Working through a slump

My favorite team in baseball, the Kansas City Royals, are in a slump. They’ve lost 8 of the last 10 games. Their pitching just can’t quite find the strike zone, their offense isn’t hitting the ball well, and their defense doesn’t look as sharp. Mike Moustakas, their third baseman and leading home run hitter, broke his thumb on a routine play.

Personally, I’ve been slumping too. The best way I can describe it (using my limited understanding of the brain) is… My senses don’t seem to be communicating with my subconscious brain; and if those senses are actually communicating, then my subconscious brain is not forwarding many of the messages on to my conscious brain. I feel like I am not quite connected to the world around me.

For example:

  1. Food tastes less flavorful than it normally does.
  2. Colors are bland. I typically stop to look at the flowers on my walk into work, because they make me feel good/relaxed/happy. They’re not elevating my mood like they usually do.
  3. I feel “rudderless.” It’s like I have a lot less conviction towards things I typically would have. Things that usually excite my brain aren’t making me very excited.

Mentally, it feels like a significant portion of my brain has shut down. I can only hold about two things in my mind. If you asked me to buy three items at the grocery store, I would likely forget one — unless I did some Jedi mind trick.

In my work, it feels like I am just going through the motions. I can still solve the programming problems that I need to solve in my daily work, but my ability to learn new things seems turned off. Typically, I can chew on a new idea and let my subconscious brain tell me what it thinks. Right now, I feel neither excited nor apprehensive about new ideas. New ideas are just meh.

It really seems like my subconscious brain (the part of my brain responsible for processing inputs, creating emotions, and triggering conscious thoughts) is severely muted. Maybe it caught a cold? Maybe it’s installing an upgrade? I don’t know enough to explain what’s going on.

What I do know is that a slump can trigger a lot of fear in anyone — and that fear can only make things worse. “What if I never get my creativity back? What if this stays like this for the rest of my life? Will I lose my job because I can’t understand new ideas? Will I never learn anything new? I’m terrible at this.” When I don’t have full brainpower available, thoughts like these can quickly take up all the space, amplifying the effects of the slump.

It’s easier to explain it in the frame of baseball: A player (or team) that is in a slump will start to focus on their slumping statistics, which brings up a lot of fear, which tightens up muscles and vision, making every at-bat or ball-in-play even more difficult. The end result is more bad pitching, bad at-bats, and defensive errors.

There are a lot opinions online about how to “break out of a slump,” but I think the best approach to this situation is the following:

  1. First, sit: You might want to jump into action. Your brain might tell you a hundred things you need to do, right now. Take a few minutes and just sit with it. Read through the rest of this list. When you do decide to take action, do so slowly/intentionally.
  2. Be realistic: Realize that slumps are part of the game. The best players in baseball fall into slumps. In fact, the best hitters only hit the ball 3 out of 10 times over their entire careers.
  3. Acknowledge fears, but don’t give in: Fearful thoughts are going to be exaggerated — and believing them will only make things worse.
  4. Take care of your basic needs: Go through the motions if you have to. Rest, eat well, socialize, go to work. Do what you need to do.
  5. Ask for help: Ask people for help. They may have been through something similar and could offer some advice.
  6. Experiment: Start switching up little things, one at a time. Take note of the results (if any), and think about why these results would have happened. Then revert that change and switch something else. Don’t go too wild here. You were doing just fine before the slump started. Chances are the solution is nearby.

Lastly, just keep swimming. It may just take time for your mental upgrade to occur. Stay confident that you’ll find a path to the other side. Try to avoid taking action on any thoughts rooted in fear/anger. Do take action on thoughts rooted in care to yourself and others.

As for the Royals, it seems like they are taking a similar approach. The coaches and players aren’t making drastic changes, and it doesn’t seem like the players are getting down on themselves. In fact, during interviews, the players seem be saying what we could all try to remember more often in life, “It’s a long season, sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not. Just keep hacking.”

Fix things that frustrate you

A year ago, I started working part-time at a software firm in Portland. It was a nice change of pace to the freelance life I’ve known for the past decade. The pay was better, the stress was lower, and it was nice to have a team that I worked along-side every day. I’ll admit I went through a sort of honeymoon phase with this new company.

But, as with all honeymoon phases, this honeymoon phase came to an end. In the past few months, I started noticing myself getting more and more frustrated with “the way things are.”

Last weekend, I found myself not really looking forward to Monday. A lot of frustration was coming up.

I listed out the things that were frustrating me. My top complaints:
1) Time wasted in meetings that I didn’t need to be in
2) Lack of automated testing
3) Brittle code
4) Low sense of meaning

By the time I got done writing the first few complaints, something dawned on me: The first 3 complaints were problems costing the company a whole lot of money and brand value. The fourth was probably also costing the company due to employee turnover.

These complaints/problems were all the things that management had mentioned when they were interviewing me. They had told me about these problems, and I  bet that the manager hiring me knew I’d get frustrated when I encountered them.

In the past, I probably would have followed the internal thoughts that were arising along with this frustration: start looking for a new job that didn’t have these problems. But this time was different, because my understanding around frustration (and all emotions) has changed significantly in the past few years.

My older/incorrect understanding around frustration was that it was “bad” emotion — and all bad emotions (anger, sadness, fear) ought to be avoided. I’ve realized this is not a very helpful understanding. My newer understanding is that emotions are just our brains’ programmed response to external stimuli — as a means of meeting our basic needs (air/food/water/shelter/reproduction/security/etc).

So I took a closer look at my frustration. The frustration with work is really that my brain is just worried about meeting its basic needs in the future. My brain is worried about future job security at this company (because these problems are making the company less and less competitive in the market). My brain is also worried about future job security in the industry (future employers are going to judge me by my past experience).

What’s interesting is that, after getting down to the bottom of my frustration, a whole variety of new options arose in my brain, rather than simply “Find a different job, Ryan.” Each complaint simply became a problem that could be solved with a little thought and work, rather than a mountain that would require a time-intensive job search. On top of that, if I could help to solve these problems for my company, I’d look like a hero and my resume would have some meaty talking points.

So I took my frustrations to my boss, along with some preliminary solutions. He was extremely open to solving these problems (as they would all make our team more efficient and profitable). We brainstormed for a bit, and he suggested I start taking more ownership over some initiatives to solve the problems.

And now, now it’s Sunday night, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming week. I’m actually taking Monday off, but I just spent the last 2 hours thinking about solving these inefficiencies at work.