How to keep your edge while you're unemployed

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Tech professionals may be in high demand, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune from unemployment. And when that happens, staying motivated and confident can become a challenge. We talked to Chicago-based career coach Jody Michael, who’s been coaching people around their careers for over 20 years, to find the smartest way of staying sharp and stress-free during a period of unemployment. Here’s what she had to say.

What's the first piece of advice you would give to someone who's been recently laid off?

If you’ve recently been laid off, the most important thing is to maintain a positive mindset. A successful job hunt looks like this: no, no, no, no, no, no…yes! You will likely be inundated with rejections or a series of silences during your job search. Being resilient and maintaining a positive perspective is critical to your progress. If you start to engage in negative self-talk or focus on the economic state of the country, you will derail yourself energetically and behaviorally. You'll get off course. You'll be less productive. You'll have a higher probability of increased rumination and anxiety. None of this is helpful during the job search process. By keeping your focus on what you want rather than on what's wrong, you will maintain momentum and reach your goal sooner.

How do you encourage professionals to stay motivated during a period of unemployment?

Generally, people are motivated at the start of their job search, but they get discouraged when they don’t get results in the time frame they want. At that point, I encourage them to set accountability standards for every day that are high, but once they achieve them, they’re off for the rest of the day and get to play. That way, they get up in morning, they have specific things to execute, and they get rewarded for having achieved them. It’s a nice win-win.

Continuous training and education are vital in industries like IT, but what less-obvious advice can you offer these professionals who are trying to stay sharp while seeking work?

A period of unemployment is a great time to build new skills. However, people often focus exclusively on training and education specific to their industry. In fact, what will have a far greater impact on your performance, both professionally and personally, is turning your focus inward to learn strategies for addressing negative self-talk and managing stress. These are skills that will serve you for a lifetime. (Mayo Clinic has a great article on this topic.) Polishing your interviewing skills is also a great way to stay sharp. Consider interview coaching to help you improve your verbal and non-verbal performance. In addition, if you’re considering transitioning to a different area or role within IT, informational interviewing is one of the most powerful but underutilized strategies for networking and finding a job.

What are some positive ways to fill in, or explain, gaps of unemployment on a resume or during a job interview?

 If you were out of work for an extended period of time, consider turning it into part of your resume. What were you doing? Were you volunteering? If so, list that and make sure to indicate that it was a volunteer position — but also be sure to showcase any skills you picked up doing the work, such as event management, email marketing, etc. Most employers would rather see that you did something while searching for a job. If you have 15 years of work experience and had some gaps while you were starting out, consider changing the “Experience” heading on your resume to “Recent Experience,” especially if those early jobs were unrelated to the field you are in now. If one of those positions is important, add an “Additional Experience” section and include that job along with related volunteer experience and coursework. Most importantly, don’t apologize for any gaps — focus instead on what you will bring to the position that you are applying for.

What are some effective, simple ways to decrease stress related to unemployment?

Read a book. One of the easiest ways to get a new perspective is by considering another person’s point of view. Read a book on the topic of stress management, such as one of the following:
  • “Stopping: How to Be Still When You Have to Keep Going” by David Kundtz
  • “Time and the Art of Living” by Robert Grudin
  • “The Simple Living Guide: A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living” by Janet Luhrs
  • “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook” by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman and Matthew McKay
Identify and minimize negative thoughts. Often, people get caught in a pattern of negative thoughts. They tell themselves, “I’m so overwhelmed” or they ruminate about the past and worry about the future. This increases the production of negative hormones in the body and initiates and maintains the feeling of being overwhelmed. Here are the ABCs of managing your mood state: A: Awareness. When you catch yourself thinking negatively, stop and bring yourself back to the present moment. By all means, don’t beat yourself up for having negative thoughts. Be gentle. B: Breathe diaphragmatically. C: Check your perspective. Ask yourself, “Is what I am saying to myself helpful? Is what I am saying true? Or is it a negative opinion without evidence?” For example, if you catch yourself saying, “I’ll never get this done on time” (opinion with no evidence), shift to asking yourself a question that begins with “What can I do right now to move this project toward completion?” or “How can I approach this task more effectively?” Jody Michael is CEO and founder of Jody Michael Associates, a Chicago-based company that specializes in career coaching, executive coaching and organizational consulting. She is a Master Certified Coach, Board Certified Coach, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and University of Chicago-trained psychotherapist with over 15 years of corporate experience in the finance industry and more than 20 years of experience coaching career professionals, teams and organizations.  

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Stacy Warden

Stacy Warden is a contributing editor of the Pluralsight blog and has worked in publishing since the dawn of the iPhone. Currently, Stacy deals in tech and education--a combination that she finds absolutely fascinating. You can find her on Twitter @sterrsi.