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Is Your Routine Actually Keeping You Stuck in a Rut?

What’s the difference between having some structure in your life and feeling like you’re on repeat? It has a lot to do with perspective.

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In our culture that places productivity on a pedestal, an optimized routine has been sold as the salve for all kinds of dilemmas. Lose your job? Create a new routine for yourself. Experiencing anxiety, depression, or grief? Find a routine. Living through a pandemic? Follow a routine to get through it.

Sometimes we need the support of a schedule. Routines are beneficial—they promise order, they seem reliable, and they can be comforting. A routine can provide a sense of certainty in a world that feels uncertain or out of our control. When there’s structure to our day, we often feel more at ease, less overwhelmed by so many inconsequential decisions: when to wake up, what to eat for breakfast, which brand of toothpaste to buy.

Science has long suggested the psychological and physical benefits of having routines, whether a consistent sleep schedule, regular exercise such as a yoga practice, or daily meditation. Routines have even been known to help people recover from depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction.

What we may not realize about routines is they can also set us up for failure. A routine that becomes too rigid can cause agitation or anxiety. A routine that requires constant vigilance and is impossible to keep up can cause a spiral into guilt and shame. A routine that optimizes each minute of the day can diminish our ability to be open to how the present moment unfolds. While a routine is a sequence of actions regularly followed, so is a rut. The difference is a rut is a pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive, like being trapped in a Groundhog Day scenario. Ironically, what we perceive as the ideal routine can be the very thing that lands us in a rut.

How to Discern Between a Routine and a Rut

The point at which a routine turns into a rut can be ambiguous. When we find a routine that works for us and it feels like we are firing on all cylinders, there is movement. There is rhythm to our days. Over time, though, that rhythm can settle into monotony. The pursuit of better becomes boring, and we find ourselves in a rut. We might start a yoga practice with a routine—the same class at the same time, or the same style of yoga without deviating—that begins as healthy structure yet can eventually make us feel unexcited, even lethargic.

Change, uncertainty, unpredictability, disruptions, and unexpected events crashing into our lives help us to clarify this deeper sense of who we are

How can we find the structure we need without getting stuck? Perhaps instead of looking at a routine and a rut as polarities, we can view both as part of a cycle we are continuously moving through: routine, rut, and reroute.

The overlooked benefits of a rut

When we recognize the inherent ebb and flow of being in a routine, and then a rut, we are able to see that each part of the cycle has value. If it weren’t for the contrast between the stability of a routine and the grind of a rut, and our recognition of that, we would never encounter what psychoanalyst Carl Jung referred to as “psychological entropy”—the tension of opposites. Without that tension, we’d experience what Jung called “death in an equable tepidity.” This tension is vital to personal growth—we don’t need everything to turn over smoothly in perfect order. We need a constantly evolving cycle of opposing phases that allows us to replace the old ways of being with the new.

For this reason, a rut isn’t something to shy away from or rid from our lives, but rather something that can bring awareness to what we wish to change. Being aware that we may be in a rut in our work, relationship, living situation, or general outlook on life can lead us to find an opportunity to reroute ourselves.

Social researcher and author Hugh Mackay explains that society’s “Utopia complex”—an entitled vision of the perfect life—is doing us a disservice when it comes to handling problems and tensions. “The more we learn about human psychology, the more we realize that change, uncertainty, unpredictability, disruptions, and unexpected events crashing into our lives help us to clarify this deeper sense of who we are and what we want out of life, and what we need to contribute to life,” Mackay says. The reroute that follows is what brings new possibilities.

Photo: Getty Images

How to reroute out of a rut

Not all change feels welcome at first, but it is important to remain open to the reroute. This is how we encounter growth. As Leo Tolstoy explains in War and Peace, “Once we’re thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost; but it’s only here that the new and the good begins.”

Perhaps we tend to judge ourselves harshly for being in a rut because we don’t have much patience with the process. We sometimes shy away from people who are grieving, for example, or point out quick fixes to others, or tell someone to “get over it.” It’s not efficient to be in a rut—we move more slowly through our lives. We face more uncertainty. We may lack motivation, which doesn’t fit in a world calling for unrelenting productivity.

Extricating oneself from a rut can sometimes be sudden: The loss of a loved one, a breakup, an illness, a job loss, a disappointment, or a rejection can force a change in our lives. As can a life milestone such as falling in love, the birth of a child, starting a new job, or a graduation.

Periods of rest and inactivity are just as important as periods of great effort

Other times, the reroute is a slow process, so patience is vital. “Periods of rest and inactivity are just as important as periods of great effort, just as the silence between the notes is part of the music,” write Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson in the book The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success. The most valuable tool, when we find ourselves in a rut, is to be kind to ourselves.

Change can often be imperceptible. While it may not look as if anything is happening, beneath the surface we are slowly retooling ourselves toward a new way. An episode of the podcast This Jungian Life likened the process of adaptation to making butter from heavy cream—you shake and you shake and you shake and nothing happens, so you shake and shake and shake some more, and suddenly you have butter.

Moving out from a rut can be similar: we sometimes work at it for a long time, feeling like nothing is making a difference, like we’re stuck in the churn of it all until finally we arrive at something new. Such a transition can be tiresome or even discombobulating, but it’s how we eventually effect change. We can rarely force ourselves out of a rut. But with curiosity and awareness, we can begin to know when our routine has become a rut—and in doing so, we have the potential to once again truly experience life.

How to overcome complacency

While a rut can be a great catalyst for change, it can sometimes bring great inertia (being in a rut, after all, means we are stuck). If we find ourselves in a rut, sometimes we need to do fewer things in order to rest and reenergize, but over time we find it harder to do anything at all. Moving—literally or figuratively—might be the last thing we feel like doing.

Aware that we are in a rut, we sink deeper or even spiral because that way of being has become familiar and seems more comfortable than facing the uncertainty of change. The behavioral psychologist Charles Ferster explained that people who feel low tend to do less in general and, more specifically, engage in fewer activities that bring them pleasure or meaning. This can create a vicious cycle. Withdrawing from the world makes it difficult to return to it.

A routine can be the thing that leads us into a rut, but it can also be the very thing that brings us back out of one

The key is to somehow break the cycle. When we cannot summon the motivation to make a dramatic move, we can instead shift ourselves ever so slightly. It’s the willingness to simply experience something new—even if it might not be the perfect salve or feels uncomfortable—that can help us eventually find what works for us once again. We must keep trying and remain open so that we can adapt and learn from our tensions, and move forward rather than shrink.

That’s what is so fascinating—a routine can be the thing that leads us into a rut, but it can also be the very thing that brings us back out of one. Subtle shifts—how we sleep, exercise, eat, express ourselves creatively—can be the things we start to integrate into a new routine. Over time, we might start to recognize what we can rely on as pillars to help us get through difficult stretches. It can take practice to learn what we need to steady us, and what works can—and will—change throughout life. Being patient enough to understand it anew is time well spent.

In this continuous cycle of the routine, the rut, and the reroute, we are alerted to what’s important, things that need to change, and the strength we have to persevere. Instead of feeling entangled in a schedule or stuck in a rut, we come to see that tomorrow is not only a new day, but it’s a different day—and that there is so much life in it to live, be it in the rut, the routine, or the uneven ground in between.

Photo: Getty Images

How to recognize when you’re in a rut

It’s common to lose perspective when you’re in a routine. Here are a few indications that you might need to rethink how you approach your days:

  1. You feel uncomfortable. When a once-healthy routine has become too rigid, you might experience discomfort in maintaining that pattern. At the same time, you might feel an inability to change anything.
  2. You feel tired. Simple tasks might suddenly seem to require more energy and effort. As a result, you minimize what you do to sustain your energy. You might inexplicably shut down and do very little for extended periods of time.
  3. You withdraw from life. Notice if you find yourself retreating from socializing or engaging in things that would otherwise bring you pleasure.

How to find your way out of a rut

Awareness is the first part of taking yourself out of a rut. You don’t need to upend everything at once. Start small as you work your way back to your ideal self.

  1. Be patient. The goal is not necessarily to immediately escape the rut, but to notice where you are with it. You don’t need to overhaul your life. Just introduce one small good thing at a time: a walk with a friend, a different yoga studio, a new breakfast item.
  2. Learn something. When you find yourself disinterested in life at large, turn your attention to being interested in something in particular. Explore a new language, learn an instrument, ask the question you’ve shied away from with someone, or allow yourself an hour to go down the rabbit hole of a topic you’ve wanted to explore.
  3. Do something you’re afraid to do. To rid yourself of the boredom of a routine, be willing to try something different. The solution to being stuck is often to do exactly the opposite of what is familiar. As David Bowie put it, “Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Get a little out of your depth.” Stay open.

About our contributor

Madeleine Dore is a writer and interviewer who explores the definition of a day well spent through her blog, Extraordinary Routines, and podcast, Routines & Ruts. Her first book is I Didn’t Do the Thing Today.