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How to Pull Out of a Work Slump

Experiencing highs and lows at work is totally normal. But a low that's too low and long-lasting may just be a slump. You don't want to ignore a slump—you want to climb out. Here's how I climbed out of mine.

By
Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #606
The Quick And Dirty

Work slumps are real. Trying to ignore or wish them away will leave you drained, disengaged, and unproductive. Take these steps to pull yourself out of one.

  1. Define what's changed and what you miss
  2. Recreate meaningful experiences
  3. Experiment with new ways of doing things
  4. Take a breather
  5. Talk someone else out of a slump

I always get my ice cream in a cup. And there's a good reason.

When I was seven, I was walking along the boardwalk with my ice cream cone, licking chocolate off the top and loving life. Then I tripped, and suddenly everything good was melting into a gooey chocolate puddle on the sidewalk. Thankfully, my Dad bought me a new ice cream cone, but I've never forgotten what it felt like to lose something that was bringing me joy.

Have you ever had a moment like that where things went from awesome to heartbreak in a breath?

Professionally, things were awesome for me in February. Life was a scoop of chocolate in a cone. But by March, that sweet treat was melting all over the sidewalk.

It’s funny that I’m thinking of this now, but something about 2020 reminded me of that day. Professionally anyway, things were awesome for me in February. Life was a scoop of chocolate in a cone. But by March, that sweet treat was melting all over the sidewalk. And no one was going to buy me a new cone.

Let me explain. Running my business has always been about being present with clients—standing at the front of a room or on a stage facilitating education, dialog, and shared learning experiences. But overnight, stages and rooms full of people ceased being an option. So I started replicating my work virtually, at least to the best of my ability. But I quickly hit a slump. Work that had always lit me up was now dragging me down. I felt stuck and uncertain. I needed a way to recharge myself, to rediscover my spark.

Now it’s July and—spoiler alert—I’m in a much-energized space. But I know, from conversations I’m having daily, that work slumps are on-trend right now. And a slump is no laughing matter. If you try to ignore it, you’ll find yourself disengaged, unproductive, uncreative, and ultimately unsuccessful.

So let’s talk about strategies for pulling yourself out of a slump. I can speak to these from firsthand experience!

Define what's changed and what you miss

If you’ve gone from engaged and energized to something a bit slumpier, then start by figuring out what you’re missing most.

For me, so much changed at once. I was suddenly no longer getting dressed for work, traveling, speaking in board rooms, or reading body language. It felt like a million things had vanished overnight.

If you’re in a slump, what’s the one thing you miss most?

At first, believed I wouldn’t be able to re-engage until everything felt “back to normal.” But when I pushed myself to reflect on what I really missed most, I discovered that for me it wasn’t about the travel, the clothes, or the room. For me, it was the feeling of a regular connection that I missed.

Working remotely left me with fewer organic opportunities to connect with people. That, I realized, was what I needed to bring back.

If you’re in a slump, what’s the one thing you miss most? Learning? Networking? Coaching someone? Checking in with customers?

Do some reflecting on this. It will pay off.

Recreate meaningful experiences

With valuable insight in my pocket (and yes, that’s a metaphor—my pajamas don’t have pockets) I brainstormed ways to recreate connection.

Prior to the pandemic, I was either working from home—focusing on researching, designing, and preparing workshops—or I was on-site with a client to coach or deliver a program.

I never worried about creating connections when I was working remotely because my client experiences filled that bucket for me.

What’s something you can do to recreate whatever you’re missing?

So, now that all of my work is remote for the time being, I’ve created a discipline around connecting with people, either personally or professionally. Each morning, in my bullet journal, I capture the name of one person I’ll reach out to that day. I find that even just leaving someone a voicemail can be enough to recharge my connection battery.

Creating this discipline has paid off for me.

What’s something you can do to recreate whatever you’re missing? If it’s networking, can you start a conversation on LinkedIn? If it’s visiting customers, can you plan to call one each day? Get as close as you can to the “real” thing.

Experiment with new ways of doing things

Sometimes the best way to climb out of a slump is to get a little crafty.

As we’ve already established, a scoop of chocolate ice cream will always make me smile. But every now and then, a dose of rum raisin or pistachio can be pretty darn rejuvenating!

Sometimes pulling yourself out of a slump is about breaking with comfort and routine and leaning into something new. Just because.

For me, I was used to facilitating full-day meetings and programs. Can you imagine a fate worse than participating in a full-day anything on Zoom? Ugh.

Is there one tiny thing you can switch up today just to see how it feels?

The old way wasn’t going to work for me. I had to experiment. I talk about this in a video about career anxiety I posted recently on the Modern Mentor podcast page on LinkedIn.

I started breaking full-day programs into shorter chunks. I would facilitate a virtual 90-minute session that was part education and part participant action planning. Participants would then execute their action plan and we would talk about it in our next 90-minute session.

It’s a totally different way of facilitating, but I’m finding in some cases the impact for the client is even greater than it was before.

I’m excited about this new way of working. And when the world does reopen, I’ll still offer clients this means of delivery. Because it works!

Is there one tiny thing you can switch up today just to see how it feels?

Take a breather

One of the most common causes of the slump is battery-drain. Overwork, anxiety, trying to be all things to all people all at the same time—these are part of our current reality. And they’re not serving us.

I realize in hindsight that trying to figure out how to work in new ways while homeschooling my kids and becoming an armchair epidemiologist was absolutely exhausting. I was running on fumes. So I started taking regular walks. Two or three times a day I would pop outside and just walk around the block. I’d listen to pods or music or call a friend. But the break from everything was what my mind and body needed.

What’s something you can do for yourself in small doses that will pay off in recharging you?

Talk someone else out of a slump

You won’t have to look far to find someone else struggling with a rut. Maybe counterintuitively, helping them out of theirs can actually bump you out of yours.

A friend of mine was struggling with what she described as her “Mountain of Zoom.” She was spending entire days in one chair dialing into back-to-back video calls. She was exhausted and bored and definitely in a slump of her own. I asked her to look at the last five days on her calendar.

“How many meetings did you attend," I asked her, "and how many of those were really required or benefited from you being there?

Her answers were 36 attended; 11 necessary. Oof.

Be patient with yourself. Know that slumps are normal.

She was totally drained from meeting overload combined with stress over her work not getting done. Attending meetings had become a full-time job.

We talked through a plan that would help her make better decisions and take control over her calendar. And through my conversation with her, I realized that I too was overinvesting in things that depleted my energy. I took some of my own advice, and by doing so, I rediscovered my creativity, which helped me think through experimentation.

And there you have it. The roadmap that led me from SlumpTown to FiredUpVille.

If you’re struggling with a work slump of your own, please recognize that it may take time to climb out. Be patient with yourself. Know that slumps are normal. It will pass. And until it does, take care of yourself.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.