5 Ways to Break Out of a Rut

22 Apr

Earlier this month, my wife, kids and I loaded up the car and made the 10-hour drive from North Carolina to New York City. We went to the top of the Empire State Building, took a cruise around the Statue of Liberty and strolled along Fifth Avenue checking out window displays of clothes I’ll never be cool enough to wear.

The kids were most impressed by the many modes of transportation we sampled: buses, ferries, the subway and taxis, punctuated by a cabbie who chewed us out for flagging him down in what was evidently a no-taxi zone in Times Square. “You in totally wrong place! What are you doing?!” he fumed at us in broken English while still accepting the fare. “What’s wrong with him?” my son asked. “Trust me,” I told him, “our trip wouldn’t be complete without this.”

Somewhere in the midst of this whirlwind, my wife, who runs her own business for half the day and tries to ride herd on the kids for rest of it, said, “Wow! I’m having a really good time. I didn’t know how badly I needed to get out of town for a few days.”

She had identified a sure-fire method for breaking out of a rut: Change locations. Putting this principle to work in Manhattan, naturally, proved expensive as hell. And I’m not even including the $25,000 we paid in tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike.

There are cheaper ways to get the same effect – day trips, visiting family or friends, or having some really rich buddies bankroll your travel. Or, you can try any of these four different options:

Make new friends: I recently met a fellow writer who attended the same university I did – 25 years earlier. It’s been great talking shop with him about writing. Even better, we’ve swapped stories about professors we both knew well; getting his take on what these guys were like a quarter-century before they taught me has been fascinating. It’s made me re-evaluate how I think about them and prompted some worthwhile reflection on long ago student days.

Get a different angle: A few years ago, I went into work on a Saturday to get a few things done. I opened the door to my office, flipped on the lights and had an instant realization – the place was ridiculously cluttered and in desperate need of a clean-up. I spent 40 hours a week in that room, including eight hours the day before, and had never even thought twice about it. But coming in on an off day when my mindset was different and I was more relaxed made it possible to really see what was right in front of me.

Go back to school: Not literally maybe. But make an effort to learn something new. One of my favorite tips in this regard comes in Dan Pink’s best-selling business book A Whole New Mind, which explores how to get our creative juices flowing. His recommendation: go to a newsstand and pick up a magazine on a topic you know nothing absolutely nothing about. For me, this could be anything involving tools, fashion, six-pack abs, art or lawn care. See what connections you can find between your own world and another that seems totally unrelated.

See where circumstance leads: No sooner had we booked our New York trip than a summons arrived in the mail ordering me to report for jury duty the day before we were supposed to leave. This meant I’d have one less day to get work matters handled before leaving town – and also that we might not be leaving town at all if I got placed on an actual jury. I’m usually maniacal about managing time efficiently. But there wasn’t anything I could do to change this. So I grabbed my copy of Jonah Lehrer’s great new book Imagine: How Creativity Works and spent most of the day reading it while the judicial system slowly determined it did not require my services. Ordinarily I’d never take a day off to read a book – even though it would be a real treat. And that’s what this turned out to be.

And, while I’m at it, here’s some advice for my favorite cabbie in Manhattan : Hey, man, try picking up a few more dopes in no-taxi zones. We all need to break up our routines now and then.


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10 Responses to “5 Ways to Break Out of a Rut”

  1. Marti April 23, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of that cab…just to see the look on Evan’s face!

    • admin April 23, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Hey Marti — Evan has been fantasizing about taking a cab ride ever since he saw one in a movie a few years ago. So even our crazy cabbie couldn’t spoil his fun!

  2. Lori Gosselin April 23, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    Hi Stephen,
    There are some great ideas here! I love learning and the idea by Daniel Pink – will try that one! There is nothing like getting away to change your perspective in my opinion, but as you say, this can be expensive! One thing I like to do is clutter-clear and re-arrange the furniture in a room. It’s surprisingly therapeutic and the effects last a long time. We resist change, at least I used to, but it can feel so good, can’t it!?

    • admin April 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi Lori — good to hear from you. Like the idea of re-arranging furniture — it’s going on my list!

  3. Betsy Cross April 23, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    HA! Lori, I do the same thing. Whenever I’m in a creative rut I clean or change around my furniture. That’s the easiest thing to do. But if I get myself out for a walk or invite myself to a friend’s house I can also receive the refreshment I’m looking for.
    Thanks, Stephen…and Lori for sharing on Twitter!

    • admin April 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      Hi Betsy — thanks for stopping by! Like your ideas as well for getting out of a rut. If we practiced them regularly enough, we wouldn’t get into ruts in the first place. But it just seems to be human nature to get stuck in a routine from time to time. The key is knowing how to get out of it.

      And, Lori — thanks for sharing on Twitter!

  4. Jared Dees April 23, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    Really excellent points, here, Stephen. I always find that when I’m travelling, I get inspiration from many different angles and places. I find myself writing new kinds of things on the airplane and in hotel rooms than I do while I’m home at my desk.

    I recently listened to the author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, share a similar piece of advice about changing the environment to change habits.

    • admin April 23, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

      Always pleased when you stop by, Jared. Of those five points I listed, still seem to get the most punch from traveling. Have been hearing a lot about The Power of Habit, and it sounds pretty fascinating. Have you checked out the book yet?

  5. Bradley J. Moore April 26, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    NYC is great, right? We live fairly close (2 hours) and get over there a few times a year. We never get tired of it!

    You have hit on something that many take for granted – I call it “getting out of the house.” We can become stale and rutted by the same routines that bring comfort and stability. I agree 100% that we should make it a regular pattern to get out and explore someplace new from time to time. My wife and I were just talking about this last night, and one of our conclusions is that it also gives you something to look forward to – something to plan for and keep things interesting and fresh.

    Wonderful ideas in this post (and well written, too, which I appreciate:)

    • admin April 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

      Hi Bradley — recently started following your blog and really admire it; great to have you joining the conversation here! Routine is a tricky thing. From time spent visiting Trappist monasteries, I’ve learned to respect routines tremendously. They keep us focused so that we can really dig deeper into our priorities and live them out. On the other hand, there’s the danger of the rut. I’m still trying to understand how monks, who follow the same schedule, eat the same food, say the same prayers, etc. decade after decade, manage that balance. Part of it, I think, is they recognize that ruts are simply part of life. And monastic communities can be especially good at challenging their members to stay alive to their faith through prayer, conversation and work, even if “getting away” is not an option.

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