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Last Updated on March 22, 2022

Stuck in a Rut? Your Step-by-Step Guide to Breaking Free

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Stuck in a Rut? Your Step-by-Step Guide to Breaking Free

So it has come this far. You’re stuck in a rut and feel like you’re not living your life to the fullest. You can feel it, but you find it more and more difficult to get rid of this feeling…

That’s why you are here, right?

Some of your friends or colleagues might say to you: “just cheer up!”. But you already know that it’s not that easy.

So instead of offering shallow advice on what to do, this article contains a clear step-by-step plan to get you out of your rut and to live a happy life again. These are actionable things you can do right now, that don’t involve anything bizarre or life-changing.

Signs You’re Stuck in a Rut

Everyone goes through phases where they feel they are stuck in a rut. When you start to feel stuck in a rut, it seems impossible to move forward. But once you identify the cause of this feeling, you can actively work to face them.

But how does being stuck in a rut look like? Here are some signs that you may be going through this phase:

  • You are not looking forward to activities you used to love.
  • You want to be creative, but it’s impossible to think of something inspiring.
  • Even if you are finishing your tasks, you still feel stuck and think you’re not getting anything done.
  • When you have free time, you can’t bring yourself to do anything productive.
  • You always fantasize about getting out of your situation.
  • You start to feel jealous of other people.
  • You are always bored, even while doing fun activities.
  • Your mental health is degrading, and you’d rather be alone than spend time with friends.

How to Get Out of a Rut and Start Living the Life You Desire

Being stuck in a rut is completely okay. You can still get out of it. I’ve rounded up what you need to do so you can get out of this dangerous cycle.

1. Write down What’s Keeping You Down

This first step might sound rather anti-climatic. You’ve come all this way to find this article, and now you’re asked to write down your feelings?

Even though it might sound silly at first, writing down whatever is keeping you in a rut will allow you to become more familiar with the issues you’re having.

What to write about? Don’t think too much about it and just start writing! If you’re feeling stuck in a rut, you’ll probably feel unhappy right now. Write it down!

Figure Out How Deep Your Rut Is

Not everyone’s rut is going to be the same. Some people may come to the realization that they are feeling trapped, make a slight adjustment in direction, and quickly put themselves back on track.

Others, however, might be in a rut for several years before they figure out exactly what’s wrong and by that time, it is a little harder to change your course so that you can head in the direction that you’re wanting to go.

When you first begin to notice the feeling of being stuck or trapped in your current situation, hold onto that feeling and evaluate it. How long has this feeling been going on? Is this something that has recently appeared or is this something that you have been dealing with for ages but is only now noticing? More importantly, what type of feelings are being brought about with this shift in thinking?

Although being in a rut may feel relatively similar across the board and point to a lack of happiness with one’s life, there are different emotions that may be experienced when you come to the realization that you are in a rut. Some may be angry, some may be frustrated, and others may simply be going through a funk that they can’t shake.

It’s important to note this last part as some people may have everything they want but could be dealing with a major mental health issue such as depression. Depression manifests itself through symptoms such as a lack of interest in daily activities, fatigue and feelings of hopelessness and sadness, and avoidance of work and other responsibilities. [1]

If you’re not dealing with depression, the good news is that all you need are some life alterations to feel like your happy self again. If you are dealing with a form of depression, it’s important that you seek the help you need and if it is needed, you can take care of any life changes after you tackle your depression.

Determine Where in Your Life You Feel Discontent

Being trapped in a rut may be a sign that your whole life needs re-working but that isn’t always so. Sometimes we may feel in a rut at work but could feel perfectly fine when we are out with friends or at home. Instead, we may feel stuck in a rut in our personal lives and may be very happy with the progress that we’ve made in our professional lives.

Regardless of whether your rut signifies a whole life issue or just a problem in individual or several parts, you have to take a comprehensive look at your current life situation to determine where you are not getting your needs met.

The easiest way to do this is by using the Full Life Framework, which identifies the major aspects of life that people may wish to improve upon in order to experience balance in all aspects of their life.

This resource specifically focuses on the following aspects of life:

aspects of life

    Start by going through each of these sections of life and asking yourself, am I 100 percent happy in this given area? If the answer is no, however, take some time to jot down ways you can improve that section.

    Remember Why You Are Doing This

    Keep asking “why”

    and soon enough you’ll have a clear idea of what issues are causing you to feel unhappy and stuck in a rut.

    Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

    What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall your inspiration, and perhaps even journal about it to make it feel more tangible.

    2. Talk About What You’re Going Through

    Whether it’s films, news stories or products, so it is stands to reason the same is true of change in our own lives. You can tap into the power of coaching here to get out of your own rut. The first thing I do with a new client is let them talk and talk and talk. No interruptions. Words spilling out like they can’t wait to escape.

    The client often talks pretty much nonstop for 20 minutes, maybe a question here or there to help them keep going and dig deeper but, they talk until their shoulders sag and they often look shattered, worn out. It’s almost like a fog lifts and they look at me and usually say something like “Wow, where did all that come from?” or “Sorry, I’ve done your head in with my life haven’t i?”

    While they may have an idea that something is wrong or life is not flying along as they’d love it to, rarely do they actually verbalize everything that they feel is going on.

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    Giving yourself permission to talk is very important. We are taught in 21st century life to not moan, to look for the positive, to be happy. Sometimes, it’s important to really process the other side of this. In doing this, you can really understand what is happening.

    People often give me the biggest views into their mind when they least want to. In coaching, it’s often the flippant throw away statement that hides the real issues. The perfect example is a recent client who couldn’t see away out of their rut. And for some explanation, I asked “For what reason are you always on someone else’s path? Is it better over there? Is it safer? What’s going on?” The client looked at me in horror and said “How did you know?”

    Coaching has become a very spiritual practice for me and sometimes, I ask questions that feel like they are coming through me rather than out of me. Weird I know, but true. It’s these weird questions that usually really help clients. I’m probably just picking up on key words they’ve used repeatedly and then phrasing it in a way that resonates powerfully with the client.

    Another great example was the client that told me about all the possibilities the future held for them, and how it made them feel trapped in a rut and they were fearful to escape. I asked “You know how in fog some people will choose not to go out; and others will take precautions to go out there but go slowly; and others carry on regardless and risk everything, which are you?”

    They hadn’t once talked about fog, but it was a powerful visual that helped them to decide what they wanted. They realized they wanted to go forward, with caution and that created our plan.

    For the client who was always on other people’s paths, they realized with tears in their eyes that they’d been petrified for years of getting it wrong. They constantly tried to copy everyone else, and we all know that is not the path to success, joy and happiness don’t we?

    We created a plan of action and I drew a picture of a sign hammered into the grass saying, “Stick to your path!” It’s a visual reminder that helps ensure the client stays on track.

    3. Create a Plan and Set Small Goals

    So you’ve filled a good page with why you are feeling stuck in a rut? Good! Did you fill multiple pages? Even better!

    Now it’s time to create a plan based on the root causes of your negative feelings. This plan must be specific and should contain small goals.

    Why small goals?

    Because it’s more difficult to measure progress on a big goal.

    Imagine you found out in step 1 that you severely dislike your job, so you’re thinking of a goal like: I want to find a better suiting job.

    Now, that goal in itself might be great, but it’s better to slice it up into smaller, more attainable goals. Think about it like this:

    • Update my resume
    • Start looking for openings
    • Send out 3 applications
    • Schedule my first interview at a different company
    • Get hired at a new job

    See how this is practically the same goal, but seems much more attainable?

    Also, tracking progress is much easier when you create smaller sub-goals like this.

    This is a vital part of your plan: it needs to contain measurable and attainable goals. This will help you stay motivated, instead of forcing you to become paralyzed by the shear size of your goal.

    You’ll notice that you can find your way out of this rut by taking small steps like this.

    4. Plan in a Way That Works for You

    If you want to steer clear of a rut and get unstuck, you need to always plan. I like fluid plans, if I have a goal that I can visualize, I’m happy.

    I don’t need to plan every action. I’ve learned (the hard way!) that if I plan every finite action, it doesn’t work for me; while some clients like everything listed down to details of what they are doing on what day of the week. I have clients that like Excel spreadsheets. Clients that like colourful mind maps. And clients that like mood boards or lists.

    We are all so beautifully unique, so before you decide on your plan of action, decide how you will bring your plan alive!

    This works so powerfully that for clients that love color. Without fail, brown is a disliked color, so I will ask the question in brown “What could stop you?” Because it’s a disliked question and a disliked color, they will work powerfully to steer clear of that result. Which links back to emotions which we talked about at the start. What emotions do you want to evoke when you look at your plan?

    5. Don’t Plan Alone

    Another reason a rut is so tough is because we try and fix it on our own. We think it’s the right thing to do, however the 21st Century is teaching us that personally and professionally, we achieve more, are happier, and less stressed if we open up. Planning with the right person or people ensures you:

    • Challenge yourself.
    • Don’t shy away from the things that frighten you.
    • Ensure you creatively think.
    • Ensure you add ideas that seem ridiculous or crazy.

    And this helps you see the big picture in a new way. Which leads us onto…

    6. Be Aware of Your Perceptions

    There is a very good reason why a 2 hour conversation with me can completely change the way someone feels about their life, and who they are and it is down to perceptions.

    Perceptions are what shape the world we live in. However, it has always fascinated me that two people can see the same film, party or place and feel completely different about it. Our perception of the world we live in and who we are is impacted on by our beliefs, values and experiences. Helping people to adjust their beliefs and respect their values and experiences is a fast way to getting a perspective that helps you instead of keeping you trapped.

    7. Realize That You’re Just Trapped in Limbo

    If you help someone to explore their rut, it often can drag them down further. They feel trapped by circumstances and say things like:

    It can’t be helped.

    It’s just the way it is.

    It’s just our current circumstances, when this is over we can…

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    Watch out for victim talk when it comes to ruts in your own life. Speaking from experience, it is not always easy, yet we can escape the most awful of situations however badly we feel trapped by what we choose to think. Lupus has isolated me from society and destroyed my social life. At times, I would cry because it felt like I was the only person in the world.

    Just me and my dog.

    If you’ve ever faced adversity or tough times out of your control, it can feel like a rut because you can’t find a way forward. The fastest way forward is not always putting one foot in front of another, it is by monitoring the quality of your thoughts.

    I loved the book The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart. The true story of a Scottish soldier who faced some of the worse most horrific moments of the second world war. I saw an interview with him years ago where the interviewer asked Alistair “How did you keep going?” and Alistair talked about how they could do what they wanted to his body but they were never getting their hands on his mind!

    This was the belief that changed my circumstances. Not medicine, or exercise or diet or friends, but just one thought. Which leads me to the next thing that ensures I never fall into a rut again.

    8. Accept That This Process Takes Time

    After having written down your feelings in step 1, you probably found out that change won’t happen overnight.

    The negative feelings that you’re experiencing right now are a result of a lot of things that may have already been going on for years. These habits that you’ve slowly built during your life won’t always be easy to change.

    That’s why you need to accept that it takes time to get out of a rut like this. Finding long-term happiness again is a delicate process that cannot be rushed.

    You have created a plan with actionable steps that you can take to get you back on your feet. Now do what it takes and move forwards, one step at a time.

    What if you failed to move forward after a bad day?

    Don’t sweat it! We are all human, so we are eventually going to encounter some rough weather or bad decision-making along the way.

    It’s crucial that you recognize this for what it is: small speed-bumps rather than complete failures.

    What if you’ve had a bad day? Sleep it off, and start fresh again tomorrow.

    Forget About Trying to Be Perfect

    If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism can lead you to fear failure, which can ultimate hinder you even more if you’re trying to find motivation to work on something new.

    If you allow your perfectionism to fade, soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come, and then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas. Learn more about How Not to Let Perfectionism Secretly Screw You Up.

    9. Work on Small Tasks

    When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks that have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

    Whenever I finish doing that, I generate positive momentum, which I bring forward to my work.

    If you have a large long-term goal you can’t wait to get started on, break it down into smaller objectives first. This will help each piece feel manageable and help you feel like you’re moving closer to your goal.

    You can learn more about goals vs objectives here.

    10. Find Some Competition

    When we are learning how to get out of a rut, there’s nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

    Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, and networking conventions can all inspire you to get a move on. However, don’t let this throw you back into your perfectionist tendencies or low self-esteem.

    11. Build Yourself the Right Network

    Network is your net worth. This has been a powerful phrase for me this year and resonates with so many. If you find that you get stuck in a rut or struggle to escape one, have a look around you. The people you work with, socialize with, even listen to on the radio or share your life with on your phone are all part of your network. And we worryingly seem to forget the value of this.

    The network around you can either inspire and nurture you, or drag you down and keep you stuck.

    Have a look at your social media feed, is it full of great ideas, happy faces, great news, beauty and joy? Or is it full of disturbing things happening on the other side of the world that you couldn’t possibly ever have an impact on, and moaning people complaining about governments and celebrities?

    I’m not suggesting that you don’t take an interest and action on helping to shape the world we live in, however, I am saying you need to ask yourself what your social media feed does for you. How does it make you feel?

    I asked this question recently on Facebook and was inundated with negative comments and sadness from people who found social media depressing and soul destroying. Interestingly, the ones that felt like me and loved social media felt connected to people around the world. I have social media friends on the other side of the world who I’ve never met but feel deeply connected to. We can share in joy; we can comfort when our world sees atrocities and we feel connected.

    If your network doesn’t feel good for you, then change it. No one needs to know.

    We can choose to control who is in our life physically and metaphorically, and that can drastically impact on our ability to get out of the ruts that come up in life.

    Ever heard someone say:

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    “What do you want to do that for?”

    “That doesn’t sound like much fun, are you sure you want that?”

    “You just don’t get it do you.”

    “That can’t be done.”

    These comments (and people) can damage your network’s net worth. The right people in your network do the very opposite, they are like the critical eureka moment in our favourite films where our stars realize what they can achieve.

    There are so many people around the world I have never met and yet, we’ve helped each other on those dark “I can’t do this days.”

    I’ve never been to Tucson, AZ. However, I know I’ve at least one friend there in Alicia from Energetic Life Healing. While we’ve never met, we both know we can get in touch if we want advice, support or a proverbial kick up the butt to get where we want to go in life. The right network makes such a difference to your ability to steer clear of the ruts of life.

    12. Take a Break From Your Work Desk

    When you want to learn how to get out of a rut, get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the bathroom, walk around the office, or go out and get a snack. According to research, your productivity is best when you work for 50 minutes to an hour and then take a 15-20 minute break[2].

    Your mind may be too bogged down and will need some airing. By walking away from your computer, you may create extra space for new ideas that were hiding behind high stress levels.

    13. Prioritize Your Sleep

    Now, this step might seem silly to you. How is sleep going to help me get out of this rut?

    It turns out that sleep plays a gigantic role in our mental health. Even though you may not feel tired after sleeping only 5 hours for three nights in a row, you’ll be surprised by the potential lasting effects of this sleep deprivation.

    The USA is one of the most developed countries in the world. A worrying trend that developed countries are showing is that the workforce is becoming more and more sleep deprived. Phrases like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” and “work hard, play hard” are becoming more regular every day.

    Anecdotally, sometimes when I mention I try to sleep 8 hours a day, I sometimes get strange looks from my colleagues. Like I’m some sort of loser that doesn’t know how to live life to the fullest.

    “Sleep is for the weak!”

    This kind of thinking is extremely flawed, and one of the reasons why chronic depression is on the rise. It shouldn’t surprise you now that depression rates are the highest in developed countries like the USA.

    I’ve personally analyzed 1,000 days of my happiness and sleep habits over the last 3 years. I tracked my sleep every night and rates my feeling of happiness on a scale from 1 to 10. What I found out was very interesting:

    • I am constantly experiencing a social jet lag
    • I sleep much less than average on weekdays, and have to make it up on the weekend days
    • I have only been truly unhappy on days where I was heavily sleep deprived

    These where the biggest lessons I learned after analyzing my sleep and happiness.[3]

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that your feeling of unhappiness is a result of bad sleep habits, but if there’s one thing that most people seem to neglect, then that’s sleep. Don’t make that same mistake.

    14. Engage Your Body And Exercise

    Whenever we’re spinning our wheels but not moving forward, it means we’re stuck in our head, thinking of actions without being in the vehicle that can take those actions.

    Physiologically, exercise increases our brain’s production of dopamine. This neurotransmitter helps us to feel motivated and take action in life.[4] It also helps stimulate alpha brainwaves [5] which are associated with less anxiety and more relaxation. That allows us to think creatively and come up with new solutions.[6]

    So, when you feel stuck, stop overthinking and start engaging the body. You may choose to hit the gym, do a few pushups, walk around the neighborhood, or even dance in your living room, for instance. Moving your body can help you get unstuck and start doing something productive again.

    If you need ideas for a quick workout, check out the video below:

    15. Take a Few Vacation Days

    If you are stuck in a rut, it’s usually a sign that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

    Beyond the quick tips above, arrange one or two days to take off from work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax, do your favorite activities, and spend time with family members. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

    Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest.

    16. Spend More Time with the People You Love

    Almost everybody has a small circle of people that they trust and love, whether that’s a partner, family or friends. These people have a positive influence on your happiness.

    I want you to focus on spending more time with these people. When you’re feeling stuck in a rut, you are more likely to postpone activities that require you to be outgoing. You’d rather be lazy and watch Netflix all day than to go outside and meet up with your friend.

    You must try to break out of your comfort zone and spend more time with the people who actually have a positive influence on your happiness.

    These are the people that can help you to get out of your rut. You can even share the plan that you’ve made in step 2 of this article.

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    If these people truly love you, then they can act as a support net for the moments when you’re feeling down. This might sound intimidating and scary, but it’s a step that should not be underestimated.

    Even when you don’t feel comfortable sharing your plan with these people, there’s another thing you can actively do: be grateful that these people are in your life:

    • Be grateful that you have parents who support you, no matter what you do.
    • Be grateful for the friends with whom you can laugh your ass off.
    • Be grateful that you have a healthy and loving partner.
    • Be grateful that you have a kid that looks up to you and thinks you are the best.

    Being grateful might sound like a rather pointless thing to do. Why would being grateful help me become happier again?

    Well, the answer is simple.

    Being grateful forces you to think of the positive things that you already have in your life. This allows you to face your issues with optimism. People that actively practice gratitude are better able to deal with toxic emotions.[7]

    So what do you have to do?

    Go out there and meet up with the people you love, and be grateful for having these people in your life. Even better: add these things as actionable and attainable goals in your plan!

    17. Try to Spread Happiness to People Around You

    Wait. What? You’re asking me to spread my happiness, even though I’m looking for ways to be happier myself? Where’s the logic in that?

    Well, it may surprise you, but happiness is a funny concept in more than one way.

    My personal favorite is this:

    When you are trying to make others happier, you will paradoxically find happiness yourself.

    How does that work? Here are some examples:

    • When we make somebody else laugh, we tend to laugh ourselves as well.
    • Giving something to others can give us a feeling of having a positive influence on another life.
    • Focusing on helping others allows us to not worry about our own problems for a moment.

    These are just a few specific examples that you can probably recognize yourself. Even though they might sound simple and painfully obvious, it doesn’t change the fact that spreading happiness can have a positive influence on your own life as well.

    It will definitely help you to break free from your rut and find happiness again.

    18. Practice Gratitude

    If you want to get out of a rut, another way to slay the victim mentality is to look for everything you love about your world. Everything you are honoured to have. Everything that makes you feel happy and loved. It is hard to feel trapped when you find yourself experiencing so many positive emotions.

    Remember positivity is a great place to start when you want to change something in your life. Blind positivity is not much use, but positivity based on facts is.

    Try these 40 Simple Ways To Practice Gratitude.

    I’m more than happy to hear from Lifehack readers anytime, so do feel free to get in touch via my social media which you can access on my profile page. Let’s keep the conversation and the lifehacks going!

    Final Thoughts

    You may have noticed that this article is different from other “get happier” articles that you have come across already. This list includes steps that you can take and plan for right now. No bullshit advice such as “just cheer up”.

    It all starts with a plan, though.

    I can’t stress this enough:

    Write down what your issues are, and make an actionable and realistic plan to get back on top.

    Set small goals.

    Accept that this process takes time, take it one step at a time.

    Prioritize your sleep.

    Spend time with people you actually care about. People who have a positive influence on your happiness.

    Spread happiness, even though you might feel like this is not possible because you’re stuck in a rut. Happiness can be shared in many ways!

    Featured photo credit: Paul Gilmore via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Hugo Huyer

    Author at Tracking Happiness, lifelong happiness tracker and passionate about all things mental health and well-being.

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