How to get out of a rut
Get back to your optimal, high performance, peak state.
(6 minute read!)
When I first started Musings & Perspectives, the intention was to publish short-form thoughts. “Under 1000 words” — I had promised.
Over time, I’ve realized that my articles have gotten longer and longer. The last piece was over 4,000 words (How ridiculous!).
I won’t lie, with the world opening up again, it’s been harder and harder to put in the time and energy to publish consistently. So over the next few months — and in the spirit of this article — I’ll be pivoting (or re-pivoting?) to shorter-form content again.
It’ll be more raw. Less text, less pics, and less memes. Don’t like it? I’d love your feedback. Just respond to this email.
📚 Quick reminder of a giveaway contest I’m doing that ends July 23rd — get a free book!
That was when Toronto first went into a state of quarantine, in response to COVID-19. My company at the time shifted to WFH, our city entered a state of lockdown, and immediately, most of my social activities disappeared.
Through the restlessness, I encouraged myself to take on a few new initiatives:
Writing, and publishing online
These were energizing activities, and provided me with a newfound source of energy, focus, and inspiration. I was loving it. So I continued to take on more activities: speaking engagements, mentorship and advisory opportunities, partnership collaborations — I kept on going.
In June 2020, I started my new role at a large tech company, and in August, I moved from Toronto, Canada to New York City.
As you imagine, ramping up on a new role — remotely — and moving to a new country during a pandemic was hectic. Just a little bit.
I was dealing with multiple cross-border tax accountants, chasing immigration lawyers for visa approval, talking to relocation agents, movers, and real estate brokers … it was a mess.
And on top of that I was trying to meet new friends. It was the definition of a full plate. My calendar started to look like this: (and this was my personal calendar that excluded work engagements)
Somehow, that was still all manageable. I was still energized — possibly from the novelty and energy of being in a new city.
But in May, restaurants and bars in the city re-opened. Curfews dropped. Networking events started to be in-person. People were out and about. I was receiving seven emails a day on suggestions for activities — “150 Things to do Today in New York City”.
To be clear, I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful to live in a city like this. But I was definitely overwhelmed.
I ran out of time to do everything I wanted to do. Then my energy started to deplete. I started to get anxious. Slowly, I lost motivation, focus, and enjoyment — and my productivity and performance took a hit. I found it harder to write. I enjoyed social gatherings less. And it was harder to keep up with my fitness routine.
I had fallen into a rut.
What’s a rut?
Just to be clear: a rut is not burnout. It’s not depression. Those are rather serious and you should consult an actual professional who specializes in those areas vs. reading Musings & Perspectives.
My personal definition of a rut is:
A state in which you’re not at your optimal, peak self and performing at your best.
It can be in the context of work and / or personal.
Loss of motivation or excitement
Unable to focus or be as productive
Uninspired and lack of creative thought
Activities that were once energizing aren’t anymore
After working through this for a few months, I managed to reflect and develop a few behaviors and attitudes to pull myself out.
Here’s my approach:
🧘🏼♀️ Optimize your physiology
It’s ridiculous how often we forget the basics of good, healthy habits that are the source of our mood and energy.
This list may slightly differ from person-to-person, but should be consistent for most.
Drink 2 liters of water daily and eat a balanced diet consisting of multiple servings of fruit and vegetables. Pretty straight forward — this is the fuel for our engine of a body.
Exercise 3-4x a week — do a balance of high intensity exercise and slow, steady cardio.
Minimize alcohol, sodium, and processed foods (sugar, saturated fat). Alcohol is the biggest enemy to productivity. Try giving it up for a month.
Most of us are fortunate enough to be able to hit the items above. All it takes is discipline.
If you’re in a rut, the first thing I’d do is assess how you’re doing on the dimensions above. And if you’re falling short, give yourself just one week where you sleep, eat, drink, and exercise well — and see how you feel after that.
Quite often, it’s the lack of sleep, exercise, or discipline on what I consume. Good sleep is by far the most important contributor of productivity and optimal performance for me.
🛀🏼 Recharge and reduce
Josh Waitzkin is a classic high-performer and pretty incredible human. He’s a Chess International Master (IM), ranked at 2,480 ELO. A black belt Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, under world champion Marcelo Garcia. And a Tai Chi World Cup champion. I write about him here.
In his book, ‘The Art of Learning’, he states that over the long run, we should alternate between modes of intense, hard work, and complete relaxation.
Two takeaways here:
You absolutely need breaks
When you take a break to recharge — you need to completely relax (and not half-ass it)
Ideas on recharging:
Take your vacation and Paid Time Off (PTO) days liberally. We don’t realize how badly we need time off work until we start feeling the symptoms. By then, it may be too late. Think of vacation days as preventative vs. taking them to solve an overworking problem.
Schedule time for a digital detox. Pick a Sunday and put your phone on Do Not Disturb for the entire day. No social media, digital messaging, or notifications. It’s your time.
If you’re an introvert, schedule time for undisturbed solitude; if you’re an extrovert, create opportunities for energizing conversations with new folks.
Practice stillness. Block off time to do absolutely nothing. Reflect on this: when was the last time you were bored? With smart phones, 5G internet, and Instagram — it is literally impossible to be bored. There’s always something to do, which is a shame as boredom is often the precursor to creative thoughts and new ideas.
The other related idea here is to reduce and take things off your plate. Once a month, do a time and energy audit to evaluate how you spend your time and energy. Relate this back to your goals and cut what doesn’t fit.
Time is your most valuable resource and sometimes the most productive thing is to say no.
🙇🏽♂️ Seek input and inspiration
I recently came across a brilliant Tweet:
When I’m not inspired to write or think of new ideas, it’s usually because I’m not reading, listening, or watching enough productive content.
And by that I mean reading blogs, newsletters, and books; listening to podcasts, interviews, and music; watching documentaries, TED talks, and speeches.
I’m almost immediately pulled out of my creative rut once I start consuming productive content again.
Referencing the Tweet above: if you’re not dot collecting (input), you won’t be able to dot connect (output). Assess your information diet — perhaps you need to read, watch, or listen more.
The same goes for meeting new people.
I love meeting new people through coffee chats, social networking events, or just by random. Good conversation is inspiring and energizing, especially if you have shared values or a common mission.
If you’re uninspired, reach out to someone you admire and pick their brain. Ask questions on their life and career journey. Don’t know how to do that? Reply to this and I’ll share a template that I’ve used with hundreds of people.
🥰 Practice self-compassion and self-love
This last part may go against the point of the entire article, but perhaps being in a rut is fine after all.
We need rest and we deserve a break. Maybe we’ve been working too hard and this is our natural reflex forcing us to slow down and take a breath.
When this happens, it’s hard to silence our inner critic — which will often question why we’re slowing down and prevent it from happening.
Practically, there’s an exercise called ‘Metta’ that Tim Ferriss discusses with Leo Babauta. Here’s how you do it.
“… but with heart-centered meditations like metta, and I’m sure you’re familiar with that one. Loving-kindness meditation. And so I started practicing with that and that one, for those unfamiliar with it, is basically this thing where you picture someone else or a group of people and you start to wish an end to their suffering, for example, or wish happiness upon them. And it’s just a lovely little meditation. So you start thinking these thoughts, “May they be happy?” And you think about your loved ones in pain and suffering. “And may they be happy?” Think about other people in the world who are suffering. “May they be happy?” It’s just a really beautiful meditation. “
— Leo Babauta, Writer at zen habits
If you’re more empathetic, compassionate, and caring toward others, you’re more empathetic, compassionate, and caring toward yourself. And vice versa.
I set aside 45 minutes a month to do this exercise, and it’s been great for quietening my inner critic in times of rest.
🙏 Appreciation & Support
I had two motivations for writing this article:
First, I wanted to reflect on this experience to provide myself with a playbook of how to approach similar, future situations.
Second, to share my approach with friends, colleagues, and peers out there who may have felt the same way. I hope this is helpful and wish you the best on your journey.
Thank you for taking the time to read. This was one I was particularly passionate about, and found energizing to write.
I’d really love your thoughts and feedback. How do you deal with being in a rut?
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — how to operate at your peak performance and happiness state. I promise it’s easier to read the book than to pronounce Mihaly’s name.
Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler — Steven is another big proponent of ‘flow’ and shares case studies and practical examples here.
Grit by Angela Duckworth — an inspiring read on the power of grit and hard work.
10% Happier by Dan Harris — one of the most refreshingly honest reads I’ve found on meditation, mindfulness, and stillness.