How do you stay at a job you hate?

We were talking about navigating your career when the conversation turned. John currently had a job but had a really great idea for a business using the expertise he’d gained in his last few positions. Even though he hated his job, he needed more time to put his plan for working for himself in place.

"How do you stay at a job you hate?" he asked.

This question comes in many other forms like: How long do you have to stay at a job before you can leave? How do you know when it’s time to quit?

John's question didn't surprise me. Leaving a so-called bad job, isn't always as straight forward as it seems.

Why you might stay at a job you hate

When you google "how to find your dream job" you get 16.9 million results. That's an astounding amount for a career related search. These results demonstrate our collective belief in the existence of a dream job. We think we’re supposed to follow our passion, love our job and never, ever stay at bad job.

It’s easy to say that we should only stay at jobs we love. But sometimes we have to or even choose to stay at jobs we dislike. Sometimes you really need a job for the paycheck, even if it's not ideal. Or, your job has turned into one you detest after a change in your boss or daily projects. Sometimes it’s a matter of needing stability during a particularly crucial time. Maybe you aren’t exactly sure what you want next, so even though you lack fulfillment, it’s better than being without a paycheck while lacking a solid career direction. You might also find yourself in a job you dislike as an intermediary step to a better career situation. 

There are all sorts of reasons you might choose to stay at a “bad” job, how ever you define that. Despite all those social media posts claiming you should only remain in dream jobs, don’t feel bad if you’re not happy at a job yet aren’t ready to leave.

During the last recession, I hated my job. It started the first day when I realized the company's hiring process had failed. There was a mismatch between what the company said it wanted and what they actually needed. I wasn't the right person for the job. The problem was that I’d been out of work for several months after a layoff and work was hard to find.

I stayed at that job even though it was a poor fit. Instead of leaving, I did my best at work, staying focused and never showing the strain I felt. Meanwhile, I saved as much money as I could while I plotted my next career move. By the time I was laid off many months later, I had a plan in place. Even though it was mentally tough, I don’t regret staying at that job — I did my best, and it gave me time to create my next launching pad.

There are times when most of us have taken or stayed at a job that was a poor fit. And, there are good reasons to stay, at least for the immediate future.

If you find yourself doing something that you hate but aren't ready to leave, what can you do? Let’s go back to John’s original question. How do you stay motivated at your job, despite knowing it’s just a stepping stone to what’s next?

How to stay motivated

1. Know why you’re staying

Put a reminder of that reason in front of you every day. It will help you get through the hard times. Reminding yourself of what’s really important helps you stay focused to get through the tough days. It doesn’t matter what that reason is — and you don’t need to tell others. All that matters is that your reason makes sense to you and your situation.

2. Begin working on what’s next

Knowing why you’re staying is critical, but just as essential is to have a plan for what’s next. If you’re like John and want to go out on your own, or build a product, start working on your idea immediately. This will give you hope. It will also give you a running start on having an alternate source of income. In addition, by the time you leave, be sure you’re already marketing your product or service. 

3. Build yourself runway

The risk with staying at a job you dislike is that your emotional and mental energy might run out before you’re physically or financially ready to leave. Walking away before you’re ready increases the chances that you'll encounter difficulty in the transition. Building a financial runway can mean the difference between a smooth transition and one where you’re overwhelmed and at risk for paying your bills. 

Pete hated his day job, but with a growing family, he needed the steady paycheck and lowered health insurance costs. Given his compelling reasons, he stuck with his job even though it didn’t bring him fulfillment. Pete found the creative challenges he sought by taking on side projects at night and saved all that income just in case he grew weary and decided to tell his job to shove it one day. 

If you find yourself in a job you dislike, don’t panic. It happens to just about everyone. Never feel bad if you find yourself in this situation. Instead, figure out what you want next and how to make it through until you can get there. In the meanwhile, instead of checking out keep doing your best work. Contributing at your current employer will keep your self-confidence high. When you leave you'll feel good about what you contributed and leave with solid work relationships which is crucial as a strong network is always an asset to your career.