The Dreaded Slump

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The messy middle. The plateau. The gap. Or, as I like to call it: the dreaded slump.

They’re all names for the same phenomenon: that sudden evaporation of motivation that accompanies wading into the middle of any endeavor. The point of realizing: “I’ve gotten started, but I still have so much further to go.” This is where things get tough and where grit gets tested.

It’s a crossroads. A decision of “keep going, change roads…or turn back?”

Let’s talk about how to choose the right path.

Accept The Slump is Hardwired

Anyone who has made a groggy afternoon venture for coffee, tea or an energy drink has experienced the 3 P.M. slump. We have articles and supplements dedicated to avoiding this very experience. Yet, I’d say that most of us still fight it.

So, as I tell my clients:

If we can’t even make it through a day without a decrease in our energy and motivation, do you think we can make it through any undertaking without hitting a slump?

The answer is simple. We can’t. Period.

No human being can function at one hundred percent capacity, twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year. We’re creatures of peaks and valleys. Not consistent top performance.

On top of this, taking the path of least resistance is tempting and we crave novelty. When things start getting hard, we’d much rather jump to something easier or something new. And we’ll use any discomfort as justification to make that jump (which we have all done at some point).

Therefore the first step in the process of combatting the slump is accepting that it is hardwired into what we are. Accept it and suddenly the slump isn’t as threatening. It’s an interesting biological occurrence, like feeling hungry or thirsty, rather than some harbinger that what we’re doing is obviously not right for us.

So treat the slump like data, not as a reason to make a careless jump to something else.

Figure Out The Slump-Type

Now, unfortunately, not all slumps are created equal. There are a few common threads to the symptoms of certain slumps. I identify these as “Frustration,” “Exhaustion” and “Confusion.” These slumps look a bit like this:

Frustration Slump

  • Feeling restless often
  • Getting annoyed with a lack of progress
  • Thinking “I/We/This project should…” a lot

Exhaustion

  • Feeling emotionally and mentally drained constantly
  • Being resigned rather than surprised by setbacks
  • Wondering if giving up would be better for your mental and/or physical health

Confusion

  • Feeling overwhelmed frequently
  • Researching excessively while procrastinating on actual decisions
  • Believing you’re stuck/you don’t have any options

Of course, slumps can be a mixture o the above. But typically, one of the three will feel like the overarching “theme” to the slump.

The frustration slump might be called the “aren’t we there yet?” slump. It stems from a lack of progress or from not seeing results. Here, we’re prone to making quick decisions (which may or may not be well thought out) because we’re desperate to see anything move forward.

An exhaustion slump (or the “I don’t know how much longer I can do this” slump) comes from a lack of physical and/or mental energy. Usually it’s from losing the war of attrition against “getting somewhere.” We’re not concerned about action anymore, we’re just concerned with survival. And just giving up sounds better and better.

A confusion slump, A.K.A. the “I have no idea what to do next” slump, typically comes from a lack of clarity on big decisions. Unlike the frustration slump, we’re not likely to charge into action. Instead, we’re paralyzed because there are so many possibilities and we’re not sure which one to take. This results in “analysis paralysis” and feeling trapped.

Now that you know the nature of the enemy a bit better, the next step is…

Check Yourself (Or Rather, Your Reality)

Before launching into fixing the slump, we need to dig into some potential root causes. In turn, the answers will help you narrow down your next steps in combatting the slump.

Do I have reasonable and/or realistic expectations about my progress?

This should absolutely be considered in a frustration slump. Here, you have to look at your progress and assess as objectively as possible. Can you say with complete honesty that you’ve put in the work to make the progress you’re expecting? Have you made the effort to overcome setbacks? Make sure your expectations are lining up with the reality of what you’ve done. 
If they are, you’ve done everything in your power to keep up momentum. Trying to continue forward may be outside of your power. Yet if your expectations aren’t quite lining up, consider trying to take small action steps forward as outlined below.

Is something external impacting me?

This is a huge factor in exhaustion slumps. A crisis of any sort — work, health, family, financial — will hit you hard. Adjusting to abrupt change in any area of your life is difficult. Even smaller things like sleep disruptions, day-to-day stress or sudden conflict at work or home can affect you negatively. 
You might think the area you’re experiencing the slump in is completely unrelated. It’s not. Ensure that the root cause of your slump isn’t something outside of yourself. If it is, don’t lose hope. We still have ways to handle it.

Am I officially hitting my head against a brick wall?

My father has a saying: “Superhuman results require superhuman efforts.” Well, in some endeavors, you just can’t be superhuman enough to get results. Seth Godin refers to this as a cul-de-sac — where no amount of effort will lead to anything but failure. 
While it can be tempting to announce that “Yes, of course this is the issue,” this is actually the point that you need to do the most introspection. Ask yourself “could it be anything else?” and “Am I sure?” until you’re absolutely sick of it. If you feel you have truly hit a brick wall, factor that in to your next steps.

With the answers to these questions in hand, let’s explore how to…

Recover from the Slump

So recovery is absolutely the end-goal with any form of slump. We want to find our way out of the slump proactively, not simply muddle along and hope it goes away on its own. The possible paths include:

Find Small Steps to Move Forward

This is the go-to tactic for a frustration slump. But, if you’re not up against insurmountable external factors (i.e. extreme stressors) or if you feel that you’re not facing a complete brick wall, it’s a worthwhile tactic to try.

Essentially, we’re employing kaizen tactics here. Kaizen refers to a Japanese philosophy in which we strive to make continuous small improvements. For anyone interested in diving a bit deeper, Robert Maurer has an invaluable guide to kaizen. The main process on the surface, however, is fairly simple.

You ask: “What’s the smallest next action I could take?” Then, you implement that action step.

And repeat the process.

Using small steps decreases the potential for overwhelm and increases your chances of actually acting on your intention. And the small steps can help dig you out from any slump type.

Wait It Out

This is probably the most frustrating of the recovery options because it’s so uncertain — waiting might help, it might not.

Sometimes, in spite of the uncertainty, it’s your best option. If you’re in the midst of an exhaustion slump caused by external factors, it might be better to pause your efforts and wait until the storm has passed. From there, start again and see if you can make progress.

The time you need to wait is going to depend on the factors causing your slump. If you’re under external pressure, wait those factors out. If you’re up against internal complications (i.e. feeling demoralized), set a timeline you’re comfortable with. Three months is usually a comfortable threshold for most folks, but adjust according to your preferences. From there, keep your eyes on the horizon.

Once you’ve reached your determined horizon “set-date,” reevaluate your situation. If you’re still stuck in a slump, consider one of the other paths outlined above and below.

Pivot

If you feel like you’re officially at a dead end, it might be a good time to consider that you might be right…at least with the option you’re currently working with.

The principle of pivoting will be familiar to anyone who has worked with lean startup methodology. It’s exactly the same here. The main question is: “Is there an alternate route?” At first glance, this may seem like a pointless exercise. Try not to give in to a gut reaction of “I’m trapped.” Get creative with your thought process while you’re brainstorming. The only rule?

Don’t discard any ideas, no matter how “silly” they seem.

After you’ve generated as many ideas as you can, run through the list and determine the ones that would be the most viable. From there, expand on the ideas. Free writing, mind-mapping or vision boarding are all great potential options for working out the details.

Then, it comes to the one thing that’s easier said than done: acting on your pivot idea.

If you’re looking into pivoting a business, Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup is worth reading (or revisiting if you’ve already read it). If you’re an individual seeking a more career-related pivot, Jenny Blake’s Pivot will give you a much more detailed walkthrough of this process.

Quit.

Yep, this is absolutely an option. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Teddy Roosevelt once said:

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”
Yet on occasion, having or doing that something is just not worth the effort, pain or difficulty to you.

The cost of continuing outweighs the benefits. In the long run, it’s better to turn back rather than attempt to slog ahead.

But you’ll also notice I left this path for last. It’s because it’s truly the nuclear option. You’ll want to see if the other methods can work first. Without working through that process, the smallest dip in your motivation could lead to quitting an endeavor that might truly be worth it.

However, if making small steps, waiting it out, and pivoting are all out of question (or you’ve tried them and they didn’t work) — you can quit! It may not be pleasant — it may even be painful — but you always have the option.


In any case, the dreaded slump can certainly be beaten. It’s simply a matter of knowing what you’re up against and the tactics that will work the best for you. If you’ve found an alternate way out of a slump, please feel free to share in the responses!