Post-project depression. Yep, it really does exist, and it has a name.

Flickr - Kirin Foster 5859097301_b8db4467a0_z

Flickr – Kirin Foster 5859097301_b8db4467a0_z

Psychologists have known about it for a long time. Many academics, authors and creative types go through it after “giving birth” to their particular obsession, whether it’s a dissertation, novel, play, painting, sculpture, or organizing a big event like a retrospective show or an opera. It’s akin to “post-partum depression,” what many women go through after all the excitement leading up to the birth particularly of a first baby. They just don’t anticipate feeling so exhausted, depleted and out of control.

I’ve been going through a bit of this myself after making my move to a new house and getting married over the Memorial Day weekend in May, so I was curious to see what other folks had said about it. Here’s the good news: it isn’t really true depression. It’s a completely normal reaction from running on adrenaline (and sometimes fumes) to get all that we need to get done to make the big project a success. We are totally obsessed, and our focus narrows down to the details of what must be done to get this project finished.

For brides, it’s details like finalizing the menu with the caterer, making sure all the people supposed to be there know where they are supposed to be for both the rehearsal and the event, that the florist can find a way to leave the flowers refrigerated until the appropriate time.

For authors and academics, there are piles of papers to sort, research materials to file, decisions about whether or not to keep the edited copies or just let them go. For all of us, there may be relationships or physical environments (that’s another way of saying the house is utterly filthy!) that we have not attended to in quite some time. Not to mention, there is a sense that a great big hole in daily life has suddenly appeared. What am I supposed to be doing now with that time set aside for the big project?

Here are 5 tips to help us get through your post project depression (whatever kind it may be):

1. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate…then rest! First you want to recognize that all that adrenaline and attention to details got you to finish a successful project, whatever it was. It’s important to give yourself some time to just breathe and be in the world, before you take up the next project. Some people watch back-to-back DVDs, some begin exercising strenuously at the gym, some bake cookies or do car repairs themselves. Whatever works as “veg time” for you is what you need to give yourself a break.

2. Experience your emotions. It’s important to allow yourself to experience the range of emotions that comes from finishing a project even when it’s a big success. Dustin Was writes, “It’s natural, too, to feel sad, disappointed, even depressed at the end of a big project, even one that’s a resounding success. The things we do define us as people, and the biggest things we do are the biggest part of us; losing them, even by choice and design, is hard. I think this is why so many people seem to experience a fear of success that’s as paralyzing, if not more so, as the fear of failure: they are not prepared for the changes in their life that success would bring.” So let yourself feel all those mixed emotions. It’s part of the process.

3. Evaluate your project. Begin to take stock by asking yourself some questions about your project: what went right? What went wrong? What was the best/worst thing about this project? Did I enjoy/dislike working on the project? Would I do it again? Or do it differently next time? Has my perspective/status/income changed as a result? How do I feel about that? How will I answer the infamous “What’s next for you?” question.  

4. Look for what inspires you. Inspirer, from Latin inspirare, from in- + spirare, means to breathe. Allow yourself to get excited again after making sure you have actually just hung out for a while and rested, given yourself whatever nurturing and care you need. Determine whether it’s a passing fancy, or something your can actually imagine sticking to all the way through the boring, tedious middle phase that every project goes through before completion.  

5. Plan a new project. Finally, give yourself time to plan the new project. Here’s where having a deliberately vague answer to “What next?” can come in really handy. When asked, just say, “I have several ideas that I am working on, but I am still in the exploratory phase.” (This is also a great answer for anyone that has decided to change a career trajectory!) Think about it for a while before jumping into action.

Take a little time to reflect on your finished project. See how you might build on the success you’ve already achieved. Then get ready for the next big thing.

Caveat: If the sense of deflation hasn’t left you after a few weeks of trying all these tricks of the trade, then it might be time to look into professional help for actual depression.