Getting Out of a Slump, a Rut, Getting Unstuck
It happens to all of us, our productivity bottoms out and it feels like there’s no escape. Sometimes it’s a lack of motivation, sometimes it’s pounding your head against a problem without any progress, sometimes it’s too many distractions. Whatever the cause, there’s a few things I’ve found help snap out me out of it.
Notice the Symptoms
If you’ve stumbled across this post you probably already know you’re in a slump. Heck, I’m writing this because I’ve noticed it’s currently happening to me and need to remind myself how to deal with it – again. However, if you can notice it earlier it’s often easier to deal with. Sometimes I’ve gotten into a deeper and deeper rut without doing anything, and it’s monumentally harder to get out at that point. Just like you should have ways of monitoring your work systems to know if there’s a problem you should have ways to monitor your mental state to know if there’s a problem. You’d think we’d all be self aware enough to notice our own mental states, but it’s amazing the way our brains can work so that we have a nearly complete lack of self awareness for long periods of time.
Obviously different people will have different signs that things are going off the rails. For me an easy to measure metric, with respect to work at least, is my commit history frequency. If I notice my commit history has greatly slowed or ceased for a period it’s a bad sign.
Another sign for me is that I start Googling my negative thoughts. I’ll sit down to do some work, and next thing I know I’ve got a search results page open for “why can’t I make myself do work?”. Maybe that’s how you ended up here… Rarely are those search results useful in actually breaking me out of a funk – unless I notice what I’m doing and start acting. I can read search results for hours and not end up actually doing anything, or perhaps more accurately I should say I can click a search result and hours later realize I’ve somehow clicked links until I end up on the list of paradoxes page on Wikipedia again.
So start to notice the signs that you’re in a slump, write them down, repeat them out loud, whatever you need to do to make it possible to notice earlier when they start to happen. Then you can start addressing the problem before it gets worse.
Long Term Fixes
When I find myself in a stuck state for more than a short period of time it’s almost always because I’ve been neglecting the obvious long term solutions: sleep, exercise, diet, and meditation. These elements of health are the things that we all know we need to pay attention to, yet somehow when things are off it’s tempting to look for short term fixes with the idea that we can pay attention to those long term health issues later, you know, once we’re back on track. It’s advice we hear so often and is so basic that it becomes easy to tune out, and if you’re in a profession that involves lots of time staring at a screen like I do for programming it can be all to easy to let these things slide.
Short Term Fixes
These are the kind of things that I always hope will be the quick and easy fix, and I’ll sometimes go searching the Internet for the next one that might work rather than doing the work on the harder, less immediately gratifying long term fixes. So I try to remind myself that before I go trying 5 quick fixes from a clickbait headline I should just go for a run, put down the doughnut, and make sure to get a good night’s sleep.
But if I’ve been keeping a healthy routine, or I just need a quick win to jumpstart some productivity to get past a deadline I’ll try some of the following:
Almost too obvious to mention, I know. In fact, coffee’s not really my go to, I prefer nootropics which I find to be more effective with few side effects, but coffee is a stimulant that’s far more universally available. If you can’t function without it though, you’re probably sleep deprived and should focus on fixing that.
I don’t strictly adhere to Pomodoro, but the basic idea of structuring my time into short chunks makes it easier for me to make incremental progress. I find it especially useful when my “stuckness” is of the form that I can’t even seem to start.
Take Time Off
It might be an hour to take a walk (exercise added bonus) or a vacation if I’m nearing burnout. Of course, it’s always possible that I’ll feel just as stuck when I come back to the work, but if you have the luxury of walking away from things for a little while it can sometimes really help.
Sometimes just talking through a problem is enough to shake lose a solution, even if you’re talking to an inanimate object like a houseplant, rubber duck or whatever is available. If the inanimate object yields no good advice (maybe you should worry if it does yield good advice) talking it through with a real person can be helpful too. I like to start with the inanimate object so as not to waste people’s time if it’s something so trivial the inanimate object can help.
Is your Twitter feed really so important you need to check it every 2 minutes? Or worse you get a popup for every new tweet? Whatever your distraction, turn it off. Obvious? Yes. Easy to do? Not usually
Really Really Stuck
If you’re stuck to the point that you feel depressed get help. Sometimes you can’t bootstrap yourself out of your stuck state and you’ll need assistance and that’s OK.