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A "slump" is a vicious, nasty thing. If I were a cartoonist, I would illustrate this column and give life to the word with some monstrous creature--horns, three eyes, and a tail. That?s because I believe that a slump is a living thing in that it can take over your consciousness and actually run body and mind for some period of time.

Have you had a slump lately?

It can start out as a single bad day, and develop like a snowball rolling downhill. And the scary part is that you never realize that your personal or professional life is being taken over by these new behaviors and actions. The slump feeds on these changes, and as time passes it gets harder and harder to break free--to get back to the winning behaviors that made you successful in the first place.

In this month?s "Tooling Up," I will describe the effects of a slump on three people (beginning with myself!) and then close with some suggestions on how to first recognize, and then get out of this productivity killer.

Moving Unconsciously Into Unproductive Behavior

One Sunday night not too long ago, I was in the office developing my contact list for the following week. The projects were looking good, all except one, so I needed to focus most of my activity on that weak area. I set up my weekly planner in such a way that I would spend about 80% of my time on that problem. That was an abnormally high percentage of time to put into one project, and it was a risk. But I felt that for a limited period it wouldn?t hurt me.

When that week didn?t produce much for that problem project, the following Sunday night as I set up my weekly planner I again dedicated most of my time to the problem client. I didn?t yet realize that this tight focus was hurting me. I had other commitments that were begging for my attention. In addition, I wasn't dealing promptly with calls for new business because I was buried in a project that had turned sour. (As I found out later, and should have known at the time, the jobs didn?t wait--they went to competitors.)

More than a month had passed before I realized that I had fallen into a slump. I had allowed myself to slip into a long period of unproductive activity. I now had a bunch of angry clients, a still-incomplete and very frustrating project, and I had passed up on some significant new business that could have made my whole quarter.

I made a vow at that point never to allow slump behavior to overtake my better judgement again.

Here?s how the same problem affected two other contacts of mine:

John

Before John had taken off his jacket and put on his lab coat, he had already turned on the PC and was checking e-mail. He generally wasn't this eager to get to his e-mail. But there was something that he was looking for ... a response from one of his lab mates on a proposal that John had made in a meeting with the department head. And here it was, and the lab mate had "cc'd" it to their boss, of course!

As John sat reading the screen, his pulse began to rise and the hair on the back of his neck began to prickle the inside of his collar. The lab mate was turning his ideas inside out, tossing them like a chef?s salad, with the credit for the work going directly to this jerk. When he came to his graduate program 4 years ago, John thought that the world of pure research would be free of the "politics" that sometimes enter the big labs. And yet, here he was, just inches from the computer screen with evidence that not only was politicking alive and well, he was dealing with a master of the art.

It was at that moment that John took his eye off the ball, and began to focus on the unproductive behavior that starts a slump. Lots of e-mails circulated, less and less lab time accumulated for him, and within 2 or 3 weeks he was noticeably behind. He had replaced productive lab and writing time with time spent strategizing how to defend his ideas against attacks from this other scientist. It went on for another 3 weeks before the PI called them both aside and ended it.

Although this might have forcibly ended the turf war, recovering from the slump it created took John several months. He had to literally rebuild the way that he managed his day, in order to get back to what was really important. He had allowed his publications to slide and his job search, which was making nice progress for a time, was now at ground zero again.

Susan

Susan is a postdoctoral scientist in an industrial biotech company. Company policies are clear, they do not consider current postdocs for open staff positions. Despite the fact that she has performed well and taken on a considerable workload, she must move outside the firm when her contract ends in 3 months.

She has really mixed feelings about the future. Although it is certainly possible that her employer could skip their normal policies and make her an offer, it is also possible that they won?t do that and she would need to gear up a job search. She gathers the views of her lab colleagues and work mates. It snowballs into a very upsetting issue for her and consumes a lot of time with calls to outsiders, previous advisors, etc. Before she even recognizes it, she?s spent most of 3 weeks in the decision-making process instead of the job-search process.

After her boss confirms that she will not be getting an offer, Susan suddenly realizes that unemployment is just a few short weeks away. She had taken her eye off the ball and been hurt by indecision and fear of the unknown. The slump monster claims another victim.

Recognizing a Slump Is Your Key to Solving It

The single biggest obstacle to getting out of a slump is not knowing that you are in one. As all three of my illustrations show, it is entirely possible for a slump to sneak up on you. This particular monster walks on tiny cat feet.

I?ve always found that the best way to recognize slump behavior is monitoring the numbers. I simply watch the quantity and success of my phone contacts--if they drop off I know I?m in trouble--and any job seeker who is concerned that they may have been headed into slump territory should do the same.

Once you find yourself in a slump, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the core area of your job, that one most productive activity which you could engage in right now to get back on track?

  • Remember the expression "Eat that Frog"? Brian Tracy, a motivational speaker and business author, describes this as the perfect remedy for this problem. It means that you take the most objectionable task in your day and do it first thing. Get that "frog" out of the way and you will set up your day for increased productivity.

  • Who are the people most affected by your slump? What can you do to show them immediately that you are back on the case?

  • If your slump has affected your job search, consider the five methods that most people use to find new work: advertisements, job fairs, the Internet, headhunters, and networking. Do you have a plan for each of these?

  • Are there other areas of your life that could currently be "slumping" without your knowledge? Use this as a wake up call!

In closing, let me tell you that the biggest lesson that I have learned about breaking out of a slump is that action, any kind of action, restarts the fires and gets you back on track. Although it is always desirable to determine exactly what the prime activity should be (as in my first question above), don?t wait too long before taking action. If you come to a fork in the road, take one of them and don?t linger too long.

Just remember that one ugly beast is lingering somewhere behind you on that same road, awaiting the moment to strike once again.