Dealing with Unemployment

Being unemployed sucks. Your financial and professional situation is constantly uncertain, and probably deteriorates to some degree on a daily basis. Even your social life is at risk. But it’s not all bad. You have a chance to think carefully about what kind of career you want. A suddenly open schedule during the week is an opportunity to try new things, take on new projects, or find a new hobby. Most importantly, it will end. After a long line of denials, one of many job applications will come through. And the rejections don’t matter — you only need one job.

Having recently completed a six month stretch of unemployment, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on how to handle the situation. This won’t be about how to find a job or manage your finances. Those two things are obviously important, but they are different for everyone and there is lots of advice elsewhere for that. Instead, this will be about what to do during the day, after searching for jobs, sending applications, and networking.

My goal while unemployed — besides finding a job — was to be able to look back on the time once it was over and feel good about how I used it. Figuring out what that means will be different for everyone. But I think the goal is universal, as are some general principles for accomplishing it.

My herb garden. Choose plants that thrive on neglect.

My herb garden. Choose plants that thrive on neglect.

First: try new things. Job searching and networking take a while, but not eight hours every day. That means there’s finally time to do all those things you’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time. For me, some of those things were taking a few guitar lessons, planting a garden on my balcony, and hiking from DC to Alexandria. I also spent more time in the kitchen, both trying new recipes and installing more shelves. I could have done those things while I was working, but I never did. Everyone has a few hobbies or projects they’ve always thought of trying. Figure out what those are, and schedule some time to do them with your new free time.

Second: be productive. Work is more than a paycheck. It’s also about a sense of accomplishment. While I was unemployed, it was important to feel like I did something useful during the day. Ideally, both professionally and financially, that means some kind of part-time or temporary job. Finding something like this isn’t always possible, but since it’s not a permanent career move, the options become much broader. If short-term paying work isn’t coming through, try finding a place to volunteer. I worked on a political campaign, prepared tax returns, and helped facilitate conferences.

There are lots of other ways to be productive. I don’t know if I want to go to grad school, but I used the time to study for and take the GRE. The scores are good for five years, so it’s nice to have that in my pocket. I also started a blog. Both of those were great ways to use my big windows of free time at home, and still feel like I accomplished something at the end of the day.

Third: be social. It can be lonely to have lots of time to yourself during the day when all your friends are at work. But all your friends are not at work. Some of them are also unemployed. Others work nights and weekends, and have their weekdays free. Figure out who those people are, and hang out with them. Have a long lunch because no one has to rush back to the office. Go to a park. Play cards. Watch a movie. Go golfing. Whatever. Your schedule is flexible, places are open, and nothing is crowded.

Fourth: Set your alarm clock. Sleep in a bit, because sleeping in is awesome and you can’t do it when you’re working, but don’t lose the whole day. Wake up, shower, eat, and figure out what your plans are for the day. Make sure to leave enough time for job searching and networking, and then decide what else you have time to do. I enjoyed having a less regimented day while I was unemployed, but I found that I still needed to keep myself on some kind of schedule.

At least that’s what worked for me. Everyone’s situation is different. I was fortunate to have great support from family, friends, and colleagues, which was absolutely essential. Some days were better than others, and it was always disappointing to get rejected from a promising job opportunity. But at the end of the day I found a great job, and got to try lots of great new things while I was looking.

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