How to Get Out of a Slump

I got a lovely note from a reader that included this passage (reprinted with kind permission):

  • “For the last one and a half week I have been in kind of in a slump, disappointed after a school assignment I had trouble finishing. I thought I finally had my writing problem under control, but ended up using the whole exam reading and taking notes, never getting to the point of actually writing the paper. Since then, affected by the disappointment, I have struggled to follow through on my weekly schedule,  feeling uncommited and inadequate and procrastinating by frenetically thinking and reading about self improvement. But yesterday I picked up your books again, and read page 50 in 7 Secrets about back sliding. I decided to test scaling back for while – at least for some hours. So, with a compassionately objective statement of “You know what; lets just go for a walk, shall we, and bring some nice baked goods and just think stuff through?” – I did just that. And felt such a surprising, huge sense of relief! These simple acts seemed to have lifted the silent perfectionistic pressure of “You NEED to find out what to do, and change this and this and this and this, so that you one day can become an effective person, a serious activist and save more lives”. It is just so fascinating that these simple things can have such an effect! And that your books so often have the tools I need.”

Some Thoughts:

Light on the end of railway tunnel.

Light on the end of railway tunnel.

1) Note that her slump had a trigger–they always do. In other words, they don’t just happen, and they’re not caused by “laziness,” “lack of willpower,” or any other supposed personal deficiency. Whenever you feel your productivity slipping, skip the shame and blame and start looking for a cause; when you find it, start problem solving.

2) Note that it was her conviction that she had got her procrastination “under control” that got her into trouble. I always warn people who are making good progress to not get cocky, and this shows why! You need to approach every project in a kind of Zen state (attached to process, not product), and with zero expectations. And you need to be utterly prepared to fail.

3) Notice the procrastination mimicking productive work, the most seductive and confusing form of procrastination. This came in the form of “…reading and taking notes, never getting to the point of actually writing the paper” and “frenetically thinking and reading about self improvement.” Here are some better solutions.

4) Notice how the solution came from re-empowering herself. Empowerment is the foundation of all productivity, and it is equivalent to “having good options.” When she got blocked, she probably felt like she had just two sucky options: “Write well” and “Or else.” The “surprising, huge sense of relief” came right after she re-empowered herself by figuring out how to get out of the cage by creating a better option for herself (going for a walk, etc.). Whenever you feel like you have only bad options, stop everything else and focus on creating good ones.

This episode is a great example of how:

1) The skills of observation, characterization, and analysis (including self-analysis) can help you overcome barriers and reclaim your productivity.

2) Underproductivity is complex. The metaphor “writer’s block” confuses people by making them think it’s a simple thing (a “block”). A better metaphor is that it’s like a snarl of spaghetti.

3) It takes remarkably little work to get unstuck! Once you stop perfectionistically bashing yourself, that is. I’ve seen this happen again and again. Even a single conversation with a helpful coach or friend is often enough to turn things around–and often you don’t even need that. Sometimes just taking a break, or changing your work method or venue, will do it.

Congratulations to the reader for beating her slump, and thanks so much for giving me permission to share your narrative so that others can learn.

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