10 Ways to Break Out of a Rut (Right Now)

Unplanned moments make us feel happier and more in control, research finds.

Posted Jun 11, 2016

astarot/Shutterstock
Source: astarot/Shutterstock

I've recently written about rut psychology and how to get out of a rut. And all this week, I had a plan for my next post; I knew exactly what I would write about. Then I woke up today and decided to write about something else.

Lately, I've been in a rut, and the steps I've taken to get out of it have felt like baby steps. My spontaneous steps have felt like stomping around in the shoes of a giant. Every step I dare to take on a whim feels like a shock to the system—like picking one of those power-up mushrooms in Super Mario Brothers that give you super strength and super speed. Yes, the effects of the power-up eventually wear off, but by then you find yourself at a whole different level.

These are some of my favorite spontaneous steps from the past couple of months:

  1. Cutting my hair.
  2. When that didn't give me enough of a jolt, dyeing my hair (a single red streak I have taken to calling my "mean streak").
  3. Inviting a "dog parent" from my neighborhood that I didn't know well to a play date with my dog and me.
  4. Buying a bright purple toaster for my black-and-white kitchen.
  5. Spending a week working in a different city.
  6. Getting tickets to a concert. (I had never been to a concert!)
  7. Watching an improv show.
  8. Exercising with a personal trainer.
  9. Leaving work early on a sunny day.
  10. Signing up to volunteer.

Spontaneous behavior is simply unplanned behavior. But if that's all it is, what is its allure? And why is being spontaneous so critical for those of us trying to get out of a rut (and maintain a zest and richness in our lives)? I think the answer lies in our brains' love affair with novelty and autonomy. 

Spontaneous behavior leads us to new and surprising territory. It opens the door and escorts us into spaces we haven't had time to imagine. This combination of surprise and novelty floods our brains with dopamine, the neurotransmitter of motivation. A dopamine surge makes us excited, curious, and adventurous—even if only for a short time. 

And then there's the autonomy—the feeling of control over one's own actions. According to the well-researched and supported Self-Determination Theory, autonomy is one of the keys to human motivation. Researchers have found that autonomy increases relationship satisfaction and stability, student effort and happiness, workplace performance and enjoyment, and overall life satisfaction. A recent study even shows that autonomy quenches our thirst for power over others. When we act spontaneously we remind ourselves that we are in charge—not our bosses, not our families, not our schedules, and not even the plans we made for ourselves in the past.

How can you become more spontaneous? I give you one final list:

1. Listen to the mischievous voice in your head that says: "Hey, let's do that!" Try it once this week. And the more often you listen to this voice, the clearer it will get.

2. Put empty space in your schedule. Go ahead: Put a block on your calendar for this month (even if it's only 30 minutes) that no one can take from you.

3. Leave work or school early and don't go home. Just see what happens (if nothing else pops up, wandering the streets is a perfectly good use of your time).

4. Ask a friend to make surprise plans for the two of you, and resist the urge to ask for clues.

5. Make an adventure jar. Place ideas for intriguing activities or small dares (e.g., give a stranger a compliment) into a jar and draw out a new idea every week.

6. Find a partner in crime. Spontaneity is contagious. Spend time with the more adventurous people you know.

7. Explore new territory. Schedule a short trip (even just be to a different neighborhood), and don't plan what you will do once you get there.

8. Wear a reminder. Put on a symbol of your commitment to spontaneity (e.g., ridiculous socks). 

9. Change something visible. Your doormat, your hair, or your makeup. Create cues to remind yourself that anything is possible.

10. Schedule a Yes Day. Pick one day this month to say yes to anything that pops up.

What are some of your favorite spontaneous moments? If you can't think of a recent one, go make one happen now.

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