What Personal Growth Work Really Looks Like

By Poornima Vijayashanker

Last week you’ll recall I talked about how to handle grunt work and balance it with growth work.

Some of you wrote back and shared your strategies for balancing grunt work and growth work.

Others told me you’re too overwhelmed with grunt work and don’t have time to do growth work.

And there were a few of you that just weren’t sure what growth work looks like or if the benefits are worth investing the time.

Well, today I’m going to share what growth work looks like, how to carve out time to do it, and the benefits you’ll experience.

What growth work looks like

Growth work, as obvious as it sounds, is any work you do that helps you grow personally or professionally. It could be cultivating a new skill, developing it further, or building relationships.

And unlike your daily work that keeps you heads down, growth work is about connecting with others, and showcasing your skills, knowledge, and experiences.

Here are some simple examples of growth work:

1. Staying healthy: I know it seems silly to mention this, but exercising regularly, not skimping on sleep, eating healthily, and taking breaks are the basic building blocks you need to grow.

When I’m well rested and eat healthy food, I have the energy to think, avoid getting sick, and can naturally do more.

My daily yoga practice helps me manage my anxiety around running a startup.

Taking breaks throughout the day and going on vacation gives you mind time to re-charge and the break it needs to perform better.

2. Reading: it seems so simple and straightforward right? It is! Reading a book a month is a great way to learn and grow. I also find that it helps remind me of things I might have forgotten. Here are some of my favorite books.

An alternative to reading is listening to audiobooks or podcasts. I love listening to my Coffee Break French and Spanish podcasts while I cook and clean.

3. Taking a course: if you need some added motivation to learn a new skill or advance existing ones, then consider taking a course. I find having teachers and peers to learn from helps me get over a steep learning curve much faster than learning on my own. It also keeps me motivated and accountable!

A few years ago, I arrived at the painful conclusion that I sucked at sales, and it was holding back my business. I reached out to other founders for advice but realized that each person’s advice didn’t really help me out of my predicament. Finally, I decided to enroll in a sales bootcamp. The instructor highlighted things that were holding me back and helped me to understand how to implement a process for doing sales.

4. Working on a side project: it can be something small that you nurture over time.

Back in 2007, I started blogging on Femgineer as a side project while I was working at Mint.com. At the time I just wanted a place to document what I learned building and scaling a startup. I didn’t even think people were reading my blog.

I’d try to write at least once a quarter. Eventually, I made it a goal to write once a month and then every week. It’s helped me build an audience, which 9 years later has served me well in transitioning it into a business!

5. Attending a conference: I’m not a big fan of traditional networking, it can feel awkward and unfulfilling. Instead, I prefer to attend small conferences that are really focused on a couple themes. It gives me a chance to meet like-minded professionals and learn from them over the course of a few days.

6. Speaking: if you’ve been following me for awhile you know how much I believe in the power of speaking. In fact, I believe in it so much that I wrote a bookand teach a course on it!

Yes it’s scary… But learning to speak and in particular communicate clearly and effectively have helped me do a number of things like negotiating, resolving conflicts, running remote teams, and building awareness for my startups to recruit and attract customers.

Teaching is my all time favorite form of public speaking because it helps me to deepen my own understanding of a subject and connect with others.

7. Writing: I’ve always loved writing, but I know others find it challenging. One of the reasons people find it to be challenging is because they get hung up on finding their voice and following a theme. While these are important, when you’re just getting started, it’s more important to just write and get your writing out there.

Early in my career, when I was more shy and nervous about speaking, I found writing to be the easiest way to capture my thoughts and showcase my work.

I’d recommend starting with simple forms of writing like keeping a journal or writing blog posts to capture your learnings.

Writing a book is a great goal and I’d highly recommend it. But it’s a goal you work towards by writing consistently over time.

Benefits of doing growth work consistently

Why not just stick to the tasks you’re assigned to do? Why bother with growth work?

Don’t get me wrong, being heads down and getting work done is important. But at some point in time being heads down isn’t enough.

I’m always amazed at the number of technical folks and founders I meet who feel stuck. They’ve been passed up for a promotion, gotten laid off, feel unfulfilled and need a creative outlet, or have a hard time growing their company.

I always start by asking them what they’re doing to put themselves out there, and they look at me like I’m speaking a foreign language. So I ask if they speak, write, blog, or teach? And their response is always, “Oh that seems time-consuming!”

If you want to be recognized, you have to put in the time to showcase yourself.

Some people you’re around may know what you’re capable of but not everyone does.

If you wait to do the work when you absolutely need it, it’s can be overwhelming, and that’s when it feels time-consuming.

When you do growth work consistently over time, you establish your credibility and build up a reserve of resources such as skills and connections. As a result, people end up reaching out to you, which can lead to new opportunities, introductions, and more.

This is especially important if you are interested in eventually striking out on your own. Hiten Shah wrote a post recently that highlights how important it is for people to build their own brand, and how that will eventually translate to credibility and exposure for a product and company.

Finally, when you take the time to do the work consistently, you don’t stay stuck for too long, even when times get rough, as Joyce Sullivan mentions in a recent interview with Kelly Hoey.

How to set aside the time to do growth work

Growth work consumes time, but it doesn’t have to be time-consuming.

Avery Blank who is an attorney, advocate for women, and writes weekly on Forbes suggests:

“You have to make personal investment a priority, so “carving out time for growth work” is critical. There are times when you need to take deliberate actions to advance your career. And being focused on the important things, including yourself, is a leadership quality. Another recommendation is to identify how the grunt work can align with your interests so that this type of work becomes more pleasant.”

It can be as simple as writing one post a month, giving one talk a quarter, or attending one conference a year.

The key is to take baby steps.

Can you swap out the 20 to 30 minutes a day you’d spend on your favorite social media channel to do it?

If that’s too much, then how about a week?

Beatriz Datangel, a data scientist who runs her own business, has her own personal daily ritual:

“I’ve kept up with learning about other industries and growth (personal, professional and entrepreneurial) with podcasts. I trade a 15–30 minute podcast instead of some songs during your commute or lunch.”

If you’re concerned about it being perceived as time-consuming by your team then consider Beatriz’s recommendation:

“I also recommend tracking time between ‘grunt work’ and ‘growth work’. We only have about 12 hours of work/day. Ensure that you’re dedicating at least 25% to growth. It will help keep you accountable (also great to show others how you spend your time).”

It’s not about mastery, perfection or immediate outcomes

People hold themselves back from pursuing growth work because they feel like the time it takes to learn and master the skill isn’t worth it or expect a positive outcome immediately.

It’s not about mastery. It’s about aligning it to goals you have for yourself.

For example, earlier this year I signed up to take a copywriting course. I did all the work, completed the course, and it did improve my copywriting skills. My goal was not to become a professional copywriter. My goal was to understand what good copy is and use my understanding to identify and hire copywriters for my company.

It’s also not about an immediate outcome. If you start tomorrow, you may get lucky and receive an opportunity. But chances are it may take longer for people to notice your work.

I had been speaking consistently for 6 years before the folks at Pivotal Tracker noticed me, and decided to sponsor my monthly web show FemgineerTV.

Those 6 years were crucial for me to become a better speaker, cover a number topics, and establish my credibility.

Know that it’s OK to take your time and make incremental progress!

Now I want to know, what are some goals you have to for yourself, personally or professionally? And what growth work are you doing to achieve them?