Have I ever told you about the first time in my adult life that I felt stuck in a rut? I want to share that story with you and three steps to make your own path and move toward the life you dream of living.

What to do when you're stuck in a career rut.

It was the morning after Christmas. I was 30 years old lying in bed and reflecting on what a wonderful day it was for our family the day before. The food, the time spent together, and the presents were memorable. I chuckled thinking about how my kids used to be more excited about the boxes than the toys themselves. Why spend all that money on Christmas presents when we could have gone to the nearest U-Haul or Walmart and bought boxes?

That’s when it hit me. We just spent twelve months cutting costs and paying off a maxed-out credit card. That should be a triumph except that in one holiday the credit card was back where it started. I was looking at another twelve months and repeating that process every year. This was the realization that I was in the Rat Race. If nothing changed, I was looking at a life of debt, commute, work, pay bills, back in debt, commute, work, and you get the picture.

Below summarizes the three-phase journey I went through to get out of my own ruts in life and work. My hope is that what took me a decade to figure out will get you out of your rut sooner than that.

Phase 1: Recognize You’re Stuck in a Career Rut

The first thing we need to do when addressing an issue is to know that we have an issue. When I had my moment at the age of 30, there was a crushing weight on my shoulders metaphorically speaking. Looking back on that moment, I’m able to see I took some steps to recognize that I was in a rut. I did this by looking at my Five F’s and pointing out the fear that was holding me back.

The Five F’s

The Five F’s are pillars in our lives that I feel are worth considering when we try to determine if we are living a life that is well-lived. They are Faith, Family, Fitness, Finances, and Future Success/Possibility. 

When you work to pinpoint the source of your rut, take time to consider how your faith or purpose journey is going. How are your connections with your family and friends? Are you getting sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly? How are your finances, and what are you spending your money on? What does your future look like if nothing changes?

You may be thinking, “I know what the problem is. My job sucks! I just need to get a new job!” While it may be true that your job sucks, it’s worth going through this exercise to determine why you think it sucks. Your outlook on your work life may be influenced by the fact that life at home is not doing well. It may be that life at home is not going well because of medical bills.

Use the Five F’s to help find out the root cause of your rut. It could be one thing. It could be many things. Knowing what you are facing helps you decide where to eventually take decisive action.

What Are You Holding Onto Out of Fear That is Holding You Back?

I love ultralight backpacking for the challenge of going into the wilderness with a pack that is inherently lighter than what the typical backpacker would carry. It’s minimalist in nature forcing you to think about what you really need and rely on what you know.

There is a saying among ultralight backpackers that we tend to “pack our fears.” I once met a hiker at a trailhead. His pack was heavy and bulky, and he shared that he liked to bring all the comforts of home with him on these trips. Nothing wrong with that at all. Hike your own hike. 

What caught my attention about this hiker was that his tall hiking stick had a sheathed knife at the top of it.

“You hike with a spear?” I asked him.

“Yes! …Well, I keep a blade at the end of my hiking stick in case I run into hogs out here. Just in case,” he replied. It was definitely too much. That state park did not have hogs in it nor did it have any sightings of coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, or Bigfoot for that matter. He was prepared for a fight with wildlife, and it was evident with his homemade spear, backup machete at his hip, and backup survival knife on the shoulder strap of his pack.

It’s a small thing, but his pack was likely filled with a lot of “just in case” items that weighed heavily on his shoulders and slowed him down. 

The point is that as you go through the Five F’s, also ask yourself if there is anything you’re holding onto that is holding you back in these areas. Are you enduring a toxic work environment because you’re afraid it will look bad if you leave, or that you will take a financial hit without that steady paycheck? Are you avoiding the pursuit of a dream, because you’re worried people will think you’re a fraud?

Phase 2: Understand Where You Want to Go

Another hiking philosophy I also like to live by is to “look up and look forward.” When hiking on a trail, it’s easy to focus on the rocks and roots that can trip you. The result is missing out on seeing wildlife and scenery that will put you in a state of awe and admiration for nature.

Life is not that much different really. If you take the time to look up and look forward, you get to see the beauty and opportunity that is happening all around you.

Create a Vision

Take out a sheet of paper and a pen, and spend about fifteen minutes pouring out all the things you want to do in your life if money and time were no object. Where would you want to travel? What would you like your family life to be? How would you want to change the world? Who do you want to help during your life? What kind of work would you really like to do if you’re not already doing it?

You now have the ingredients for a life vision statement. Write out a mission and vision for your life, something you really want to achieve in your lifetime. Don’t write out something you think will impress others. You only need to impress and inspire yourself on this.

What did you come up with? Share it in the comments.

Inventory What You Already Have

This part of the process tends to be eye-opening for me. You already have what you need to start towards your next level. You may not have everything required to get to the next level, but you have enough to get started.

Take time to brainstorm the skills, strengths, and talents you already have. You may also want to consider what you have in the areas of those Five F’s. While you’re at it, take this time to update your resume as well. You may be surprised at what you have learned and accomplished over the past few months or years at your current job.

Create some SMART Goals

You know now where you want to go and where you are. Write your goals onto paper now using the SMART model, Specific, Measurable, Achievable (by you), Reasonable/Relevant, and Time-bound (a deadline). I recommend having no more than three goals at a time. Include with your goals the daily activities that will build momentum and the weekly, monthly, and annual milestones to measure success. You have to be able to measure progress to know if you are on the right track or need to make a course adjustment.

You should also create some guardrails for your boundaries. What are the things you will do all the time? What are the things you will never do?

Phase 3: Take Action to Make Your Own Path

This is where you do the work and do it daily. You should know from your SMART Goals what needs to get done and by when. 

Another thing to consider is when will you do the work. If it’s job-related, that’s easy. If it’s personal development, you need to set aside personal time. I highly recommend having one to two hours in the morning set aside just for your own personal growth. Some people have a set routine. I’m more of a “do what you want for two hours that includes reading, writing, exercise, prayer, etc.” kind of guy.

Room to Be Human

Many people give up on goals because they feel that all is lost when you miss just one day. Having goals does not mean you have to become a perfect machine. Goals are the targets that help you map out the actions you’ll take each day. 

As an avid hiker who has U.S. Army training in land navigation skills, I still lose my bearings from time to time. I use those skills to reorient myself to where I am and where I want to go, then I’m back on track and going in the right direction. Sometimes, I realize I need to backtrack a little to get on the right path. Other times I need to go forward a little more and make a turn.

The same is true for life when pursuing goals. Measuring your progress lets you know if you need to backtrack, go a little further, or abandon the trail altogether for something better aligned for you. All good things, and nothing worth beating yourself up over. The point is that you are moving toward your desire to be a better version of yourself based on your values and your vision for success.

If faced with a setback, simply draw a line and declare that today is a brand new day. Do just one thing towards your goal with your brand new day.

Winning in Life is a Marathon

In line with giving yourself room to be human, know that you don’t have to win every single day to succeed. You just need consistency.

Real estate sales trainer, Brian Buffini from Buffini and Company, once taught me that consistency does not always mean every single day, but enough days together to build momentum. His model for marketing was reaching so many people by phone, in-person, and personal notes each day with a warm touch and a reminder that he was “never too busy for your referral.”

His formula for success:

  • Do those touchpoint activities to win the day
  • Win four out of five business days to win the week
  • Win three weeks out of four to win the month
  • Win ten months out of twelve to win the year

He would say something to the effect of, “If you achieve that formula above, you’ll have a banner year!” Most days, most weeks, and most months are what drive consistency. You’re in this life for the long haul, and it’s important to think that way.

Conclusion

There you have it. To get yourself out of your rut, follow the 3 Phase Approach.

  • Recognize the rut
  • Understand where you want to be
  • Take action to make a new path

As you give yourself the grace to build consistency, you’ll find yourself out of your rut and living the life you always dreamed of living.

You can download the FREE reflective activity “Getting Out of a Rut” and walk through questions that will help you in addition to what we discussed here. Go live life beyond the rut.

What to Do When You’re Stuck in a Career Rut

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