Stuck In A Rut? Get Out While You Can

Stuck in a Rut? (Click for Photo Credit)

Stuck in a Rut? (Click for Photo Credit)

This is a difficult thing to admit to myself.  After swearing that I wouldn’t let it happen, and taking many precautions to ensure that it didn’t, I have been stuck in a bit of a rut for the past few weeks.  While certainly not in the sense that I am depressed or doing nothing but sitting on the couch watching TV, it is more a lack of productivity around projects that I had higher hopes for a few months ago.

If you’ve been on a set schedule for years, as I had been up until October 20th, the lack of structure can totally throw you off.  No matter how much you prepare, it’s definitely a shock to the system.

For the first month or so, I worked my ass off to try and make some headway on a multitude of projects.  I was working out every day, I got 6,000 words into my personal manifesto, I was spending more time each week sending emails and collaborating with others, and then something changed; I was given direction.

I knew that I’d be heading to Thailand at the start of the new year. I’m not sure what about that made me think I could slack off, but I haven’t been working nearly as hard these past few weeks as I know I should be.

Stagnation can be a scary thing.  I’ve been finding myself more stressed out lately, because there has been less going on.  Funny how that works isn’t it?  When you have deadline after deadline, or goal after goal, you find ways to get it done.  You improve your time management, and in many cases, the quality of your work as well.  This is all simply because you don’t have a choice.

I’ve been faced with a situation where my projects don’t have any deadlines on them, and I know I’ll be working my ass off once I touch down in Thailand, so I ‘ve just been taking a bit of a breather.  Well I’ve got news for you: I don’t like it.

Whats worse, the deeper you get into your rut, the harder it is to get out.  You begin to get more acclimated to your boring lifestyle.  Sure I spend time with friends, and still do stuff I enjoy. I write on the blog, and work on some smaller side projects here and there, but I haven’t gotten into a “working mindset”.  Even more disappointing, is that I haven’t exactly taken advantage of that lack of mindset either.  It would be one thing if I were doing something cool like skiing every day or roadtripping across the United States, but even that would inspire me to write all sorts of blog posts about the endeavor.  I could (should?) be writing 5 posts a week and I am only writing 2.  There is something innately wrong with that.

But here is the good news, I realize all of this.  Whereas a few weeks ago, I would try and convince myself that I was being productive and getting lots done, now I actually recognize that I’ve been slacking off a bit.  And thats OK.  I think sometimes you need to go through phases like that, to make yourself that much more motivated to bump up the productivity and really start “getting things done” (which is an excellent book on productivity if you haven’t read it).

So now what? I recognize that I haven’t been fully committing to my manifesto, making the blog better, or connecting with new people, so how do you change that?  Honestly, the first thing I would do is go read Getting Things Done, by David Allen.  His approach to reducing stress and increasing productivity is second to none, and is one of the reasons I’ve realized that the effort has been a little lacking as of late.

The book will give you more tips than I ever could, but something I have found helpful is to identify what I’m really trying to accomplish, and then create both a short and long term plan from there.  Identify things you can do immediately to work towards the goal, and do them! I think I lacked structure and organization, and that’s why I ultimately let my projects get so delayed.

Something that I haven’t tried, but will be signing up for as soon as I am done writing this article, is a program like Rescue Time.  My biggest problem when it comes to lack of productivity, is surfing the internet.  It is so easy to get sucked in that having a tool that will keep me from doing this seems invaluable.  As I said, I haven’t tried it, but I will be sure to update you on what I find.  Even better, if you have any experience with this program, tell us about it!

This week I’ve made a resolution to get things done.  This includes physically completing tasks that I must do to be ready for my trip, as well as creating longer term goals to ensure that I don’t begin digging any more ruts for myself.  I also know that with more work on the horizon, I need to start getting back into the working mindset.  That’s exciting to me.  I miss the feeling of being “in the zone” and making progress towards a goal.  I reached my goal of giving myself more time, but now its time to remember why I had that goal in the first place!

Have your broken out of a rut before?  How did you do it?  Currently in one yourself?  What can we do it help you get out?

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Financial Samurai December 28, 2009 at 10:54 am

Good insight regarding having deadlines and not having deadlines. I guess with deadlines things become tangible, and without them, you can go on and on like an aimless arrow with no target.

Getting Things Done was a required reading book at my old company. Hope all is well!

Ross Collicutt December 28, 2009 at 11:08 am

I find the hardest part of getting out of a rut is realizing that you are in one. I’ve found a weekly or monthly review of what you want to do and what you are doing makes a big difference. Be honest about what you want to do as well. If you want to go into space but are making no tangible steps for getting towards that goal you have to admit that.

For me the best way to get out of a rut is to find some project that gets you totally riled up and dive into it. Or do some reading from the people that inspired you to start something in the first place. Get yourself excited to do what you want to do first. Then, give ‘er!!

Nate December 28, 2009 at 2:15 pm

I certainly agree with what you’re saying here, but I’d like to counter that it is ok at times to do absolutely nothing. Being productive 100% of the time doesn’t necessarily equate to success, although I suppose that’s what’s been beaten into our minds by some productivity gurus and entrepreneurs (e.g. Gary Vaynerchuk). To be successful means you must be doing something all the time, right?

I would argue that time for reflection and non-doing are equally as important to our well being and ironically our productivity than always trying to find something to do.

Having said the above, I would highly recommend Getting Things Done as well. It’s an amazing book and there are very good techniques in the book that, when implemented well, can significantly reduce stress levels and the overthinking that most people do related to what they need to get done.

Ben Weston December 28, 2009 at 2:41 pm

I can definitely relate with your feelings of being in a rut. One thing that has helped me has been sending out a weekly email to some people, on my current progress with my goals. This has definitely helped keep me accountable when I know that if I don’t follow through with my tasks, someone will be asking!

On another note, similar to what Nate said, it’s ok to not be productive all the time! I feel learning how to relax and NOT be productive is just as important, if not harder, than being productive.

I’m also like you in that the internet just sucks away my time. One radical suggestion is to put your laptop away completely or only allow yourself to use it once or twice a day. I actually sent mine away to Texas recently, to rid myself of the addiction. It was the hardest but one of the most productive 2 weeks I’ve ever had.

Best of luck!

Fabian | The Friendly Anarchist December 28, 2009 at 3:06 pm

When I’m in a rut, I normally just enjoy some free time and let my idle brain solve the problem that got me in there. When it’s done, I will easily get out. The power of unconsciousness and a brain that’s left alone should not be underestimated.

As for Getting Things Done, it surely is a big help to many readers. Other people, myself included, may just spend more time on trying to implement the GTD concept than really getting things done. For those, looser approaches like Zen To Done may be more helpful.

And while I haven’t used RescueTime yet, I love an Mac app called SelfControl. It will block whatever sites and domains you like, and once it’s active you cannot trick it. By no means. Not even by restarting or user changing. Good stuff…

Anthony Feint December 28, 2009 at 4:24 pm

I’ve been stuck in a rut recently. My approach as opposed to getting into gtd, is to take step back and actually try to do less. The rut was caused by pretending to be productive, so instead, I stopped kidding myself and took a break. It seemed to do the trick. by removing all pressure from the situation, I was able to focus again and get back into the swing of things.

I’m not really into GTD as I think it causes to much focus on “productivity” and not actually “doing”.

Nate December 28, 2009 at 5:26 pm

I’ve been in this type of rut many times. And you’re right, it can be hard to get out. Usually what I do is break down what I want to get done into doable, daily chunks. For instance, I set aside 1 hour per day to do work on my web projects. It’s a very reasonable amount of time to commit to. Those hours of work really add up and in a few months a lot can get accomplished. Anyway, nice post Sean!

Earl December 28, 2009 at 10:25 pm

I’ve found that ruts are periods of time to be accepted and absorbed, not simply avoided. If you maintain a positive mindset, even during a rut, then typically, you will receive some sort of benefit from this period of non-productivity. Perhaps you’ll work even harder and be more focused than ever when you come out of it or perhaps the down time will spark a new idea for you to act upon.

Whenever I’m in a rut I tend to allow it to run its course instead of trying to force myself out of it. Eventually, sometimes after a few days, other times after a few weeks, I hit a point where I naturally spring back into action. If you try to force yourself out of a rut, your mind will not be fully focused or prepared to work at the level you need it to.

Carles Carrera December 29, 2009 at 12:51 am

One easy thing to get you out of losing time surfing the net is using an unplugged laptop. The battery of my laptop sucks, it has now an autonomy of just 45 minutes.

So I use this “hardware weakness” to resolve a “mental weakness”: Since I use the laptop unplugged to surf the net, after 45 minutes I should stop.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen December 29, 2009 at 1:55 am

In my opinion, the absolutely best way to keep progressing towards goals is to work with others. Accountability to other people is far stronger than to yourself.

Productively working independently away from an office is difficult if you are not in regular contact with people expecting you to deliver on your promises.

Those people could be employees, partners or outsourced workers, but having someone relying on you definitely helps encourage action.

Rasheed Hooda December 29, 2009 at 5:13 am

A good thought provoking post, Sean.

I know how you feel, because I have been there, but for me it was not so much of a rut, but more a lack of focus.

Thanks for sharing.


Kevin M December 29, 2009 at 8:59 am

I completely get where you’re coming from. Feb-April is my busiest time at work (tax season, I’m a CPA). But I find myself wanting to stay active when I get home – either working on home remodeling, reading, exercising, etc. Whereas during the less busy times I find myself becoming lazier (which usually means more internet and TV time) and less motivated to GTD. Those times I usually have to really set short and medium term goals for myself to make sure I don’t waste away.

Ivan December 29, 2009 at 9:47 am

Who has never been in that kind of situation, I’ve experienced that a lot of time too. I totally understand how it could be unsatisfying to be stuck and feel that you aren’t movin on. But as you said, you’ve noticed that there was a problem, and I think that it was the hardest part. Find the method/tools to avoid that situation in the future is just a matter of time.

I tried some stuff like GTD tools, but I don’t feel that this method is as good as it pretends (can’t really say why, maybe it’s just me that can’t use it).

Rather than the GTD method, I use a mix of Zen Habits advices (define your objectives, then set small tasks to get these objectives done). And I complete my tasks using the Pomodoro Technique. Just trying it for a few weeks, but I like the flexibility of the method (even if it’s not done for every type of work).

Anyway.. I hope you’ll get out of there soon!

Ken Kurosawa December 30, 2009 at 10:40 am

I’m always in a weird balancing act between getting things done and crawling out of a rut. (It doesn’t help that falling into the rut is so easy) I been planning 2-3 major things I want to accomplish during the day and keep it noted close by so I have a lower chance of ‘forgetting it.’ Also, planning a day in advance has helped me focus on what needs to be done.

Alan December 30, 2009 at 11:09 am

Just finished Getting Things Done a few weeks ago, and I’m rereading it this afternoon (a timely post!) to prepare for 2010. It’s OK to get in a rut every once in a while. That’s the challenge of working on your own time. As they say – if it was easy, everyone would do it. If anything, moving to Thailand and hooking up with Dan’s Tropical MBA will definitely force you to realign priorities, reorganize and what not.

Cheers to the final days of 2009! See you next year.

Laura-Jane - Whimfield December 30, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Heard that you’re about to embark on a great adventure. We adventured two years ago (quit our jobs and moved to rural Canada). You are at the most exciting part RIGHT NOW! Enjoy.

I look forward to reading about your progress and adventures.

Whimfield Farm
“The only thing between you and your future is you.”

Laura-Jane - Whimfield December 30, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Crikey. Like you don’t have enough to think about now that you’re on the precipice of your new life. But if you’re in the mood for kindness fix my bad HTML for the love of God.


s December 30, 2009 at 5:07 pm

When you have children, there is no rut.

David Damron - LifeExcursion December 30, 2009 at 10:54 pm

My best productivity comes when I “don’t have enough time”. I feel your frustration Sean. I, soon, will be moving back to PHX and will be striving to support myself solely from online ventures. That means WORKING (not browsing the net) 8-10 hours a day. It will be tough, but once I establish that schedule and do everything I can towards it, I know I will succeed. You, I know are the same way Sean. We all could use a little more focus and hopefully, when you get to Thailand the projects you will be working on will get your head back on straight. I am sure it will so keep looking ahead bud.

David Damron

Ralph December 31, 2009 at 6:24 am

Stagnation is a sworn enemy of mine. If I were Batman, it would be my Penguin.

To me, being in a rut goes against the laws of existence. Everything needs to keep growing and moving forward. Thats why when I feel like I’m in a rut, I try to define it as soon as poossible, find out how I got there, then I take decisive action to move forward.

Great post!

Kristin January 6, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Oh man do I hear this post, Sean! I had a hard time implementing the structure in GTD in my life. Mostly because it’s ungodly complicated and makes my head hurt, but I did get some very useful basic tips out of it that have helped me when I analyze why I’m not able to be productive. Then I’m able to take steps toward changing that.

Breaks are good, too…especially the completely unproductive sit-and-stare-at-a-wall ones.

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