Now What? How to Cope With “Post-Project Depression”
Photo courtesy of Eric Sonstroem.

Now What? How to Cope With “Post-Project Depression”

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Mental Health

Is it just me, or is taking down holiday decorations in January the worst feeling in the world? The festivities are over, you must return to reality, and all of the hoopla went by so fast that you hardly got to soak it all in. Now you’re feeling empty. The fun is over and you have nothing to look forward to in the foreseeable future. Cue the violins.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. But it’s only natural to feel forlorn when something exciting comes to an end. You may have a similar feeling after finishing a big, long-term project. I did, when my first book was published earlier this year.

Writing a book was a childhood dream of mine, and even better, I got to write about something I’m passionate about: helping people feel financially empowered. So the morning my book hit the shelves, I bundled myself up, took the train to Barnes & Noble, and looked at my name on a cover. It was surreal. I texted some photos to my mom, signed some copies, and went back to my apartment and wondered: Now what? It felt like I had to take down the stockings and garland and get back to reality.

But when this state lasted for weeks and then months, I realized it wasn’t just a passing emotion. I wasn’t just sad; I didn’t want to get out of bed, respond to emails, or even write anymore. I became especially apathetic about work, productivity, and goal-setting—a confusing experience for a workaholic.

When you spend years working toward a huge stretch goal, you celebrate like crazy once you reach it—but after the hoopla, you might feel aimless, tired, and burnt out. And despite your best efforts, that feeling might not leave. Some people call it “Post-Project Depression.” It’s a type of situational depression that leaves you feeling low and uninterested in stuff that normally excites you.

A 1987 New York Times piece discussed this kind of depression in writers:

“When the manuscript is safely at the publisher’s, the writer’s life changes. ‘Some men,’ said Joyce Carol Oates, whose latest book is On Boxing, ‘go a little crazy. They have love affairs, or they drink, because they have so much energy that’s left unchanneled.’”

In other words, there’s a void in your work life. You don’t know how to fill the space once reserved for your ambitious undertaking. How do you spend your time and energy?

It’s not just the void that leaves you feeling conflicted, though. Maybe life didn’t quite look like what you imagined after reaching your goal. Or maybe you’re just exhausted from years of overwork, and you need to rest. Maybe you’re not used to getting what you want, and now that you have, it feels uncomfortable. If you’re like me, maybe you also feel guilty and slightly ashamed for being depressed. Maybe your achievement was a smashing success, but you feel undeserving. It can be a strange and confusing emotional state.

When I told friends and family I was feeling kind of “blah,” they suggested I start working on the next big thing. But the fog of my depression wanted nothing to do with that.  

I think the first step toward recovering is to sit with the feeling for a bit. It’s okay, and even normal, to feel this way. At first, I thought I was being ungrateful for feeling depressed, and tried to ignore the emotion. Of course, when you ignore depression, you leave it humming in the background while you try to pretend that everything is normal. It doesn’t help; it makes things worse. After acknowledging my feelings and sitting with them for a bit, here’s what finally did help.

Explore Your Other Interests

This is where it pays to be a multipod. With that book goal out of the way, I now have the freedom to pursue other interests: public speaking, photography, teaching.

Exploring my other interests also reminded me that there are plenty of other fun goals to look forward to, and starting different projects distracted me from the loss of my old project. This can be useful if you’re burnt out on the type of work you were doing, too. Even though I’m still writing, I’ve started to explore totally different kinds of writing, so it feels new. 

As a multipod, you probably already have a whole list of interests, hobbies, and curiosities you’re ready to dig into. Now that you have some free time in your schedule, pick one or two and get started! Engage with other goals and projects, even if (or maybe especially if) they have nothing to do with the one you just accomplished.

Try New Things

Now is also a good time to explore totally new hobbies and interests—stuff you might not even be sure you’ll like. Passion is something you discover, so a new passion might be right under your nose and you’d never know! Plus, trying new things might help get your mind off of the situation that’s triggering your depression in the first place.

For example, I volunteered to plan events for the Authors Guild. Then I started a podcast with a friend. When I signed up for these things, I had no idea if I’d actually enjoy them, but that was kind of the point: I had the bandwidth to consider new possibilities. These projects also filled that post-project void.

Podcasting and event planning were especially challenging because I had to learn a completely new set of skills. Some of the new challenges I embraced were unpleasant, but some of them I really enjoyed. You might be surprised at what you discover, too. If nothing else, it’s a welcome distraction from that existential “Now what?” feeling.

Do Some Non-Work Stuff for a While

For as long as I’ve been in the workforce, I’ve spent about 10-20 extra hours a week working on my own personal projects. I think this is a common experience for many multipods: you work a full 40 hours doing something that pays the bills, then you spend your free time working on your own stuff.

After my book, I decided to take a break. I took some time off of any personal projects to see what it’s like to work a standard 40-hour workweek, then retreat and do some completely non-work-related things. I went on hikes, read books, started working out, fixed some stuff around the house, and caught up with old friends. Basically, I did all the things I’d neglected as a workaholic—and it felt great.

Don’t pressure yourself to figure out the next step in your career. Before you start the next project, it’s okay to take time off. Especially if you’re depressed, I think this is important. With depression, trying to get through a regular work week can be hard enough. Plus, you’ve been working on your goal for a long time. Maybe you just need a break.

Working a standard 40-hour week or taking some time off isn’t possible for everyone (some people have to work much longer hours just to pay the bills). But the point is, if you’re feeling a post-project void, maybe don’t try to fill that void immediately. Taking time off helped me feel more in-the-moment than ever. Instead of worrying about the value of my normal, day-to-day life, I gave myself a chance to revel in it and remember that it’s okay to simply exist.

Eight months later, I still have that “mid-January” feeling, like the decorations have come down, and now there’s nothing to do. That is to say, sometimes I’m still aimless, burnt out, and unsure of my career. Some mornings I still wake up, pour my coffee, and stare at my laptop with dread, even though this ritual used to bring me so much joy. It’s not always this way, but when it happens, I understand it a little better now. And that simple act of understanding, rather than turning a blind eye, can make something so much easier to work with.

Your Turn

Readers, what do you think? Have you ever experienced Post-Project Depression, and if so, how did you deal with it?

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.

10 Comments

  1. Brittany says:

    Great advice! I’m going through this right now and I was feeling baffled about it. I’m not even finished with the project I was working on, but I’d reach a significant milestone I’d been aiming to get to for 3 years. It’s like I know I’m getting into the next phase and wow am I going to miss the last one. Definitely going to try to refocus and do other things for a bit!

  2. Susan says:

    I’m a recently retired multipotentialite, so I’ve been dealing with this feeling for a LONG time. One of the things I discovered many years ago that has helped me over the years is to (every now and then) take a five-minute break when I am REALLY REALLY busy and make a note of what I would like to be doing if I had time. Then, when the project is over, I have a list of things that I wanted to do but didn’t have time for. There are always a few things on that list that will get me inspired again. . .after a week or two of feeling listless and lazy and ready to get back on the horse.

  3. Kristin says:

    Oh wow, I love this idea. Definitely going to give this a try next time I’m in the thick of it.

  4. Sara Richter says:

    I had this feeling a lot. Transitions are hard for me, especially those with a major impact. When I graduate from undergrad-I spent weeks journaling alone in diner style restaurants tryingnto process spending years in school and now I would be “in the work force.” It didn’t help my ex fiancé became my ex that semester at school, leaving me very much alone.

    Recently I go through vacation depression. When we come back from long vacations, I have a hard time adjusting to fitting back into work. I must leave at least one day for “processing.”

    As an adult I realize these things and try to work with them. My son (2 years old) has similar transition problems in his little world so I’m seeing how it’s my responsibility to teach him what to do.

    • Kristin says:

      Sounds like you had a tough time – graduation was a really weird time for me, too. And I so know what you mean about the dread of coming back from vacation. Having that extra day really helps!

  5. Kimberly says:

    I really needed to read this right now. Thank you!

  6. Patrick says:

    I love your writing! But you know what’s funny. The last part touched me the most. The thing you say about eight months later mid-January feeling and staring at your laptop with dread. Were you talking about me? ;) There’s nothing wrong with my inspiration. But it’s my motivation behaving weird. My energy level goes up and down, i guess like the hormones of a pregnant woman. Totally unpredictable. I’m an art director from origin. But lately I do more writing than art. (Which is in advertising world considered impossible lol) Anywayz, writing is like therapy to me. Reading your writing too. Thank you so much for sharing Kristin. Love from Amsterdam.

  7. Sienna says:

    Mmm, I completely understand this feeling. I’m honestly dreading it a little bit: I’m in the middle of writing the second book in a duology of fantasy fiction, and every now and again I wonder what my life will look like when I finally write and edit and *publish* the second one. All told, I’ll have probably spent about eight years on this story and the characters in it. What do you do with an eight-year-deep hole?

    My guess is I’ll be grappling with that Post-Project Depression pretty hard. I’m glad to have found and read your wise words now–I can use them to prepare myself for when the moment finally arrives. :) Thank you!

  8. Cintia says:

    Hi, I had just find out that I’m a multipotentialite.
    in some way, knowing that I’m not alone and there is nothing wrong with me, it’s a relief.

    At the moment my challenge is being to start officially a new project, which I have dreamming about it for long time and I was keeping posponeing.
    And, of course it’s not the only project I’m working with now. ( never is just one, right?) Lol

    My challenge will be how to organize my priorities and tasks … And run with both projects, that in the future I believe it will be possible integrate them in just one work… Well, I hope so.
    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Great content!!!

    (Sorry about my english, it’s not my first language, I am Brazilian)

    Kisses and hugs from Brazil : D

Leave a Comment