Organizing the job quest to reduce overwhelm


I recently coached a friend who was dropping out of her PhD program, and feeling super stressed out about finding a job for the first time. She wanted a simple, methodical, step-by-step process for figuring out her next step.

For people starting over from scratch, the career quest falls into the category of “large life things which can be very overwhelming,” simply because it feels like there’s infinite options, so many unknown variables, and it never fails to make you feel small and vulnerable. Like starting a business, going back to school, or even, dare I say it, dating— you have to know what you want and keep putting yourself out there, over and over again.

During our coaching session, I broke the job search quest down into 3 phases.

  1. Part 1 is knowing what you want - taking the time to be thoughtful and deliberate about your career goals.
  2. Part 2 is learning and absorbing as much as you can about what’s out there and what interests you.
  3. Part 3 is telling your story. It’s putting together part 1 and 2 together to articulate how you fit into a particular company.

Whether you're looking to get hired next week, or have a few weeks or months to figure out your next step, you can apply some version of this process. It's methodical, deliberate, and pushes you towards self-awareness at each step. The goal is to ease your anxiety, get you unstuck from decision paralysis, and reduce feelings of overwhelm.

Let’s start.

Part 1 - Knowing what you want

Without knowing who you are, what you value, and what you want out of a job, you’re spinning your wheels in place. You could do the “let me throw things at the wall and see what sticks” method, and that works well for some people. It doesn't work for me because I think I would feel aimless and uncertain at each step. If you're at all like me, having a sound sense of purpose will ease your paralysis.

To get grounded, give yourself some wide stretches of time, sit with a notebook and pen and your favorite drink, and then ask yourself these questions:

What’s my purpose for my next job?
Is it to learn new skills? Make tons of money? Explore my interests in this field? Or is it a stepping stone to something else?

What are my priorities?

Think about how important these things are to you: salary and benefits, location, flexibility, relevance to interests, working environment, "office culture," coworkers, potential for upward mobility, sense of autonomy, potential to learn... and anything else you can think of. Do you have any dealbreakers, or specific priorities here?

What do I want to get from this job?
Imagine it’s the future and you're reflecting back on your experience at this job. How has this job made you more of who you want to be? (This is clearly just a thought exercise, and obviously there’s no way you can predict).

What are my fields of interest?
These can be super big and broad, or as specific as you want. The point is to just get it down on paper.

What filters should I apply?
Given your purpose and priorities, what are some hard and fast rules you can apply to your job search, to start narrowing in on? For instance, a pretty specific filter might be: “I want to work for small to medium sized businesses or nonprofits based in NYC focusing on applied sciences and education.”

“But… I’m afraid of putting myself in a box”

This is a super common concern, especially for us citizens of the digital age, because we’re living in the era of information overload, seemingly infinite options, and techno-induced FOMO.

My counterargument here: the box is in your head. There is no box unless you put yourself in a box. What you’re doing instead is drawing a chalk circle around the things that excite you most, and feel most true to who you are. Then, you’re focusing all of your energy on it. If that changes, then guess what? You can erase it!

Part 2 - Learning & absorbing

You might already have a general sense of the kinds of companies that excite you— maybe you’ve bookmarked their page or saved some job listings. Or maybe you’re starting from scratch. Either is fine.

The next step here is to take those fuzzy images that are in your head— the fields, companies, industries you’re interested in— sharpen the resolution, and then zoom in and frame them. (To extend this metaphor, I would say, the next step (submitting job applications) is taking the perfect shot!)

1) How do you do this?

Let’s start with online research. To organize stuff like this, I like using one or more of three tools: Evernote, Google Sheets, and Pinboard.

What I’m trying to organize:

  1. Job listings that interest me
  2. Companies I’m crushing on
  3. Professionals I admire

The functionality of these 3 tools:

  • Google Sheets: spreadsheets are all about helping you take action.
  • Pinboard: a dead simple bookmarking tool that organizes itself via tags, and allows basic notes.
  • Evernote: for storing and annotating comprehensive information— including whole webpages or articles, and for writing extensive personal notes. Things are organized into notebooks.

You can use any of these 3 options (or a combination) to organize your stuff. If you’re interested in simplicity, I’d go with Pinboard + Google Sheets. If you’re interested in doing extensive research and really amassing a collection for future reference, use Evernote.

2) How do I find this stuff?

The two most efficient ways is doing online research, and using your network. In your group of friends and colleagues, are there people who have careers or connections at places that interest you? It doesn't hurt to ask them. For online research, my guiding principle is just following the bread crumb trail of what interests me (in a good way, not in the black-hole way…

To reduce overwhelm, try just setting aside 15 or 30 minutes a day to doing research, and treat yourself to some chocolate afterwards.

Keep bookmarked a list of sources you like browsing. For instance, you might start with your alma mater’s career listings,, and search for industry-specific listings in your field.

For companies and professionals I’m crushing on, my process tends to work like this: I look loosely around the web and on social media, maybe browse blogs, articles, or TED talks in my subjects of interest. I follow the writers and speakers to their personal websites.

3) Two steps to organizing the information

  1. When you see a job posting, a company or a person you admire, add it to Pinboard or Evernote and tag it appropriately.
  2. Every few days, or once a week (depending on your cadence), go through your Pinboard or Evernote and move things you want to take action on into your spreadsheet.

Now you can ensure that your spreadsheet is as actionable and focused as possible. Your spreadsheet should give you a sense of calm, focus, and clarity.

4) Fleshing out your research by talking to real people

No matter how much online research you do and notebooks you collect, the best thing is always to talk to real people. That’s how information becomes real. Sometimes the glossy jobs you see online aren’t what they appear to be, and that’s the kind of information you can only get from humans.

When I was a senior in college, I went to my career counselor and told her how going to networking events really freaked me out, because I felt, with every conversation I had, I needed to prove myself to people, to convey to them that I was hirable, desirable, and lovable. “What a stressful way to think about it,” she said. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.”

Then she gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

“Don’t focus on being interesting, focus on being interested. Ask questions and let other people talk. See it as an opportunity for you to learn.”

5) Getting in touch

Once you have your list of companies and professionals you’re interested in, see if you can get in touch with specific people to talk over the phone, set up a skype, or meet in person. Usually this takes a personal, nice message on social media, or a well-written email. For people in your network; you might also ask for introductions to their colleagues.

Another option to meet people: see what kinds of niche events you could attend. If you're interested in working in a specific group of museums or nonprofits, maybe you'd sign up for their blogs, mailing lists, and social media feeds, and plan to attend their next event.

6) Think of it as making honest connections

Instead of thinking of networking as a utilitarian action (I use people to get me a job), I like framing it as making honest connections. Like most relationships, it's not necessarily going to be a one-to-one sequence of events (i.e., you do X and you’ll get Y), but as something more organic and a little magically mysterious. I also like to think of it as an expanded definition of friendship; i.e., making professional friends.

Some thought experiments you might try:

  • Imagine: what if I wasn’t at a networking event, but instead, at [the garden party of my favorite college professor?] Insert your own scenario that doesn't make you feel nervous.
  • For introverts: what if I was in an extraverted mood right now, and I knew, for certain, that my next best friend or mentor was in the crowd, somewhere— I just had to find them?

No matter what you do — networking online, setting up calls with people, going in-person to events— the key here is finding the balance between doing something scary and vulnerable (changing your mindset) and doing what feels comfortable (and even pleasurable!) to you. Because if you try it and you find it too dreadful, it won’t be sustainable in the long run. You can force yourself to go to something once, but you shouldn’t be forcing yourself every week; the thing itself must motivate you and feel validating in some way.

Remember to cast your net wide, and don’t take it personally if people don’t respond, or if do they do so in perfunctory ways. Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on one person or one company. As long as YOU feel comfortable with what you’ve done to put yourself out there, you should be satisfied.

Make sure to reward yourself with ice cream or something pleasurable! Seriously.

7) Revisit and Refine

After you’ve gone through step 1— introspecting and writing down what you want, and then moved through step 2— the process of researching, collecting, and organizing knowledge, now it’s time to revisit what you wrote in step 1, and see if anything has changed. Are you still interested in the same fields? Have you discovered a new way to frame what you’re passionate about? Have your priorities and filters for jobs shifted?

8) Make it simple and focused

The key here is to distill it down into a simple, clear vision of what you’re looking for. Once you know what you’re targeting, you’ll be able to go after those jobs with far more confidence and effectiveness. Note: simple and focused means specific, but there are different types of specific.

One type of specific: “I’m looking for a marketing job in a small startup with a salary of 50k+ a year that’s based in NYC…”

Another type of specific: “I’m looking for a small, growing business where I can feel autonomous, take ownership of my projects, and learn tons of new things.”

Part 3 - Telling your story

Moving through these 3 parts is like setting your mis-en-place before you cook. You have all the ingredients prepped and ready, and now the rest (the actual submitting of the application part) should be easy.

So now you have:

  1. A clear vision of purpose, priorities, and interests for your next job.
  2. A refined list of specific jobs and companies you’re interested in.
  3. A small group people you’ve spoken to and learned from.

Your next steps:

1) Find your why

Essentially, this is your story for why you’re applying to a specific job.

For each job listing, ask yourself 3 questions:

  1. What makes me excited about this job?
  2. How does it align with my purpose, intentions, and skill set?
  3. What can I contribute to this job?

Try free writing a paragraph about each job. The next challenge is seeing if you can distill it down into 2-3 sentences, and rewriting it for a targeted audience (the company) to read. This is what goes into your cover letter.

2) Articulate your brand

Personal branding might sound a bit pretentious, convoluted, or complicated, but essentially it’s just storytelling. Telling your own story in a way that resonates with the people you want to resonate with. It’s the process of distilling who you are and communicating it clearly. It is very important that you don’t try to speak to everyone, because then you’ll end up speaking to no one. When done well, personal branding feels authentic and true, rather than fake and forced.

I’ll be writing more on personal branding in the future, so for today I’ll keep it short and simple. To articulate your personal brand, ask yourself a few big questions.

  1. What are my core values and the purpose behind my work?
  2. What’s different about the way I work?
  3. What are my most defining qualities, personally or professionally?

I tell my brand coaching clients that articulating your personal brand is like carving a sculpture. You start from a big block of stone, and you refine it slowly.

3) Putting it all together

Then, it’s time to apply. For each job application, here’s what you do:

  1. Edit your resume with your brand + your why in mind.
  2. Write a cover letter including your brand + your why.
  3. If you have contacts in your target company, reach out to them with a short and sweet email to let them know you’re applying.

Then what?

Then you do it many, many times, until you find a job that feels right to you. The key here is to make it feel like a familiar activity — a habit that you do every few days, or every week— instead of building up pressure for each one so that it feels momentous and pressurized.

Here it might be useful to set a target number for yourself. It will depersonalize the process a bit and remove some of that anxiety (at least it did for me).

Do you have any suggestions, specific questions, or comments about this process? Feel free to write me by clicking the email icon on the top righthand corner— I will always respond.