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What Are You Not Doing?

Closeup of car ruts in dry road mud

As creative people, or maybe even as just people, we all get stuck in a rut. We seem to go through cycles where there just seems to be a cloud following us around, affecting our mood (and probably our work) wherever we go.

These cycles are interesting to observe, especially in hindsight (which, is often the only time we can have clarity about them). Because, it is only with clarity that we can have any hope of doing anything about them.

I have adopted a new practice that I have found to be tremendously helpful in the times where the cycle is at its lowest. That is, those times when everything feels like a struggle. When it feels like you are the one that has to supply all of the energy to get anything done, and nothing is supplying it back. In an extreme sense, your daily work has morphed into a sisyphean ritual of sustained effort with little to nothing positive to show for it.

When these times hit me now I look at them as an opportunity to pause. When everything around me feels bad, I like to take a minute, come up to periscope-depth, and take a look around. Most often, the cause of my malaise is me.

Now, I don’t mean this in a self-deprecating way, I mean that I am actually the one empowered to affect change in this situation, and it is up to me to decide to do it. To put it more simply, if I am stuck in a rut, most likely the rut is simply the natural result of doing the wrong thing(s) for long enough of a period of time. And, when I notice these times happening, the gift in taking a pause is that I can actually see what I am doing, as well as what I can do differently in order to affect some sort of change.

Having been through this cycle lots and lots of times, I can tell you that, most often, the best cure is for me to do something. Often, just doing anything different can be a huge help, because it at least opens up new possibilities and allows me to look at my current situation through a different lens.

Other times, though, I realize that the cause for my situation is because there is precisely something I should do and I am not doing it. Sometimes, I am simply not aware of a (better) choice that I can make, other times I have just been too afraid to do what I needed to. Fear is a funny thing. Although it seems to be helping you by protecting you from danger, often its side-effect is that it holds you back from where you need to go. This holding-back causes stagnation, and stagnation causes burnout.

OK, all of that is well and good, but what does it really mean? Well, here is an example. About a year ago, I found myself in one of these down-cycles. I took the time to stop just continuing going through the motions and actually pause and reflect on what I was doing. I realized that the source of my problem was that I had to fire a client. The problem was, these clients were not bad people, in fact I kind of liked them, as people. But, when it came to the work, they were demanding, fickle, inconsistent (one day they want X, and the next day they think X sucks and want Y instead, only to decide that X truly was right on the following day). Plus, they were late-payers, and I always was worrying that I would get stiffed on every invoice I sent to them (and, I only got paid through hounding them, sometimes for weeks).

What I realized was that I was miserable, I was probably doing crappy work, and I was stuck in a rut. I had lost all of my enthusiasm and drive to work on this project, and instead, was just running on will-power, a sure short-cut to burnout for me. What I also realized was that the problem in this whole scenario was me. This client had given me way, way more than enough evidence to prove they were a bad client and that they would certainly misbehave again. Yet, I took it. I took it day after day, month after month. What I realized was that my problem was me, and until I did what I knew I had to do (kindly, but directly, end this client relationship), nothing was going to get any better.

Once I did this, everything changed, almost overnight. The energy to do what I was doing all came rushing back. I realized by simply doing what I knew, deep down, I had to do (yet, from fear, had been avoiding for way too long) my situation completely turned around. By being in this rut, I was being handed the opportunity to solve my own problem. Because, why else would I have done it? Clearly, I would only fire this client if I was forced to, so that is exactly what happened.

It is always the right thing to just “do something” to get out of a rut? Well, of course not. But, more often than not I would say, ruts are a sign that there is something out there for you, something different, but in order to access it, you need to DO something different first.

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