What have you been doing lately to invest in your future? Maybe you’re happy in your career and you could be thinking about how to build towards your next goal. Or perhaps you’re stuck in a rut and you’re looking to explore new professional horizons. Whatever the case, if you’re looking for a quick win there are plenty of ways to jumpstart your professional development quickly and without a huge investment of time or money.

Here are five things you can do today during your lunch hour:

1. Schedule an informational interview.

Whether you’re trying to land your first job, break into a new field, or want help strategizing about how to advance in your chosen field, a great strategy is the informational interview. An informational interview is exactly what it sounds like; a meeting in which your goal is to pick the brains of an experienced professional who works in your field, who can offer useful career insights, help you connect to other potential sources of information, and if things go really well, even help you land a job. 

To make this strategy work, the first step is to identify a few target interviewees. After you’ve identified your desired contacts, the second step is to make the request in a way that respects your potential interviewee. Make it clear you’re not asking them for a job, offer to buy them a coffee, and to meet them wherever and whenever works best for them (including on the phone). Finally, after you’ve managed to wangle your first informational interview, one of the last questions you should ask before it ends is: Can you think of someone else I should talk to about our field/these issues/etc? If they give you a name or two, you can probably assume that they’re the sort of people who won’t mind getting an email. At that point you can ask for the contact information and whether it would be okay to use their name in your outreach to the new targets. You’ll find that these “warm” connections are much more likely to generate a positive response.

2. Join a professional association.

This might sound old-fashioned, but professional associations are one of the best ways to keep abreast of industry trends, connect with learning opportunities, and build your professional network.

During your lunch hour, figure out which association looks like it offers the most interesting combination of people, content, and activities. Then pay the annual fee, and join. Doing so will provide you instant access to their publications, and with a little digging, you’ll probably find a conference worth attending. You might also find a special interest group of particular value to your career.

3. Go to a talk or a workshop.

Few things are as inspiring as listening to smart people say interesting things about important topics. When you’re in a rut a surefire way to help dig out is to get out of the building and hit a public event. Some great talks might even be about topics that you don’t know much about – that way you learn a lot and often discover fresh perspectives to carry back to your own work. A side benefit is that there’s often free food and drinks, so you can sometimes nab a free lunch!

And if you live somewhere that doesn’t have a ton of public events, don’t despair. You’ll find most of those streamed live on the internet, and you’ll also find recordings of past events. Seriously, even if you’re trapped at your desk you can always find something to expand your horizons.

4. Take the Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment.

StrenthsFinder is the leading talent/strength assessment tool for a good reason: it’s really good at helping you identify what you’re good at. Most people know what they like and don’t like, and most people know if they’re good at math or not, but beyond that a lot of us don’t have a very accurate understanding of how we transform our various talents into action.

In return for answering about an hour’s worth of questions online, the Clifton StrengthsFinder will give you a comprehensive picture of your talents and patterns of thought and action, categorized into thirty-four themes. The results can help you focus your career strategy on the activities that you love and that give you a real advantage.

5. Enroll in an online course.

Acquiring new skills and building your knowledge base is always going to be one of the best ways to take the next step in your career. As we’ve written about before, going to graduate school is a fantastic strategy for many people, but it isn’t always the right option, especially if you’re looking for something that is both inexpensive and something that you can do right now. A self-paced online course, on the other hand, is affordable and can fit into pretty much any schedule.

If you’re looking for ways to get ahead on your lunch hour, consider courses on topics that will broaden your horizons, hone your most valuable strengths, or build your management and leadership chops.

Conclusion

It’s good to remember that you are the one responsible for your future – not your boss, not your professors, not your friends. So it’s definitely worth a lunch hour or two to invest in yourself, and working on your career doesn’t have to be a 24/7 project. We encourage you to pick one of these quick wins this week and see if it gives you a boost.

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