What To Do When You’re Stuck in a Rut?

malindi, kenya

You’re at the ocean. Something has washed up onto the shore — a piece of wood, a single shoe, a bottle. You have no idea where it came from but it’s here now, half-buried in the sand. Multiple forces played their part in bringing it to this point…

Just like you.

The previous post discussed finding one’s passions and interests for the 16–21 age group, so this follow-up is on young adults with a certain level of responsibility — college loans/family — who feel stuck in a rut and know that they need to move forward but don’t know where to begin.

1. Change your decisions.

Where you are right now is the result of all the tiny decisions you’ve made in your life, so to reach a different place, you need to change your decisions.

As Mel Robbins, author of The 5 Second Rule says, “None of us wakes up and says today is the day I destroy my life. What we do is we check out because it feels overwhelming…and then we make these teeny-tiny decisions all day long that take you so far off-track.”

So to get back on track, change your life one tiny decision at a time. Where you might have gone left, go right. Where you might have said no, say yes. Where you might have sat for an hour on youtube, read a book. A change of decisions naturally leads to a change of habits, because a new decision repeated often enough turns to a new habit. The best books to read about this are The Habit Loop by Charles Duhigg and Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin.

Why this step is hard is simple…we love our comfort zone too much…and it’s a human thing. Our minds are wired to protect us from the unknown, and so when things are ‘just fine’, we resist change at all costs. Why ruin things for yourself when things are ‘just fine’?

And if ‘just fine’ is working for you then that’s okay…this post isn’t for you anyway. But when ‘just fine’ stops working for you, you’ll know it. It’s an internal feeling. It’s constant frustration. It’s constant boredom. It’s being checked out most of the time. Your heart is no longer into any work that you do everyday. You spend more time procrastinating than anything else. You’re living weekend to weekend….

and the first workday of the week — whether it’s Sunday or Monday — just feels like hell…

But the beginning of change happens in one of two main scenarios; when the pain of staying the same is greater than the uncertainty surrounding the change, and when something happens in your life that’s completely out of your control — you lose your job — that pushes you to change your decisions.

I find myself lucky because the second thing happened, but you can’t always wait for that.

2. Watch out for the sunk-cost fallacy.

The best example of this is when you pay for a movie and then it turns out to be really horrible. Most people continue watching it because they tell themselves, “I’ve already paid.”

But by staying back and watching the movie, you’re wasting both money and time.

A lot of people drift in life because they’ve invested so much time and energy into one particular field so they decide to stick with it even when the environment around them changes. In business it’s known as myopia; focusing inwards on defining the company more than the needs of the customers. The famous downfalls of Kodak and Nokia were attributed to their not responding quickly enough to disruptive technologies in their market.

When the waves of change were upon them, they chose to ignore them and so they drowned.

But this is not to say that if you hate your job then just quit and follow your passion. I’m against that idea and part of the reason is Cal Newport’s book Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The point of this section is you need to be aware of whether you’re hanging onto something for so long because you still like it or because you’ve invested so much into it and are too afraid to try something else.

3. Pivot.

When co-founder of Misfit, Inc. A.J. Leon decided he has had enough with his job, he shocked the system by quitting and starting on a new path completely.

As much as you might romanticize this idea, using such stories to make a life decision is erroneous because of the survivorship bias where you tend to overestimate your chances of success only because triumphs are more visible than failures.

Everybody loves spreading the rags-to-riches story but nobody really talks about the rags-to-lower-rags story.

So a strategy I agree with is the one presented in Pivot by Jenny Blake, where you start by doubling-down on existing strengths, interests and experiences, then figuring out new opportunities and skills that need to be developed before running small experiments and shifting to a new direction.

It’s more practical and less risky.

4. Shorten the idea generation — thinking (/planning/research)- execution cycle.

This is one area I really feel qualified to talk about because I’ve spent my whole life in idea generation — thinking — without- execution mode, and then I had a shift of perspective. I met people who were more into idea generation-and-execution-without-thinking mode and I saw the incredible results of some of the risks they’ve taken.

The idea simply was, “It either works or it doesn’t. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it’s a good story.”

Now granted, my friends are a bit on the extreme end. A little research and thinking is needed but if you’re more inclined to kill an idea before execution, it’s better to build up the habit of executing ideas without much thinking before moving on to a strategy that balances all three steps.

The main idea killer is analysis paralysis and I’ve written about it here.

5. Build your tribe.

As an introvert, this step has always been my biggest challenge because as I explained here, as a kid I couldn’t understand people.

The main trait of an introvert is that we lose energy from being around people for long, and occasionally need to recharge by spending time alone. We do our best thinking alone, love our solitude and can spend days without seeing or talking to anyone and be totally okay with that. Susan Cain’s Quiet is the best book on introverts I’ve ever read (more than once).

Now of course, this whole dealing-with-people thing is a challenge that I work to overcome every single day, and I might write a whole series on how I’m doing that, but at the end of the day, I totally agree with this African proverb, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

We’re social beings.

The difference between where you are and where you want to be is a function of books you read, the things you do and the people you meet, and as much as some people would love to propagate the idea that many successful people are ‘self-made’, most biographies show you it’s a myth. At some point in their life, these people had a supportive tribe who helped them make a huge leap in life; family, friends, colleagues, teachers, mentors…

It’s also true that if you feel like you’re stuck in a rut and not going anywhere, you might want to check the people around you because they have a huge impact on you whether you notice it or not.

Now of course, I don’t subscribe to the mentality that says, “Drop your loser friends,” but I do agree that if you’re surrounded by people who are toxic, draining and not supportive, and whose values don’t match yours then at least reduce the amount of time you spend with them, and find another tribe.

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