Getting Out of a Rut

I’m sitting here, hands hovered over the keyboard, using every ounce of my willpower to squeeze out words. Just a few measly words! Why is this so hard? All I want to do is take a cruise with an unlimited supply of Bloody Marys. Or a nap. A nap is good, too. And cheaper. The point is, this is so much harder than it should be.

You’ve probably been here, right? After all, you’re human. Well, I’m human, too. And as humans, our brains are wired in weird ways. Some days, a simple task like writing is easy and fun, and on a different day, that same task is an excruciating nightmare.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Kind of.

Most of us have been stuck in a rut, whether it’s with a career, relationship, or just life in general. You feel you’re going through the same, dull motions. You don’t feel productive. You feel like you can’t bring the same level of zest to your work (seriously, I almost started this paragraph with Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines a rut as…). In short, you feel like a zombie. Not alive or present, just there. When I get stuck in a rut, it usually happens for one of three reasons.

Rut #1: Information Overload

Ever feel you’re pulled in so many different directions that you’re not sure which way to go? And you remain stagnant instead? When I listen to my own voice, I have a very clear idea of what it is I want to do. Then I see what everyone else is working on, and I want to do that instead. For example, I will:

  • Listen to a podcast that suggests starting a podcast to build your brand. Cool, I wanna do that.
  • See someone post their new business idea on Instagram. Oh yeah, I should start a business, too.
  • Visit another blogger’s website and see how cool their design is. Shit, I need to update my design!

I get clear about my path and come up with a solid system for getting there, but then I overload myself with new ideas, advice, and goals. I get distracted, and it all comes to a screeching halt. Instead of moving forward with what matters, I become overloaded with too much information.

Branding specialist Elizabeth McKenzie discussed this habit over at the Huffington Post and the way she put it completely resonated with me:

“…all these voices are too much. They drown out our own voice — that quiet innate whisper from within. The more we listen to others’ voices, the less we know the sound and feeling of our own voice.

And it’s when you can’t hear your own voice than you become paralyzed. Stuck in your rut. Confused and lost and turning to other voices to guide you through life.”

Paralyzed is a good way to put it, as in analysis paralysis. You feel lost and unsure, so instead of moving forward, you analyze your goal all over again and do nothing. Worse, you start asking yourself, “what’s the point?” because you’ve analyzed things to death.

Rut #2: Burnout

Sometimes stuff just gets old. As an example, I’ve been working on the same book for two years now. I’ve written every excruciating chapter and edited it. I’ve worked with agents who have asked me to rewrite it again. I’ve talked to agents who have outrightly rejected it. And now, I’m editing it…again. I started off strong, but at this point, I’ll admit it: I’m burnt out! I mean, I’m talking charred. If you touched me, you’d get ashes.

When you’ve been working on the same thing for that long, burnout is only natural. It happens, but the effects are much worse when you overwork yourself and refuse to take breaks. As my good friend Dara says, self-care isn’t a reward. It’s part of the process. Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is to take a break and do nothing at all. Breaks give you the stamina to keep going. Maybe I would’ve finished this book sooner if I didn’t try so hard to work through the burnout.

Rut #3: Path Uncertainty

In the past few years, there’s been a push to focus on the process over the goal. In other words, you want to make a goal, but to ensure you carry out that goal, you need the perfect system in place, so you’ll actually stick with it.

This is very useful advice…up to a point. Speaking from experience, at some point, the process can turn you into an automaton. When your heart isn’t in it, and you default to your system, the risk is mediocre output. For example, a book chapter so poorly written that you have to rewrite it months later. Or a presentation that looks like third-grader put it together. In other words, you do just enough to get by, only enough to check the item off your to-do list so you feel productive. Feeling productive and actually producing something that matters are two different things.

It’s extra easy to feel this way–bored and aimless–you work for someone else because they set up the system for you, and it’s your job to follow it. If your employer never reminds you why your tasks matter, you get bored. According to Monster.com, social scientists call this anomie.

“…that feeling of not really knowing where you are, what your larger vision is and what the whole point is. That sense of anomie is what underlies sometimes feeling bored in your job. It’s not that you are bored; it’s that the circumstances are boring. Any rational person would be bored.”

Of course, not everyone has a job that has some massive purpose, but most everyone feels some sense of purpose in some area of life, even if it’s not work. When you forget that purpose and your path becomes uncertain, you’re susceptible to a rut.

How I Get Out of a Rut

This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been in ruts before, and there are a few methods I use to break out of them.

Get reacquainted with my purpose

Ruts are a good time to revisit the reason you wake up every morning. Maybe it’s to support your family, become an author, or start your own Fortune 500 company. Whatever your ultimate goal, revisiting it reminds you you’re on this path for a reason. It reminds you of why your system is important in the first place.

Quick tip: Ask yourself, “what’s my one big thing?” every morning. This advice comes from Tim Ferriss: pick one task that’s going to make you feel most productive and fulfilled, then prioritize that task.

Stop accepting other people’s stress

Last year, a potential client called me with a job offer. They needed an article written in two days and my standard rate was too high for them, but they were desprate. I said yes, spent the weekend stressed out about their deadline, and by the time Monday came, I was so stressed out, I didn’t feel like working on anything. My work suffered because I was in a rut, which was unfair to my regular clients.

If you have a hard time saying no to people, you can probably relate. Someone asks you for a favor and they’re completely desparate, so you say yes. You put off your own work and go out of your way to get theirs done. Obviously, if your boss asks you to do something that’s in your job description, that’s one thing–that is your stress. And it’s one thing if a friend is in a bind, and you want to help them out because you care. But it’s an entirely different thing to sacrifice your own work or well-being for no other reason than you have a hard time saying no to people. Suddenly, you’re stressed out and burnt out because their stress has become your stress. Plus, you’re resentful. It’s okay to say no sometimes.

Quick tip: If there’s something in your life you dread doing and it serves absolutely no purpose but to make you feel resentful, stressed out, and angry, make it your goal to say “no” to this by the end of the week. (Taxes don’t count.)

Focus on self-care

Self-care means prioritizing the habits that make me feel happy, energized, and motivated. Eating a healthy lunch. Making time for hobbies. Calling my brother. We often neglect these basic habits in order to squeeze in more work, and at some point, it becomes counterproductive. When you’re burnt out, your work quality is likely going to suffer. It’s worth taking the time to meet a few basic self-care needs.

Quick tip: Make yourself a tasty and hearty breakfast tomorrow morning, even if it’s a Monday. Especially if it’s a Monday.

Take a step back and enjoy the process

Whether it’s a business or a freelancing career or a book, some people want to succeed so badly that their desperation is draining. I fall into this trap a lot. I take what I do way too seriously, forgetting that my goal is to just enjoy my work and help people in the process. Plus, my work tends to be better when I can take a step back and look at it objectively. It’s easy to take stuff too seriously when you’re overworked, which is why it’s important to periodically get away from it: go to a concert, do something silly, take a break from your goals and just enjoy life.

Quick tip: Pick one ridiculous thing about your job and have a laugh about it. Have to deal with dumb internet comments? Well here’s a funny blog post about them. Eerily accurate.

Baby steps

Yep, Bob Wiley style. When you have no choice but to work through your rut, sometimes it just takes breaking the work down into digestible tasks. For example, when I started this, I told myself all I had to do was write the first paragraph. Just one little paragraph. Getting started was the hardest part, but I got through it and now I’m over 1,000 words in. How did I get here? Baby steps, baby.

Quick tip: Pick one important project you’ve been procrastinating. List one step you can take–just one–to get it done. Then do it.

Why Ruts Aren’t Always a Bad Thing

We spend so much energy trying to get out of our ruts and, don’t get me wrong, they suck and you don’t want to wallow in them. However, for me at least, they can also serve a useful purpose.

For one, ruts reminds me that I’m human. I’m not just some machine following a system. I’m not just some brand following a formula. I’m human! I’m allowed to question life, and sometimes I want to step away from being a consumer or a producer and just exist: listen to a Jim Croce song, take an aimless walk, watch a movie. Sometimes it’s okay to do things that don’t directly support your career’s bottom line.

Second, ruts help me stay on a path that makes me feel happy and fulfilled. It’s necessary to do a gut check every now and then, especially because your goals and values can change and evolve. You don’t want to use a rut as an excuse to bounce around too much, but sometimes a rut serves as a red flag that something just isn’t right. Maybe you realized you don’t actually like what you’re doing. Maybe you’re too focused on stuff that doesn’t really matter. Ruts are inevitable, and we chalk them up as pointless, but they can also trigger valuable insight on how we approach our aspirations.

When’s the last time you got into a rut, and how did you get out?

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Kristin writes and makes videos about money, the economy, freelancing, and travel. She's written for Lifehacker, NBC News, Mentalfloss and more. Learn more about her here.