Feeling unmotivated or depressed? Here's how to move forward

For IT leaders and other self-directed workers, getting stuck in a spiral of distraction and nonproductivity can be crippling. Here are tips on reversing the process.

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It can get lonely being a leader, despite a flurry of activity and dozens of people seeking your advice and assistance. Conflicting and vague objectives, opportunities that never seem to pan out, and significant time invested in activities that don't generate tangible results can contribute to a feeling of being stuck.

In some cases, a simple walk or break from the task at hand may clear your head and provide much-needed focus, while other cases can border on depression, panic, or a general malaise that lasts for months. Here's how to identify when you're stuck, and how to begin the process to recovery.

Turn the beat around

The first step is recognizing the problem and changing your circumstances to begin to mitigate it. Being stuck is insidious in that you're often still able to perform your job and personal duties, but you may just be going through the motions and doing the bare minimum to keep afloat, which only deepens the sense of being stuck as work and personal obligations mount.

Learn your personal cues that indicate you've become stuck. For me it's often difficulty sleeping and a lack of motivation to do anything long-term. For others, it might be a feeling of low-grade dread when getting out of bed in the morning, or a lack of excitement at facing the day ahead.

In some cases, we might not even realize we're stuck until we notice a pattern of colleagues, friends, and our spouse asking if we're tired or OK. Take a few moments of personal time away from computers, phones, and devices, and evaluate how you're feeling and if you've become stuck; identification is the key to mitigation.

The great work/life balance lie

One of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on the workforce by presumably well-meaning HR departments is the concept of a work/life balance. Supposedly, we can readily compartmentalize our work activities and our personal activities, and carefully allocate time between the two as we might allocate our monthly budget. However, there is only one life each of us lives, and rather than the happy yin and yang described by HR types, it's a muddled mess that blends work and life in constantly shifting quantities.

Being stuck at work might be a result of a nagging concern completely unrelated to work, and vice versa. Or, the cure for being stuck at work might be a change in personal behavior completely unrelated to work. Examine your life holistically, and seek holistic interventions as you strive to become unstuck.

The best cure for moving sideways

One of the best cures for breaking free is to clear the assorted cruft from your mind and physical space, and make a discernable step forward on a task or project that's been left outstanding.

Like most leaders, I have a massive list of tasks and projects, but I try to create a sub-list only of activities I want to complete that day. When stuck, I'll winnow that list down further, and whether it's taking a tiny, discrete step on a long-term project, or stopping the litany of excuses and spending 30 minutes working out, merely moving forward can often shift your mental state. Simply taking a half day and cleaning your desk and office can reinvigorate productivity, just as a 15-minute walk or a chat with a loved one can begin clearing the mental detritus that keeps us firmly stuck in place.

If you're unable to push yourself forward, there's no shame in seeking outside help. I'll often speak with my wife, who works in a completely unrelated field but usually provides pointed advice and suggestions; she's also not afraid to tell me to stop moping and get on with things when necessary.

If you suspect you're struggling with depression, and you're unable to identify and mitigate the cause, seek professional help. Most of us have no hesitation going to a doctor for a broken bone, but apply an unreasonable stigma to seeing a doctor for a wounded psyche.

Monitor your "stickiness"

I tend to do a good job monitoring my mental state and avoiding getting stuck; that is, until I don't.

It's easy to slip into a funk unwittingly, so try to take care to monitor your productivity, mental state, and interpersonal relationships. There are dozens of helpful techniques to keep tabs on your mental state and to keep from becoming stuck in the first place, from meditation to a good vacation.

Whatever helps you track your forward momentum and makes you feel reinvigorated, schedule it as an ongoing part of your life. With planning and diligence, you can lessen the times you get stuck, and quickly give yourself a push in the right direction when it happens.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...