There is an anecdote that sums up how many of us behave. It comes from a study by the great behaviouralist BF Skinner, Superstition in the Pigeon.
Although it hurts my heart to read about animal experiments, this one is sadly comical because it’s so apposite.
Skinner put hungry pigeons in cages and put food into the cages at random intervals. When the pigeons later got hungry again, most of them started doing the exact action they were doing at the moment when the food first arrived. If they were hopping from foot to foot, they would start doing that again. If they were squawking or bobbing their head, turning in strange circles, they would start repeating the bizarre action as if they could influence events. It seemed the pigeons had ascribed a make-believe cause and effect.
There by the grace of God go all of us, hopping about on one leg, flapping, chirping, singing for our supper or simply doing an elaborate mating dance, wondering and praying if certain actions will bring providence upon us once again. Most likely not.
Like any baseless premise, even if the behaviour did bring us reward many attempts ago (or even many years ago), or some intermittent reward, it’s probably outdated — and we’re left in a rut.
A very human model of this is seen in chess. The Einstellung effect refers to the tendency to repeat a known solution or behaviour based on previous experience, even if it is no longer optimal. It’s a cognitive bias — a psychological rut — that blinds us to possibilities of better problem solving. In short, it’s letting a good enough result stop us from getting a great one. Or a stagnancy in logic, where we can’t think or act creatively because we basically can’t see what we can’t see.
I’m reflecting on ruts in behaviour and thinking because over winter many people I spoke to seemed to feel they were stuck — flapping their pigeon wings and going through the motions out of rote habit in a narcoleptic fashion rather than from true purpose. Now that spring has sprung, many friends are expressing renewed hope and a determination to try something new; to break old patterns; take a risk; move away from the seduction of the familiar.
So how do we know we are in a rut and how do we create a rut-buster? According to a recent article in ForbesMagazine, “There are times when we accidentally slip into autopilot and begin coasting in life … if you’re just riding along not putting in any extra effort for yourself or your life — that is classified as a rut.”
Peg Streep, author of the book Mastering the Art of Quitting, says a rut is feeling like you are trapped on a hamster wheel, spinning in circles.
“Human beings are hardwired to have persistence, which may be helpful when life is going well but sabotages our happiness when we are moving in a negative direction,” she warns.
One psychologist friend describes a rut as “a form of anhedonia (a psychological state of feeling no joy), where lethargy overtakes us, and dancing, laughing, singing, watching movies doesn’t elicit any emotional buzz. When sex can lead one’s mind to a shopping list.” Another friend says: “Nothing captivates me. I dream of escape, go on the holiday, but return not feeling refreshed; nothing has changed.”
For me, being in a rut is feeling desensitised, burned out, not plugged into any energy source. My humour dries up.
So what to do about it? What are good rut-busters? In her book, Streep says that to get out of your rut, “understand what keeps you in it. You may be caught in your comfort zone, a situation that feels familiar because of your early childhood experience.” Such a zone can still be harmful if it’s holding you back. Understanding where your responses are coming from is a first step towards getting yourself on the move.
She says another important step is not to give in to the “sunk-cost fallacy”. Focusing on what you’ve invested, such as time, money, love and effort, may keep you stuck. Don’t pour good money after bad — or, as I would otherwise phrase it, knowing when to cut helps you break your rut.
For me, the first step out of a rut is accepting my bad feelings as positives. I let negative emotions such as jealously, envy and regret “inform” me of what it is I really want, so I can go out and do it or get it. I also admit to and accept other uncomfortable feelings such as fear: fear of success, failure, change or the sheer energy it will take to do something new. I admit to self-doubt and take note of my negative self-talk. Naming our demons out loud can take away their power.
My next step is focusing on positive feelings and observations by writing things down, keeping a journal of ideas to see if I can capture anything in the day that inspires or motivates me.
I try to do a new thing every day: any small meaningful action can lead to more actions and chance encounters and stir up universal energy. New experiences also can help you grow new neural pathways, according to neuroscientists. Change small things such as hair, try new food, drive new streets; even changing the way you walk — where you place your feet on the ground — can start the ball rolling.
Remember that rut is different from routine, although they have root letters in common. Routines can be excellent ways of providing a structure that makes a vision achievable once you’ve defined your goal. And defining the big picture is of utmost importance for motivation. Look at your end goal first, advises Forbes Magazine. “One way to snap out of (a rut) is to always remember what you want. Want to be in the best shape of your life for that upcoming college reunion? Remember you want that much more than you want to skip the gym tomorrow morning.”
Experts I’ve talked to have a variety of dos and don’ts. Beware of procrastination, distractions and escapisms. We can’t stop procrastinating completely but at least acknowledge it, do it for a while, then get back on track.
A friend who is a life coach says: “Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting the bar too high; chunk it down into doable steps and always acknowledge the smallest achievement.”
To get out of a mind rut, redefine the problem, try sleeping on it, do exercise. Perhaps go away for a short holiday as a circuit-breaker to help shift a mental block. Bring in outsiders, people with fresh perspectives. Don’t give in to the Einstellung effect.
Mix with the people who are going to motivate you, experts advise. As one saying goes, we are a sum total of the people we mix with. Inspiration is contagious. Above all, listen to your own heart. Your instinct knows where you should be heading. My motto: “Use your gut to get out of the rut.”
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