Getting Out of a Rut Is Hard


"You're so lucky to be a writer. Normal people, something bad happens to them and there's nothing that they can do with it except feel bad, or complain, or press charges...You know, you fall down and you think, 'Well, OK. I can write about it'. So, celebrate. You should celebrate if you get fired from a job, or if your house catches on fire, or you lose a limb that's not your writing arm. Make the most of it." - David Sedaris, American comedian and essayist

Illustration by Faridah Faiz

TL;DR

  • My systems failed - it was hard to get any meaningful work done for two months.

  • The more we deeply accept ourselves and the reality of our current situations, the more our life improves in the specific ways that we hated it.

  • Be kind to yourself. Progress is not linear. There's still today.

Drifting aimlessly from day to day


When did you first realise that you were in a rut? Was it when you started missing your morning alarms? Or the day you stopped caring about your to-do list to dedicate hours to The Sims instead?


I knew I was in a rut when I found myself waking up at noon every day and not feeling bad about it.


It's funny how surprisingly unrelatable articles like 'THE 8 STEP PLAN TO GETTING OUT OF YOUR PRODUCTIVITY RUT' are. Their rut somehow does not feel like your rut, despite it being one and the same. Their solutions seem so obvious and yet presume that you can miraculously summon up willpower that just isn't there. It's one of the reasons I know that you will not be able to relate to my rut or this article for that matter, but I feel the need to write it anyway.


I want to remember the hopelessness of it. The desperation to pull myself out of it. The universality of it. The disappointment you feel when your systems stop working. None of your weekly goals was met.


I would wake up at odd hours of the day, mostly between 11 am - 1 pm, and not be able to sleep until 2 - 3:30 am despite my best efforts. There was a brief period where I would wake up at 5 - 5:30 am and sneak in some yoga after morning prayers; I felt like my life was on track again. It was good, and yet it wasn't; I couldn't write.


The words somehow came more naturally to me when I woke up at 11 am versus waking up at 5 am. The brain fog from waking up too early would keep me from being able to think clearly the entire day. I tried hard to finish commissions on those days but the inspiration didn't come. By the time I was inspired, albeit barely, it just around midnight. The cycle of crazy sleeping hours started again. That was the lowest period of my rut.


Lately, I've been content with waking up whenever I want to wake up. My alarm goes off at the same time every morning, but I fall back asleep and start a new dream. I dream of old friends, I dream of my late aunt, I dream other dreams that were action-packed and lively in the moment but soon forgotten minutes after I wake up. I try to keep myself occupied, but it just hides the numbness of not knowing what to do with myself during this limbo period of waiting for my new job to start.


There are of course many things I could be doing. The one thing I should have been doing was writing. I kept myself busy, but none of those tasks pushed me forward. I felt stagnant.


With every passing week, I kept breaking my self-imposed deadline of finishing an article every Tuesday. My anxiety grew. I would rather watch TV with my husband, or cook and clean, or go out for a walk, or call my family, or draw. The longer I put it off, the greater the piece had to be. There was more pressure to perform. A vicious cycle of planning tasks for the day but failing to see them through.


This went on for two months.

Focus on the good


My sister recently introduced me to this idea of radical acceptance.


Basically, the more we deeply accept ourselves and the reality of our current situations, the more our life improves in the specific ways that we hated it. We don't have to like or endorse the reality, but accepting it means that we free up ourselves and our emotional resources to focus on things we can control.


I can't do much about what has happened in the last two months, but I can control what I do right now. It's a start. I found it helpful to step outside of myself for a bit to gain some perspective. One of the more interesting documentaries I came across during this period, thanks to this tweet, was 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki.


I'm not entirely sure how I have managed to go through life without ever hearing about Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki or watching any of his films until now. Mea culpa. I can now mirror Pixar's John Lasseter's sentiments on Miyazaki when he said, "Whenever we get stuck at Pixar or Disney, I put on a Miyazaki film sequence or two, just to get us inspired again." Or in my case, I'll put on a video of Miyazaki at work to get myself inspired again. He reminds me a lot of my late grandfather - the raspy voice from a lifetime of smoking, the perpetual grumpiness, the smiling into nothing. I wonder if my grandfather shared Miyazaki's crippling sense of perfectionism over his work. The struggle to create throughout the documentary was so relatable.



There were times that I felt like yelling, "Why are you being so hard on yourself? The movie was good!" He was making Ponyo at the time, which was a Miyazaki-esque retelling of The Little Mermaid. Critics of the movie wouldn't call this his best work, but then again his best are classics in a league of their own.


Perhaps he was hard on himself because he knew it wasn't his best. The key thing was that he got it done anyway. It was still a beautifully animated film. It was still good.


The main lesson here is that if you're in a rut, focus on the good. Something is better than nothing. It probably won't be your best work, but it can still be good.

Conclusion


I wish I could have ended this article by spelling out the steps I took to get out of this productivity rut, but the truth is that I'm still working on it. Getting this article out was already an achievement in itself. We need to be kinder to ourselves.


One of the more interesting things about this period is that I spent less time on social media. It started with my finishing Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport in February. Ironically, I ended up spending more time on my iPad after that because I became obsessed with The Sims again; I suppose there was something about the dopamine hits from the game that was enough to pull me away from social media. Eventually, making illustrations took me away from The Sims. Each activity led me into a deeper flow state, one more satisfyingly deep than the other.


Perhaps your rut is a sign that something isn't working in your life. Where you are in your life right now is not jiving with where you want to be, or who you want to be. That's fine. You have time to work it all out. There's no need to be so hard on yourself.


There's still today.