The Fine Art of Juggling: Balancing Without Burnout

Growth requires more than doing a great job in the office. It means making time for professional development.

By Sue Hildreth | July 2008


If you’re like most IT professionals you expect to grow in your
career, whether that means moving up the management ladder, starting
your own business, or achieving higher levels of technical capability.
But growth requires more than doing a great job in the office. It means
making time for professional development – evening classes in service
management or SOA architecture, earning the right certifications,
attending conferences, networking and keeping abreast of the latest
books from IT and management experts.

So, how do you
do all of that while you’re putting in extra hours troubleshooting
problems in the data center or pushing out a new product release? We
all know IT jobs are rarely 9 to 5. That’s the conundrum that has
stalled many an ambitious techie’s career development plans.

So what do you do? Here’s advice from IT career experts:

Keep Perspective

The
first step is to recognize you probably can’t get it all done. "You
have to keep perspective," says Michael Cardinal, who’s worked in IT
and trains for ITSM Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Yes, there are
deadlines for projects, but is anybody going to die if something
doesn’t get done right away? Probably not."

Set Short-Term Goals

Decide
on a goal for how may career development opportunities you want to get
each year, suggests Cardinal. An "opportunity" could mean reading a hot
new management book, attending a key conference, or taking a class
toward an industry certification. He recommends no less than three, and
no more than five or six, such goals per year.

Draft a Ten-Year Plan

Go
beyond yearly goal-setting and craft a plan for what you want your
career and private life to be like in ten years. John McKee, a Los
Angeles-based career coach, says IT professionals often neglect
long-term planning, especially in terms of social and family goals. "I
ask them to be fairly specific. What type of job do you want to be in,
where do you want to live? I then ask them to list what they have to do
to achieve that and how much time it will take. In some cases they may
say, ‘This is crazy, I can’t do all that.’ So they’ll step back and
focus on the most important aspects."

Segment Your Time

Don’t mix career development time with job time or family time. That’s often harder to do than it sounds.

"IT
people don’t compartmentalize well. They love what they do and they
often let it flow into other compartments of their life," observes
Susan Healthfield, a human resources management consultant and owner of
Heathfield Consulting Associates in Williamston, Mich. "You need to be
able to say, ‘This is family time, not time for me to be on the
computer.’"

Cardinal agrees. "If you need to study,
set aside two hours for it, and don¿t go over those two hours. Then put
the book down."

He also advises not rushing back to
work at the end of a class, even if you feel you should. "You just
spent a whole day in class absorbing material. Don’t try to go back to
the office to finish up work," says Cardinal. "If your company and you
have committed to take the class, then take it, and be present for it
and let co-workers take up the slack for you at work."

Take ‘Research’ Breaks on the Job

While
you don’t want to mix work and career development, it’s a good idea to
invest a few minutes here and there to read up on an interesting new
product or chat with a co-worker about a programming technique you want
to learn. That keeps your mind fresh and lets you learn on the job.

Keep a Journal.

Cardinal
recommends carrying a journal in which you can write down new ideas or
information you pick up during the day. Doing so helps him remember the
information better, and later he may use such notes to draft a white
paper on a new technology or technique. You can also turn notes into
entries on a blog, if you maintain one.

Such
self-publishing is legitimate career development, Heathfield believes.
"It serves as professional development, and also provides a form of
downtime from work in that you should be writing about something of
interest to you, things you want the IT world to hear about," he says.

Include Family Priorities

One
sure way wind up unhappy is to let it consume every minute of your
time. Heathfield, Cardinal and McKee all recommend planning time for
family or social activities – and not treating them as expendable.

"Too
many IT professionals make career plans, and then assume the rest of
their lives will just fall into place," says McKee. "They often wind up
treating the non-work aspects of life as secondary, and find themselves
unhappy later on."

Sue Hildreth is a freelance business and IT writer based in Waltham, Mass.

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