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You've got to be active -- both physically and mentally -- to be at your best, expert says.
When Martin P.* was laid off from his job as a marketing vice president, he embarked on a two-year job search and still came up short.
Brian Smith recently experienced a 51-week lapse between steady employments. Lisa Wetherby was out of work 17 long months before finding full-time work and Domenick DeMarco has been unemployed for 10 months to date.
That's a long time to be out of work. So what exactly does one do during that time off?
"Do something, anything, especially something new or something [you've] not had time to do in the past," urges Laura George, author of "Excuse Me, Your Job is Waiting." "Doing something enjoyable gets brain cells firing, creates a new paradigm, brings in new people and improves morale and overall well-being."
What you don't do is treat your unemployment as a vacation.
"In the big picture, it's critical that you don't utilize your flexible time circumstances to procure a coach potato license," says Nicholas Nigro, author of "No Job? No Prob!" "You've got to be active -- both physically and mentally -- to apply your ample free time to the best of your advantage."
It's hard, however, for job seekers to use anything to their advantage, especially when the bleak economy makes them feel like they're up against the world -- or at least millions of other people.
Competition in the work force is fiercer than ever before, with 9.5 million jobless people in the United States and only 3.3 million job openings at the end of August 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite these grim facts, there is light at the end of the proverbial unemployment tunnel.
"No one can dispute that the absence of a job and a corresponding income stream is a potentially alarming scenario," Nigro says. "If you firmly believe that your current joblessness is merely a glitch in your abiding life expedition, your new outlook will noticeably brighten."
So desolate job seekers, the good news is that even with these tough times, things will get better and you will survive. Here's how you can make the most of your unemployment:
Step No. 1: Take care of logistics. When you're laid off, there are several unpleasant -- albeit necessary -- issues to tackle. Before anything else, apply for unemployment benefits, resolve severance concerns, figure out your health-care coverage and assess your financial situation.
Step No. 2: Mourn. Job loss is devastating. In fact, after the death of someone close to you and divorce, it's one of the biggest losses you suffer. Not only have you lost your job; you've lost routine, money, pride and perhaps most importantly, a sense of purpose.
Understandably, a little moping is allowed, says Jodi R. R. Smith, president of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting firm. A week of bad daytime TV and junk food is about right; then it's time to dust off and find some balance, she says.
Step No. 3: Make good use of your time. With eight extra hours in your day and not much coming up in your job search, there are countless things you can do to improve yourself, personally and professionally. Here are some ideas:
• Create your own jobs. Suddenly being jobless throws a lot of people into a schedule-free day, says Lynette Radio. As consultants who are sometimes between assignments, she and her husband tackle projects around the house like painting or putting in new floors.
"It keeps us busy and on a schedule," she says. "Structure is what you need most at this point to not only feel professional, but not fall into a cycle of self-pity."
• Don't limit yourself. If you can't get a job in the industry you want, find a creative way to be a provider -- not just a worker -- in the industry you're interested in, says Vicki Kunkel, author of "Instant Appeal: The 8 Primal Factors That Create Blockbuster Success."
"Don't limit yourself to finding a job in the industry you've worked in for the past 15 or 20 years. A layoff is a good time to look at what really matters to you, what you love to do or what you've always wanted to try."
• Reassess your life. Joblessness allows you to reconsider your work situation, as well as other aspects of your life.
"Ironically, unemployment also provides time to truly get it right in terms of work/life balance," says Paula Santonocito, a business journalist specializing in employment issues. "There are no more excuses for avoiding an exercise routine or getting enough sleep."
Such positive lifestyle habits have a positive impact on your job search, she says.
• Learn a new language. Spend 30 minutes every day learning a foreign language, suggests Jill Keto, author of "Don't Get Caught with Your Skirt Down: A Practical Girl's Recession Guide."
"Job skills of people with U.S. experience are in high demand in emerging economies around the world," Keto says. With a foreign language under your belt, you'll be in an excellent position to climb the ranks when the U.S. economy rebounds.
• Look for an internship. If you're interested in a career transition, an internship allows you to learn from a company in a different industry.
"Make yourself available for a learning opportunity, at a cut rate to the employer," says Lauren Milligan, founder of consulting firm ResuMAYDAY.com. "Seeking out this nontraditional type of situation will show initiative and confidence." And, if you do a great job, you'll be on the short list for a full-time position.
• Network, network, network. Always look for new ways to expand your network and utilize the one you already have. You can do so by getting involved with relevant professional associations, says Colette Ellis, a career and stress management coach for InStep Consulting.
"Find opportunities to take on leadership roles to increase your visibility within the industry," she says. You can also join committees that are working on strategic projects for the association.
• Re-invent yourself. Reinvention is simply re-examining yourself, taking what you've learned over time and evaluating what makes you tick, says Sean Simpson, communications director for Express Employment Professionals.
"Reconnect with what gets you excited," he says. "Once you have figured out what your passions are, match them to your skills and experience you have gained over the years. This will help you determine what jobs best utilize your strengths and which choices are most suitable for you."
• Set up a buddy system. "Find a friend, former colleague or a neighbor-someone with a positive attitude that you can chat with regularly to keep you going," says Cheri Paulson, senior vice president and director of operations with Keystone Associates, a career management company. "Set up small groups for support but make sure that it is an encouraging tone because you don't need to be around negative people."
• Take a class. Is there a skill that you lack or that might have previously held you back from advancement opportunities? In your free time, take a class that leads to professional credentials or technical proficiencies, Milligan says. It's an easy way to beef up your résumé and make yourself more marketable.
• Volunteer. Eighty-one percent of employers view volunteering as relevant work experience, according to a recent CareerBuilder.com survey. Roxanne Ravenel, a job-search coach, says volunteering gives people a sense of purpose and empowerment, which is critical to the self-esteem of job hunters who feel powerless after weeks or months of a fruitless job search.
"Volunteering gives job hunters the opportunity to meet decision-makers in their community to which they wouldn't otherwise have access," Ravenel says. Decision-makers get to see the job seeker in action, which helps them envision working with that person full time.
*Last name withheld.
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