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5 Steps to Getting Out of a Rut

Knowing how to manage a rut can help us to get back on track with our lives.

Key points

  • Everyone gets stuck in a rut. Knowing the steps to get back on track can help to avoid negative health outcomes.
  • Recognizing the signs of being stuck in a rut, and differentiating them from more serious mental health concerns, is vital.
  • Be realistic in what you expect from yourself when lacking motivation. Set goals for your current self, not your ideal self.
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We all lose our spark from time to time. Even the most motivated individuals get stuck in a rut. This might be as simple as being bored of the same old routine, or even waking up unable to drag yourself out of bed. When you’re in a rut, you feel like you just can’t get going. Breaking out of a rut is like push-starting a car when it won’t start. The following steps show us how to get started.

1. Assess the problem: Why won’t the car start?

Assess the situation. Being stuck in a rut is different from experiencing exhaustion, trauma, or illness. If your car runs out of gas, loses a wheel, or has serious engine trouble, no amount of pushing is going to get you back up to speed. If you’re tired, sleep. If you’re continually struggling with your mental health, it’s important to recognize the symptoms and seek help. That said, if you feel like you ought to be doing more but can’t find the energy, accepting that you’re in a rut can help you to take the necessary steps to get back on track.

2. Do something: Push until the wheels are in motion.

When struggling to engage with life, you’re likely to find the advice "just do something" particularly unhelpful. However, the problem may be what you’re expecting that something to be. If you’ve slumped into a state of "getting through the days," it’s unrealistic to expect to spontaneously run a marathon. The trick is to start inching outside of the suffocating walls you’ve built around you. If you’re losing the battle to get out of bed, don’t berate yourself for not achieving the goals you set when you were feeling 100%. Instead, adjust your sights to target getting up and getting a glass of water. After that, maybe you could take a shower, brush your teeth, or even go for a walk. Remember that you are dealing with your present self, not your ideal self. Your expectations and rewards should match appropriately. I’m not advocating that you nominate yourself for an award every time you put your socks on. That said, today a shower may be worth a nice cup of coffee. Heck, washing the dishes may even earn you a biscuit.

A well-established strategy for initiating an instant positive change is being physically active, whether that be walking, gardening, or doing more vigorous exercise. Research has shown that physical activity positively influences multiple aspects of mood, including positive valence, energetic arousal, and calmness.

3. Make plans: Turn the steering wheel and set your course.

Action is great. However, blindly pushing your car with no one at the wheel is sure to cause a crash, and will leave you with much more serious car trouble than a dead battery. Plan your course of action to get back on track. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to design a grand master plan for your life. Start by putting things in place that you can work towards that are going to make you feel good about yourself today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Wherever you find yourself, set plans that you are confident you can achieve and will start to improve your situation. These may be plans for the month, week, day, or even the next hour. It all depends on how much scaffolding you feel you need, but don’t skimp on the details. Perhaps you’re planning to go to the gym tomorrow. What time? How will you get there? What will you do when you get there? Ironing out some of the smallest details can help grease the wheels for tomorrow’s success.

4. Build momentum: Move up the gears and apply some gas.

Success relies heavily on Psychological Momentum. That initial push to get out of bed can quickly ripple into the grandest of life’s victories, provided you navigate the waves of momentum. In practice, this has everything to do with self-discipline and valuing the small contributions to staying on track. Perhaps you’ve picked up a new habit of repeating positive affirmations in the morning. One day you wake up and feel a bit worn down, can’t be bothered, and convince yourself that missing a day doesn’t matter. Besides, they’re only simple wisdoms you plucked from the internet. Nevertheless, devaluing the seemingly small cogs in the wheels driving your momentum can quickly compromise everything. It’s true that those simple affirmations may not be the key ingredient to your future success. However, don’t underestimate the enormous value that reinvigorating your focus through small actions can have on your commitment to being who you want to be.

5. Self-care: Practice good car maintenance.

Hopefully we’ll all experience times when we’ve cranked up through the gears and are now cruising along the highway fuelled by our own momentum. When we do, we must be sure to drive with care and get a service once in a while. Mismanaging our health and motivation is likely to send us straight back into a rut. For example, physical, psychological, and occupational burnout has been shown to significantly predict various negative health outcomes, such as prolonged fatigue, insomnia, and depression. Though it is important to responsibly manage our energy, I am not advocating a "take it easy" approach. Much of the meaning in life is found when pushing ourselves beyond what we thought possible. What I am advocating for is mixing up the ways in which we challenge ourselves. No matter how well your car appears to be running, you still need to change the oil from time to time, and replace the tires, exhaust, or sometimes the whole engine.

Being stuck in a rut is something we all experience and can happen for a number of reasons. Though the initial push is undoubtedly the hardest part, remembering to set realistic expectations in the short term can help us quickly shake off fatigue and rediscover our drive. Planning our initial steps out of the dullness with extensive detail can help to turn nebulous wishing into structured reality. Valuing our progress and the steps we take to maintain our identities is essential for holding on to the best versions of ourselves. Look after yourself, but remember that being kind to yourself will often involve discipline, challenge, and a constant striving to improve and evolve.