4 Proven Ways to Get Out of a Rut

In the past three weeks I have had at least six conversations that have gone something like this: “Scott, I am in such a rut right now. Any ideas on how to get out?"

The idea of being in a rut is an interesting one.

Wagon-Stuck-Road-Bad

What is a rut?

The phrase "stuck in a rut" is said to have originated in the early 1800’s as settlers in America were moving west. The wooden wheels of the wagons they were pulling would get caught in holes or very deep grooves that were carved in the common path being traveled. If your wagon got stuck in a rut, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to pull out and continue the journey.

Today the phrase “stuck in a rut” has a different meaning but similar feeling to it. The feeling of being buried, bored, not motivated, stagnant, or even monotony.  I would estimate that 25% of the coaching I do is with clients who feel like they are in this deep pit and cannot seem to find a way out.

How Do Leaders get Out of a Rut?

Here are four strategies you can use to get out of a rut. I would recommend picking one and see if it works for you. As with all the recommendations we make, there are no guarantees. If something is not working for you try a different approach or a new strategy.

Rest

It is possible for us to feel like we are in a rut when really what we are is tired. In our 24/7 world, where things are constantly coming at us, it is very easy to feel paralyzed and not know which direction to turn. It is like you have eight ropes tied around you and each one is pulling you a different direction. They all have the same amount of tension on them, so you cannot move. You are stuck and what really needs to happen is to release the tension.

Here are three things you can do to rest and relieve the tension so you can move again:

  • Serious Play. Often times we think of play as being for children. However, research has shown that play for adults stimulates higher-order thinking. Play, in this sense, is a voluntary activity involving physical engagement of some type that is pleasurable for its own sake. Take a day and just go play. Do something you get a lot of pleasure out of. Resist feeling guilty or childish and just enjoy it. Reflect at the end of the day on how good you really feel. I find the feeling freeing, and a great way to release the tension.
  • Sleep. You may flat out not be getting enough. Turn off the TV, iPad, Phone, or DVD player, and get 7 to 8 hours of sleep.  If you are in a rut, track the amount of sleep you are getting. If you find you are not getting enough, take a nap. Close your door, schedule a meeting with yourself, and close your eyes for 20 or 30 minutes. It can be refreshing.
  • Nature Walk. The walking part is relaxing in itself, and doing it in the woods, on a mountain, or on a beach can be an excellent way to relax. This practice will also help to use pent up energy and help you to sleep better at night.

Reflection

  • Get Clear. Make a list of your priorities. Put them in order and start crossing them off. The physical aspect of seeing things crossed off will give you the sense that you are making progress out of the rut.
  • Find a Friend. Support them. Focus on them. Don’t focus on yourself and your problem. I find that focusing on others and their problems, then trying to help them solve their issues, often helps me. Being an entrepreneur can at times be scary. Then I go serve a community meal at our local Care Center for people who literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and I realize that I really have nothing to fear.
  • Start journaling. Then buy Shery Russ’s book The Journaling Life. Seriously, journaling is one of the single best things that leaders can do to keep themselves headed in the right direction. I would encourage you to not only journal what you think, and facts that have happened to you, but also to journal your feelings. Getting emotion out on the table is critical for releasing the stuck feeling.

Retreat

The idea of a retreat comes from an old French word meaning "a step backward."  The word took on a military connotation in the 14th century as an act of withdrawing from action. The reason for withdrawal was to regroup so you can re-engage the enemy again more powerfully than before. Many people I run into see retreat as weakness. Retreat is actually a way for the leader to regain their thoughts and engage their work again more powerfully.

  • Personal Leadership Retreat. This idea is for you to get away by yourself for 2 to 4 hours to just think about where you have been, where you are now, and where you are heading in the future. I just took a Personal Leadership Retreat a week or so ago and have done a video chronicle of my experience and what I learned. You can view it here.  If you don't know how to do a retreat this video will give you some ideas on how you could do your own Leadership Retreat.
  • Read Your Bible. One way to retreat when you don't have time to get away for four hours is to take a 20- minute retreat with an inspiring book. The book I turn to most often for inspiration is the Bible. The Bible is, year in and year out, the best-selling book in the world. However, most people just do not spend enough time gleaning inspiration from this masterpiece. One of the verses I turn to most often is Colossians 3:23.
  • Try Fiction. Reading or watching a TV series can be a great way to step back, relax, and prepare to re-engage. My wife and I are currently on a retreat of sorts. In the evenings, we are watching the series Alias on Netflix. The show stars Jennifer Garner and has a spy theme with interesting twists and turns. We call it "mindless", but it helps sometimes to just relax and be mindless so that the next day I am more prepared to engage my world.

Reprogram

You got into this rut by a certain path. If you are going to get out, you may need to do something different that will reposition your perspective. This reframing can be difficult for a couple of reasons: First, leaders may believe that the path they were traveling is right, ergo the rut is on the right path. Second, even when leaders acknowledge they are on the wrong path, being in the rut feels safer than any change they may need to make to get on the right path.

Here are three things you can do to reprogram yourself out of the rut:

  • Get on a new path. Start innovating. Don’t worry about success or failure. Develop an attitude to let go of the outcome and just focus on the quality of the input.
  • Stick your hand up. Let others help pull you out. Start collaborating. Collaboration is an intentional sharing of ideas, which requires give and take, and at times some real humility.  Just talking about what path you want to be on can be of great value and begin to extract you from the hole. Walter Isaacson, in his excellent chronicle of how the digital age came to be, made this observation, “Brilliant individuals who could not collaborate tend to fail." Don’t fail. You are smart enough! Reach out, collaborate, and do it with some intentional frequency.
  • Take a risk. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith is famous for saying “fail forward fast."  I am really enjoying a book right now titled Fail Fast, Fail Often.  In it the authors provide some very practical advice on how to break free from habitual behaviors that may have you in a rut, and to trust your enthusiasm for a new venture. I know I have said it before, but I do think it is worth repeating: as leaders, we need to let go of outcomes and focus on quality inputs.

Homework: Get out of your rut by trying one of the suggested methods of Rest, Reflection, Retreat, or Reprogram.  Let us know which one you try this week in the comments below.