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