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How to Stay Competitive and Relevant While Unemployed

01/13/2014 10:26 am ET | Updated Mar 15, 2014

There are few things in life as demotivating as being unemployed. Discarded, valueless, a waste to society and to the people around you. These may be accurate descriptions of how you feel, but they do not have to be how you are perceived. There is no doubt that being unemployed can put you at a perceived disadvantage in the interview process. But there are ways to turn that disadvantage into an advantage. Other candidates may be busy with professional responsibilities and are eager to show them off, but you have something they don't: time. Here's how you should be using it.

ONLY THE BORING GET BORED
There is a direct correlation between how you fill your time and how people perceive you. You may think being unemployed is license to sit around all day watching marathons of House Hunters and Pawn Stars -- and who could blame you? The problem is that watching TV doesn't give you much to talk about with others. A huge part of staying competitive is simply staying busy. It's important to keep a routine in order to feel like you have a lot to do. Unemployment doesn't need to rob you of your sense of worth. It may mean you aren't being paid, but it doesn't need to mean you aren't contributing to society and adding value to yourself. The important thing is that you don't wake up in the morning with nothing on your to-do list.

DON'T JUST CONSUME CONTENT, CREATE IT
We are a nation of consumers. We don't create our own toothpaste or rocking-chairs and we don't create our own content either. We all consume content, whether it be television shows, music or online news. However, consuming content rarely offers the same sort of personal rewards that creating content can. It doesn't matter if you don't have an audience. It doesn't matter if you don't think you have anything to say. Start a blog, make some funny YouTube videos, take some photographs, write an eBook or even just keep a daily journal about your day. Creating content will keep your creative juices flowing and will give you the ability to speak intelligently about your own thoughts and not just those of other people.

GIVE IT AWAY FOR FREE
Of course you should hold out for the right job and negotiate a high salary. I'm not saying otherwise. But unemployment offers an opportunity to get involved in areas you may never be paid to experience. Interested in conservation? Find an organization that you like and volunteer your time. Interested in sports? Volunteer at a sporting event. Organizations have more to offer you than a paycheck. There are sites like VolunteerMatch that specialize in matching you with a volunteer opportunity. Don't let that limit you though. If you want to work in a specific industry, find an organization you admire and reach out to someone directly. You'd be surprised how willing people are to talk to you when you aren't looking for money and just want to help out. Whatever you do, take it seriously. Treat it like a job. Doing so will not only give you self-worth, it will give you something real to talk about in an interview. Regardless of a paycheck, always be working.

DON'T STOP HAVING FUN
The biggest frustration of the employed is a lack of time. No time to take that vacation. No time to spend with family and friends. No time to work on that side project. However, when unemployed, having fun is often the last thing people think about. Spending valuable resources on anything but finding a job can feel irresponsible. It's not. Although stressful and scary, unemployment is also a special time in your life where you have the luxury of time to yourself. You may not be able to take that trip around the world you've always dreamed of, but you can certainly take some sort of trip, reconnect with old friends, spend quality time with family and try not to spend all your time worrying about not working. It may be tempting to hide from the people in your life, ashamed that you don't have a job and have nothing to share when asked "What's new?" This doesn't need to be the case. Once you find employment again, the first thing you'll regret is not maximizing the time you had off.

LEARN SOMETHING NEW
What a perfect opportunity this is to learn something new! Don't worry, you don't need to enroll in graduate school and spend tens of thousands of dollars. Your goal is to learn and not earn a degree. Websites like Coursera, edX and Udacity all offer free online courses -- absolutely free. Many of these courses follow the same lesson plans as those of prestigious universities and are taught by renowned professors. Khan Academy offers recorded lessons on everything from economics to computer programming for the same low price of zero dollars. Enhancing your skills with online classes doesn't just make you more educated; it's a sign to potential employers that you are taking your unemployment seriously. It says that you are someone who appreciates learning and investing in yourself. The more you can prove that you care about investing in yourself, the more others will want to invest in you, too.

DISCIPLINE, DISCIPLINE, DISCIPLINE
No matter what you do, it's all about routine. At first, not having to wake up at 7 a.m. to be at the office by 9 a.m. everyday may seem great. But after a few weeks you'll find yourself eating dinner in your bathrobe while wondering how long ago it got dark outside. Having a job forces a routine on you. Being unemployed means you need to create your own routine. Wake up before noon everyday. Take a shower. Have a set list of goals you need to accomplish every single day, such as applying to five jobs, writing one blog post or reaching out to three old friends or colleagues. In a world of distractions, routine breeds productivity. If you can keep yourself disciplined enough to have one, you'll be that much more prepared to return to work once you land that dream job. Searching for a job is a job in and of itself. Treat it like one.

BUY PEOPLE COFFEE
No doubt you know a lot of people. Friends, old colleagues, random business contacts, former teachers and so on. Don't hide from these people. Don't be embarrassed to not be working. Instead, be in constant contact with them. Always reach out to people that can help you to reach your goals. Buy them coffee and not just when you need something from them. Social skills fade fast, so forcing yourself to dress nicely and meet with people will build your confidence and keep you ready for interviews. By following the tips from this article, you'll always have plenty to talk about. Who knows? It could even lead to a job opportunity you never imagined existed.

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