Last week we broke down why job searching should be one of everyone’s New Year’s Resolutions.

But the first job search step I tell all my clients to take is to honestly assess your potential to turn your current position into one you love, before you double down on looking elsewhere.

One of the best exercises I've found for assessing challenging situations and getting moving in the right direction is The Bugs Test, which I learned from my mentor Tony Brown at Duke University.

What makes The Bugs Test so powerful is its immediate ability to provide clarity by categorizing problems into:

  • the problems we can easily change,
  • the problems we should accept (because they’ll never change), and
  • the problems we might be able to change with serious thought and effort (hint: these are often the most important ones).

Whether you’re interested in moving on or simply making an already strong work situation even better, in 10 minutes you should have clearer insight into how to take ownership of your next steps and your future happiness at work.

Here’s how it WORKS.

Step 1. Make a ranked list of all the aspects of your current job that bug you, e.g.:

  1. I’m not passionate about what I do
  2. I work too much
  3. I’m not learning / growing enough
  4. I don’t get paid as much as I want
  5. My manager / team isn’t... (insert adjective here)
  6. One of my coworkers plays loud music in the office

Step 2. Review your list and do three things:

  1. Cross off the items that you can’t do anything about
  2. Circle the items you can do a lot about
  3. Star the items you could do something about with serious thought and effort

Step 3. Discern which problems are worth solving:

For the crossed-off items you can’t do anything about, it sounds almost too simple, but you have to either let them go, or acknowledge they’re important enough to justify leaving. Because if you truly can’t do anything about something, what benefit is there in letting it bug you? It’s a waste of your precious energy.

For the circled items you can do a lot about, commit to doing something about them -- today. If your coworker's music is so loud you can’t concentrate, invest in headphones and tune up soothing music, or talk to your manager about moving to a quieter spot, or get brave and have an honest and caring conversation with your teammate. Whatever the issue, it’s bugging you and you can easily fix it, so go do it!

For the starred items you could do something about with serious thought and effort, these problems represent the real meat of the The Bugs Test. Pay attention!

The starred problems are often those that most affect your long-term happiness at work, like how many hours you work, whether you feel fulfilled in your position, whether you have strong relationships with your closest colleagues -- the big stuff.

Many of these problems can be solved with the right approach. It’s not easy; they often require the most energy and courage to solve. But on the flip side they also exhibit the greatest potential to make or break our experience.

To get started, pick your starred problems that, if solved, would significantly improve your happiness at work. For each, define three things: the root of the problem, your ideal outcome, and a tentative plan for making it happen.

For instance, let’s say you’re frustrated you’re not growing enough in your role.

  • First, define what’s really preventing your growth: perhaps you’re weighed down by tasks you’ve already mastered, or neither you nor your manager has initiated a conversation about your development.
  • Next, ask yourself in which specific ways you want to grow: perhaps it’s developing a new skill set, becoming a people manager, or transitioning from execution to strategy.
  • Lastly, craft a tentative plan to make it happen: perhaps it’s a serious discussion with your manager about increasing your level of contribution to the team, including your ideas for how evolving your job description / taking a class / leading a group project would be beneficial for you and the team.

Then move onto the last step.

Step 4. Set a date a few months out (more than one, less than six) and ask yourself “What on my list needs to change by this date for me to want to stay?”

Mark that date on your calendar. Give addressing the most important items on your list your best shot. And when the calendar notification pops up, ask yourself whether the change you needed to see has happened. If it hasn’t, be honest about why (it could be because of your actions or real limitations in your environment), and what you need to do next.

At the very least, if you go through this exercise and confirm your inclination to leave, you’ll have a clearer understanding of your non-negotiables, a set of proof points about your “take ownership” approach for prospective employers when they ask why you’re leaving, and most importantly, you'll have the personal confidence that you did everything you could to make your current situation great.

This is why I firmly believe in The Bugs Test’s potential: it helps us shift into a proactive stance to solve our current problems, and makes us better problem solvers in the process.