Getting Into a Rut, and Breaking Out of It

You know the feeling when life is a little bit less exciting than it should be? When everything feels hard to do, and nothing is paying off? When the clouds are extra dark and you can’t quite remember what the sun looks like (this happens a lot in the Northwest)? Do you feel like you might be in, I almost cringe to write it, a rut? Everything is crashing down! Things are all wrong! They will never be right again!

Whoa. We’re okay. It happens all the time. This is totally normal. It sucks, but it’s okay.

I know how it feels to be in a rut. I’ve been there before, a lot. A rut can be especially devastating if we’re working on our own projects and lack external support or structure. It’s a natural part of the growth cycle, and sometimes we just have to accept that things are going to seem shoddy for a bit. Here’s my strategy for dealing with the dreaded “RUT.” 


This can be the hardest part of the whole thing. If we aren’t able to recognize that we’re in a rut, or that we’re sad, it is easy to think that the world really has gone wrong. It is easy to blame our feelings on external circumstances and things that are outside of our control, and to let those feelings wallow and dwell inside us.

The first step is saying to ourselves, “I’m in a rut.” Or, “I’m sad.” By owning our feelings, we can better understand what it is that we’re missing or needing at the moment. As long as we blame the outside world, we’ll never be empowered to make the changes we need.

For example, if everything feels like it is going wrong and I blame it on the economy, then I am completely disempowering myself to make things right or better until the economy improves. Here’s there secret: the economy has no bearing on our present-moment happiness, or on how we interact with the day. It can feel like it does, but that is because we are giving away our power to external influencers.

Accept Our Feelings

Once we recognize how we’re feeling, we need to accept that and remind ourselves that it’s okay. We’re allowed to feel feelings! Even if they are tough ones. There is nothing wrong with feeling sad or in a rut. That is part of being human. Once we tell ourselves “I’m in a rut,” the next things we should say is, “and that’s okay.”

Even when we’re not feeling great, it is important to remember that we are not any less loved or valued. It may feel like the world is against us, but it’s not really. A few negative interactions or hard conversations can bring us way down, but if we can remain compassionate toward ourselves and others, all of that is bound to buoy up again. Which brings us to:

Push Through

Every rut ends. Feelings of sadness pass. Everything changes, the good as well as the bad. It might take a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year, but be certain: it will change. In the Vipassana meditation tradition, the word for this is anicca (from Pali, pronounced a-nee-cha). This is also translated as “impermanence.” Everything, literally everything, changes. Even the laws of physics change, if we look back far enough. Our bodies are constantly changing, our moods and emotions. The economy changes, our social values change, technology changes.

When we’re down low, we can be sure that we will be up high again later. When we’re up high, we also know that there will be times when we’re low again. This is how it works. We will be best off if we do not become attached to either of these feelings, the highs or the lows. For the most part, we cycle around a baseline level of happiness, which is independent of external events (but can be increased by changing our world-view and through meditation). When we’re feeling bad, we lose sight of this and feel like things will never get better. They will.

And so we must try to push through. Things will get better with positivity, but it might take a while. Sometimes an external event will snap us out of a rut, but most often we just kind of get over it. It’s important to continue the projects we’ve decided are important to us, to keep exercising, to keep visiting with people at least somewhat regularly. Those are all things that can be hard to keep up, but that will help us out of the rut, if we let them.

And most importantly, we need to remember that being in a rut is not the end of the world. It’s not a sign that everything we’ve been working on is wrong, or that we should stop creating. We need not cut off ties with the world, or do anything drastic at all.

Instead, finding ourselves in a rut is a sign that we should take care of ourselves, take deep breaths, and go for a run.

We’re okay.

Row by row...

Slow Down and Play in the Dirt

I didn’t think it was possible to get sunburned in February in the Pacific Northwest. And I hear the weather is awful on the East Coast right now. Something about minus forty? Ninety inches of snow? Winterpocalypse?

I just spent the day working on a friend’s farm on the outskirts of town in Portland. We were digging, hoeing, broad-forking (I can’t believe I had never seen this before — basically a two-foot wide, full-body pitchfork) the beds that are going to be enclosed in hoop houses this season. It was 60 and sunny. Sorry East Coast friends. I got sunburned.

It felt so good to be out working in a field (Did you hear about the scarecrow who won the award? He was out standing in his field). I haven’t done this for too long. I farmed in Italy for a half-year way back when, and I was part of a super rad collective garden in Seattle. I also grew up on a family farm in Vermont, but that mostly consisted of chasing goats and chewing on sticks.

So, I miss the dirt. Don’t get me wrong, the city is great. But there is something so natural and healthy about being on a farm. Being near animals, being away from technology, getting dirt under my fingernails, doing some hard work. Finding worms! And snakes! We brought the cat out to where we were working, and in less than fifteen minutes he had caught a mouse. How right is that?

Yeah okay, so I was out there for like a half-day. Six hours or something. I can’t really talk about how slow it felt, or how great farm life is, or any of that. It was a nice one day activity, not a lifestyle I went and tried out. I’ve done things like that before, though, and it reminded me of the wonderful slowness of life out of the city. Stimulation underload. Things can only happen as fast as our bodies can make them happen. And don’t think that I’m saying slow is easy — part of why the work is slow is because it is so hard.

Did I mention that they have goats? Maybe this is from my early childhood nostalgia, or maybe it’s a more universal thing, but goats are just the best. Oh man. They’re so funny. Smarter than sheep, who are friendly but not very interactive. Dumber than pigs, who are too smart for their own good and know something is fishy with the fact that they’re fenced off and you’re not. Goats are just right. Silly and playful, but without making you question your livelihood.

It also felt really wonderful, after doing so much solo work on my laptop recently, to be doing physical labor in a group. Teamwork is the best. So much more gets done. Being in a situation that’s either a bit stressful or a bit difficult for everybody makes group bonding happen that much faster. This is also why group backpacking adventures are so wonderful.

And there will be vegetables! Let’s not forget about the eventual rewards of all this work. I’ve been reading “A Slight Edge” recently, which talks all about doing small positive disciplines over time to reap a reward in the future. This applies to all aspects of our lives, from health and exercise to relationships, work, and skill acquisition. Plant, cultivate, harvest. In our day-to-day live, we’re always wanting to jump straight from planting to harvesting, skipping over the long intermediate period of getting good at something and developing a relationship with it.

Getting into the soil forces the “cultivate” on us. No matter how much work we put into those fields, nothing is going to make there be vegetables tomorrow, or next week. It locks us into the natural rhythm of things, which we’ve otherwise eliminated from our normal lives. Most things happen slowly, seasonally, and only with continued effort. There is a long period of working without results before they start to trickle in. 

This life demands patience. It is a beautiful thing. If we can simultaneously cultivate both patience and determined effort, we can achieve anything. One without the other will either leave us stressed and pushing too hard or complacent and waiting for life to happen to us. But sometimes we’ve just got to get out to play in the dirt.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

Once upon a time I worked at a fairly high-aspiration “green collar” company. We would do all sorts of goofy tests and surveys to discover what kind of leader we were, what kind of motivation we responded to best, and which Hogwarts House we would best fit into (Ravenclaw, but wishing I was Gryffindor). Although most of them didn’t stick, one lesson stayed rooted in my mind. It’s a concrete method for working to achieve a specific goal, or more generally to create the life we want to live. This may not have paid off for the company, as it helped encourage me to leave and pursue a more creative and self-aware life. But I’ve always appreciated it, and I feel that it’s worth sharing.

A bit of internet research reveals that this is also referred to as the “Six Sources of Influence.” It doesn’t seem to be a widely-discussed strategy, but it’s out there if you’d like to find out more about it. Here’s the general idea:



Type Motivation Ability
Personal Learn to enjoy what you’re doing. Practice the skills required to do it well.
Social Surround yourself with people who are excited about what you’re trying to achieve. Spend time with people who are better than you at what you want to do.
Structural Create internal systems and rewards to urge you in the right direction. Build your physical space to encourage you to work on your goals.


I like tables.

Personal Motivation

So easy to say, so hard to achieve. Personal Motivation can be the most elusive piece of the puzzle. It takes concerted effort to develop a love for what we’re doing. We think of inspiration as this beautiful, fleeting thing that hits us in the face and makes us write or paint or whatever for fifteen hours straight. Yeah, right. Maybe once. After the honeymoon phase of any project, love for the subject must be cultivated and nurtured. It’s a relationship. Do we want to have a one-night stand with creativity, or build a long, healthy life with it? We need to appreciate the ups, the downs, and the all-arounds.

Personal Ability

And then there’s the actual work. Practice, practice, practice. Failing over and over again. It’s how we learn, how we improve. This is the everyday, gritty, painfully slow process of chipping away at something barely conceivable. It is putting in the hours even when we forget why we started doing it in the first place, even when the motivation isn’t there. Doing it anyway.

Social Motivation

The social pieces of this process are about the community we surround ourselves with. Social Motivation is finding the people who get us psyched about our projects, either because they’re doing similar work or because they’re avid supporters. Gotta have some cheerleaders. The antithesis of social motivation is that group of people who ask, “Why are you wasting your time on that?” They’re all over the place, and sometimes so subtle in their discouragement. There’s no space for those people in our lives, period.

Social Ability

We learn from doing something over and over, but also by watching other people do it. Our brains are great at mimicking, and at turning visualization into real practice. This happens in rock climbing all the time. I’ll try a route over and over and get stuck in all sorts of different places. Then I’ll watch someone do it flawlessly, and on my next attempt, make it all the way through. Ideally we can surround ourselves with people who are farther along the path we are pursuing. We can learn from their failures as well as our own to progress twice as fast.

Structural Motivation

Structural Motivation is the most subtle aspect of this method. I basically think of it as using psychology to trick ourselves into doing the right thing. Pre-paying for a monthly gym membership is a good example, and has always been a motivator for me. I keep a tight budget, so if I know I’ve already paid for the climbing gym or yoga studio, I’m going to get myself over there as much as I can to take full advantage. Paying as I go, on the other hand, encourages me to save up those passes for the best possible moment, which ultimately means less exercise. Different things motivate different people, though, so it’s important to know yourself and to experiment. Small rewards for accomplishing steps toward a goal can be effective, as can penalties for failure to meet deadlines.

Structural Ability

Structural Ability is such an important aspect for achieving our goals, but it’s one of the easiest to slack on and postpone endlessly. The idea is to create an environment which will allow us to succeed. This includes making the tools we need easily accessible, while keeping distractions out of our work space. One way I could personally do this better right now is with my art supplies. My paints are stored in a box in my closet. It only takes about ten minutes to get them all out and set up, but that’s ten minutes worth of motivation I don’t always have. I could improve my structural ability to paint by setting aside a space that stays relatively set up. Reduce the barriers to entry, basically.

Keeping in mind these six principles, we can maximize our creativity, output, and growth. Each takes intention and work to execute, but the payoff is huge. Of course this can all happen organically, but having the system makes it more concrete, and makes it easier to find our weaknesses. We won’t just magically end up with the life we want to live. We have to build it.

Manifesting Reality

I’ve been in Portland for just over a week now, and I’m feeling totally energized by the move. I drove down from Seattle last week with a car filled to the brim (I can just barely still fit all my belongings into one car-load), landed at my new house, met my new roommates, and have spent the week getting settled. It’s wonderful. New places to explore, people to meet, so many (SO MANY) coffee shops to try. The thing is, I know moving can be pretty stressful. There are a lot of unknowns, a feeling of being uprooted, a lot of actual work of moving things around, getting new stuff, etc, etc. So, potential pitfalls.

But these things don’t have to come true. Or better yet, even if they do come true, they don’t have to affect us in a negative way. This is the point: we create our own reality. Once we have our basic needs met (in addition to the obvious food/shelter/etc, I would add “brain chemical regulation” via exercise and  adequate vitamin D), the world is our proverbial oyster. We get what we give, reap what we sow, enter your favorite cliche here. But the thing is, it’s all true. When you smile, people smile at you. When you frown, people look away. When you give things away, people give things to you. When you trust people, people trust you. Virtuous cycles abound, the Law of Attraction.

Clearly, it isn’t always easy to be positive. Shitty things happen. Some stuff is really hard to deal with. But we can always take deep breaths, and the more we practice positivity, the more it slips into our lives when we aren’t expecting it. Our brains are hugely adaptable, and the things we practice and think about become our realities. Neurons that fire together wire together. The more we do something, the more it permeates our conscious and unconscious minds. If we’re deliberate about firing our positive-thinking neurons, that will become our norm. On the other hand, we can just as easily (maybe more easily) fire our “I’m bored” or “this sucks” neurons, which will manifest that reality. There’s a kind of sick pleasure in wallowing in negativity, but having been on both sides, I’d say we’re better off aiming for the positive. The important part is that this is our choice. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can decide how to react, or at least keep training ourselves to react more positively.

What kind of life do you want to live? What do you want your state of mind to be? You’re the only who can make it happen, and now is a great time to start.

Internal vs. Projected Reality

As I get deeper into art, music, and writing, and start sending those things off into the world, I find that I need to hone my online persona more and more. This is totally natural and makes sense w/r/t having a business and putting on a face strangers feel comfortable interacting with. Cool. But it’s also weird. And it’s not just people who sell or promote creative work who do this. Everyone is doing it all the time. We’re constantly refining our outward-facing “personalities”, while increasingly using those as a primary form of interaction. We cultivate accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, OKCupid, LinkedIn, and all sorts of other things that I don’t even know about because I’m a major Luddite. (Although I did just replace my 2006 MacBook with a super fancy new one, and now I feel like I’m in the future.)

One of the addictive aspects of all these social media is the ability and necessity to constantly “improve” upon our personas. It used to be that the best way to express how awesome you were was to have a witty answering machine message and to wear a cool T-shirt. The T-shirt thing might still get some traction, but now we can post amazing photos online with all sorts of cool filters that make us look artistic with the click of a button. We can share all the major highlights of our lives while leaving out the monotony of the moments and the moments between moments.

And people consume these things. Right now, you’re reading a piece of writing that I’m creating while enjoying a beautiful sunny day in Seattle, drinking an inspiring cup of hot chocolate, and buzzing from a great weekend spent with old friends. It’s edited. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time. I’m not telling you about the poop I had this morning (but oh man, I could…), or how I broke my nose last week (don’t worry, it’s mostly healed), or how I got bored the other night and kind of wanted to go out and hang out with friends but was a little bit too tired. These are the moments that make up most of our lives.

Increasingly, we’re consuming exclusively the highlights of other people’s lives. But our internal reality hasn’t changed. We’re still people, and we have ups and downs and all-arounds. We get sad, we get happy, we get bored and we get inspired. The hard part is that now we’re perpetually comparing the internal reality of being human to the projected, selected, quasi-reality of being awesome all the time. We have enough friends on Facebook to make it seem like everyone is constantly going on epic backpacking trips, taking fantastic photos, traveling to far-away worlds, having beautiful weddings, and popping out adorable babies. Well, these things don’t happen that often. Most of the time we’re not missing out on anything.

Clearly we don’t want a constant news feed of the mundane. But it would probably be healthy for us to acknowledge it more often, and maybe to see a more true-to-life relative frequency between “Just had the time of my life!” and “Spent the last half-hour masturbating, it went pretty well!” We are all full of insecurities and boredom and uncertainty, and those things are great sometimes. They should be celebrated within ourselves, and they need not be compared with other people’s highlights. It is easy to fall into a trap of impossible expectation, jealousy, or just feeling kind of bummed that amazing things are happening to everyone but us. Instead of getting down, let’s use those moments as inspiration to do more and to be more true to our hearts. But most of all, let’s remember that there’s big difference between our own internal realities and the realities people project out into the world.

We’re OK.