Lorelei Yang
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words
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Sometimes, it creeps up on you over time. Other times, a specific event — getting turned down for a big promotion, a major change in your personal life or struggling in a job search — causes it. Regardless of the cause, getting stuck in a rut can happen to the best of us. That's why understanding the signs of a rut, knowing how to get out of one and utilizing some tips to prevent them from happening is useful for everyone.

Signs of a rut

There are a few telltale signs of a rut. They include: 

  • Struggling to get excited about anything
  • Reminiscing about — and living in — the past
  • Daydreaming about an alternate reality to the point of avoiding the present or future
  • Failing to see the purpose of what you're doing
  • Constantly being sick or feeling physically exhausted
  • Feeling hopeless or directionless
  • Feeling bored or complacent
  • Declining quality of work
  • Your Sunday scaries are getting scarier by the week 

How do ruts occur?

There are a few reasons for ruts. The first, and most common, is underperformance or a mismatch between your expectations and where your employer feels (rightly or wrongly) you belong. Relatedly, boredom — stemming from repetitiveness or lack of opportunities to learn — is another common cause of career ruts. 

Writing in O Magazine, Suzy Welch, co-author of "Winning," also points out that "embedded reputation," which she describes as an organization's existing view of you as an employee based on past performance or the context you were originally hired in (such as, for example, as an entry-level employee) may also cause your career to stagnate and fall into a rut. 

Finally, sometimes a rut may simply happen when it's time for you to move on to something new because you need a change of pace and new opportunities to challenge yourself.

Five ways to get out of a rut

1. Connect with people who inspire you.

This can mean connecting with people in your profession to re-find the spark that got you into your existing field, talking to people who do something else altogether to explore other interests or a combination of those two approaches. Either way, getting out there and asking others whom you look up to professionally about their work is a great way to help recalibrate your own expectations of your job and help you decide if your rut is a sign that you need to remind yourself why your job is fantastic or a sign that it's time to look into moving on to something else.

2. Identify the cause(s) of your rut and brainstorm solutions to fix them.

As you're starting to talk to other people, also take time to figure out what factors into your current dissatisfaction. Are you bored, overworked, stuck in a field you're simply not passionate about, worn out by a brutal commute or something else? Being specific and honest with yourself here will help you identify the path forward out of your rut.

Once you've identified the cause(s) of your rut, you can start to develop a plan for solving them. If you're bored, it may be time to start a conversation with your manager about taking on additional responsibilities or switching up what you're doing on a day-to-day basis. Conversely, if you're overworked, it may help to start a conversation with your manager about offloading some of your responsibilities onto someone else so you can focus on the key responsibilities in your role. 

If you find that you're no longer passionate about your industry, it's time to step up your networking game and start talking to people in other industries you're interested in to learn about what they do and how you could get your foot in the door. If your commute is killing your passion for your job, figuring out ways to reduce it, such as working from home on occasion or relocating (possibly even with corporate sponsorship) are potential solutions. Regardless of what the problem is, there's almost certainly a solution — and it's on you to find it.

3. Consider taking a vacation.

Sometimes, getting stuck in a rut is a sign that you're dangerously close to burning out. Taking a vacation may be just what you need to get over your rut. Taking a few days off to take a break from your work and unplug may allow you to get over the rut.

4. Start a passion project.

Channeling your energy into a new passion project can refresh your perspective. This could mean picking up a new hobby, getting back into an interest that's fallen by the wayside with the general scramble of day-to-day life or diving deeper into an existing interest. Finding a new outlet for your interests and embracing curiosity may help you explore a new career, allow you to rediscover your passion for your existing job or simply give you an outlet for passions that aren't fulfilled in your current role. 

5. Pursue an ambitious goal.

While it isn't pleasant to think of it this way, it's often the case that we ourselves often play large roles in our ruts. Often, we've allowed ourselves to get used to staying in our comfort zones only to wind up resenting the predictability and stability of those routines. With this in mind, pushing yourself to get out of your comfort zone by setting an audacious goal — whether personal or professional — can be a great way to pull yourself out of a rut. Setting an ambitious goal for yourself and pushing yourself to achieve it can force you to get moving and kick the rut to the curb.

Preventing yourself from getting stuck in a rut

1. Focus your mind and don't allow outside distractions to derail your plans and vision for the future.

Engaging in practices that keep you in touch with your inner thoughts and ground you in yourself can make you more aware of how you're faring day-to-day. By cutting the noise from others from your daily life, you can also create more mental space for your own priorities and protect yourself from falling into ruts that are caused by being simply overwhelmed. A few strategies to stay in touch with yourself include meditation, journaling and practicing mindfulness. 

2. Create and stick to healthy routines.

We all know it, but often don't practice it: healthy, consistent routines can help us stay more grounded and encourage success in all areas of our lives. Eating healthy, exercising regularly, sleeping enough, keeping caffeine and alcohol intake at reasonable levels and protecting leisure time all help us keep our lives in balance. When your life in general is in balance, you're less likely to fall into a rut.

Now that you know the telltale signs a rut may be incoming, how to identify when you're in a rut and how to get yourself out of one, you're ready to take on any obstacles that may present themselves to you. Whether it be personal or professional, you can kick your rut to the curb and embrace your fullest potential.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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