Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve got a million things on your plate. Your heart and your time are constantly being pulled in a dozen different directions. Sometimes it can feel like there’s no possible way to get it all done, so the incessant voices of fear and self-doubt insinuate themselves in your noggin, attempting to convince you that you cannot get any of it done. Analysis paralysis sets in, and you wind up feeling overwhelmed and emotionally and physically defeated. Taking lessons learned from my own experiences of feeling trapped in a rut, here are 5 steps to help get you unstuck.
1. Take a Break and Refill the Tank
You may be asking yourself why you need a break when you’ve been beating yourself up over the last week or two to just do something. Yet unplugging for a bit, as un-intuitive as it might seem, can be exactly what you need to recharge the battery. When you feel like you are failing to meet even your own expectations, the constant pressure you put on yourself—the mental and emotional stress, the endless hours trying to wring water from a brick—can eventually start to wear you down physically as well. Add mental depletion and physical health issues, like insomnia and fatigue, to the growing list of obstacles standing between you and getting things done. Self-care is not an excuse; at times, it is a necessity.
Change your environment. Get outside, breathe in the fresh air, and ground yourself in nature. Do you have a place you’ve been before that really made you feel content and alive? It might be time to make a return trip to reenergize. Or take a day trip to somewhere you’ve always wanted to go to but haven’t been before and find some new inspiration.
If the world in which you find yourself has begun to feel unfamiliar and unwelcoming, retreat to where you are most comfortable. Read your favorite book or watch a beloved film that you know so well, just re-living it can make you feel safe and at-home again. Get your hands dirty and work in the garden. Fill your kitchen up with the familiar scents of fresh food that always brings you comfort.
If you’ve been feeling lost in the crowd, take some time to yourself to really touch base with your thoughts and feelings. Get to know your sincere wants and desires again. But if you have been spending too much time isolated and alone, seek the company of your personal cheerleaders—your family and/or friends. If they discourage or exhaust you, explore your interests further to connect you with new, like-minded people to invigorate your spirit. Reconnect with mentors who have inspired you over the years.
Changing your environment doesn’t always have to be physical. A mental change in landscape can also awaken the spirit that drives you. If you have been spending too much time in trying to reason your way out of a rut, give yourself permission to spend more time stimulating your visual and auditory senses, playing with creativity, exploring emotions and thinking outside the box. If you find yourself drowning in a pool of emotions, it might be time to start building a plan of action and breaking down a to-do list.
2. Get Specific About Action Steps
Many of us walk around with a mental to-do list of all the things we need and want to get accomplished. When you add the inevitable interruptions and detours to the mix, our brains often become a jumbled mess as we try to stay within the lines of a blurry track. It’s easy to lose our way if we ever had a true sense of direction in the first place.
To help sharpen our vision, I recommend writing down goals and plans of accomplishment. The more generic and vague we are about our to-do-the-list, the harder it is to stay the course when the going gets tough. So get specific and set a timeframe in which to accomplish each task.
A vague to do list might include find a new job or re-design my website. Great goals to have, but take some time to think about how you are going to get. With specificity, the path to accomplish things becomes much clearer.
A specific action plan might be:
- Update resume this morning
- Post revised resume on LinkedIn and Indeed.com this afternoon
- Find 5 jobs to apply to and write cover letters for them tomorrow.
- Get in touch with x, y and z by Fri. to confirm them as references, see if they have leads
- Pick top 5 favorite websites in my space and analyze what I love about them today
- Rewrite bio tomorrow
- Refresh my HMTL with a free, online course this week
- Create a proper landing page by next Friday
See how a general idea of what you need to get done transforms into an action plan with concrete steps you can check off as you go? Not only does it help you get clearer about what exactly needs to get done, it’s much easier to see your progress in accomplishing goals.
And remember, your list is not set in stone. You can shift dates, delete items or add in what you unintentionally left. As you are always learning and growing, your list should be regularly updated and refined to reflect that.
That said, there are those of us who find it difficult to stay accountable to a list (or simply ourselves). It can be extremely helpful having an accountability partner, someone who knows what you’re trying to achieve. If they see you slacking, they’ll call you on it. They will cheer you on while you’re staying the course and congratulate you when you reach your goals. They can also offer a fresh, outside perspective.
I recently found myself telling my accountability partner how hard it was for me to creatively write again facing my inner critic. Knowing that we shared a love of songwriting in common and that I currently have more confidence in writing lyrics, he came up with a task that we both can do. By the end of the week, we are each supposed to write lyrics that fit the song title he selected. How fun, I found myself thinking. Instead of dreading the exercise and thinking about having to crank something out, I’m looking forward to the creative challenge that is one step closer to getting back on track.
3. Prioritize Your Plan
If you’re anything like me, your to-do list covers a lot of ground and veers in many different directions. Your many obligations and need-to-do’s are mixed in with your varied passions and want-to-do’s. As a result, it can be hard to determine what should take top priority. The line becomes especially blurry when you are one of the blessed whose work is their passion, particularly if you are a creative—a writer, visual artist or musician, for example. While your primary job is to create, create, create, there are often logistics that need to be taken care of in addition to or prior to when the creation process takes place.
Let’s say you want to create a new online fitness program. While your creative ideas for content may be bubbling up like crazy, you are also going to need to select the tools to actually bring the program to life and to set up the environment to make it a success. Where and how are you going to record content? Do you have adequate recording equipment? Do you know how to use it? Do you know which platform you are going to use to store it and share it with others? Getting the answers to these questions out of the way first frees up a lot of mental and physical energy to then go make some magic.
Generally, I suggest separating your to-do list into “Things I Need to Do,” “Things I Should Do,” and “Things I Simply Want to Do.” Things you need to do include those tasks with deadlines set in stone and tasks on which others are counting on for you to do in order for them to do their job. Will you get in serious trouble if you fail to do said task? Make it a top priority! Things you should do include tasks that support your main goals and accomplishments but don’t necessarily need to be tackled immediately. Maybe you are the only one who has to answer to a self-made deadline. This list should not be dismissed, but should be prioritized appropriately. The list of things you just simply want to do is self-explanatory. While it’d be cool and awesome to get these done, these things can be done after all the higher priority tasks have been accomplished.
Here are a couple important things to consider when you are prioritizing your to do list: Are all your obligations born of necessity (i.e., your job requires it), or are you simply pushing yourself to do things you feel you should want to do but don’t particularly do?
Is it irresponsible and selfish to put some of your passions above some of obligations if they bring your closer to fulfilling your dreams or greater goals? Are there things on your list that can be instantly eliminated if you are brave enough to say no to things that don’t serve you and, instead, to say yes to the things that do?
4. Take the First Step
Now it’s time to start working through your to-do list. What looks most doable? What can you begin right away? What will motivate you to move even further down your checklist? Even if it seems ridiculously simple or minor, tackle a task that you feel confident you can accomplish without any real strain.
When you are feeling especially stuck, trying to accomplish a monumental task first can actually be rather counterproductive. The more speed bumps you are likely to face on the way there, the more tempting it is to just turn back around to more familiar ground, or to stop the car completely—bringing you back into that rut. Treat yourself as you as if you are recovering…because you are. When you’ve been spinning your wheels in one hole for a while, you need to gently ease yourself back on the comfortable side roads before you can safely pick up the speed and the steady groove of the highway.
Rather than try to climb to the peak of the mountain first, it may best to just start warming up on one of the smaller trails. You won’t exhaust yourself right from the start, and seeing yourself accomplish one goal can give you that mental boost to quickly move onto the next one.
Also, while you may technically be able to handle many tasks at once, multitasking can blur some of your focus and cause you to drop one of the balls you’re juggling. So start by taking things one step at a time.
4. Dump the Excuses
Sometimes we can talk ourselves out of taking the first steps because we have lost our belief that we can actually make it happen. We mentally defeat ourselves before even opening the gate. Sure, we say, I’ve done this before, but that was years ago when I was younger and had more original ideas. What makes me think I can surpass that now, after all this time?
Don’t try to bury these excuses or deny they exist. They will only come back to haunt you further on your path. Instead, allow yourself a certain amount of time each morning to vomit all these worries, fears, insecurities and self-critiques. Literally dump them all out, preferably on a page.
When you actually come face-to-face with your fears, it can become easier to address them one at a time. Identify the source of these thoughts. Are you saying to yourself something your horrid ex-boyfriend used to tell you to keep you under his thumb? Did your parents used to say it to you when you were still a learning, growing child? Did a boss or co-worker belittle your work when a big deal didn’t work out?
As you work through the sources of the excuses you tell yourself that keep you stagnant, mentally address each charge. Try to objectively think of a counterargument or two for each one. I can’t becomes well, I actually did that one times becomes hell, I did a few times and quite well, thank you very much. Who’s to say I can’t do it again? Reinforce these affirmations at every chance you get. If you need it, feel no shame setting yourself email or phone reminders of just how awesome and capable you really are.
In A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson writes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world…We are all meant to shine, as children do.”
Step forward and let your light shine. You were born for it.