How to get out of a rut

There's nothing worse than feeling stuck. If you've been pushing hard for years, and haven't seen the results you want, it's disheartening. 

Disappointment can lead to despair. It feels like all of your creative energy has been stamped out; like you can't take another step. Your motivation to "keep trying" goes away.

I've been there.

But there's hope! Gradually, I've been able to regain my momentum.

Here are a few of the things that helped me:

Get uncomfortable

When we're feeling down, our inclination is to hibernate. We want to get under some warm blankets, eat cereal, and mope. Or, we seek solace from sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Don't seek comfort. You need to give yourself a jolt of the unfamiliar.

I forced myself to drive 45 minutes to a neighboring town to watch a documentary.

I knew it would be good for me because:

  • During the drive, I'd have a long uninterrupted time to think.

  • The film would expose me to new ideas.

  • I'd meet new people

The quickest way to get out of a creative rut is to make yourself uncomfortable. This means:

  • Put yourself in new, unfamiliar, situations

  • Spend time with people you don't normally hang out with.

  • Take risks. Try new things. Do something unconventional.

Discomfort is like jumper cables for a dead creative battery.

Help someone else

Lacking motivation, we turn inward. We try to nurture our creative soul.

But self-focus isn't the answer; instead, we need to focus outwardly.

My friend Dave needed a website. I can make websites.

I usually don't have time to do projects like this for friends. I'm too focused on my stuff.

However, because of my lack of inspiration, I didn't have any current projects.

So I helped Dave build a simple static site for his business.

We spent the morning together. I could tell that launching this website represented significant progress for Dave and his new business. Seeing that gave me energy.

Helping others renews your spirit.

Get outside

Too often, when I'm in a rut, I'll force myself to stay at my desk. "I'm not going anywhere until I accomplish something," I'll say.

It's like trying to squeeze water from a rock.

Leave your desk. Go outside. Take a walk. Lay on the grass. Sit by a river. Breathe.

I try to practice a light form of meditation, where I won't focus on anything particular, and I'll just focus on breathing. I'll start with ten breaths: in slowly, and out slowly.

Your brain isn't your slave; you need to let it roam.

Re-focus on your destination

Once I felt my creative energy returning, I took out a piece of paper, and drew something like this:

On one side I wrote: "Here's where I am now."

On the other side, I put: "This is where I want to be." For me, this destination represents a specific revenue goal for my business.

In the middle, I asked: "What are three things I need to do to get there?

Re-centering on the gap between where I am, and where I want to be, was motivating. It also helped me to come up with specific actions I could take.

When you're in a rut, action creates momentum.

Ask these two questions before you go to bed

With renewed momentum, I was able to start tracking my progress.

The most efficient way I've found for doing this is to ask these questions each night:

  1. What did I accomplish today?

  2. What am I going to do tomorrow?

Tracking each day's accomplishments is a visual reminder of your velocity. After I've listed them out, I'll go back over them and mark an "X" or a checkmark. An "X" is for anything that doesn't help me move towards my goal. The checkmarks are actions that are helping me make progress.

Asking yourself "What am I going to do tomorrow" creates the intention for your next day. What three big things do you want to get done? Now, when you wake up, you won't ask: "What should I do today?" You'll already know.

Healthy habits

My friend Corey reminded me about the importance of habits.

When we feel down, we want to drink beer, stay up late and eat junk food; this just makes you feel worse. You can't control what's going on in the world, but you can go to bed on time, eat your veggies, and go for a run.

There's also professional habits. Start work at a reasonable hour. Do your creative work in the morning. Answer email in the afternoon. Write tests for your code. Keep your desk clean. Backup your hard drive.

Double down on healthy habits. They’ll sustain you when you’re in a rough patch.

I hope these ideas have been helpful for you. These originated as a discussion thread in MegaMaker. Thanks to all the folks there who contributed. This post is also available as a podcast episode here:

Justin Jackson

Published on November 18th, 2016
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