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5 Powerful Strategies to Get You Out of a Rut

It's time to stop spinning your wheels and take control.

Source: YanLev/Shutterstock

Do you feel like you are trapped on a hamster wheel, spinning in circles and getting deeper into your rut? As Mastering the Art of Quitting explains, human beings are hardwired to have persistence, which may be helpful when life is going well, but sabotage our happiness when we are moving in a negative direction. If you feel trapped in a negative cycle, it's probably not due to lack of ideas or opportunity. To get things moving in a positive direction again, you may need to adjust how you think about change.

We persist in doing things that do not bring the results we want for 4 key reasons:

  • The “Sunk-Cost” Fallacy. Concentrating on what you already invested, such as time, money, and effort, may keep you stuck.
  • Pipe Dreams. Thinking about running away to Tahiti or winning the lottery may help you feel better, but probably will not bring about real change.
  • Wishful Thinking. Longer work hours at a harder job may land you the promotion, but then again, it may not. And in the meantime, you may get burned out.
  • Intermittent Reinforcement. When caught in a negative situation, small positive cues may signal that things will improve eventually when in fact they may not. Instead of remaining in a dead-end situation, determine objectively whether things are actually improving overall.

If you are trapped in any of these four sticky mindsets, here are five strategies to get you moving again:

1. Embrace Regret

Regret may paralyze you from making progress, but studies show that counterfactual thinking can actually help motivate you to act. Counterfactual thinking is the process of constructively assessing how something might have happened, asking the question, “What might I have done?” It prompts a new and empowering resolve: “When X happens (or doesn’t happen), I will do Y.”

There are two kinds of counterfactual thinking, and only one of them has positive benefits. For example, say you are stuck because you did not get the job you wanted. You could employ downward counterfactual thinking—“Well, it could have been worse. At least I got the interview"—but this will not induce any progress. The positive alternative is to try upward counterfactual thinking—imagining a better alternative that allows you to see how you might have acted or reacted to seek solutions. While mentally reviewing the interview, you realize that you could have been more forthcoming. So you modify your future interview behavior and get a job offer.

2. Understand Your Comfort Zone

To get out of your rut, understand what keeps you in it. You may be caught in your comfort zone, a situation that feels familiar because of your early childhood experience. Those that grew up in loving and supportive families rarely find themselves in a negative rut. Those who grew up in harmful emotional environments, however, may have a comfort zone that feels familiar but is still harmful. When trying to move past a negative situation, ask yourself: Does an aspect of this situation seem familiar? Understanding where your responses are coming from is a first step toward getting yourself on the move.

3. Set Attainable Goals

Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the amount of change required to get out of a rut, and that keeps us in it. To solve this, set manageable interim goals. Be mindful that we tend to exaggerate our abilities or wrongly attribute failure to circumstances beyond our control. Be ruthlessly realistic about how your talents match up with the goal you set. If your goal seems unreachable, pull back and master mental contrasting.

4. Use Mental Contrasting

Mental contrasting helps you stay motivated by that desired future, while keeping you realistic about the steps needed to fix hindrances. To do it, contemplate your ideal future while thinking about the short-term factors that stand in the way of achieving it. Just imagining the future alone (indulging) or thinking about the possible problems alone (dwelling) will not propel you into meaningful action and can actually leave you stuck.

5. Use Critical Thinking

I’ve already written about how much of our thinking isn’t as deliberate as we think. We are all vulnerable to cognitive distortions, 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.” (I do not endorse animal cruelty.) Skinner put very, very hungry pigeons in cages and swung a food dish into the cages at random intervals. When the pigeons got hungry again, 75% of the birds would repeat whatever they were doing when the food arrived. They attributed cause and effect to whatever action—such as hopping on one foot or flapping their wings—“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, or the lucky shirt you wore. To get out of the rut, stop inferring cause and effect like Skinner’s superstitious pigeon. It will just keep you on the hamster wheel even longer.

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Copyright © Peg Streep 2014.


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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