Getting Out of a Professional Rut

Finding your way out of where you're stuck is certain to yield a focus and perspective you didn't have before.
Getting Out of a Professional Rut
Image credit: Compassionate Eye Foundation | Hiep Vu | Getty Images

How do you get out of a rut?

Much as we hate them, ruts happen. We spend our mental energy griping about the rut, wishing it hadn’t happened and pretending it will disappear on its own. But we control the behaviors that landed us here. Ruts most often occur when we skip over or omit our success routines. 

I write from personal experience. In fact, writing is how I earn my living. 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. Just like it did last month.

How to fall in.

I’d been working on several large projects for state agencies and foreign companies. These accounts demanded a lot of attention, and I had to adjust my schedule accordingly. Normally, I'd spend the first three hours of my day exercising, meditating, writing and then reading. The work, though, dictated that I check my email first thing each morning.

Not a big deal. I handled my accounts well and nailed my assignments. But after the major projects concluded, I didn't revert to my regular habits. I kept checking my email account first thing, and I didn’t even have anything to check. But I didn't discipline myself to get back into my normal productive routine.

A (not-so) funny thing happened: I lost all my motivation.

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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 typically charged self. I didn’t know what was happening. Even my daily staples such as journaling and studying seemed harder than cleaning out the Augean Stables. And writing? Forget about it. I did 500 words a day, max (normally it’s closer to 2,000). Some days I didn’t write at all.

That’s when I realized no one is immune to bad habits. I’d gotten cocky. I thought I could do whatever I wanted and still keep kicking ass like usual. But after two fat weeks of getting nowhere and feeling like a fraudulent toad, I had to admit that things had come to a head. 

How to get out.

That weekend I woke up at 3 a.m. feeling worse than I could remember. I was gripped by an intense mixture of fear, guilt, anger and an uncertainty that wouldn’t budge. I tried deep breathing. Nothing. I tried reading to fall back asleep. Nada. That’s when I realized this problem needed a proactive fix. 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 keeping me down. I wrote about my inconsistency and how I wasn’t living up to my own standards. 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.

Normally, I’d awake with purpose, meditate, plan my day, exercise, knock out a writing project and study. Now? 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 until I felt paralyzed.

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Every part of my previous morning routine had boosted my confidence. I'd elevate my mood with exercise, take pride in my discipline as I wrote my first article and feel smarter and more capable as I studied.

Now, though, I was starting my day with a confidence drain. When there weren't any new messages in the inbox, I felt worthless. 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. It happened gradually enough that I didn’t notice much after a day or two. 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.

How fast it can turn around (the best part).

In that early-morning 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 could win the morning, I knew I’d win the day.

Related: Forget Big Goals. Take Baby Steps for Small, Daily Wins.

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. 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 deny every impulse that screamed, “Check your email!” The keys were heavy, and my mind was slow. But I persevered. After two hours, I'd worked through three paragraphs. Hardly a personal best: An entire article took my healthy-routine me 30 to 45 minutes. Still, I was proud of myself for the effort. 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 didn’t suddenly 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. What happened next surprised me. By the end of the day, I'd hit my standard goals and then gone above and beyond. 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 optimism for my future. I was excited about my opportunities to kick ass, refine my skills and make life better.

When my head hit the pillow that night, I knew I'd done my absolute best. That fullfilment gives me the self assurance to strive for and accomplish great things.

Related: You Can Train Your Mind to Be More Positive: Here's How. 

How can you tackle your rut?

It's not too much of a stretch to say I've made a profession of clawing through ruts. I've gotten pretty good at it. But if I can turn my momentum around on a dime and in less than 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 my success routines first thing in the morning.
• I will keep them up all day.

Success is that simple.

Related: 10 Tweaks to Your Morning Routine That Will Transform Your Entire Day

The more specific your plans for an ass-kicking day are, the likelier you are to stick to them and build your confidence. When you find yourself in a rut, be brutally honest about the thoughts and habits holding you back. That’s how you’ll climb out. If you've been down in the muck for more than a month, don't wallow in it. Look for a hand up and consider working with an accountability coach. Choose positive thoughts and habits, and you’ll do more inspiring things.

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