emotions can provide us with powerful clues about what it is we need when it comes to career support and guidance. Try tuning into how you're feeling and then coming up with strategies based on the core needs above to help you make the right moves at the right time!



If you're struggling with the emotional fallout of being laid off, you may want to check out my new online course, Recovering from Unemployment: A 7-Day Course to Help You Let Go and Move On. Only $9.99, this course is self-guided and can give you the emotional boost you need to get back on track with your job search!




Are You a Manager or a Leader When it Comes to Your Career?


One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Peter Drucker:

Management is doing things right.

Leadership is doing the right things. 

As I work with people in thinking about their careers, what I notice is that people spend a lot of time thinking about how to manage themselves and their work. They are focused on doing things right for their current job. They focus on:

  • Responding  to the needs of their current employer so they get great performance reviews and advance in their careers.
  • Meeting (or preferably exceeding) the performance objectives that their employers have set for them. 
  • Developing the skills that their employer tells them that they need to do their current jobs well. 

There's nothing wrong with this, of course. To keep your job, you need to be good at it.

But what happens is that  in our focus on career management, we lose sight of career leadership

In other words, while we are worrying about doing things right, we aren't taking the time to question if we are doing the right things.


Too often what I find is that while people were focused on dotting all the "i's" and crossing all the "t's," the landscape around them was changing. 

Suddenly, they are doing work that doesn't play to their strengths. 

Or the requirements and demands of their occupation or industry have drastically changed and they haven't been keeping up.

Or their organization closes and they find themselves adrift in a crappy job market.

Or they wake up one morning, look around, and ask "Is this really all there is for me with work?"

Career management doesn't cut it in today's economy. We need to become  leaders in our own lives. 

Stop asking "Am I Doing Things Right?" and start asking "Am I Doing the Right Things?" 

See how life begins to shift . . . 



Are you feeling burnt out and pissed off with work? This is one sign that you may be stuck in a toxic work environment. Check out my online course on Recovering from the Toxic Workplace: A 7-Day Course to Let Go and and Move On

Using Writing to Deal with Negative Thoughts and Emotions


As a career coach, I've found that I'm most likely to be working with people in some kind of career crisis. Either they are unemployed and trying to find a new job or they have reached some kind of difficult tipping point in their careers where their unhappiness drives them to take action. 

When people are in these situations, they tend to focus on practical things:

  • How do I write a resume?
  • How do I do a good job during an interview?
  • How can I network more effectively?
  • How do I make a career change?
  • How do I start my own business?

But in focusing on these practical "next steps," they often neglect to deal with the negative thoughts and feelings they are having related to their current circumstances. This is emotional baggage that can really weigh them down.

For example, many people who are unemployed have a lot of unresolved anger and resentment about how they were treated by their previous company or organization both before and after their layoff. They can also have feelings of anxiety, fear, stress and even shame. These negative feelings often come across to potential employers and to networking contacts and can make it much harder for people to find a new job. 

I also see a lot of people in really toxic work environments. They are stressed out by the demands of their jobs and dealing with a never-ending series of office dramas, petty politics and even bullying. This type of situation creates its own emotional baggage that can have wide-reaching impacts on people both in their work and personal lives. Work performance starts to suffer and if the person tries to job search in this mode, potential employers will definitely know that something is going on and tend to react negatively. 


The Symptoms of Difficult Circumstances

Regardless of the cause--unemployment, a toxic workplace--these people tend to share some similar symptoms:

  • Feeling more negative emotions--finding it harder to laugh, feeling irritable, anxious or despairing.
  • Greater difficulty with sleep, including problems falling asleep and/or staying asleep.
  • More aches and pains, including headaches, stomach aches and other physical symptoms related to stress.
  • Problems in  personal relationships with family and friends. They may have more frequent arguments or feel more irritated with people in their lives, both at home and at work.
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness and a desire to withdraw from their usual social activities.
  • Obsessing about their situation, dwelling on worst case scenarios and/or anger with the situation and the people they feel have contributed to it. 

Often what is going on is that people are trying to block their emotions around their difficult circumstances, afraid to really confront and deal with the negative thoughts and feelings that plague them. But emotions will not be denied. They may go underground for a bit, but they always come out and demand that we do something to address them. That's when these kinds of symptoms start to show up.

Writing Through Your Negative Thoughts and Feelings

Dealing with our emotional baggage is one of the greatest things we can do to get ourselves unstuck and re-energized. Surprisingly, one of the most effective ways for dealing with these situations is to use what's called "expressive writing"--a research-backed approach to writing about the thoughts and feelings we are having related to difficult circumstances in our lives. 

While there are a number of different types of writing activities that can produce benefits, the core approach, pioneered by Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, consists of 4 days of writing in response to some specific prompts. 

The idea is that through the exploration of your deepest thoughts and feelings as they relate to a core traumatic experience or situation, you can begin to construct a more meaningful story for yourself of what has happened and its impact on you and your life. This helps you develop new insight into the situation and how it may have not only shaped your experience and your life, but also how it may have even benefited you and helped you grow. 

Here's Dr. Pennebaker's basic prompt:

Pennebaker writing assignment

Benefits of Expressive Writing

Dr. Pennebaker's research with a number of different populations has indicated that most people who use  expressive writing strategies to address challenging situations experience some important changes. They have seen:

  • An increase in positive moods and a reduction in negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Improved physical health, including improved sleep patterns, lower blood pressure and lower heart rates.
  • Improved relationships with family, friends and co-workers.
  • Reduced feelings of stress.
  • Improved focus.

Further, they have also found that people find new jobs faster and improve their academic performance

Interestingly, the people who tend to benefit most are those who are less likely to talk about their problems with someone else--especially men

Writing for Recovery

Although you can use Dr. Pennebaker's basic prompt to try out the expressive writing concept, I wanted to help people go a little deeper in the context of their careers. So I've developed two online writing programs specifically for people who are in a toxic work environment and people who are unemployed. 

In each course, I help you set up for success, and then have you go through 4 days of writing with prompts that are specific to dealing with either toxic work or being unemployed. Each day, you also complete a pre-writing emotional check-in and a post-writing evaluation of how the process went for you. 

At the end of the course, we evaluate your progress, looking not only at how your stress symptoms may be changing, but also at how your writing may provide you with some additional insight into what's going on with you. I also share "next steps" ideas and resources so that you can build on what you've started and begin to move forward again. 

Each module includes audio, worksheets and other resources to guide you through the process. There are also discussion questions for some of the modules. 

You can learn more about the course for the toxic workplace here and the course for recovering from unemployment here

I'm limiting enrollment to 20 people per course because I want to evaluate how this works in an online, self-guided format. So if you're interested, I encourage you to sign up quickly!

I'd also love to hear if you've ever used expressive writing techniques to deal with difficult circumstances. How has this worked for you? Leave me a note in comments!

Designing Your Career: Reality Checks and Evolving Into Experimentation



This is the next in an ongoing series of posts  I'm doing about how to use design thinking in your career. 

When we last left off in the Designing Your Career series, we had entered the Ideation phase where we talked about how to brainstorm potential ideas for experimentation.

In this post we're going to discuss how to do a "reality check" on your ideas and how to begin evolving your thoughts for the next phase, Experimentation. 

Reality Check

As you look at the promising ideas you've developed in your initial brainstorming, you'll want to do some "reality checks" on these ideas in order to further evolve your thinking. Remember, we're brainstorming and exploring ideas that will help you grow your career and design a work life for yourself that meets your criteria for success. 

For each promising idea you've identified, explore these questions:

  • What's at the heart of this idea? What values is it expressing for you? What real needs or issues is your idea addressing? Let's say that you're exploring the possibility of starting a "side gig." What's attractive to you about this idea? Is it a need for freedom and independence? Is it about being able to utilize and express different aspects of yourself? The more you understand what's underneath your idea, the more open to all possiblities you become. 
  • What are the constraints on your idea? What are the challenges and barriers you may face in implementing your idea? Who in your life might oppose what you're thinking? Remember, constraints or limitations don't have to be insurmountable. They merely give you a sense of where you may have to be more persistent or creative in your thinking.  
  • Brainstorm new solutions. First look at the underlying values you identified previously. Are there other ways that you could express or connect to these values? Then brainstorm ways that you might address the challenges you identified. It can be helpful if you go back to the core group of people you were working with in your initial brainstorming session. They can often offer different perspectives or ideas for how to address these issues. 

Work with each of the ideas you came up with in your initial session in this same way. Once you're finished, take a step back and see which ones feel most "do-able" at this time. Which of your ideas has the most juice and energy for you? Those are the ideas you'll want to experiment with, at least initially. 

Make sure to archive any ideas you don't want to work with at this time. It may be that at a later point, you decide you want to go back to them. I have entire notebooks of ideas that I've been playing around with for years. Sometimes it's a matter of the right time and people coming together for an idea to take on some new life. 



Summarize Your Idea(s)

At this point, your ideas will have gone through several iterations. It can be helpful to summarize and refine it as you prepare to go into the Experimentation phase. 

Take a look at your notes and field research and then try to capture your current understanding of your idea. 

  • Give it a title--try something playful or inspiring. 
  • Write a one-sentence summary--what's the heart of your idea? 
  • Describe how your idea would work--what would you be doing? What needs and opportunities do you see in your idea?
  • Who are other people involved in this and how can you get their support?
  • What value and benefits for yourself and others do you see in your idea? How will this address your career and life aspirations? 
  • What questions do you have? What is still open or uncertain for you? 

Again, it can be helpful to share this next write-up with your brainstorming team. They may provide you with additional ideas and information or point out holes in your thinking. 


In the next post in this series, we're going to look at how you play with your ideas in the Experimentation phase. This will be all about testing and trying out, pushing the edges of your comfort zone and being open to what you learn in the process. Stay tuned!