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When a Routine Becomes a Rut: How to Dig Yourself Out

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It can happen almost before you know it: You wake up at the same time every day, follow the same route to work, and perform the same job you’ve done for years. At the end of the day, you come home and make a meal you’ve made a million times before, watch your favorite television show, and go to bed at the same time you always do. There’s nothing like the feeling that you’re living out your own version of the movie Groundhog Day to make you realize that you’re in a world-class rut. 


Being in a rut doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unhappy—there’s a certain comfort in having a stable and predictable routine. But whether your rut is at work, in your relationship, or in your personal life, when your usual regimen starts to make you feel as if you’re sleepwalking through life, it might be time to snap back to attention. 


Wallowing at Work
A work rut usually comes from feelings of complacency. Once you’re proficient at your job, it’s easy for that lack of constant challenges to turn into a lack of excitement in general. Even if you like your job and your coworkers, doing the same thing day in and day out can easily get boring and make you feel distracted or uninspired. 


It may seem daunting, but one way to lift yourself quickly out of a rut is to talk to your boss about it. Most managers will welcome the opportunity to counsel and advise their employees, and there’s no need to wait until the annual review period. Explain that you’ve started to feel like your work is becoming routine, and your manager might be able to help you come up with ways to challenge yourself. You may be able to assist in a different department or take on new projects, or there may be other ways in which you can step out of your comfort zone and master a new, unfamiliar skill. Your manager can also tell you about steps you could take to improve your performance. 


Another way to rekindle your enthusiasm for your job is to stay abreast of happenings in your industry. Follow trade publications, blogs, and Web sites for the latest news. By keeping up to date on the doings of the movers and shakers in your field, you just might find more motivation to excel in your own career. Some experts recommend trying to recapture professional excitement by treating your job like the first day of school—invest in a few new pieces of work clothing to eliminate the familiar feeling of your old, casual clothes, and pick up a few new supplies, such as desk accessories. Even “redecorating” your workspace with different pictures, a new plant, or some other personal mementos can be enough to help you reengage. 


Rev Up Your Relationship
At the beginning of a relationship, people spend their time together eating, drinking, socializing, and traveling (that is, when they’re not gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes). Once things become comfortable and familiar, though, that “we” time is more likely to be spent folding laundry, balancing the checkbook, and reorganizing the guest room. We know about the biochemical changes that occur when we’re in love, and just as variety is the spice of life, novelty is the spice of relationships. If you and your partner are feeling more like amiable roommates, don’t let work or other obligations become more important than your relationship. Make little changes, like resolving to enjoy breakfast together at home, instead of at work, or instituting a “no television during dinner” rule. These small time-outs from other distractions will allow you to talk, focus on each other, and stay attuned to each other’s lives. Most relationship experts recommend scheduling a weekly or monthly “date night,” but it’s not enough just to take the time. It’s important to do something that requires participation and communication—no movies allowed. Even a regular appointment to enjoy a cocktail at happy hour or a regular afternoon lunch date can make all the difference in the world. 


Although not everyone’s budget or schedule can accommodate standard suggestions like “travel more” or “take up a hobby together,” something that everyone can do is simply turn off the television. Spend your time with your partner actually interacting, whether it’s by talking, playing cards, tackling a household project together, or doing other chores as a team. Even something as mundane as grocery shopping can become enjoyable and exciting if you visit a local farmers’ market and jointly plan your weekly menu. By turning a humdrum chore into an enjoyable outing, it can become one of your favorite activities of the week. 


Shake It Up
In your personal life, it can be hard to take actions that are big enough to make an impact on your happiness yet don’t impact your wallet or your already paltry amount of free time. Rather than taking on a big challenge, like learning a foreign language or losing a significant amount of weight, start small by tweaking your routine to make your usual tasks seem unfamiliar. Instead of working out at night, try going to the gym on your lunch break, or change up your exercise program by trying a new activity. Instead of eating the same thing for lunch each day, resolve to sample one new dish per week. Take a different route to work, scour cookbooks or the Internet for inspiration for new dinner ideas, or rearrange a room in your house to make the space seem fresh. It’s not about making huge life changes; it’s about stepping out of the everyday routine that makes things feel dull. And if all else fails, generations of women can attest to the transformational power of a new hairdo. 


To fix a run-of-the-mill rut, small actions are often all that’s needed, but sometimes a rut is an indication that some of your needs aren’t being addressed. If a simple fix doesn’t work, a more drastic approach—like a new job, a new home, or a new relationship—might be necessary. 


Often, taking the first step toward making small changes is enough to jump-start renewed enthusiasm about your life. Don’t let a rut get so ingrained that it’s impossible to get out of, and remember to keep your life full of variety so that a rut can’t take hold. And remember what renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said: “One can choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

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