How to get out of a rut

Ruts are the troughs that we go through on the sinusoidal wave of life. I define it as a spectrum that ranges from suboptimal performance or mild feelings of uneasiness to more severe states like anxiety and depression.

Life seldom turns out the way we like it to–both positive and negative outcomes can be unpredictable. However, experiencing ruts is an inevitable part of our existence. The impact of these ruts varies, but navigating them is always challenging.

My own journey through various ruts has taught me the necessity of having protocols to manage them. This essay documents these strategies.

Identify triggers

Effective problem-solving often begins with identifying the root cause of the problem. This is an important first step here as well.

Ruts can be triggered by two kinds of events (either alone or in combination):

  1. Conspicuous
  2. Non-obvious

Ruts caused by conspicuous events usually emerge after some life-altering episode–major illness, break-ups, deaths of loved ones etc. These are discrete points in time that you can pinpoint. Your life before and after the event is starkly different.

Ruts emerging from non-obvious events are slightly more difficult to discern. These result from ongoing issues that gradually occupy our worries–lack of desired financial freedom, emerging job dissatisfaction, societal pressures (eg. to get married at a certain age) etc.

Having the self-awareness to do the trigger identification exercise sets a strong foundation for overcoming ruts. Once this is done, we can focus on overcoming the situation. I have found a two-pronged approach to be effective:

  1. Address the root cause
  2. Implement general protocols

Address the root cause

Recovery starts with the acknowledgement and acceptance of the problem. Till the time this conscious addressing is not done, it is hard to improve your state.

Once you have figured out what the problem is, you are posed with the next logical question–“is this a solvable problem?”

If you have identified multiple triggers for your situation, you should repeat this exercise for each of them one by one.

There are two possible answers to the question:

  1. Yes, it is a solvable problem
    1. Solvable in the near term
    2. Solvable in the long term
  2. No, it is not a solvable problem

Problems solvable in the near term

Problems that are solvable in the near term should be solved at the highest priority. For eg. if you are dissatisfied with your job, find a new one. The upside of waiting for the year-end bonus or imminent promotion is usually smaller than the negative toll that the trigger has on your well-being.

Since the solutions are very contextual, the sufferer is the one best poised to determine the suitable path forward. The bias for action is what people lack and that is what I want to emphasise. In my experience, the tendency to stay in limbo–because of the high inertia of changing the status quo–is far too common.

It requires tremendous strength to take corrective action when you are going through a rut. And understandably so. But your response to such situations is what forms your character and gives you the confidence to do hard things in life.

Another strategy for solving problems in the near term that can be applied to a select subset is deliberate deprioritisation. If a problem can be deferred to be dealt with later, consider doing it to simplify your present life. It is far easier to deal with fewer triggers at once.

Problems solvable in the long term

For problems that are solvable in the long term, you need to start the process of redressal at the earliest. You can’t fix your health in one day or improve your interpersonal relationship skills in a month. But if you don’t start making marginal improvements soon enough, you will continue to be in the rut.

Large goals with long-term time horizons need to be reduced to smaller units. What you want to achieve three years out should have a progress plan that details the things you need to do each year and consequently, each month to get there.

This exercise should involve coming up with elusive milestones in the short term so that you can focus on achieving them. These achievements can then start a positive feedback loop for you to strive for better things.

The mere act of building a purpose and going after your goal will give you a helpful diversion from the rut. By focusing on the solution instead of the problem, you will be able to gradually come back to your best.

Non-solvable problems

If your trigger is a non-solvable problem such as the loss of a loved one or past emotional trauma, allowing the the passage of time to be your friend is the single most important strategy that you should deploy. Time is a great healer. Be patient.

Implement general protocols

In addition to directly solving the trigger as described above, you need to implement the general protocols. These are great habits to imbibe even if you are not going through a rut. A lot of what I describe below are concepts that I have learned from Andrew Huberman and his incredible podcast.

  1. Get sunlight upon waking up
    1. Go out upon waking up. Stand and stare at the sun and the trees. Listen to the chirping of birds. This is great for ensuring a cyclical circadian rhythm and the secretion of mood boosting hormones.
    2. Nature is a great way to experience your sense of being and get your day started on a positive note. Do this while not touching your phone for the first 30 minutes to 1 hour of the day. Get an alarm clock. It makes a massive difference.
    3. In addition to this, the view of people taking walks or exercising is a great visual cue for improving motivation levels.
  2. Moderate or leave social media
    1. Social media increases your screen time by disproportionate amounts–taking time away from uplifting work that you could have done for yourself. There is a high opportunity cost of using social media during ruts.
    2. Based on the kind of content you consume, there is a high chance of subconscious emergence of negative emotions like fear, inadequateness, jealousy etc. You need to avoid seeking negativity when your baseline happiness levels are low.
    3. The pursuit of dopamine without putting in the effort to get it is detrimental to our physiological systems and the key reason behind addictions. It takes immense self-control to counter the brilliance of the best computer scientists in the world who are gamifying algorithms to lure you in. If you are like me and believe in their superior ingenuity, quit social media. If you can moderate, definitely do that. Freedom is a great app for this use case.
  3. Improve nutrition
    1. Get blood work done. I had severe Vitamin B12 and D3 deficiencies and they were a large contributor in me feeling low and lethargic. Consult a physician and start taking supplements. In addition to the ones mentioned above, magnesium, zinc and omega-3 are some others that are important.
    2. Eating junk as a means of consoling yourself is a bad idea. Fix your nutrition. Eat high-protein meals with less carbs, leave sugar and switch to healthier fats (more unsaturated, less saturated and no trans). Controlled blood glucose levels and the general feeling of lightness due to consumption of a healthy diet will make you feel better.
  4. Exercise and meditate
    1. We intuitively know that exercise and meditation are beneficial so I will not make a case for why they should be done.
    2. Habit tracking has worked tremendously well for me in ensuring regularity with these practices. I use an app called Streaks for the same. These are small wins that you can get every day and they go a long way in making you feel better about yourself. The key is to have small goals (such as a 10-minute meditation session and a 30-minute workout).
    3. If getting exercise and meditation seems tough, go for a 20-minute walk. This protocol is critical.
  5. Plan your time
    1. Run on a routine. Be very intentional about how you are spending your time. Deprive yourself of time alone where you can sit and constantly think negative things. Join classes, get an accountability partner or simply venture out and sit in a cafe.
    2. Get yourself involved in interesting side projects. Activities that are slightly hard to do. You need to create opportunities for yourself to get into a flow state. This is another way of minimising moments where you brood about your rut.
    3. Meet people. Spending time with family and friends is an amazing way of being present in the moment and appreciating the good things that you have in life. Sometimes it also helps to share what you are going through with the people you care about the most.

I know it is hard to make sense of things when you are in a rut. It is hard to be positive. But what seems daunting at the moment will not matter in a slightly broader time horizon. The key is to muster the strength to ride through the tide.

If you are going through a rut and reading this, I hope it helps accelerate your journey of bouncing back. Better times await you. Have faith.

Leaving you with some positivity by Sheenagh Pugh

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