Much as we hate them, ruts happen. We spend our mental energy griping about the rut, wishing it hadn’t happened, and pretending that it’ll disappear on its own. But ruts are completely under our control. And they most often occur when we’ve stopped our success routines.
Take me, for instance. I make a good living writing, and I’ve worked like a dog to get where I am. But I’m not immune to reality: if I stick to my good habits, good things happen. If I stop, even for a day, the proverbial shit hits the fan. Like last month.
How to fall into a rut
I’d been working on several large projects for state agencies and foreign companies over the last month. These accounts demanded a lot of my attention, and I had to adjust my schedule accordingly: where normally I’d spend my first three hours exercising, meditating, writing, then reading, this month I checked my email first thing in the morning.
Not a big deal. I handled my accounts well and nailed my assignments. But after the major projects concluded, I kept checking email first thing in the morning. I didn’t even have anything to check—I just kept doing it because I didn’t discipline myself to get back into my normal productive routine. And a funny thing happened.
I lost all of my motivation.
Before I knew it, two weeks had slipped away forever and I hadn’t the slightest accomplishment to show for it. I felt restless, uninspired, and helpless—the opposite of my normal charged self. I didn’t know what was happening. Even my daily staples like journaling and studying seemed harder than cleaning out the Augean Stables. And writing…forget about it. I did 500 words a day at max (normally it’s closer to 2,000), and some days I didn’t write at all.
That’s when I realized that no one is immune to bad habits. I’d gotten cocky, and thought I could do whatever I wanted and still keep kicking ass like usual. But after two fat weeks of nothing, and me feeling like a fraudulent toad, things came to a head.
How to get out of a rut
This weekend I woke up at 3:00am feeling worse than I could remember. I was gripped by an intense mixture of fear, guilt, anger, and uncertainty that wouldn’t budge. I tried deep breathing—nothing. I tried reading to fall back asleep—nada. That’s when I realized this was one problem I had to fix proactively. So I picked up my journal (which had collected a week’s worth of dust) and started scribbling maniacally. I was determined to earn my life back.
And I was brutally honest.
I wrote about every little habit that was keeping me down. I wrote about my inconsistency, and how I wasn’t living to my own standards. And in the free flow of words, the answer to my weeks-long funk stared me right in the face:
I had completely abandoned my morning success routines.
Where normally I’d wake up with purpose, meditate, plan my day, exercise, knock out a writing project, and study, I was checking email. It doesn’t sound as heinous as I’m painting it to be, but the influence was subtle. It stole my confidence bit by bit till I was paralyzed.
Normally, every part of my morning would boost my confidence—I’d boost my mood with exercise; I’d feel proud of how disciplined I was as I wrote my first article; I’d feel smarter and more capable after having studied—and on and on. But now I was starting my day with a confidence drain.
When there wasn’t anything in the inbox, I felt worthless. And I was more focused on what I received than the effort I gave and the work I produced. That slight shift in focus was enough to degrade my sense of purpose, and it happened gradually. I didn’t notice much after a day or two. But then a week passed, and I felt bad about myself. Two weeks passed and I was no better than a speck on a frog on a log.
That’s how fast your life can change when you ease up on your success routines.
But the best part of this story is how fast you can turn it all around.
In that midnight session of infuriated journaling, I figured out exactly what went wrong, and what I needed to do to turn it all around. I spent an hour identifying the major gaps in my daily routine and planned for something better the next day. After my hands and sheets were covered in blue pen-scratches, I lay in bed confident that tomorrow would be different.
If I won the morning, I knew I’d win the day.
I’m not going to say breaking the routine was a piece of cake. It took every bit of my willpower.
I forced myself to meditate—to fight the urge to head straight for my laptop as I’d done the past 15 days. And after getting my mind right, I forced myself to do my normal morning exercise routine, which takes about 45 minutes. I hated it at first, and felt I’d much rather be surfing the internet and checking my email. But midway through the workout, I felt my old sense of confidence growing. The real challenge would be when I got back home—when I had to write.
Again, I forced myself to pick up the keyboard and to deny every impulse that screamed, “Check your email!” The keys were heavy, and my mind was slow. But I persevered. And after two hours—normally an article takes 30-45 minutes—I’d worked through three paragraphs. But I was proud of myself for the effort. And when I felt that pride surge, I tapped into a creative wave. Soon I’d finished my first real piece in over two weeks.
I still didn’t feel like my usual chipper self. But I knew if I stuck to my confidence building routines, I’d be back in no time—definitely later in the week. But I surprised myself.
By the end of the day, after hitting my standard goals, and then going above and beyond to reach my dreams, I felt as if I’d never been bucked off in the first place. I was high energy, high productivity, and high on life. Instead of the dread I’d known for two weeks, I felt optimistic about the future, and excited about my opportunities to kick ass, refine my skills, and make life better.
By the end of the day, I hit my pillow knowing that I’d done the absolute best that I could do. And that gives me the self assurance to strive for and accomplish great things.
So what will you do about your rut?
After making a profession of clawing through ruts, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But if I can turn my momentum around on a dime, in under a day, so can you. All it takes is focus, clarity, a plan, and a promise:
• I will do only the things that boost my confidence
• I will start first thing in the morning,
• and I will keep it up all day.
Success is that simple.
The more specific your plans for an ass-kicking day are, the likelier you are to stick to them and build your confidence. So choose positive thoughts and habits—you’ll do more inspiring things. And when you find yourself in a rut, be brutally honest about the thoughts and habits that are holding you back. That’s how you’ll get back out.
If you’ve been in a rut for over a month, you may want to consider a life coach.