Does finishing a big project
leave you with the blues?
I wasn’t surprised when my client “Lisa” cancelled a couple of our meetings, because I knew she was working flat out on a demanding project. Her assignment was to organize a large conference and implement a complex media blitz in support of a new kind of product for her company.
From what I read online, the conference and all the surrounding hoopla were a big success. The activity reached a crescendo on a Friday and I looked forward to speaking with Lisa on the following Tuesday, hoping that she would be enjoying a victory lap around the corporate headquarters.
But when we spoke, Lisa was on the verge of tears. She couldn’t forget the tiny things that had gone wrong, and she feared some people were disappointed. On top of that, the routine marketing work that had piled up while she was preoccupied with the product launch now felt daunting. She needed a plan to quickly get through the backlog, but was reluctant to ask for extra work from her exhausted staff.
Lisa felt overwhelmed. She had a bad case of Big Project Letdown. She described what she felt:
- Exhaustion. Because the project was so important, Lisa had been working long hours without taking time out for her normal life. At night she was tossing and turning. She had quit going to the gym, she hadn’t spoken with her girlfriends in weeks, and she couldn’t remember the last quiet dinner with her husband.
- A sense of loss. Although the project had been challenging, it had also been invigorating. For its duration she was included with the senior team, and for the first time she met frequently with her CEO. And while the pressure was on, her staff rose to the occasion, following her lead and making her proud. Now that the big push was over, everything felt dull and flat. The prospect of tackling overdue routine work felt like dull drudgery compared to the creative activity involved in the special event.
- Depression. Lisa realized that she was tired and also bothered by the thought of dealing with all the overdue tasks. But her unhappiness was so intense that she was disconcerted by her own mood. She said, “I know it was a success, so why do I feel so awful? What’s wrong with me?”
Lisa felt better as soon as she realized that it’s normal to feel a letdown after you’ve made a great effort. One reason is that during a big push your brain chemistry changes to help keep you going. Professor Loretta Graziano Breuning suggests that your dopamine spikes when you really need it, and perhaps working with the big boss triggers your serotonin. But when your “happy chemicals” go back to their normal levels, it feels like something is wrong with your world.
After taking an afternoon off, Lisa gradually bounced back from her post-project crash. Since then, she has learned to plan ahead to assure a speedy recovery after each major event.
- Manage expectations. Part of Lisa’s problem was that for weeks she told people, “I’ll get back to you right after the conference.” When she came into the office that Monday, the barrage of “can we talk now?” messages made her feel like she was under attack. These days she uses project management software to help make realistic commitments about when her team will be able to handle backlogged requests after a major event.
- Take breaks. Lisa’s unrelenting pace disrupted the pattern of her life, causing stress at home and in the office, and keeping her awake at night. Now she has learned to keep up her fitness routine and build some quiet time into her schedule. She has found that taking regular breaks, like outdoor walks, can help her make creative breakthroughs.
- Plan ahead. Lisa is happier if she has something to look forward to. When there was nothing new on the horizon after the conference, the future felt bleak. So she has learned to look for interesting projects and fun events down the road. By planning activities and vacations way in advance, she always has something to anticipate.
- Debrief. One thing that helped Lisa is that immediately after the conference she and her team carefully reviewed what went right, and what could be improved in the future. By examining the project details, she developed a clear understanding of what led to the successful elements, as well as specific ideas about how to do things even better next time. Then in the following days, when she had moments of feeling like a failure, she was able to talk herself to a better place by reviewing the evidence.
- Celebrate. Lisa realized that she probably wasn’t the only one who was feeling down in the days after the conference. She wrote notes to the many people who had helped, and she scheduled a particularly festive lunch to thank team members for their hard work. She continued to celebrate by taking her patient husband out to dinner. As she drew other people into her celebration, she was able to really enjoy the success.
It’s normal to feel emotional after a significant project or a long-anticipated event. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to notice what you are feeling, and maybe even write about it. Then look for ways in which the end of one big project might be viewed as the start of your next one.