Just after college I found myself in a deep, deep rut.
I lived in a small midwestern town where I had no friends and worked a job that bored me. I struggled to find anything to feel passionate about. Every day felt the same, and my outlook on the future was pretty bleak.
Being in a rut changes the way you think. It catches you in a loop, blinding you to the endless options and divergent paths a life can take. You may know deep down that there’s another way, but realizing that change is harder than it sounds.
If you’re ready to make some alterations in your stagnant routine, here are some strategies to help you out of that life rut.
Make small changes.
Some people are tempted to drop everything “Eat Pray Love”-style to get out of their rut. While that kind of extreme experience works for some people, you really don’t need to leave the continent to fix your mood and get out of your life rut (although a real vacation can help).
Small changes add up to a big difference, and they’re much easier to implement. The idea of having a life-changing adventure might appeal to some, but plenty would be intimidated by the idea. Thinking small allows you to make incremental change without taking a big, scary leap.
For example, if you’re sick of your 30-minute drive to work, find a podcast or an audiobook to spice up the commute. I used to drive three hours one way to visit my then-boyfriend, and I’d load up my iPod with new music and “Fresh Air” interviews. The drive was still dull, but at least I loved one aspect of it.
If you’re eating the same meals for dinner every week, try adding in one new recipe from your favorite food blogger or from an ethnic cuisine you love. You’ll be surprised how far a little extra flavor goes, inside the kitchen and out.
Small changes, from adding a 10-minute walk in the morning to learning a new language, can help you feel a little more invigorated by life.
Invest in an experience.
The quickest way I’ve found to freshen my routine is by taking a class. Learning something new is challenging, uncomfortable and exciting – exactly what someone in a life rut needs.
Local community centers, colleges, and businesses offer classes on any topic. I’ve taken cooking, sewing, and financial planning classes. Right now, I’m signed up for improv and drawing. These courses make me feel like I can do anything – like I’m capable of more than I realize.
Studies also confirm that spending money on experiences instead of material goods makes people happier. The joy from a vacation or museum trip lasts longer than the thrill of a new purse or piece of furniture, no matter how tempting it might be to choose the latter.
Recognize your power.
Being in a life rut feels like you have no control over your life.
Instead of dwelling on your helplessness, make a list of things you can change. You can find a new workout, reconnect with old friends, set new goals at work, foster an animal, or change your hairstyle.
Your list can help you realize how much you can change by yourself. Sure, you might not be able to quit your job right away or move to a new city, but there’s nothing stopping you from salsa dancing every weekend or eating brunch at your favorite diner.
Here are some other suggestions transforming your life in ways you can change today:
- Be grateful. Cultivating gratitude can perk up anyone who thinks their life is dull and pointless. Keep a journal where you list three things you’re grateful for, or recall the good things that happened that day before you go to bed. Soon you’ll learn how to do this throughout the day and make it a regular habit.
- Enjoy the little things. During my senior year of college, I struggled with depression and anxiety. I remember complaining to my mom about how every day felt like the same routine. Her suggestion? “Drink a cup of tea and have a piece of chocolate.” I begrudgingly tried it, and was shocked at how much better I felt. It’s not a permanent fix, but small luxuries can break up a humdrum day quickly and cheaply.
- Talk to a therapist. Sometimes a life rut can be fixed by a fun weekend or change in routine. Other times, it’s a symptom of depression that needs a professional’s help. A licensed counselor or therapist can identify exactly what’s bothering you. It might take a few sessions, so don’t expect overnight results.
- Perform service. Helping someone else is one of the best ways to feel better. Researchers say volunteering boost happiness levels. You can find a regular volunteer position or a sporadic one, depending on your schedule. Sites like VolunteerMatch.org or Idealist list positions, or you can contact organizations individually.
- Do something hard or new. At work, ask for more challenging assignments or collaborate on a new project. When I’ve found myself in a career rut, doing work outside of my job description let me expand my skills and try something new.
- Talk to friends. Your friends might understand or feel the same way, so talk aloud about what you’re going through. They could have their own ideas on how to help, and sometimes just sharing your struggle with someone else is enough to make things seem a little more hopeful.
There are things we can’t control. But when you recognize your power and acknowledge the things you can change, you feel better at life. And you can see some of the ways to get out of your life rut and move forward with greater purpose.