How to get out of a creative rut


Originally posted to Quora.

What does it mean to be “in a rut”?

By definition, a rut is a deep track made by the repeated passage of a person or thing. It’s like going out for a walk every day of your life and always taking the same path. Over time that path becomes worn and deep, no matter whether it’s over rock, dirt, snow, or sand. The path will show and its edges will be notably tall.

Your brain is filled with ruts. When you were younger you began to see the world and learn things, over time the more you saw similar things or experiences the same thing, your brain began to develop patterns or ruts to make accessing that information easier to do. Like waking the same path every day, the more you think in the same patterns the deeper those patterns get.

Over time the ruts we find ourselves thinking in have really tall walls in our mind (figurately speaking). Often these walls can be hard to break from or see over. We lead ourselves into believing that there’s nothing else outside of our tried and truth paths. We’ve been thinking this way for so long, and it’s worked out pretty well so far, why try anything else?

The result is of course we start realizing that the path we’ve been taking maybe isn’t the most ideal, or that it doesn’t get us where we always want to go. But the walls are so high now! How do you get out of a rut? How do you glimpse over the edges of thinking you’ve created for yourself?

You get out of a mental rut the same way you get a vehicle out of a real rut.

First, stop spinning your wheels. If you feel as though your efforts aren’t getting you anywhere, take a break and reserve your energy for what comes next.

Try rocking back and forth. When a car is stuck in mud or snow, it can be helpful to slowly rock the vehicle back and forth until you can get traction to get moving again. The same method can be applied to your thinking. Mentally rock back and forth by thinking about where it is you want to go (out of the rut, into a new space) and where it is you’re coming from (your past experience in this area). Keep jumping back and forth between where you want to go and where you’re coming from and you may find yourself surprised by what insights make themselves known as a result.

Finally, give yourself a wedge. Probably my favorite technique for getting out of a rut: find something sturdy to put under your wheels and help you get traction and point it in the direction you want to go. What’s this mean for your brain? It can be anything new or different, support from a friend or peer, or just a quick mental thinking exercise.

Go somewhere you’ve never been before and spend some time doing whatever it is you want to do there. Try a new dish at your favorite restaurant. Start a new hobby (I recommend trying Online Classes by Skillshare for a week). Pick up an old hobby. Try using a different tool or resource than you usually do before. Anything you can do differently to wedge a gap between where you are and the edge of your rut. My favorite thing in this arena is small creative challenges. I actually wrote a book filled with 150 of them to help you get unstuck (you can check it here: The Creativity Challenge if you’re interested, but you can also just Google “creative thinking exercise” online to find hundreds for free).

You’ll find that getting out of a rut is surprisingly easy to do once you understand what a rut is in the first place. A rut is simply a path that’s been dug deep, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get out of, it just takes a little work. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a great article on getting out of a rut for vehicles, I’d challenge you to try and see how the advice relates to mental ruts too: 4 Ways to Pull a Truck from the Mud.