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How to Get Out of a Rut in About 20 Minutes

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If naturalists were studying me in my home, they’d quickly recognize my natural migratory cycle. I’ll work in my home office for several months, until my desk accumulates a horseshoe-shaped wall of unfiled papers and half-read books. Then I’ll move my laptop to the kitchen table and stop going in my office at all.

In the kitchen, whatever good habits I had start to break down. I begin work later, get less done, and interrupt myself more often. Each time I attempt to get something done I can feel the encroaching undergrowth of every other unstarted or unfinished project. A certain psychic encumbrance descends on my mind. Everything I do feels like it’s not the thing I need to be doing.

This spiral worsens for a month or two. At some point, I get fed up with everything being such a slog. I spend a day clearing my virtual and actual desktops, and the cycle starts anew.

This return to clarity feels pretty great. It’s like taking a shower after wandering the outback for eight weeks. Any acts of doing suddenly feel cleaner and more straightforward. Instead of reluctantly working on Item Q, while Items A through P crowd the edges of my vision as open Word documents and folded-under pages of legal pads, I can just open something, do it, and close it again.

Unsorted papers and files are only half the cruft that eventually gums up the productivity machine. At least as problematic are the piles of unsorted thoughts that accumulate over time.

Each time your mind goes, “Oh hey, I should maybe do something about X” a little dog-ear or sticky note forms somewhere in your consciousness. You’re not looking at it, but you know it’s there, and that being a responsible adult means you will at some point need to address it.

Once you’ve got a few hundred of these mental sticky-notes caking your inner bulletin board, a List of Items to Attend To becomes a Cloud of Indeterminate Stuff That’s Bothering Me. It’s no longer clear what you need to, or even how to figure out what you need to do. All that’s clear is that you’re functioning well below capacity and you need a vacation or something.

There are ways to clear the mental desktop. Alain de Botton advocates regularly conducting a ritual he calls “philosophical meditation.” In the quiet of early morning or late evening, you sit down with a pencil and paper, with the idea of filtering out the important stuff from your messy pile of unresolved thoughts.

You do this by asking yourself three questions:

  1. What am I anxious about?
  2. What am I upset about, and with whom?
  3. What am I currently feeling excited or ambitious about?

These questions are broad, and at first, the mind won’t have clear, explanatory answers. That’s okay. The questions will still trigger emotional responses — mental images and phrases will come to mind, and those are valuable clues. You’re supposed to write these fragments down, even if they don’t make much sense on their own.

For example, beneath “What am I anxious about?” you might write down: Floorboards. Jim and Anne and their lawn. Book mess. High school football.

Leave these cryptic responses unprocessed. The point is only to record some kind of hint about the main sore spots glimpsed by the mind when you reflect on the questions.   

Then, for each of the three big questions, you pass those hints through a second set of questions, with the purpose of teasing out what the real fears, desires, and needs are behind your anxiety, indignation, and excitement.

This second tier of questions is more pointed: What part of myself feels in danger here? for example, or How would the person I’d like to be deal with this? Their purpose is to help you see more clearly what’s really bothering you, beyond the initial associations and impressions. You don’t need to write down the answers, you can just talk them out with yourself.

(De Botton’s School of Life site offers a two-page downloadable guide covering the whole process and its questions. They also have a video.)

This simple process quickly turns the “cloud of stuff” back into concrete human concerns that you can name and understand. It doesn’t solve your problems, but dissolves any sense of being bogged down by unexamined concerns, precisely because you have just examined your concerns.

A session of philosophical meditation takes about twenty minutes, and it can save you days or weeks of aimlessness. In the guide they recommend doing this weekly, or even daily. I gain a lot from doing it periodically – about as often as I clear off my desk.


Photo by Cathryn Lavery

Ben April 28, 2020 at 1:55 am

If someone is looking for a more formal approach, the “getting things done” methodology is a step up from this.
I run my life on a toned down version, but whenever the cloud becomes too big and hazy, I switch it up to full gear.
Works well for me!

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 8:58 am

I thought about GTD a lot while writing this. There is an overlap between that process and this one but they are also a bit different. GTD’s aim is to get all of your to-do’s into a trusted system of reminders so that you can free yourself of the burden trying to remember all your intentions and responsibilities. Philosophical meditation is more about shining a light on the background major fears and concerns that are dominating your mind. I think they would make a great combination.

kiwano April 28, 2020 at 12:17 pm

Seeing this overlap between contemplative practice and productivity systems, reminds me quite strongly of my friend Tasshin ( https://tasshin.com/start-here/ ). I’d point these comments out to him if he weren’t on a solo cabin retreat — but since he is, it seems that the best I can do is to mention him in a reply, and see whether/how that increases the chances of a meaningful/fruitful connection…

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 12:31 pm

Thanks for this. Tasshin looks interesting and I’m looking forward to reading his work.

Rebecca May 13, 2020 at 7:25 am

The world of the internet and mindfulness is a lovely loop sometimes. David has mentioned a meditation mentor, Shinzen Young, in past posts who I then looked up. He in turn has been affiliated with a retreat center in Vermont that sparked my interest, and it just so happens that your friend appears to have a connection to that same retreat center. Serendipity, coincidence, whatever it is – it’s nice to come across unexpectedly.

Ben April 29, 2020 at 1:16 am

Bigger picture reflections are actually part of GTD in der form of weekly and “bigger picture” reviews.
People often miss this part; partly because they focus on the mundane details of the system and their day-to-day work, and partly because the newer editions of the book seem to skip over it swiftly (3 pages).
So “Each time your mind goes, “Oh hey, I should maybe do something about X”…” -> Note goes into Inbox

“1. What am I anxious about?” then simply becomes reviewing my inbox. The other two points are missing though and I will start integrating them at times.

The other two items are half-way covered during my weekly and bigger picture reviews, but I will integrate them in a more formalized matter. One more time my life becomes more mindful because of you!

Catrina April 28, 2020 at 2:28 am

I love the simplicity of those 3 powerful questions. Thank you also for the link to the 2-page guide, I have downloaded it.

Alan Mazzoni April 28, 2020 at 4:41 am

Now that I’m stuck inside with nothing on my mind but the pandemic, this is just what I needed to see in order to be productive again. I will start making my list and thank you for redirecting my mind.

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 9:03 am

I think a lot of people are feeling like this, especially if you’ve gone from working in a structured environment to working from home. I always work from home, therefore I’m always experiencing some level of confused slog

Ben April 29, 2020 at 1:17 am

Funnily, although working from home for 5 years now, it seems harder then during “normal” times to be productive.

Kimberly Coleman April 28, 2020 at 7:00 am

This is awesome, I really love the steps to breaking down the clogged up emotional work that needs done. Especially in the midst of anxiety induced lethargy. It only makes matters worse. Thank you much for bring this to my attention.

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 9:05 am

There should be a word for “anxiety induced lethargy.” I’ve been feeling a lot of that this last few months. Lethxiety?

Glenn B April 29, 2020 at 7:15 am

Thanks for your great work as always David. Your posts always hit the right spot at the right time.
I think “Anxargy” works better for me..

Veronica April 28, 2020 at 7:40 am

If your naturalists were studying me in my office-home, they’d quickly recognize my kinship to you. It feels like an Intervention has happened. My resolve is strong. Thank you for shoving me down a productivity path that I’ve allowed to become overgrown with unfinished “stuff.”

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 9:08 am

Godspeed Veronica!

Jio April 29, 2020 at 5:27 am

This overlaps quite nicely with Julia Cameron’s ‘morning pages’ idea. Honestly I think it would do us all some good just to start writing down our thoughts a little more.

Bobbi April 28, 2020 at 7:55 am

Once again, you nailed it! Just yesterday, I couldnt pinpoint why I was in such an idontknowwhat? I stopped to ask myself whats wrong? Whats different? But couldnt figure it out. This article & these questions really make sense to me. Thank you, David!

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 9:11 am

The pandemic situation is definitely having a widespread bogging-down effect on people’s minds. I have been feeling it bigtime, which is what led to this post.

Maureen April 28, 2020 at 8:04 am

I’d love it if you woukd consider writing a follow-up post that goes into more detail about what specifically to do in the second pass through. Thanks for your work. I always read what you share. Peace be with you. ✌️

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 9:12 am

Check out the guide in the link, it contains the whole process.

Marina April 28, 2020 at 8:39 am

Oh I can resonate with this. One of the challenges I’m working through is procrastination. When I took the time to ask myself, what am I afraid of?, the answer is profound. There’s a belief of undeservedness and being fearful of judgment. It was never about the excuses I came up with as to why I couldn’t get stuff done.

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 9:13 am

I know what you mean. Fear is interesting in that it can chase us all over the map but we often don’t even know what we’re afraid of until we stop and ask ourselves that. I guess that’s part of how fear works — whatever it is we fear, we’re afraid to look at it.

Jessica Marshall April 28, 2020 at 9:22 am

Ahhh such perfect timing. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve been feeling aimless and unmotivated for weeks, and both mental and physical clutter around the house has been piling up. Its definitely time for a ‘return to clarity’. I love the mental ‘de-cluttering’ process and will for sure start using it.

Barbara April 28, 2020 at 10:00 am

David, thanks for my new word!
oh, and incidentally, thanks for the new process (grin). I’ve been at home from my basic research job since 13 March 2020. Couldn’t bring home the mice and the 12 Tesla imaging machine, so I’m getting out of practice…and surrounded by home projects. My peripatetic habits have seen me setting up and abandoning at least five “desks” in my house in the twelve years we’ve lived here. I’ve built four horseshoe-shaped dikes of paper etc, and the fifth one is going strong, holding back all sorts of fear, built of physical unfinished “to-do” lists and clippings to send to friends. I thought that the 15+ hours a week I have gotten back by not bus commuting would be channeled into these projects. So far, the dogs have gotten more walks and the desks are still unconsolidated. That is a good balance. The dikes are strong enough for now. The important papers are safe. I’ll keep you posted.

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 2:51 pm

It’s one of my favorite words and there are so few opportunities to use it.

Patrick April 28, 2020 at 11:35 am

Newer reader and first time poster here. Suddenly working from home, attempting to homeschool a 7-year-old, and continuing with personal writing projects have left my desk and my mind a cluttered mess.
Thank you for the post and link to the Philosophical Meditation Guide. It’s good to add another tool to the toolbox. Digging deeper and asking better questions often provides such clarity and disarms those nagging problems that seem so scary.

David Cain April 28, 2020 at 3:01 pm

Welcome Patrick. I hope you find it helpful.

Robert Thilo April 28, 2020 at 11:53 am

One time, when I was really stuck on a meditation retreat, painfully stuck, at the interview time, the teacher instructed me to “meditate on my ‘sila'”.

What’s that?

‘Your virtue.”

I attempted to follow his direction. I relaxed and instantly “awoke” from my “stuckness”.

We see many “tricks to reset” as you have described here. I find the simplest reminders can be most powerful. Reset. Reboot. Gratitude list. Mini-Mental status exam. Who am I? Where? When? The list goes on. My first formal meditation instruction was (after many decades, still is). “Begin again.” A deep reservoir of energy is “re-discovered”.

Action! Mindful action. Bliss!

Thanks for another wonderful post!


David Cain April 28, 2020 at 3:06 pm

Hi Rob.

There is a fascinating relationship between the sila aspect of practice and the mindfulness/concentration aspect. I always thought the emphasis on morality and virtue was just a carryover from buddhism’s religious history, but it directly affects your ability to be with what’s happening. Leigh Brasington suggests people begin concentration with a little bit of metta practice, even just thirty seconds. It works like magic. It releases some kind of neediness or grasping that gets in the way.

Olga April 29, 2020 at 12:33 am

David, thank for thу article, i wonder if you could recommend any special meditation to use before work? I’ve heard about this practice at Harward at the moment, when they teach online, they dedicate the first 10 min to the concentration and meditation practice. When I sit to my computer i just can’t start working, i find thousand unimportats things to do. What i know for sure i that when i start, i work well and with pleasure. But how to start? :) thanks in advance

David Cain April 29, 2020 at 10:07 am

There are many methods of meditation, and the best one to start with is one that you’re willing to do consistently.

You could try a breath concentration practice, or a choiceless awareness practice. I linked a few starting points here: https://www.raptitude.com/2020/03/a-complete-guide-to-actually-getting-somewhere-with-meditation/

I will also say that there’s nothing you can do that will remove all your resistance to starting working, except to just start. I experience the same thing every day — I resist starting, and at some point I start, and I wonder why I didn’t earlier.

Mel G April 29, 2020 at 11:22 pm

Well this came to me at just the right time! Thank you
I have the 2 ‘spaces’ for work, I feel bombarded with emails, screen exhausted, Zoom and teams meetings out and feeling in need of a complete work change.
The 3 questions and deeper dive have given a boost for me and thanks also to Robert in the comments for the great phrase ‘begin again’. That’s exactly what I am going to do right now! Gotta dash, things to do!

Victoria Yazlle April 30, 2020 at 6:23 am

David, thank you very much! It has been very mobilizing to do the exercise. And just in time. Thanks for the link too!

Ryan May 2, 2020 at 8:29 pm

Hey, David. Love your work. Come here often when I’m trying to find some prospective. Never disappointed. Inspiration can be fleeting, though. Any thoughts on how this principle might apply to those of us that are currently unemployed and thinking/hoping for a fresh start when this all over with?

My rut is running about 12 years now! Loaded question, I know. Maybe not appropriate for this article. Anyhoo, you’re wise beyond your years and I’ll take any tidbit offered. Perhaps a link to an old piece of yours will do? Be well, sir.

David Cain May 3, 2020 at 10:04 am

Hi Ryan. I think the philosophical meditation exercise is appropriate regardless of the circumstances. It doesn’t solve problems though, but that’s not its purpose. It allows you to see more clearly where you may want to act next.

Samantha May 5, 2020 at 1:02 pm

As everyone else has commented. I want to leave a thank you! I’ve been stuck recently and ended up thinking a lot about productivity systems – and how most of them seem to just end up another to-do list item that just adds work without getting the real work done. This sounds like a great way to cut through the BS and get moving again.

paintbynumber photo May 20, 2020 at 10:15 am

David, thank you very much! It has been very mobilizing to do the exercise. And just in time. Thanks for the link too!

irma may June 4, 2020 at 1:07 pm

There are those who have changed the office to work at home. The reasons for this are usually dissatisfaction with the office, the staff, the salary. each of us is looking for something that is beneficial for him. But people are more social. I worked at home during the quarantine. It’s a nightmare! not enough morning coffee with colleagues, our lunches and darts. We have an amazing and friendly team. I miss and dream that we will work together again.

greyt June 5, 2020 at 4:36 pm

Thank you David ! I like your post. It’s inspiring.
Working from home wouldn’t be good for me. I was at home during the quarantine period. It was horrible. I missed so much communication. Communication is the experience for me.

I got a job at starbucks the week before the quarantine It became possible with starbucks interview questions https://mrsimon.ai/interview-questions/starbucks/. I was waiting for the quarantine to end. I am back to work and my work inspires me !

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