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Are You Investing Enough in Yourself?

By: Dorie Clark
Last updated 11/23/2011

When work gets busy, it’s easy to skimp on the “expendable” parts of your day. After all, it won’t kill you to miss a gym visit or put off reading that new business book. But over time, a lack of investment in yourself begins to show.

Look at it this way: in Massachusetts, where I live, the state now faces nearly $19 billion in overdue infrastructure repairs—roads, bridges, and transit systems that are woefully out of date and possibly dangerous. The backlog has grown so enormous—nearly the size of the state’s entire annual budget—that it’s hard to make any progress. Those cut corners didn’t happen overnight; they’re the result of a million small decisions over the years.

Investing in yourself, like investing in a state’s infrastructure, isn’t glamorous, but as your career progresses, you’ll reap the benefits as you outpace competitors who have neglected to make the effort.

Here are seven investments in yourself you should commit to right now:

1. Build a network inside your company. You need help from the IT department—fast. Will they put you in the front of the queue? It all depends on whether you have a good relationship with them. The great networking expert Harvey Mackay famously exhorted us to “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty”, and he’s right: you can’t manufacture loyalty when you’re in a moment of need. You have to take the time to build connections across your company before you need them—because when people know and like you, they’ll be willing to go the extra mile to help. One friend of mine who worked in quality improvement decided to invite someone from a different department to lunch each week in order to build connections and to gain a better understanding of how her company worked. Before long, when she needed something, she knew exactly how to get it and who could help her.

2. Develop your outside network. When one executive I know decided to change jobs, he was aghast to discover that almost all his connections were inside his company, where he’d worked for 10 years, and that seriously limited his job opportunities. Though he eventually found work with a great company, he vowed he’d never put himself in that position again. He has begun an aggressive schedule of networking breakfasts with his counterparts at other firms, executive recruiters, and people in related fields. Though he doesn’t plan to leave his new job anytime soon, he now has options, along with the side benefit of being regarded as an “information hub” at his company, able to sniff out small firms or talent worth acquiring.

3. Read the newspaper. Productivity guru Brian Tracy warns against it, and Tim Ferriss of 4-Hour Workweek fame suggests you should just wait for friends to tell you what’s new. But I’ll take a stand that every educated professional should absolutely read the newspaper at least a few times a week (daily is best). While it’s true that if World War III erupts, you’ll surely hear about it from somebody, if you’re looking to ascend the management ladder, you’ll need to be able to carry on a decent conversation and be reasonably well informed. Yes, it’ll take 15–30 minutes a day. But not looking mystified when someone mentions Tahrir Square, the debt ceiling, or Damien Hirst is priceless.

4. Attend conferences. When work piles up—and because many bosses still insist on a minimum amount of face time at the office—it can be hard to escape for several days to hit participate in a conference. In fact, some people deride conferences as boring, pointless, or an excuse to write off a vacation (indeed, my childhood trips to the Bahamas and Acapulco were courtesy of professional association gatherings my dad attended). Those knocks may be justified—sometimes. But conferences can be remarkable opportunities to showcase your skills (it’s always a good idea to present or speak on a panel), pick up industry best practices, make connections, and get new ideas. (My favorite conference is the always-inspiring Renaissance Weekend, which deliberately strives to connect people across disciplines and foster interesting conversations.) If your company has professional development dollars set aside for you, use them. It’s a waste—like lost vacation time—if you don’t, because no one else is going to care about your professional development as much as you do. And even if you foot the bill yourself, an investment in your career and professional growth is likely to pay off.

5. Sharpen Your Skills. My girlfriend is a very successful artist who shows at a prominent New York City gallery, but that didn’t stop her from signing up for a drawing class at an adult education center earlier this year. “Sharpening the Saw,” as Stephen Covey calls it, is critically important at every step of your career. No matter how successful an artist you are, it’s never a bad idea to practice drawing. Even small improvements can make a big impact if you’re at the top of your game. Similarly, many executives may think they’ve “figured out” how to run a good meeting or supervise their employees, or speak to the media. However, just because you’ve done something many times before doesn’t mean you’re doing it in the most effective way. Periodically reviewing your habits and holding them up against best practices can provide meaningful new perspectives. Check out books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done  Patrick Lencioni’s Death By Meeting . Or take a class to hone your skills. (I’ve spent a day apiece learning Power Point techniques and “Finance for Non-Financial Managers”). New ideas are the lifeblood of successful leaders.

6. Cultivate an international perspective. Most of us didn’t take a junior year abroad or become fluent in Spanish or Mandarin. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for the global economy. If possible, try to vacation internationally to expand your horizons (even a trip to Quebec can be a remarkably “foreign” experience for English speakers). Take a language class to brush up on your high school French. Read a few key works about areas of the world that interest you. Some of my recent favorites include In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India , Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle , and the perfectly-titled Carry a Chicken In Your Lap: Or Whatever It Takes to Globalize Your Business.

7. Get enough exercise and rest. Author Tony Schwartz is particularly eloquent on this point. Not getting enough sleep is basically the equivalent of going to work drunk. Caffeine isn’t going to fix your problems if you’re only getting five or six hours of sleep per night. I wish I were one of the lucky few who are genetically blessed to function on that, but I’m not, and odds are, you aren’t either. Sleeping eight hours a night and working out several times a week can look like a huge time sink when those activities compete against pressing work projects and an ongoing torrent of email (though Laura Vanderkam argues in her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think that most of us can pull it off with a modicum of planning). But the cost of not exercising and resting is much higher than you imagine. Think back to the last time you didn’t sleep well. I don’t know about you, but I frequently get headaches and stomachaches if I am not rested, which ends up limiting my productivity. And Columbia University researchers have shown that not getting enough sleep actually leads to overeating. So, perhaps using Vanderkam’s spreadsheet, sit down and make the time for healthy choices.

If you take even one step toward these investments in yourself, you’re going to be a more interesting, healthier person and a better executive. So what are you going to do today? What techniques will you use to invest in yourself?

About the Author(s)

Dorie Clark is principal at Clark Strategic Communications. She is the author of forthcoming What's Next?: The Art of Reinventing Your Personal Brand (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).