Sometimes, you’re just not feeling it. You feel stuck. And you’re wondering how to get out of a rut.
The simple steps seem gargantuan. You can’t bring yourself to do much of anything, although you’ve tried it all: listening to upbeat music, drinking lots of caffeine, bribing yourself with treats. Or you find yourself doing everything except getting that important thing-that-must-not-be-named done.
The struggle is real.
I’ve been there. Many times. The worst of them seem to be during transitory periods of my life.
Sometimes, it took all the self-control and resolve I had to complete the littlest of tasks. Sometimes no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to take action. There were mornings I could barely drag myself out of bed. The mind can be very convincing in its variations of procrastination, avoidance and preservation.
After coming out of a particularly existentially challenging time about half a year ago, a friend asked me, so how’d you do it?
I didn’t have an answer initially. I simply did the best I could each day, sometimes not doing much that day aside from the bare essentials. It was a drawn out process where things got worse before they got better—seemingly by the bounds for the worse and little by little for the better. But better it got, especially when I started asking myself the tough questions and figuring out some of the tips I’ve laid out below.
As much as I don’t enjoy these periods, there is a purpose for them. As much as I may not look forward to them, I know there are more to come. They are part of the process.
While it’s natural to feel down in a rut sometimes, it doesn’t make it any easier. However, the ruts are not forever. As with all things, they eventually pass.
You can speed up the process by trying these 7 ways on how to get out of a rut.
1) Uncover the underlying reason
The very first thing is to let go of the underlying, accusatory feeling that there’s something wrong with you. You are not alone; you are human.
There’s a reason for the resistance. Through some convoluted rationale, it’s tied to a self-preservation tactic that means well, but doesn’t know any better. While it’s tempting to ignore the core reason in an effort to avoid short-term pain, it’s only going to add up to more pain over the long term.
Try to understand what’s going on behind the scenes by asking the questions you’re probably trying to avoid. Take some time to reflect, and don’t be afraid of asking the tough questions.
What is that you’re afraid of? Are you worried about something? What is it that you’re feeling? What’s actually controllable and what’s outside of your realm of control?
Once you uncover the reason, don’t condemn or judge it. Seek to understand, even have compassion for the reason. If you’re not able to do so, try to view it objectively at the bare minimum. Perhaps this is your Achilles heel, or maybe it’s something new you haven’t encountered before. Embrace your humanness.
2) Consider if it’s really right for you
Perhaps whatever is causing the resistance simply isn’t right for you.
This deserves a separate mention because I see this often with people sticking around in situations that clearly did not, does not and will not work. I see it in people—either in denial, fear or defiance—stay in jobs, relationships or environments that are not right for them.
I certainly was prone… for a while, anyway, and then again after my sabbatical.
I stayed in a job that wasn’t right for me about three years too long. And in those three years, I tried all of the things. First by trying to brainwash myself into thinking everything was great, then by unenthusiastically interviewing on and off over a two year span for different corporate jobs. I asked mentors, directors and colleagues for advice. I enlisted friends to help me with mock interviews. At some point, I hired a career coach and other professionals to help me find another job I could be more jazzed about.
But no matter how much I tried to convince myself otherwise, I really didn’t want any of those jobs. Sure, my current job wasn’t right for me (or in the case of post-sabbatical, I didn’t have anything), but all those other jobs weren’t right for me either. I’d get the initial interview, maybe the next—but never the final offer.
Just like I had to come to the realization on my own terms, it’s a process only you can go through and overcome. It starts with considering the possibility that it’s simply not right for you so you can consider better alternatives.
3) Take a nap or a break
Maybe you’ve been neglecting the most important thing of all. It’s common for us to focus on everyone else’s needs first before we realize we have our own too—and by that point, it’s usually become an emergency. Make sure you’re taking care of your needs too.
Perhaps it’s lack of sleep. If you’re fatigued, take a short nap between 20 and 45 minutes, or go for a full REM cycle of 90 minutes. The middle zone—over 45 minutes but short of 90 minutes—is what results in grogginess. If you’re able to, call it an early night so you wake up early and refreshed the next morning.
Another option is to take an active break to get an energy booster. Take a short walk, go for a quick run, or make a trip to the gym. Once you get up and moving, you’ll likely feel more motivated.
Other times, you may need to take a break for an hour, or even take it easy for an extended period of time. Have patience for yourself, and give it anywhere from a couple days to several weeks. Breakthrough realizations often happen when you take a step back from the resistance.
4) Start for 5 minutes
So, what if you’re simply avoiding the task in the name of procrastination? You find a reason to clean the closet you’ve put off for weeks. You get your email inbox down to zero. The bathroom mirror has never looked so shiny.
Whatever the underlying reason—whether it’s because of unknown variables, fear of failure or lack of interest—the possibilities are endless. The human mind is a master at conjuring up alluring distractions away from the perceived threat.
What works for me in this scenario is simply starting on the task for 5 minutes. It’s a small enough commitment of time to get started, and I usually end up working on it for much longer and even finishing the task if I get into the groove.
5) Remind yourself of the bigger picture
It’s easy to become immersed in the everyday details when you’re working towards a long-term goal. Repeated day after day, those long hours, hard work and never-ending to-do lists will eventually take its toll.
It’s important to step back and revisit the why—the bigger picture—of what you’re working towards. Every once in awhile, I like to think about the reason external to myself, the impact of my work on others, which is where the meaning comes in to the equation.
A favorite exercise of mine is to sit down, close my eyes and to dream a little bit in my version of a visualization, which I will share in a future article. Start with a location where you feel at peace and imagine yourself confident, joyful and fulfilled in the meaningful and impactful work you’re doing. Everyone knows how to dream, so chances are whatever you dream up will suffice.
Reconnecting with the meaning behind the work reinvigorates the motivation, drive and enthusiasm. And when you’re in a rut, you can definitely use some of that.
6) Surround yourself with positive energy and gratitude
During times of low energy, it’s beneficial to surround yourself with positivity, in the form of a supportive community, trusted few people, inspirational resources and gratitude.
I talk to trusted friends or family who are good listeners when I need to vent, and who are natural pep talkers when I’m unable see the positive for myself. I surround myself in a community of other dreamers and doers to work alongside and interact with.
If I’m not feeling social, I turn to inspirational resources. As a pick-me-up, I read uplifting notes, cards and emails that I’ve saved in physical and digital storage over the years. The practice of journaling my thoughts and writing down affirming statements is also extremely helpful for me during tough times. I remind myself of everything I take for granted and express my gratitude.
There are also many external resources. Movies such as Forest Gump and Coach Carter, or documentaries on how people in other countries live their lives. When I watch other people—fictional or not—with bigger and more life-threatening challenges than my own, the perspective shift helps with moving past the rut.
Many people have heard of powerhouses like Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar, and while their energy can be too much at times, they have my upmost respect. Sometimes, I find their strong and direct energy to be helpful; other times I find a gentler energy such as Martha Beck to be more helpful. The important thing is to experiment and find what works for you in the moment.
7) Celebrate what you’ve done
It seems counter-intuitive to acknowledge what you’ve done, particularly during times when you’re feeling like you’re not getting enough done. Yet that’s exactly why this is so important.
Why add to the rut when you’re feeling down? It’s so easy to do, we don’t even think about it. Pay attention to the dialogue in your head. Is it berating you for not being able to do more? If so, silence it. Give yourself a break and a pat on the back.
While it may seem silly to celebrate the little tasks that are normally done with ease—it’s not. Many of us have an internal expectation that we should be able to proceed we normally would, regardless of the rut.
When someone breaks a leg, the simple task of walking across the room becomes challenging. If your spirit is broken, why would a similar simple task be any different? When your mind is overwhelmed with fear, it’s completely understandable the smallest step towards that fear causes you to balk.
Give yourself credit for doing the little things during these times. Perhaps you finally replied to that email you’ve been putting off. Or maybe you said no to something you didn’t want to do. Or you managed to write one paragraph of the assignment you needed to do.
When you respect your limits and give yourself credit during a difficult time, it will only help you gain strength. Reducing the judgment and negative self-talk that easily infiltrates the mind, and replacing them with understanding will only help you move forward.
So there you go, 7 ways on how to get out of a rut. Some ruts are worse than others, but what they all have in common is they are not forever. There is a way out, and with patience and some experimentation on the tips above, you’ll reach the other side—wiser and changed for the better.