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How to Get Out of Ruts

A holistic approach curated to fit your life

Illustration by Timo Kuilder

Dear Friend,

I hear you’re in a rut…a deep one. You feel like you were awesome last week — checking everything off your list, dishes done, room pristine, workout complete. Then all of a sudden, you aren’t. All of a sudden, you flopped into a feelsbadman mood as you missed your workout, didn’t study as long as you should have, have to work overtime, etc, etc, etc. and then morphed into a couch potato.

What now? At some point, after resurfacing from the couch where your butt scorched a hole, you have to get up and do the work.

How do you find the motivation? How do you be awesome again? How do you make sure this rut doesn’t happen again?

First, here are some terms. Be wary of the productivity “gurus”. This is one of those things where people claim that they know it all, but really, they also are trying to figure out just like the rest of us. Granted, they may be “more productive” than you for what that’s worth, but the most learning of how to un-rut yourself will come from practice. As someone who was a productivity-obsessed being for the past many years, trying countless strategies and rabbit-holing in the latest video/article/book, I am here to tell you that you will learn more by trying it out yourself and building your own productivity system that fits your particular lifestyle. Yes, it’s time to take a leap, but a bold one at that.

Second, to unrut yourself in a sustainable way, you must experiment, find what doesn’t work, then make small changes until your system works. For example, the system that keeps me afloat is a combo of daily exercise, meditation, writing, and solitude with some level of weekly socializing. What types of practice and how much of each for me to be my best self was tested over many years. Tim Ferriss, podcaster and writer, is a great example of someone who lives this philosophy. He tries strategies, asks questions about other people’s strategies, and constantly tweaks his approach to fit his life.

How do you find motivation?

Do you find it or does it find you? We often hear people say, “I lost motivation”. What if I told you that motivation is irrelevant?

Motivation is a temperamental child that does what it wants. It comes and goes without pattern so you cannot trust it. What would be less risky to trust is Discipline. Discipline gets a bad name because it seems uptight and boring, but really, if you practice Discipline, it will introduce you to Freedom. (And it is Freedom who will bring you meaning, but that’s another topic.)

There are influencers who preach Discipline aka Practice aka Habit-Building versus Productivity.

  • James Clear, the younger Charles Duhigg who wrote the huge bestseller Atomic Habits and countless articles on the topic, emphasizes a systems approach to getting things done — build a system the keeps you accountable, measures progress, and moving towards your goal regardless of your feelings.
  • Jocko Willink in Extreme Ownership brings his military discipline to his book and podcast, emphasizing that being more disciplined actually frees up more time for you to do what matters.
  • Ryan Holiday, the Stoic expert and author of The Obstacle is the Way and The Ego Is the Enemy, has a simple index card system of his to-dos. Also, as a stoic, he tries to decouple emotions from his process and actions.
Holiday talks about his ultra simple index-card productivity system here.
  • Seth Godin’s book The Practice illustrates how the creative process doesn’t need to depend on “the [creative] muse” or strokes of insight as Steven Pressfield expresses in The War of Art, but really depends on building a regular practice that you show up to regardless of your imposter syndrome and uncertainty. Also, he says that you don’t need certainty to act. Act and the certainty/self mastery will come (it’s all about the reps). This man walks the walk as he has written a blog post every day since basically the beginning of time.

This emphasis on discipline over productivity tactics is a different flavor. It focuses on long-term growth over short-term tactics (or hacks). It pushes you to look at your:

  1. Environment — what’s influencing you to take actions that make you feel unproductive? Are there cultural or societal influences that cause you to feel shameful when really, your slumps aren’t shameful at all?
  2. Mental state — what triggers you? What expectations do you have of yourself? Are they realistic or true to who you are? Do you get time to decompress mentally? What does your mental practice look like?
  3. Physical maintenance — how does your physiology influence your psyche? Would a workout, even a 5-minute run, reduce feelings of anxiety, aggression, or negativity?
  4. Emotional cleanse — do you confide in others or hold in your frustrations? Who are you go-to people for emotional relief? Do you have a practice that helps you drain all that emotion?

Approaching our ruts from a holistic point-of-view helps pinpoint what triggers it, what can be done about it, and what we can actually implement some changes that would prevent the rut like that one in the future.

Ruts come from a convergence of unwanted habits. As James Clear describes,

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your identity.

This is why habits are crucial. They cast repeated votes for being a type of person.”

Can you figure out what specifically triggers/cues your action, what craving it fulfills, how you respond to it, and the reward you get from it? If you can pinpoint this, you can essentially remove cues to stop the unwanted actions/habits from happening.

How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick by James Clear

For example, I make all my food decisions at the grocery store, preventing myself from bringing home junk that will definitely be binged during late night munchies. Another mental hack I do is putting on my workout clothes before my workout time. My brain goes, “I guess I’m ready…might as well do a mini run”. Or fooling myself into running one lap when really I can’t help but run overtime once I get started. Fooling your complaining self into doing the things your best self would want is a true art form.

How do you prevent (the same) ruts from happening again?

We make mistakes, we repeat ruts at times, but how can we learn not to make the same mistake? A rut-less life is inhuman. Allowing yourself to be human is a lesson that was particularly difficult for me when I was psyched out on productivity youtube. After many years, I realized I was more effective when I was considerate of my body, brain, and emotional needs. There is a kid inside that needs to be loved, fed, nurtured, and played with. Ignoring this creates distrust with yourself that impacts all progress. The more you ignore that inner child, the more tantrums it will have, the more ruts you will feel, and the less progress you will make. Skip that altogether and be kind to that kid.

More on Kid Theory in this past article here:

Redefine “awesome”.

What would your best day look like? Your worst day? What if you made your daily metric of success the average of the two? Creating a system that acknowledges our human imperfections and limitations has helped me craft and iterate on a personal system that fits me. This acceptance is not surrender. It’s strategic.

Other tips:

  1. Accountability is a powerful tool, especially if socially driven. For example, announcing to your group chat that you’re going to run a marathon or start that print shop you’ve always wanted to build makes it humiliating if you fail. I told my friends that I wanted to get those two milestones crossed off next year. To prevent myself from having to explain a failure to them, I run regularly and track my progress. As social creatures, social influence can be detrimental but when used intentionally, it can get you to do great things.
  2. Balance the ups and downs for best results. You can be bullish about ambitions, take up more responsibility, and make promises, but when your strength depletes, the bust can be devastating. This approach is a recipe of “overpromising and under-delivering” which is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. This sense of balance reminds me of that quote, “Don’t make decisions when you’re angry, don’t make promises when you’re happy.” A practical situation to practice this is when you talk with your manager about your progress and what you can handle — give yourself wiggle room in your estimated time of delivery. Embrace the natural balance within your success/failures/good days/bad days and know that progress in any way, shape, or form is “enough”.
  3. Life ain’t that serious. This is something I constantly need to remind myself. When your responsibilities pile and life gets overwhelming, it’s easy to get stuck in the chaos. What has helped me break that cycle is actively planning breaks to recharge. Pause, breathe, look at the trees, go and find some cool birds, take a walk, play with an animal, call your friend to see what’s good. Breaks don’t need to be long. And happiness isn’t complicated until you make it so.

Challenges are opportunities to level up. How you perceive the challenge influences how you handle moments of growth. How you measure it dictates how it makes you feel. Measure what is in your control, measure what matters, and let everything else fall into place.

Love,
Caroline

Caroline Luu is a product designer exploring life and design questions to better understand humanity. Peep her portfolio, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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