Sean Johnson

Recession-proof yourself, Part 1: Work Harder

Part one in a series of posts on transforming your career to survive and thrive in good times and bad.

It seems as though everywhere you go people are looking for work. Sending out resumes to anyone who even hints at a potential opportunity. There are literally thousands of candidates competing for very few positions.

While most people are aware that things are bad, it seems to me that very few people understand that things are different. This isn’t your typical downturn – when investment bankers are becoming baristas and engineers are child care technicians, you know things are different.

I believe that the next few years will be increasingly hard on an increasingly larger group of people. There will be more unemployment, not less.

And unlike any downturn before it, you’re not just competing with your peers. You’re competing with the guy with 30 years experience who is looking at a much more distant retirement. You’re competing with the former Vice President who’s willing to take a big pay cut and your job. And you’re competing with the billions of people in India, Asia and Latin America who are now an instant message away and a third of the cost.

The good news is that there is still work to get done, and the need for smart, capable people to do it. But you have to stand out – being good enough is no longer enough. You have to transform yourself into a superstar – someone who generates so much value, someone so indispensable that your organization would be crazy to let you go.

What follows is the first in a series of discussions on recession-proofing yourself. My hope is to equip you with the skills you need to become one of those superstars.

It’s important to remember that nothing in here is meant to be a blanket set of rules. There are many people who don’t work in hyper-competitive organizations, or companies that aren’t facing stiff cutbacks. Similarly, there are people who would honestly welcome the change if they were let go. And there are folks who feel as though they’d rather not change their habits and are willing to risk facing the consequences. This isn’t written for you.

It’s written for folks who are worried they might not have a job in six months, who love what they do, and want to prepare themselves for the increasingly competitive world we’re entering into. I hope those who fit this description find this useful in some way.

Part One – Work Harder

I’m sometimes asked by new colleagues how I was able to rise from Account Manager to Creative Director in a year, and to Vice President in three. And while I’d chalk the majority of it up to simply being in the right place at the right time, I also worked harder than most people who were in the organization at the time.

While there are no foolproof strategies to survive and thrive in a recession, the closest “sure thing” I know of is to simply work harder.

You might be saying to yourself, “but I already work hard.” Notice I’m not saying work hard – I’m saying work harder.

Work harder than you usually do. Work harder than anyone else in your company. Become known as the guy or girl who hustles the most and you create for yourself not just protection but opportunity.

Show up early

It’s very difficult to get things done in a typical office environment. A typical worker is bombarded with meetings and other interruptions throughout the day, each of which takes you away from the truly high-value work that will make your company succeed.

Our company was no different – finding even 20 minutes of uninterrupted time was always a challenge. I wanted to make sure I got the things done I needed to get done, and knew that would be tough during the day.

So I started getting up early and heading to the local Starbucks. A few days a week, from 6am to 9am I was sending out emails, planning my day, getting a head start on the week. It was the most productive time during my week.

You don’t have to show up at 6am – even an hour early is great. By focusing on the most important thing you need to do that day, free of distraction, you’re able to start your day off on the right foot.

Leave late

Similarly, the end of the day is a good time to tackle the meaty, important work. Most people start to check out around 5 and is out the door by 6.

If you’re willing to stay an hour later you’ll be amazed how much you can get done. You can take your notes from the day’s meetings and ruminate on them, turning scribbles into coherent, potentially game-changing ideas. That’s a nearly impossible undertaking when you’re running back and forth between meetings and conference calls.

Be fully present during meetings

By tackling your most important work earlier and later in the day, you’re actually able to embrace the chaos of the bits in the middle. You can sit in a meeting with your laptop closed and your notebook open, taking notes and offering ideas, knowing that your work isn’t piling up with every passing minute.

You’re able to work on the more mundane things during in-between times (expense reports, etc.) and eliminate the clutter, since you’ve cleared your deck of your most critical tasks that day.

Embrace the natural current

Ultimately, these things are all helping you do the same thing – using the inherent cycles of a typical work day to be as effective as possible.

By leveraging the times when you don’t have distractions to get your most important work done, you’re able to make progress where previously there was inertia. Which frees you up to tackle administrative details and be truly creative in meetings, since the most important work is being handled when it can realistically be tackled.

And people who consistently get the most important things done, who don’t constantly appear frazzled and out of control go a long way towards recession-proofing themselves.

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