How to make unemployment work for you

Throughout my career, I’ve had periods of a few months where I’ve been gainfully unemployed — usually due to contracts ending before the next role had made itself known. There are days when this time is very depressing — when it’s gloomy outside, the only jobs advertised with any resemblance to the ones you’re looking for are at the other end of the country or pay what you were earning 10 years ago, the applications you have submitted appear to have disappeared into a black hole and you’ve just realised your car tax is due which means more money going out while none is coming in. Overall though, I’ve found that this time between jobs can be a really positive experience (a caveat here — I’m lucky enough to have not got to a point where the money has run out before a new job has come along, and I know that things would be very different if I were dealing with not working for longer than a few months).

During my times of unemployment, a number of things have helped to boost my overall feeling of positivity. Some actions, some realisations, but all adding up to days which feel like they’re going pretty well.

  1. Have a routine

Just because you don’t have to be somewhere at a certain time each day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a routine — routines really help to keep you motivated and your days from disappearing into a loop of sleep and Netflix binges. By all means take a few days after you finish work to lie in and catch up on a few boxsets, but draw a line after that.

If you know you’ll sleep in if left unchecked, set an alarm. If you don’t get up til 11, then take your time getting ready, eating, suddenly it’s 3pm which is nearly the end of the working day really so no real point in starting anything now and you’re into a vicious circle of inactivity which will start to kill motivation.

So get up, and have some form of structure — times you know you’ll look for jobs, when you’ll work on a project, a habit of going for a run at a certain time.

2. Time to learn

If you do nothing else, do this. Whatever your field of work, there is bound to be something you could know more about. You might know immediately what that is, but if not then think about either what you’ve seen as a trend in jobs you’re interested in but don’t quite have the skills for, or the direction you want to take your career in and what you need for that.

Doing this is a win-win (with more wins on top) — you’re learning something new which will give you a great sense of achievement, you have a new skill to add to your CV and a great example to use in interviews of being pro-active and focused on your own development.

I work in Marketing, so last time I was between jobs I used Google’s Analytics Academy to teach myself Google Analytics — something which proved to be really important in my next role. This time I’m about to immerse myself in all thing SEO, starting with a Udemy course. Whether it’s Google, Udemy, FutureLearn or YouTube, the internet is full of courses you can start within minutes.

3. Get out of the house

If you’ve not got anything to do outside of the house, go for a walk round the block anyway. Split tasks over different days if you need that to force yourself out. Fresh air, a little bit of exercise and overall knowing that you’ve been somewhere other than the sofa each day will all help your feeling of wellbeing.

4. Make the most of having downtime

Yes, you should make sure you’re spending your time productively, but make sure you also take advantage of being able to do the things you can’t do while you have a job, who knows when you’ll next get this opportunity! Meet up with relatives and friends who are retired or at home with kids, go to museums and galleries while they’re quiet in the week, sort out the garden, have an afternoon on the sofa reading a book or go to the gym at a time when you won’t have to wait for your favourite equipment. Don’t feel guilty about using some of this time to relax and enjoy.

5. Adopt the ‘done list’

It’s quite likely that the job you’ve finished doing was one where you met deadlines and tracked achievements of all sizes. When that stops, it can be particularly demotivating to be left with the feeling that your day has been a bit pointless.

As a dedicated user of ‘to do’ lists, my way of reminding myself that I have achieved something that day is to have a ‘done list’ — a little record of everything I’ve done that wouldn’t have happened if I’d been at work that day which helps me to see my day as productive!

6. Fill the gaps

If you’re used to your days at work being a certain way, it can be useful to work out if there is anything about them that you feel you’re missing out on by not being there, and think about how you can make sure that’s still a part of your day. For me, that’s the time I used to spend walking to and from the train station. I always said jokingly that if I wasn’t doing that 3 miles a day I’d weight a lot more than I do, and it turned out to be true… So now I make sure I’m taking walks of at least that much, and feel much happier for it.

It might be that you miss spending time around people, learning about a certain subject, having a specific type of lunchtime routine or even the timing of a tea break, look at how you can keep that as a part of your day.

7. Find your natural pattern

This period might be the only chance you get to find out how you naturally best function when left to your own devices — something which can be a powerful thing to know when you’re looking for a new role where you can work to your full potential.

We’re used to days structured with prompts — get up in time to be at work on time, focus during working hours, stop at lunch and at the end of the working day, weekend and evening for relaxation. You might find that that’s actually how you work best, but now is the opportunity to see what happens when you strip out the prompts. Just observe what your body and brain defaults to — do you wake and sleep early or late, do you feel most productive and alert first thing in the morning or afternoon, or do you come into your own in the evening?

You may not be lucky enough to find a new employer who has the ability to take advantage of this knowledge, but even if that is the case, it is something which can always be useful to you.

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