Most of us will feel, at one point or another, that life has turned into a sojourn on a hamster wheel and there doesn’t seem to be a way off. At these moments, it’s important to recognize that human beings are hardwired to have persistence as the default setting, as I’ve written before and Mastering the Art of Quitting explains in detail. To get off that wheel, you’ve got to change how you’re thinking about change. 

Likely as not, what’s keeping you on the wheel isn’t a dearth of ideas but the way you’re managing your thoughts. Are you thinking about what you’ve got invested in where you are now—the time, money, effort? It’s called the “sunk-cost” fallacy, and it’s keeping you in place. Are your only alternatives either pipe dreams (“I’ll run away to Tahiti and start over” or “I’ll win the lottery”) or wishful thinking (“If I try harder, I’m bound to get a promotion” or “If we just take a vacation, the two of us will stop fighting”)? Are you hanging in because you’re scouring the horizon for positive cues? (That’s called “intermittent reinforcement.) 

 Here are five strategies to get you moving again.

1. Harness the power of regret

I know this sounds totally counterintuitive because regret can bring us down and loop us into dead-end thinking — as in “If only I’d never taken that job,” “If only I hadn’t married him or her,” or “If only I hadn’t spent that money.” But studies have shown that counterfactual thinking can actually help motivate you to act. What is counterfactual thinking? It’s what it sounds like: Thinking about how something might have happened instead of the way it actually happened. You can imagine a better alternative (upward counterfactual thinking) or a worse one (downward counterfactual thinking). Say you’re stuck on the wheel because you didn’t get the job you wanted. Downward thinking —“Well, it could have been worse. At least I got the interview”—doesn’t induce any progress. But while reviewing the interview in your mind might make you feel regret in the moment, you might also see that you weren’t as forthcoming as you might have been in your answers to the questions posed and that had you been, the interview would have gone very differently. You decide to modify your future interview behaviors and, lo and behold, you get a job offer with the new strategy. Similarly, if your rut is in the area of relationship, you can use upward counterfactual thinking to see how you might have acted or reacted to either resolve the tension or at least not have it escalate. In any situation, the question “What might I have done?” prompts a new and empowering resolve: “When X happens (or doesn’t happen), I will do Y.”

2. Take stock of your comfort zone

To get out of your rut, you need to have a good understanding of what —if anything—is keeping you in it. A “comfort zone” is a situation which replicates aspects of your early childhood experience which is fine if your family of origin was attuned, loving, and supportive. These folks are unlikely to find themselves in a rut and, if they do, they’ll get out with alacrity. Alas, for those of us —and I am part of this group—who grew up in less than ideal emotional environments, a “comfort zone” may feel familiar and thus harder to quit but, at the same time, make us unhappy. Are there aspects of the situation that seem “familiar” in this negative sense? Are echoes of your past influencing your responses and keeping you stuck in place? Understanding where your responses are coming from— are they being cued by past experience? —is a first step toward getting yourself on the move.

3. Set attainable goals

Forget every mantra you’ve ever heard that sounds vaguely like “the higher the bar, the better the jump” because it’s just not true. Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of change getting out of the rut will entail? If so, you should stop thinking globally and set interim goals for yourself so that the leap seems less daunting. When you set goals, keep in mind that we all tend to exaggerate our abilities —the “above average” effect—and we also attribute failure to circumstances beyond our control, rather than ourselves. Be ruthlessly realistic about how well your talents match up with the goal you’ve set. If the rut has to do with a goal you’ve set for yourself that seems unreachable most of the time, you need to pull back and master the thought process called mental contrasting.

4. Use mental contrasting

This technique involves keeping your ideal future in mind while also thinking about the factors that may stand in the way of your achieving that future —almost as if you were looking at two images on a split screen. Mental contrasting allows you to be energized and motivated by that desired future, on the one hand, while keeping you realistic about what you need to do to fix potential problems, on the other. This also promotes strategic “If.. then” thinking which allows you to plan your reactions and responses to potential setbacks. Just imagining the future alone (a process called indulging) or thinking about the possible problems alone (dwelling) will not propel you into meaningful action and can actually leave you stuck in a rut —either indulging in pipe dreams or down in the dumps about failing to reach your goal. How mental contrasting can work in real life is demonstrated by the following story. You and your spouse argue constantly about the division of labor in the household—and whether it’s really a 50/50 split after all, An indulging point of view has you wishing for a better job or a trust fund so you could just hire a housekeeper, a nanny, and someone to mow the lawn; a dwelling perspective has you focused on how sick and tired you are of this same old tattoo, and how it’s never, ever going to get resolved. But mental contrasting allows you to visualize a more peaceful domestic situation and, at the same time, focus on what you are and aren’t doing to resolve your differences so that you can get to that future.

5. Make sure you’re really “thinking”

I’ve already written about how much of our thinking isn’t as deliberate as we think (; in addition, we’re vulnerable to all kinds of cognitive distortion, one of which is a combination of magical thinking and misattribution of cause and effect. B.F. Skinner described it in a study he called “Superstition in the Pigeon.” (And before you animal activists get upset, please know that I am one of you and that this experiment was conducted seventy-five years ago.) Skinner put very, very hungry pigeons in cages and swung a food dish into the cages at random intervals. What he noticed was that when the pigeons got hungry again, 75% of the birds would repeat whatever they were doing when the food arrived. The point is that they attributed cause and effect to whatever action —hopping on one foot, flapping their wings, etc.—“made” the food appear the last time. People do that too. Something good happens, and you attribute it to the prayer you uttered, the candle you lit, the lucky shirt you wore. You wave your bowling ball out of the gutter or your golf ball into the hole. 

To get out of the rut, don’t let your brain go on automatic because you might well end up drawing inferences about cause and effect when there aren’t any—just like Skinner’s superstitious pigeon. It’ll keep you on the hamster wheel longer.

You can get out of that rut—really. Just keep your thinking straight. 

Copyright © Peg Streep 2014


READ MY NEW BOOK: Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work

READ Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

 Epstude, Kai and Neal J. Roses, “The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking,”Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, no.2 (May 2006), 168-192. 

Locke, Edwin A. and Gary P. Latham, “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, no.5 (October, 2006): 265-268.

Oettingen, Gabriele and Peter M. Gollwitzer, “Strategies of Setting and Implementing Goals, Mental Contrasting, and Implementation Intentions,” in Social Psychological Foundations of Clinical Psychology,ed, J.E. Maddux and J.P. Tanguy (New York: Guildford Press, 2010): 114-165.

Skinner, B.F. “Superstition in the Pigeon,” Journal of Experimental Psychology,38 (1938): 168-172.

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