Rut: 1. A fixed, usually boring routine.
Ruts are like leeches. One or two won’t hurt you, but given time and numbers, they’ll both suck you dry.
A rut is different for everybody. Sometimes you can recognize when you’re in a rut. Other times you can’t, and the latter is way more insidious. Some ruts, like thunderstorms, are short and wear themselves out after a couple of days. Others are like draughts and go on for months, years.
Only you can define what is and isn’t a rut. For me, I know I’m in a rut when I procrastinate on things I want to do. I feel apathetic, uninspired, and I tend to sleep (and on occasion drink) a lot more. I don’t want to write, listen to or create music, or get off the recliner. Everything seems trite, blase, and futile.
I’ve been in a few ruts and, like sitting on hot coals, they’re a pain in the ass. I’m not a smart man, but I know there’s one way to avoid getting burned, and that’s to get off your ass and do something.
If you’re in a rut, here are some things I’ve done to get out of them. Hopefully you’ll find them helpful. I could make this a wildly long list, but I’ve decided to stick to three main categories: adventure, learning, and miscellany, and a fourth category specifically for getting out of a creative rut.
From travel to sport to wild nights on the town, I define anything that breaks up my regular routine and gets me out of the house as an adventure. If being in a rut is like being a tire spinning in the snow, then taking an adventure is like putting cardboard and salt under that tire, getting some traction, and rolling on down the road.
Some of my favorite ideas include:
- Taking a weekend road trip. Find a cheap hostel in a nearby city. Even better if, once you get there, you can take the train or some other means of public transportation.
- Getting outside and going camping. Once you have the gear, your only expense is food and park fees. Nature does wonders for the psyche.
- Hiking. If you’re not into sleeping in the wild, just go for a walk in it. You don’t need any special gear, and there are plenty of fine trails near most metro areas.
- Taking up a sport. Nothing serious. Basketball, tennis, badminton, disc golf, whatever. Play on your own, with friends, or join a semi-formal league. Whatever sport you choose, you’ll get some exercise and feel better for it.
- Teaching English in a foreign country. Not for everybody, but it can be a hell of a way to spend a couple years. Don’t tell anybody, but there are more jobs for young westerners in Asia than in the West.
Learning new stuff, like adventure, does good things to the brain, especially when you’re interested in what you’re learning. In fact, the most important part of learning about anything is relevance; if you’re not interested in what you’re learning, you’re wasting your time.
That said, here are some ideas for filling your head with a bunch of new stuff:
- Start taking a lot of notes. When you’re reading something interesting or engaging, keep a little notebook handy. The act of doing so will make the information sink in more. Later, you can review it.
- Take a class. Some classes are expensive, but others can be cheap and rewarding.
- Learn a new skill, regardless of how useful it may be. Becoming a master isn’t the goal, the act of learning it is. Best are the skills that require both academic and kinesthetic work.
- Find new ‘teachers.’ These needn’t be real teachers, only people who are passionate about something you’re interested in. If they love what they do, they’ll be happy to help you learn about it. Some will require payment, others won’t.
- Take a reading vacation. Drop out of society for a month, turn off the digital crack, and just read a lot of books. Your local library can supply you will a lifetime’s worth of material.
Here are some things that didn’t quite fit into the previous two categories. This list could go on and on, but I’ll stick to the ones I’ve found most useful.
- Change jobs (or at least stop defining yourself through what you do to pay the bills). We’ve all got to make an income. Some ways are more rewarding than others.
- Try a different sleep schedule (but get enough sleep). If you get up early, sleep in a little. If you go to bed early, stay up late, just for the sheer hell of it. Try it out for a couple weeks and give your body time to adjust.
- Go to watch some live music. We musicians need all the support and numbers we can get. You never know what might happen.
- Get that haircut you’ve been thinking about. If it doesn’t work out, it will always grow back. My wife tells me women might try a new hair color as well.
- Get your paycheck in cash and count the money. A recent study showed counting money makes people happy. Strange, but whatever.
- Build something. Model cars, puzzles, computers, whatever, these all work different parts of your brain and give you a nice sense of completion.
- Remember different experiences you’ve had an things you’ve done. Some researchers found this was an easy, effective way to bring variety into your life.
Getting out a Creative Rut
This is the big one. Earning an income from creative work is hard enough, we don’t time for ruts. Creative ruts are the worst, bordering on existential crisis. The best way is to respond like a fire department and get the trucks out as fast as possible, even if you’re not entirely sure where the fire is. Eventually you’ll see smoke.
- Take a break. Step away. Give yourself a specific, guilt-free length of time to not even think about the things you’re working on. Focus on other projects or interests. When you’re beating your head against a wall, you get great clarity when you stop.
- Try a different medium. Writers, paint or draw. Musicians, write. Designers, learn to sing. Ideally, this will engage different parts of your brain or work like machine oil, getting those gears turning again.
- Define your outcomes and work with the end in mind. If you’re not sure why (or what) you’re creating, it’s hard to keep at it. Imagine what an excellent final product will look like,
- Define your audience. If you know your audience, it’s easier to focus on what they might want. At the same time, you don’t want to pander too much.
- Give yourself the authority to create whatever you damn well please. Yes, something of a contradiction from the last point, but there’s probably an audience for what you’re making.
- Try a media fast (ala Tim Ferriss) for a week or a month. Turn off the internet and television, don’t read anything, and just get outside and enjoy yourself.
- On the other hand, try a media binge for a week or a month. Focus on your medium (or not) and devour everything you can. Go back to your influence’s influences. Seek out obscure or outdated works.
- Visit an art museum for inspiration. Take your notebook and write impressions.
- Collaborate on a project with a friend (or stranger). New people can give you new ideas.
- Keep a journal. I’ve already written about journals here and here.
- Make an effort to remember your dreams. Maybe write them in your journal. The more you do this, the easier it gets. Personally, I can’t take my dreams too seriously, but the absurdity and surreality is usually good for a laugh.
- Read about people who inspire you and do what they do. For example, when Joyce Carol Oates gets stuck on one manuscript, she simply turns to another computer and starts working on another one. I found something similar works well for me.
- Write a post about how to get out of a rut. Just kidding, but only a little.
Over to You:
- What strategies do you use for getting out of a rut?
- When you want to get out of a rut, which is more important: variety or distance?
Site note: I’m currently traveling in SE Asia. Because I’m spending little time reading blogs, I’ve temporarily suspended the weekly roundups. I will resume them as soon as I get settled in March.
Again, thanks for reading!
Photo credit: N02
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sweet article, dude!
Wow, this is an awesome article on ruts. You really nail what it’s like, and your recommendations are the best I’ve seen. LOL and that’s comparing this article to those written by all those experts: lifestyle coaches, motivational speakers, etc. Quite frankly, there is no comparison. Thank you for some honest genuine insights. I’m glad I found your blog.
P.S. The whole self help industry creeps me out too (vis-à-vis “Manage your Inner Critic”). It is so Faux.
Hello Jen and thank you for the wonderful comment. I try and write only about topics I have direct experience with. And trust me, I have a lot of experience with ruts 😉