How to Pull Yourself Out of a Rut

“The only constant is change,” as they say. This is all fine and good as a life without any changes would be an intolerable bore. Change, however, is quite disruptive. Even positive change can throw you out of whack. Negative change, for its part, can truly debilitate you. On the other hand, sometimes your mood […]

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“The only constant is change,” as they say. This is all fine and good as a life without any changes would be an intolerable bore. Change, however, is quite disruptive. Even positive change can throw you out of whack. Negative change, for its part, can truly debilitate you.

On the other hand, sometimes your mood changes without an underlying change in your life. For no real reason at all you get thrown for a loop. Perhaps it’s a chemical imbalance or some other psychological trait or a byproduct of civilization that causes depression in general. Or perhaps the sun staying down in the winter causes seasonal depression. Deaths in the family, tough breakups, serious injuries, losing a job and the like will also, obviously, sadden even the most stoic of us. I should note here that I’m not talking about these types of issues or clinical depression. Instead I’m referring to the ruts that each and every one of us has found ourselves in at one time or another, often for no discernible reason at all. (Although some of what I’m saying might be of aid to those suffering from more serious depression.)

And while falling into a rut and depression are not the same thing, an analysis of depression can shed some light on why we get stuck in a rut and how to get out. Right off the bat, it’s hard to even figure out why such a thing as depression would have evolved in humans. Scientific American gives a pretty compelling theory though, 

‘So what could be so useful about depression? Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.”

Sure enough though, every time I’ve fallen into such a rut I’ve found myself “asking the big questions” or more accurately, “lost in the big questions.” Scientific American continues,

“This analytical style of thought, of course, can be very productive. Each component is not as difficult, so the problem becomes more tractable. Indeed, when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test.”

While it may be nice to know there are some positives to depression, that doesn’t make it a more pleasant place to be. Same goes for the more common ruts people find themselves in. And while it’s certainly important to ask those big questions, perhaps there even is something wrong with the direction of your life that needs to change. Asking such questions isn’t going to pull yourself out, however. Even answering such questions won’t do the trick. Although there definitely is a hint in the part about breaking problems down “into smaller components.”

While in a rut, I’ve found myself overwhelmed with what I would want and even need to do to get back on track. Say you want to lose weight. Well you’ve got to buy healthier food and eat healthier and work out and create a schedule and you need to do all of this consistently for months on end. That’s a lot for anyone to take, especially someone in a state where they lack most, if not all, motivation. 

The same could be said for switching jobs, finding a girlfriend/boyfriend, starting a business, learning a new trade, etc. These “answers” to life’s big questions often, if not exclusively, come with a whole lot of things to do and quite a bit of work as well.

Instead, the thing you need to do to get out of a rut is to go against the grain. Instead of asking the big questions, ask the small ones; what do you need to do to have a successful tomorrow?

Huge commitments are overwhelming, whereas small ones are quite obviously not. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous’ famous idea of taking it “one day at a time.” Forget the grandiose goals and dreams and decisions and just make tomorrow a success. As a famous Chinese proverb puts it, “Every thousand mile journey begins with the first step.”

But this step doesn’t necessarily have to be in a particular direction.  I’ve written elsewhere that the key to happiness and productivity is to “find a path you enjoy being on that leads you in the direction you want to go.” In this case, however, you don’t even need to find a path you enjoy. Just get back on a path. You can switch paths after you’ve started walking again.

This concept is fairly similar to the idea of “fake it until you make it,” which actually has a lot of scientific evidence behind it. An analysis of 138 studies even found, “strong evidence to show that smiling [by itself] can make you happy.” 

Smiling, in this case, could be one of those small things you focus on to pull yourself out of a rut. Because in such instances, it’s the small things that count.

Recently I found myself in a hole asking all sorts of existential questions about my life and future. After wallowing there for a bit with no luck of escaping, I got back to the basics. Instead of coming to firm answers about those existential questions, I simply made a list of five things to do the next day:

  1. Get to work on time (I’m an entrepreneur who can show up late if I like)
  2. Write for at least 30 minutes
  3. No eating out
  4. No snacking on unhealthy food
  5. Workout

These five things don’t add up to very much. Writing, after all, could add up to no more than a few paragraphs. A workout could be 20-minutes on the elliptical machine. Under this plan, I could still bake a cake and eat the whole thing and meet its requirements. And I doubt many salary employees will feel much sympathy for me regarding number one on the list. 

Even still, this short little list helped pull me out in a week or so. It wasn’t by any means a straight arrow back to normal; there were ups and downs for sure. But just focusing on the small things got my mojo back. After that, I could add all sorts of more complicated and difficult tasks to my schedule in order to achieve larger objectives. 

But what became evidently clear to me is that the first thing to do when in a rut, is to stop thinking big and start thinking small. Little steps, after all, are a lot easier to make than big ones.

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