Death, Taxes, and Ruts
Being in a rut is inevitable.
You’re in a rut right now. Me too. Everyone is except children, who are too fresh to the ways of the world to en-rut themselves. Anyone who thinks they aren’t stuck in a rut just doesn’t know it yet.
But that doesn’t mean you might as well give up. A good life is about adventurously off-roading in and out of ruts, never getting stuck in one for too long.
Since my goal with The Zag is to help you (and myself) do so, I’ve taken up amateur Rut-ology. And in my studies, I’ve realized something:
The trick to getting out of ruts is identification.
Because with an accurate diagnosis, you can implement the appropriate treatment.
So I’ve created the following taxonomy of ruts. It will continue to grow as I identify new ruts in the wild, but it’s a start.
Skim through and see if any feel familiar, then try some of my suggestions for getting out of them.
↳ PS: If you feel the urge to click the back button to find more “serious” answers to how to get out of a rut, you almost certainly are in a Tight Butt Rut. See symptoms and treatment below.
Symptoms: You keep doing the same thing over and over, hoping for different results, but not getting them.
These most abundant of all ruts occur in all areas of life: fitness, relationships, career, mental health, creativity, etcetera.
There’s nothing crazy about how to climb out of an Insane Rut:
Do something different.
Mark Manson explains how this works via the “Do Something Principle.”
- Action breeds inspiration.
- Inspiration generates motivation.
- Motivation generates action.
- And so on.
The counterintuitive implication is this: Even unproductive action that differs from your status quo is productive.
To start applying the “Do Something Principle,” here are the eight ways to try something new.
- Quit something old.
- Interact in new ways.
- Consume something new.
- Make something new.
- Move in new ways.
- Attempt a new hobby.
- Go somewhere new.
- Start a new habit.
Shocking yourself out of the stasis of an Insane Rut is not a permanent cure. If you return to your old routine, you will also fall back into your old rut.This hopeless up-and-down path is a subgenus of the Insane Rut:
A Sisyphean Rut.
To make a lasting escape, choose a gradual slope to climb out of rather than a heroically steep one. For example, try to lose a pound a month for a year rather than twelve pounds in a month.
Symptoms: You continue to find yourself dragged down despite honest efforts to escape all types of ruts.
Gravitational Ruts stem from living in a rut-conducive environment. The people, situations, places you’re in, or some combination of all three, exert a downward-sucking force that makes it exceedingly challenging to climb out.
The only way out of a Gravitational Rut is to extricate yourself physically:
- Move to a new neighborhood, city, or country.
- Surround yourself with different friend groups.
- Go down a different career path.
These are major moves, so consider a temporary trial to start. Live somewhere different for a few weeks. Join a community of people with the same aspirations as you. Or take a sabbatical and try something different. See how it feels.
If you put yourself in the right environment, you can find yourself in an Anti-Gravitational Rut. This is such an uplifting feeling that you feel like you’re on the moon.
Low Horsepower Rut
Symptoms: Even on your best days, a lack of oomph limits your ability to push yourself out of ruts and adventure widely.
Low Horsepower Ruts are self-reinforcing because the less energy you have, the less you do, leading your engine to decay.
Our instinct is to attempt to “suck it up” and willpower through, but that typically leads to burnout. A more reliable approach is to tinker with your engine.
The seven primary dials to tune up are:
- Identity (See: Handbrake Rut)
- Environment (See: Gravitational Rut)
- Fun (See: Tight Butt Rut)
- Purpose (See: Existential Rut)
The paradox is all of the above take time and energy, which are in short supply when you’re stuck in a Low Horsepower Rut.
Best to start by finding and removing leaks: crappy people, draining distractions, dirty fuel, etcetera. If you replace them with energy-generating alternatives and keep at it, you can create a powerful perpetual motion machine.
Clean Sneaker Rut*
Symptoms: Rather than take action, you narcissistically polish your identity, conceal your flaws, embellish your strengths, overload on information, and wait for the perfect time to shine. But the longer you wait, the more deluded, fragile, and vulnerable you become.
(*Clean Sneaker Ruts also go by the name of “Snowflake Ruts.” People often ski along them in tandem with Tight Butt Ruts.)
The only way out of this rut is to sully your pristine identity.
Then resist the urge to stop to make futile attempts to clean up every mark and scratch. Soon, you’ll escape the Clean Sneaker charade, slip on a new “Workboot” identity, and numb yourself to healthy discomfort. This rugged way of life is a lot more fun and resistant to ruts.
Symptoms: You have developed limiting beliefs, which you reinforce with actions (or lack thereof) and confirmation bias.
Seven-foot-five-inch (2.19m) tall Victor Wembanyama will never win a limbo contest. And I will never win a Pulitzer Prize.
We all have our limitations.
But our limitations are easy to overstate and use as excuses, thereby digging ourselves into a Handbrake Rut, the pessimistic yin to the Clean Sneaker Rut’s yang.
The trick for getting out of Handbrake Ruts is to distinguish the difference between the way your brain is wired and the superficial, stifling identities you’ve layered on top like a straitjacket. For instance:
- Introversion is not an excuse to be anti-social.
- Believing you’re not ambitious doesn’t have to hold you back from taking proactive charge of your life.
I’ve fallen into the gully of both limiting beliefs. Doing so is driving with the handbrake on.
For more on this, see Release Your Self-Limiting Beliefs Like They’re Handbrakes and Personality vs. Identity: How to Find Your Right Fit.
Symptoms: You’ve developed an unhealthy habit because it provides you dopamine hits, but every subsequent action lowers your baseline dopamine level, requiring more of this behavior to get you back to your previous highs.
It can also help to understand the biology from a professional like Dr. Anna Lebmke. Her book, Dopamine Nation, is a good place to start. The Molecule of More can also provide helpful understanding. I summarize my learnings here: How Your Balance of Dopamine vs. Here and Now Molecules Defines You.
For serious Dopaminergic Ruts, consult a professional.
Symptoms: You feel you are going nowhere despite proactively pushing yourself in ways that are steadily strengthening your abilities.
This is the whale shark of ruts. While it has “rut” in its name, a False Rut is not a rut. It is a rewarding path with rut-ish characteristics.
‼️ You do not want to get out of this “rut.”
A False Rut feels like a rut because you can’t observe progress from your efforts. To soothe this negative sensation, shift your focus from goals to systems. Fine-tune your process and reward yourself for your inputs rather than outputs.
Beware of convincing yourself you’re in a False Rut to self-justify your fruitless efforts.
Seek objective measurements or ask unbiased outsiders for their perspectives. If neither can observe progress, you are in a False Progress Rut.
False Progress Rut
Symptoms: You have the impression of making progress, but are actually going nowhere.
False Progress Ruts are the opposite of False Ruts. They don’t look or feel like ruts, but they most certainly are. The external progress you are seeing is hollow of any internal gains. When your bubble pops, you’ll be back where you started.
Getting out of False Progress Ruts takes the same strategy as staying in False Ruts: Shift your attention away from subjective, external output metrics and toward objective, internal input metrics. See The Best Goal Is to Have Great Systems for more on this.
Symptoms: You bury your head in the sand rather than face the reality of the rut you’re in.
You know something’s off deep inside, but you push that aside. Evidence to the contrary, AKA reality, keeps piling up alongside you until, one day, you pick your head up, see the deep rut you’ve got yourself into, and think, “Dammit! What have I been doing this whole time?” Or, worse yet, you blame everyone but yourself and end up ostracized (“ostrich-cized”?).
There’s a quick test to check whether you’re in an Ostrich Rut:
For every area of your life—relationships, health, job, habits, beliefs—ask yourself: Am I consciously challenging myself to improve?
If not, pull your head out of the sand ASAP.
Symptoms: You feel everyone is on way cooler paths than you.
We’ve all been advised ad nauseam how to stay out of Relative Ruts:
- “Go at your own pace.”
- “You are not in competition with anyone but yourself.”
- “The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.”
But we wallow around in them anyway.
I have extensive experience in Relative Ruts because I am A) Highly competitive, B) Unreasonably confident in my abilities, and C) A lowly blogger.
Here are some Relative Rut-fighting approaches that help me enjoy “staying in my lane”:
- Letters to my future self. As woo-woo as it may sound, doing this monthly and yearly reminds me to prioritize impressing my future selves more than others.
- Living in Cape Town for half the year. Escaping Vancouver’s bubble of prosperity reminds me that my lane could be much worse. (Learn more about the pros and cons of living in two cities.)
- Writing. It helps me think through and document how I measure success, my definition of winning at life, what my perpetually perfect life looks like, and how to deal with FOMO and regret.
- Enjoyment. I love what I do, which makes it easier to patiently plod along, pushing myself to get better and better.
- Naive optimism. I believe my lane is leading me somewhere awesome—personally and relatively—even if there is little evidence of that being the case. (Maybe I’m in a False Progress Rut?)
Symptoms: Your life feels hopeless, purposeless, and meaningless.
When stuck in an Existential Rut, you wonder if there’s any point in trying. Nasty things keep happening to you and the world, everything feels out of your control, and your self-help attempts aren’t helping.
The only way out is to get over yourself.
Quit looking for ways to live a happy, fulfilled, and meaningful life. Instead, think about how you can help other people live more happily, purposefully, and meaningfully.
Symptoms: You have such a strong sense of purpose/mission that everything else falls by the wayside.
If you truly have been put on this world to bring, I dunno, World Peace, please don’t let me be the one to stop you. But please also don’t stop yourself short of reaching your potential by letting deficiencies in other areas of your life grow and fester until they bring you down.
Keep in mind that whatever your mission, there’s always the chance it doesn’t pan out as heroically as you hope. And even if you do succeed, you face a “Now what?” afterward.
To avoid the abysmal fate of a Heroic Rut, consciously work to keep the other areas of your life stable and healthy. Your life is only as strong as its weakest link.
Oxygen Mask Rut
Symptoms: You spend so much time caring for others that you don’t take the requisite time to care for yourself and suffer the consequences.
He has witnessed countless cautionary tales of people who attach themselves to the “helper” identity as a way to shield themselves from the uncomfortable consequences of not attending to their own well-being. These neglected requirements stack up higher and higher until inevitably toppling over and burying them in:
- Resentment to others who aren’t grateful for their martyr-like efforts.
- Burn out.
- Failure to help people as well as they could had they taken more care of themselves.
Scott suggests the following antidotes:
- Enforced time each week for personal benefit only
- Be assertive on boundaries when others ask too much of you.
- Confront your own fears that are leading you to hide behind overhelping.
- Assessing whether your help is the empowering type that sets people up to eventually succeed without you or the dependency kind that exists to strengthen your helper identity while weakening the recipient’s capacity to respond to important life challenges on their own, thus reinforcing your helper identity further.
Symptoms: You feel too busy, burned out, and overwhelmed to do the things you want to do.
Quicksand Ruts are in the Low Horsepower Rut family.
People stuck in Quicksand Ruts tend to be too proactive for their own good. They feel the need to do something more to haul themselves out but, in doing so, tire themselves out and sink down deeper.
This quicksand analogy can help you work your way out:
- Don’t move. Take a break. Go on holiday. Let the ground underneath you settle. Think about where you want to go and why. These “GPS” questions might help.
- Remove wasteful activity. If you can’t afford to take a break, keep a log of everything you’re exerting your energy on. At the end of a week, add up how much time and energy you spent on different tasks. Find inefficiencies and remove them.
- Reach out your hand. People standing on firm ground can help you by pulling you their way or offering perspective on how to extricate yourself from your predicament. See 5 Helpful Tips On How to Ask for Help.
Symptoms: Your automobile cannot move because one or more of its wheels is unable to get traction.
This should do the trick:
If not, call a tow truck or a handy friend.
Tight Butt Rut
Symptoms: Your butt is so tightly clenched from taking yourself and your life seriously that you can only proceed in a rigid, robotic, humorless, unrewarding direction.
Like a Chinese finger trap, the harder you squeeze, the tighter your rut. The only way out is to loosen up:
- Spend more time around children.
- Find loose-glute-ed adults who will tease your tight-buttedness and encourage you to follow their lead.
- Re-enroll in “silly” hobbies you enjoyed back before you stuck yourself in this rut.
- Replace your current role models with loose-living individuals who lived extraordinary lives, like Richard Feynman.
Passive Consumption Rut
Please avoid the dreaded Passive Consumption Rut by contributing to the burgeoning science of Rut-ology.
- If your symptoms don’t seem to fit into any of the above ruts, let me know in the comments. Maybe we can identify a new one!
- Have you encountered other types of rut that I can add to this taxonomy?
- Do you have any feedback on this Rut-ology?
B) Share this with your deeply en-rutted friends
Then take action to haul yourself out of whatever rut you’ve self-diagnosed yourself to be in.
But if you’re still not sure what action to take, these resources might help you avoid The Uninspiring Content Rut at the very least: