A Guide to Getting Unstuck
Proven ways to get back on the horse… (and prevent yourself from falling off in the first place!)
When our train is headed off the rails, how can we get ourselves back on the track? I will share some tested techniques for preventing yourself from getting unstuck as well as how to quickly intervene when it does happen.
Getting Stuck is Normal
Let’s just say that I have plenty of practice at getting unstuck. I have off days 3X-5X/month and a sustained slump of a week or more at least 2X/year. This is the advice I wish I had given myself long ago.
We are all fallible. Everyone feels nihilistic sometimes. Everyone lacks conviction with their life choices sometimes. Everyone falls off on their habits. The diaries of the most successful humans in history are filled with frustration and self-doubt.
Sustained behavioral change is more the exception than the norm. Backsliding is hardwired into our DNA. Homeostasis is the body’s essential process of self-regulation which resists any change from the status quo. We are always being pulled back towards a previous equilibrium.
Off-days and slumps can be prevented but never completely eliminated. In order to overcome getting stuck, we must both expect and accept that it will happen from time to time. Through attention and practice, we can limit their damage and duration when slumps do occur.
This chapter has three parts:
Prevention — How can we prevent ourselves from getting stuck?
Recognition — How can we recognize when we are stuck?
Intervention — How can we get ourselves back on track?
Step 1: Prevention
Study after study has shown that humans undervalue prevention compared to treatment. Do not make this mistake. The fastest way to get out of a slump is to not let ourselves get stuck in the first place.
The key mental model for slump prevention is the Firebreak. The most reliable technology for fighting fires hasn’t changed in thousands of years — just dig a hole around the fire. When the fire reaches this “break”, there are no more trees for fuel in its path and it burns out.
Example of a Firebreak.
Procrastination, bad habits, and negative thought cycles require ongoing “fuel” to sustain themselves. Similarly, they will burn themselves out if you can deprive them of their fuel.
Firebreaks came up often in my days of poker coaching. Poker players have a common self-destructive tendency when “stuck” (losing money on the current playing session). Players would take unusual risks, spiraling into destructive tilt in an attempt to get back to winning on the day. Frustration became the fuel and short-term motivations became decoupled from the long-term.
The truth is that the results of any particular day don’t matter. The optimal strategy for poker is to treat each poker hand independently. Each hand played is just another opportunity to make the perfect decision.
Similarly, your career is one giant work session which can be broken up into any sub-length — just find the length that works best for you.
A Firebreak in our daily work acts as a practical checkpoint. We close the container on what has happened, putting it completely behind us. It no longer serves us to dwell upon the past once we have learned from it.
Firebreaks allow us to start fresh with a clean slate. They interrupt our irrational thought patterns and reboot the helpful thoughts and behaviors we lost sight of.
My keystone Firebreak habits are gratitude exercises, journaling, and weekly reviews.
Firebreak #1: Gratitude
Each of us is an artist, involved in the construction of our own world.
Whenever I’m feeling down, I start listing things I am grateful for. By recognizing the blessings in my life, I shift my posture from judgement to appreciation. By making a conscious choice to emphasize the good, I prime my perception to focus on the positive. Positive thoughts lead to positive actions.
I celebrate any wins and lessons learned at the end of the day — no matter how small. When our emotional elephant takes over, cognitive distortions become difficult to ignore. When we are stuck, drawing attention to our wins counters our tendency to overemphasize and overgeneralize setbacks. Reviewing the lessons we have learned re-frames each setback as an opportunity to improve.
I love using the 5 Minute Journal for its simplicity but you can recreate these questions on your own in a notebook.
Firebreak #2: Journaling
No problem is ever as intimidating on paper as it seems rattling around in your head. Writing releases internal tension like opening a pressure valve. Mental bandwidth is cleared towards the generation of solutions rather than just rehashing problems.
We become the stories we tell ourselves. When stuck, we carry a false narrative around that doesn’t serve us. Journaling helps us poke that false narrative full of holes — rewriting it in a way which inspires us towards action. We create our own inner scorecard and our interpretation of events is fully under our own control.
I write one page every day as part of my morning routine — or whenever I am feeling off my game. My goal is to depersonalize negative thoughts by observing my emotions rather than identifying with them.
I felt a initial resistance to daily journaling. Over time, I discovered that writing became easy when I gave myself two options: 1) boredom 2) write anything at all. It is funny what we can get ourselves to do when the alternative is staring at a wall.
Firebreak #3: Weekly Reviews
I tell anyone who will listen that the cornerstone of any productivity practice is a weekly review.
I love using the metaphor of a sealed container. Weekly reviews allow us to close and seal the container around any setbacks from the previous week.
After our weekly review, we can objectively view goals for the week ahead. If it was a rough week, we can accommodate and set a lower bar for the next week that allows space for rebuilding habits. This ensures that we start the week with positive momentum.
Getting stuck is often caused by points of indecision. A lack of conviction is paralyzing and leads to an over-reliance on willpower. Motivation cannot exist without a clear direction to apply it towards.
Without a direction for next week, your top priority is always to choose that direction. With a plan in place, that plan becomes your new default behavior.
Step 2: Recognition
The first step for breaking out of a slump is recognizing that you’re in one.
This is easier said than done. When we are stuck, our internal editor becomes mutinous, viewing our actions through a distorted lens. Our objectivity and self-awareness tend to abandon us at the times we need them the most.
We plan for this failure mode by installing Warning Lights which act as the metaphorical canaries in our cognitive coal mine. Warning Lights are clear, unambiguous signals that we are in, or headed towards, a slump.
We can identify Warning Lights by reading our journal entries from past slumps and looking for behavioral and emotional commonalities. The best Warning Lights are obvious when they happen so we cannot ignore them, even in our biased states.
When a Warning Light goes off, I put myself into “debug mode”, making a special effort to observe and deconstruct my own thoughts as they arise. I become a detective, not casting judgment on any of my thoughts. I simply remain alert and on the lookout for any thoughts that deviate too far from a situational baseline.
As an example, here are 4 of my Warning Lights:
Feeling hyper-alert but uninterested in doing anything of value. Reading an article even remotely related to my goals becomes aversive.
Shortened attention span, gravitating towards passive and neurotic distraction like watching videos and playing online games.
I get irritated easily and want to isolate myself away from others.
Music I usually love becomes annoying.
When your Warning Light turns on, it is important that you face reality. Trust the systems your past self put into place. Take a step back and check-in with yourself: is this a false alarm or a signal that something deeper is amiss?
Think about your Warning Lights as a dashboard for your current mental state.
When stuck, we retreat into an avoidance mode, flinching away from discomfort. There is a weird part of us that seems to relish any excuse to do nothing. A persuasive-sounding internal voice assures us that we don’t really want to feel better, or that we deserve to relax. Change that narrative. A simple shift in posture from avoidance to curiosity will do wonders.
Be ready with a contingency plan and precommit to course correction at the first sign of danger. Every time a warning light is ignored, it becomes less effective in the future.
I promise you this: you will never regret taking action.
Step 3: Intervention
DEFCON 3: Turning Around an Off Day
I rate every day on a scale from 1 to 10. If I feel myself heading towards a 1/10, 2/10, or 3/10 day I will I run through the following checklists.
These checklists are the human equivalent of rebooting your device. In my experience, 90% of perceived crises will dissipate on their own.
1. Are you hungry, thirsty, or tired?
Eat a healthy snack, drink a large glass of water, and lay down for a short nap. If it is approaching your usual bedtime, cut your losses and go to bed early to put yourself in the best possible position for tomorrow.
We often misattribute the physiological to the psychological. These simple steps can quickly turn a day around or at least put you in a much better state to deal with it.
2. Do a mental checklist of your keystone habits.
Have you journaled, meditated, expressed gratitude and exercised today? If not, now is the perfect time, wherever you are.
Resistance will arise in the form of plausible excuses. Make a deal with yourself to commit to an amount so small you can’t say no. Meditate or do bodyweight exercises for 5 minutes. Pay attention to any physical or emotional shift afterwards.
3. Cut yourself off from sources of further damage.
Step away from all screens, blocking the internet if you have to. Find a reason to get outside, preferably in the sun. If getting outside is not an option, go into another room with more natural light.
You can change your state of mind by changing your context… if you improve your environment your mood will follow.
4. Listen to your favorite music.
Music is like an emotional cheat code, a guaranteed way to lift your spirits and transport you back to when you had a more positive state of mind.
5. Pick one task you have been avoiding and set a timer for 5 minutes.
Brainstorm ways that you could potentially get started on the task until the timer goes off. Give yourself full permission to go back to whatever you were doing beforehand.
A castle is just a bunch of rocks placed on top of each other one at a time. Shift your attention from the abstract ideal towards where to place the first rock.
DEFCON 2: Breaking Out of a Mini-Slump
Three off days in a row creates a streak that I refuse to let happen. When I mark down a 3/10 or lower for 2 days in a row, I take decisive action.
On Day 3, I clear my schedule as much as possible, lowering my expectations for output, and make restoring my mental baseline my only priority. I spend as much of my day as possible piling up guaranteed wins: activities that inspire me and replenish my energy reserves.
Here are 10 activities that have worked well for me in the past. Choose one category and commit to it next time you’re in a mini-slump.
1. Monk Mode: Do your morning routine before checking any devices.
Begin the day like it is going to be a perfect day. Wake up earlier than normal if you can. This works for any day but is especially important for a mental reset. I firmly believe that if I win the first hour, I win the day.
2. Commit to a shared workout.
Prepay for a group class or agree to meet a friend to bike or run at a pre-specified time. Motion creates emotion. You will automatically absorb some of the positive energy of those around you and putting on a positive public face will have self-signalling effects.
I find that yoga is ideal for shaking a negative mental state but really any movement works. The most important thing is that you pre-commit ahead of time so that you can’t talk yourself out of it.
3. Pay close attention to what you put in your body.
Cook a healthy meal for yourself or order the healthiest thing on the menu at one of your favorite restaurants. No food delivery! Drink herbal tea and consider going caffeine- free for the day. The better you treat your body, the better you will feel.
4. Indulge in some self-care to relax, recover and reduce stress.
My favorites in this category are getting a massage, visiting a sauna, taking an epsom salt bath, or floating in a sensory deprivation tank. These work best when you precommit to a time and structure them as a reward.
5. Meet (or call) a friend or family member generous enough to listen.
After the conversation, I usually realize that my problems are solvable, my feelings are normal, and that help is always available if I need it. Ask if you can check in with them in a few days with an update.
6. Do something generous and unsolicited for someone else.
You can start small by telling someone you love why you appreciate them. No need to pre-plan this, just be aware of opportunities to improve or brighten someone’s day. It is crazy how well this works.
7. Convert passive time wasting into something more productive.
Spend the day learning any topic or skill of your choice. Choose reading or participating over watching and spectating wherever possible.
8. Read old journal entries to take the outside view on your life.
Our best ideas already have been written down. Reading old entries provides elements that I have felt this way before and found ways to recover as well as provides the knowledge that what once stressed me out now seems trivial in hindsight. This too shall pass.
9. Go for a long walk.
This is a great opportunity to check out a new neighborhood or spend some time in nature if you have a park nearby. New stimuli create new mental associations.
10. Do anything that helps you experience the sublime.
It is important to be reminded of our mortality and insignificance on the cosmic scale. Our feelings can become too real and our personal history far too personal. Endless options in this category. A few easy ones include going to a museum, attend a show or concert, or watching a performer in a state of flow.
DEFCON 1: Breaking Out of a Prolonged Slump
You will know you are in a slump when you have felt “off” for a week or more. From the inside, it feels like blacking out, not being able to account for what you’ve done or where the time has gone. Nothing seems interesting, meaningful, approachable, or worthwhile.
It seems counter-intuitive, but I think very ambitious people are the most susceptible to the downward spirals that lead to extended slumps. The same driven focus and obsessiveness that leads to outsized outcomes can become ugly when turned to escapism, distraction, rumination, or self-sabotage. A low level of effectiveness becomes your new baseline reality. It becomes difficult to remember what it was like to be productive and fulfilled.
Left unchecked, your mood will destroy anything in its path. [Still taken from the magnificent Akira]
As before, our strategy depends upon recognizing the warning lights which signal that we are “in a funk” and a precommitment towards action whenever these warning lights are triggered. Only then can we begin to regain positive momentum and dig ourselves out.
As soon as a free day prevents itself, go through the following steps:
1. Change your immediate environment.
If you work from home, spend a day out of the house. If you work in an office, take a full weekend day to be as close to nature as possible. Limit outside stimuli by bringing just a notebook to brainstorm ideas and a favorite book.
2. Choose an exciting and challenging project and commit to a deadline.
More often than not, feeling stuck is a symptom of not having anything important and meaningful to work on. What is one thing that, if accomplished, would make your entire month a success? Take an entire day to decide on a project that excites you.
Pick an aggressive milestone to hit one week out and make a public commitment to ship something, even if it is just sending a draft or outline to a few friends for feedback.
Don’t come back until you have decided on what your next steps are.
3. Confide in a friend
When we become too socially isolated, we become closed systems and our negativity begins self-referencing, feeding upon itself. Talk to a friend or family member, in person if possible, and ask their advice — they will be honored that you chose them. Solicit their support in holding you accountable to making progress.
4. Consider getting professional help
We neglect our mental health at our own peril. Whatever you are going through is far from unique and there are many experienced therapists who can greatly speed up the process.
As finding a therapist who is a good “fit” can take some time, a bit of prevention goes a long way here. Do not be embarrassed to ask friends for a referral, ideally before you need it. Make sure you ask therapists about their “sliding scale” if you have budget constraints.
I found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to be an excellent investment when I was in a major slump last year. The basic techniques from CBT can be found in the book Feeling Good but the forcing function of having a professional guide you through the exercises is well worth the cost.
Everyone experiences dips in their productivity. Everyone has off days. What separates top performers is their ability to prevent and quickly recover from these dips. Every setback can be used as an opportunity to improve yourself and your systems.
What matters is not the quality of your A game, but the percentage of the time you manage to play it. Remember to recognize the Warning Lights, put a contingency plan in place ahead of time, and have the presence of mind to take decisive action. You will be back to playing your A game in no time.
Special thanks to Marianna Phillips for editing this post.