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Getting out of a Rut at Work

June 10, 2016 by Dr. Jon Warner in Self-Esteem

Getting out of a Rut at Work

It would be nice to think that all of our working days are almost always entirely enjoyable and that our tasks give us a high level of satisfaction and fun most of the time. Unfortunately, most people experience problems at work from time to time, including getting frustrated, feeling bored, losing focus, lacking motivation and many other feelings of general listlessness, which can sap our energy and make us highly unproductive. And when this starts to become a regular pattern, it can begin to feel like a “slump” or a “rut” and we begin to wonder how we can ever get out of it (especially when the rut lasts for days, weeks, or even months). Perhaps even worse, while being in a rut for a day or even a week is tolerable, a lingering slump can be detrimental to anyone’s feeling of wellbeing, physical health and even feelings of overall career success. This is when some people start to become disengaged and either “retire on the job” or start looking around for a new internal or external role (assuming that the market is there to get one of course). 

When you’re stuck in a longer-term work rut, ignoring the problem and simply hoping it will pass or steadfastly trying to push through the feeling isn’t really a viable solution. Instead, in this article we are going to recommend that every individual should deal with the situation head-on and with as much realism as possible. Here are therefore four things you can do to address your work rut and to become motivated again: 

1. Conduct a Realistic Self-Evaluation

Getting into a rut doesn’t just happen – it usually arises over time and as a result of several discernable factors. The first step is therefore to take a step back and to think carefully about what issues contributed to your slide into the slump. The “trick” here is to list all the changes around you in recent weeks or months that may have contributed to your more negative feelings both at work and possibly beyond the work environment. In fact, research shows that personal stress at home or with family members (financial worries, family member sickness, relationship difficulties with a spouse etc.) can have a massive impact at work, especially when they are left to fester unaddressed over an extended period of time. Having said this, if most of the factors are workplace based (your boss, your colleagues, the type of tasks you have been given, getting little or no recognition etc.) then these factors need listing and weighting for their potential contribution to the situation.

Once you have started to clearly identify what might be several contributory factors, you can start to look at the impact on both your physical and emotional wellbeing as a result.  For example, you may have been working longer hours at work (so as to get out of a negative atmosphere at home more) or taking no vacation time off or even obtained a second job so as to earn more money (so as to pay off some debts) which may well have affected your physical health. Similarly, you may have been visiting a faraway parent every day before you go to work or afterwards and are experiencing considerable mental exhaustion from all the worry. In either case the reflective audit recommended here helps to pinpoint some of the “triggers” to your current feelings and offer possible ways to change things in the future. This might be to consciously take more time to rest during the day, get more frequent uninterrupted sleep, or just make healthier eating decisions, for example. 

2. Plan time off or even a mini-break

As part of the refection exercise and as a generally effective way to get a quick “change of scene”, time off from work for an extended vacation of just a “mini-break” of a few days can help considerably. This may not mean travelling anywhere but it does mean staying away from the workplace and changing your routine as much as you can and giving yourself time to explore and re-group. Although it might take more than a couple of days, this allows you to start asking yourself “what if” questions. These include what if I changed roles inside the organization, what if I looked for a new job/company/career and what motivates me the most when I am working and why, etc.? These, and questions like it, get your mind to open up to possibility and start to create what might be called “viable mental ladders” out of your current rut. 

3. Focus on What You can do Differently

While both reflective time and a lengthy “escape” from normal day-to-day work for a while will help an individual to gain new perspectives, it can also create a feeling that many tasks, duties and responsibilities are “weighing me down” and are “a primary cause of the rut I’m in”. In fact, most people who have been in ruts and slumps at work in the past often report feelings of being overwhelmed by either too much work or with difficult tasks that are frustrating for a variety of reasons. As a result, part of our attempts to get out of our rut have to be on ways in which we can tackle our current task list differently. What this usually means in practice is prioritizing what must be worked upon first and foremost, what tasks can be delegated (or at least third-party help sought in order to complete them) and what tasks can be dropped altogether. The beauty of this simple approach is that it almost immediately helps to reduce feelings of stress and overwhelm (even before it is acted upon) and lessens the natural feelings of inadequacy, which have been damaging the individual’s productivity further. In other words a simple sorting out of what you can realistically do differently in the near term creates its own boost to help propel you out of the rut. 

4. Identify the Major Root Cause(s) and Change it Up

By this stage, time to reflect and focus on all the tasks and responsibilities in your life should have created much greater clarity about what may have caused you to get into a rut and is probably keeping you there. However, not all contributory factors are likely to have similar weight and it should also have become clearer that one or two factors are the major root cause or causes of the current situation and it is these that need most attention to change them. For example, it may be that you have been ignoring or carrying a low performing employee, struggling to understand a new boss or his or her style/approach or (outside work) been ignoring a clear need to get a part-time carer for your ailing parent or relative. Put another way, it is often the case that ruts come about because we put off important decisions about situations that are causing us considerable and ongoing worry and need a new strategy to deal with it. These are often not easy decisions to make (and that’s why people put them off or defer them) but they are important ones that will remove a huge weight from your shoulders, once taken.

In summary then, no matter what the root cause or causes for your workplace rut and no matter how long you may have felt this way, no-one should try to just “sit it out” or “hope that it will pass”. It is much better to face up to the need to change things (even if it is only in small ways) and follow each of the four steps described above. In the end, every individual has it within his or her power to get back on track. It just needs a little focus and willpower and life will be quickly transformed.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. TiffanyJune 15, 2016 at 3:23 am

    Valuable four step plan. It is so easy to dismiss the unhappiness of being stuck in a rut. It is so much healthier to search for the root cause and make adjustments.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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