Thursday, January 14, 2010

cures for restless communicators

It took me some time to figure this out--a couple of decades--but, speaking just for me, I do my best and most creative work just when I am about to become hopelessly bored and restless at my job.

I have a rock-solid resume and have worked at some of the finest organizations in the world. But at some points in my career, I felt as if I had sand in my shoe: slightly uncomfortable, a little guilty about feeling almost bored, wondering whether I should be thankful for the routine or (in this type of economic weather) grateful to be employed. None of that felt good. None of it cured the restlessness.

My antidotes for this condition have taken many forms. What I know for sure: If there's sand in your wingtips, trade them in for sneakers, or vice versa. Make a change and get a new perspective on your communications approaches, and you might just see your way to an adventure that will keep your full attention. Here are some of the things I've tried:

  • Dive: I love being a generalist, but every so often, I've let myself go deep into one subject area. Drawing a focused line around the subject of your work might be the boundary you need to refocus your attention. Most recently for me, that has taken the form of The Eloquent Woman blog and Facebook page, which this year will expand from in-person speaker coaching and advice to webinars, ebooks and executive seminars.
  • Trade: One year, my management team all had long absences--due to deaths in the family or our own major surgeries. So we had to trade up responsibilities for 3-6 months, and choreographed as much of it as we could for the absences we were able to anticipate. By the end of the year, rather than feeling drained, we all realized we'd learned something new, gained a new appreciation for the others' work, and best of all, knew we had reliable backups in case it happened again. Call it cross-training and skip the emergency part.
  • Drill: My favorite media relations director used to remind me that we could run a press room anywhere, as long as we had our purses and our cellphones. So start imagining. How would you handle operations without electrical power? Without email? (Here's a great post on experimenting with no-email to inspire you.) With no administrative support? With no managers? You can create any number of scenarios...then test one a month.
  • Detour: At one scientific organization with a broad topic we were doing fine targeting and reaching science reporters. So we moved to one side and went after food writers, which required a completely different approach--one that later won us awards. The workshop where food editors from major magazines asked our chemist-cooking experts "Can we back up and review what a molecule is?" and learned that when they're taste-testing, they'd better know which of them is a supertaster told us this was fertile ground to plow. Later, the coverage proved that a shift in this direction was a worthy detour.
  • Experiment: Sometimes, playing with a new tool or technology (and there are plenty these days) can give you the spark you need to get creative. A colleague's working on a Google Wave to pull together communicators from a government agency, its contractors and regional outposts. A writer colleague has set about using Evernote as an archive and file-drawer for everything from photos to ideas. Pick one and try a pilot project--a concept I think communicators don't use enough. It doesn't have to be a lifetime commitment, just a useful, time-limited experiment.
  • Learn: No, don't go back to grad school. (See "dive," above, instead.) Ask your professional networking groups what resources they have for development and skills-building. The National Association of Science Writers, for example, has announced a second round of career grants of up to $2,500 for members who are either journalists or communicators, and many other groups offer free training, coaching or travel grants to attend meetings. Hire a coach for a focused, customized path to develop a skill.
  • Confide: If I had a nickel for every colleague who's confessed they were restless in the past year, I could put a nice dent in the federal deficit. Rather than keep it a secret, share it. "I'm getting a little restless. What do you think I could be doing if I weren't where I am now?" or "in my current position?" are great questions to ask. Then listen. Whenever anyone's confided that in me, I usually have a connection I can make.
Nowadays, I know that feeling restless is my about-to-get bored signal, and I act on it immediately. (The good news: Being an entrepreneur, for me, seems to be the permanent cure.) You should feel great that you've discovered the sand in your shoe...and the sooner you act on that, the better you'll feel.
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