Brain on Strike

The other day a colleague busted me shoe shopping online at work. The sad thing is that I hate shoe shopping, so I wasn’t even indulging secretly in an illicit joy – I was mindlessly looking at shoes because nothing better occurred to me. My brain was blank and empty, with nothing feeling urgent enough to focus my attention. So I looked at shoes.

Some days are like that. I think of these as gray days, or flat days. They are days when I can’t dredge up enough passion to care about the mundane tasks that make up most of my work – the document reviewing, email answering, invoice signing, and phone calling that adds up to program management. I suppose you could call that procrastinating (and it is) but it feels more akin to work blindness than work avoidance – on the days when I lose my bearings I simply don’t see the little bits of my work, just as certain someones in my household simply don’t see the crumbs on the dinner table after the plates are cleared. They aren’t salient, and so they don’t exist.

Let me assume I am not the only one who has days like this. If I am, and if all of you dig into each and every day with a passion and productivity that knows no peaks and valleys, well, I suppose I have now outed myself. But I doubt it. I imagine I am simply normal and human. And if we all have days like this, we all need to manage them – and come out of them – as best we can. Here are some of my self-management tricks:

Acceptance. In a month, in a year, in a career, days like this don’t matter. There is some certain allowable number of days lost to shoe shopping, internet browsing, or socializing. I don’t know what that number is, but if your boss is sincerely happy with your productivity and you feel like you generally work hard, forgive yourself the occasional bad day. Just let it go.

Distraction. Even if bad days are normal and forgivable, sometimes you don’t want to wallow in them, you want them to get better. If I am stuck in a day when everything is gray and flat and I can’t make myself do what I should, I can unstick myself, sometimes, by doing something I don’t need to do but is productive none the less. Like writing this blog. Yeah, it doesn’t get my projects managed, but it is better than shoe shopping. After doing something productive I often find I feel better about doing the stuff I couldn’t bring myself to do earlier.

Confession. It’s good for the soul, right? Simply confiding in a colleague – even your boss – that you are having trouble getting moving today can be helpful. They might offer sympathy and let you know they have those days, too, or they might offer something even more helpful like a walk to get a cup of coffee, after which you might feel more able to tackle your work.

Rest. Maybe your brain is telling you something when it goes on strike. While online shoe shopping may get you through till quitting time, it isn’t that much fun. If your brain has walked off the job, maybe you should, too. Take a vacation day. I find that if, on a bad day, I ask for a vacation day the coming Friday the rest of my week perks up in anticipation of a day to myself. On which, I promise you, I will not be shoe shopping.

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