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The Rut Principle

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Since spring I’ve been training for my first half-marathon, and during the past month I’ve slipped behind the program. The trouble began when I missed a two consecutive Sunday runs – the longest and most important runs of the week — due to a combination of bad weather and general cowardice.

The simplest way to recover from this lapse would have been to do more running. I missed some miles. No big deal — I could make them up, or just resume the schedule the next day, and still be fine for the race. And I could aid this recovery effort by cleaning up my nutrition a bit and getting more sleep.

That is what a rational individual would do, anyway. In the weeks since the lapse, I’ve been running even less, eating more junk, and staying up later. My short runs began to feel like long ones, and I stopped doing the long ones altogether. Then I caught a cold and took another week off to recover.

This extended sort of lapse is what you could call a rut. The initial trouble was just a bump or a pothole – a jarring and unpleasant spot, but not a problem if you just focus on staying on the road until you’re past it. Instead, I veered into the soft ditch, the wheels sunk in, and soon I couldn’t seem to get back onto the road under my own power. I felt like I had to wait until conditions allowed me to get the wheels back onto the pavement, which means plodding along in the mud until the rut shallows out again on its own.

I think that’s what defines a proper rut—a loss of momentum so thorough that simply resuming what you were doing, as you might have after a single bad day, no longer seems like an option. Instead you feel like you have to work your way back to your regular programming, by way of a long and convoluted detour.

There may have been a time in your life, for example, when it was a matter of course for you to read before bed, or go to the gym regularly, or make plans each weekend, and now you can’t seem to get back into the routine, even though you would like to. But just picking up a book, just inviting someone over – it doesn’t seem plausible, not right now. You will get back to it—you’re sure of that—but not quite yet. It feels like something else has to happen first.

Ruts can be years long – that near-decade in which you didn’t touch the piano at all — or just a few days – you ordered out Tuesday instead of cooking, did it again Wednesday, and then again Thursday. Whatever the duration, ruts are temporary dips in our apparent ability to do a thing that’s important to us.

Quietly awaiting your return

What I’ve noticed about my ruts is that they are mostly my own creation. Something external precipitates them, and something internal sustains them. Bad luck and bad weather are unavoidable, but a long rut can begin, and persist, even when the bad weather itself only lasted a day.

My theory is that ruts are what happen when you experience a dip – in mood, in luck, in progress – and you respond to it in a certain very human way: by doing something that makes you more prone to such dips. A simple example is the common sleep-caffeine spiral. You have a bad sleep for some reason (there was a party next door, or you saw a mouse in the cellar) and the next day you feel tired, and when you feel tired you sometimes have an afternoon coffee. This makes you more prone to more bad sleeps, which makes you more prone to afternoon coffees, and so on. You responded to the dip by doing something that creates more dips. All of this feels perfectly natural as it is happening.

When my scheduled eight-mile run fell on a four-degree day with sideways rain, that was a dip, a pothole in the road. At that point I had a number of options for holding the wheel straight and staying on track. I could have run anyway, gotten soaked and cold and then had a nice bath after. I could have run the next day instead. I could have skipped the run and added distance over the rest of the week. Or I could have just ignored the miss, completed the rest of my program and done my best on race day.

Instead, I made no decision on this front. I ordered chicken fingers with curly fries and ate it with Maker’s Mark. The dominos then fell predictably. My sleep that night was unsurprisingly fitful, so I got up and watched half of Casino and had bad dreams about mobsters. I didn’t run the next day, or even the day after, because by then I felt physically crummy, and I no longer had a streak of good runs to extend. When I finally did run again, halfway through the week – only three miles — I felt so lousy that the prospect of running eight miles (let alone thirteen) anytime soon seemed unrealistic. I would get back on track, of course, but I wasn’t quite ready to simply resume my program. I felt that I had to somehow ramp my way back up to where I had been. Rut established.

“…cause of, and solution to…”

It can be deceptively hard to get out of a rut, because the task has quietly changed, from maintaining the easy momentum of traveling on a marked and paved surface, to driving up the side of a muddy ditch and merging with traffic. It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard though. I mean, the road is right there. You’re traveling parallel to it, but the going is slower and messier, and ultimately not connected to your destination — ditches only join deeper ditches, and ultimately terminate in a reservoir somewhere. The ditch, the rut, is a very different environment to the road, with different rules.

On the road, the easiest thing to do is to progress. The path of least resistance is forward. Once you’re in a rut, the most intuitive things to do are often the very things that inhibit your return to the road. It feels very natural, say, to delay on precisely the decisions that need to be made to get you out of the rut. If you feel sluggish and unmotivated you might respond to it by eating and drinking things that make you feel more sluggish unmotivated.

We can call this the Rut Principle – when you’re in a rut, there is a natural tendency to do the things that keep you in the rut, and to avoid or delay things that get you out of the rut. Ruts are what happen when you’ve become your own antagonist.

When I’m underslept and tired, I tend to meet that fatigue problem with “solutions” that worsen my sleep. Tired David is more attracted to alcohol, sugar, screen-based stimulation, and other sleep-destroying inputs. When I lapse from an exercise regimen, the dip in confidence and rise in physical discomfort incline me to avoid putting on runners or hitting the gym, which is as direct a path out of the rut as I’m going to find.

Natural sleep remedy

Thus, we can interpret the Rut Principle as good news, because it means many of our perennial ruts are much more surmountable than they seem. They owe most of their depth to exactly the ways we tend to struggle with them.

This isn’t a prescription for self-blame. Sometimes the external “weather” really is that bad, and we’re doing nothing to make the situation worse. The Rut Principle is something to look for, even to hope for. If this is a rut, am I responding in a way that deepens it? Am I digging when I could be climbing? If so, good, because it means this rut isn’t half as deep as it looks.


Photos by Elisa Stone, Anne Nygard, Dylan de Jonge, and Emre

Carolyn June 9, 2022 at 9:11 pm

Best description of a Rut that I have read. Fits me and my behaviors perfectly right now – I know the way out but I just can’t get myself to do it.

DiscoveredJoys June 10, 2022 at 3:13 am

Been there, done that. I’ve found that training for a half-marathon, continuing weight loss, and other ‘self improvements are easily derailed by a minor set back.

My weird suggestion is that ‘the rut’ is partially created by the unconscious attitudes we assume others have. *Most* people don’t want to run long distances or even tackle losing weight, so we find ‘going against’ our peers unconsciously extra hard work and super easy to give up striving.

A solution is to surround yourself with others who share your desires – perhaps joining a running club or weight loss club, etc. This normalises your endeavours and makes it easier to carry on. There is a downside (of course), if you are not a ‘joiner’ or resent that clubs are taken over by cliques, you may find it more troubling than not.

David Cain June 10, 2022 at 9:12 am

I’m sure that’s true, and I’m lucky to have people in my life who explicitly support my running related goals. My sister, brother-in-law, and friend are all in the race too and that definitely helps me get out there running.

Tim June 10, 2022 at 3:23 am

Excellent post. Thanks.

Vicki Atkins June 10, 2022 at 7:40 am

Ah yes… currently slogging through my own healthy eating weight-loss, feel good reversal rut. So hard to stay on track even when I can see the road beside me. I’m fine during the week but weekends come and sure I will have that glass of wine, sneak some fries or what have you.
I felt ( and looked ) great for several years, 20 lbs ago.. but don’t seem to be able to get back on the road for the last 2 years now.
I feel sluggish and unhappy and yet can not seem to stay where I was no matter how many times I turn towards it.
Keep trying I guess.

David Cain June 10, 2022 at 9:14 am

I have definitely been here. When it’s not clear how to get back on the road or even where the road is, this is the most helpful think I’ve tried: https://www.raptitude.com/2020/05/focus-on-the-inputs/

oneWEIRDword June 13, 2022 at 7:44 am

Focus on the inputs! When I remember to do this – and I remember this piece of yours well – it works! Get the good IN THERE! Like the simple apple. If I have an apple with peanut butter in the morning (giving a bit to my dog), my eating track goes better that day because I’ve already had some fruit before noon.

Amy June 16, 2022 at 8:40 am

Thank you SO much for that link — it’s the answer I’ve been looking for and I didn’t even realize it until I read your excellent article.

Ravi June 10, 2022 at 5:41 am

Very well put! I have experienced similar situations a few times and the next stage of rut what I call quick sand, you seem to just keep getting more and more stuck. One of the horrible examples is from my PhD days wherein my supervisor was a real nice guy who had an open door policy and you had to go to him whenever you wanted to discuss problems or results but he wouldn’t bother you if you don’t go. I would think I would go when something good comes and that good invariably kept getting delayed and making me think, “it’s been so long I haven’t seen him, I better have something positive to discuss.” The frustration, anxiety and pressure just keeps piling-up.

David Cain June 10, 2022 at 9:33 am

I suppose this quicksand effect happens because our emotions start to color the scenario. Once you become afraid to do the thing that would get you out of the ditch, that’s when the wheels start to dig in and the rut starts to form.

Alexander Kidder June 10, 2022 at 5:45 am

Hi David – well said. I had a therapist work with me on ruts a few years ago (they are not solved for me, but I’m better at them now). For me, the issue was often a symptom of all-or-nothing thinking. “I’m doing really well at this, but now I missed my swim…damn, I guess I’m not going to swim EVER AGAIN.” – I think many of us are prone to these types of cognitive distortions and just being aware of them and trying hard to recognize them can help. “The weather REALLY was that bad…I’ll just start up the routine again tomorrow, no harm no foul.” We often treat ourselves so much more poorly than we’d treat a good friend who had the same issue.

David Cain June 10, 2022 at 9:19 am

My therapist once gave me a list of what she called “cognitive distortions,” and I quickly realized I had ALL of them. All-or-nothing thinking was top of the list (along with discounting positives, catastrophizing, etc.).

All or nothing thinking is particularly insidious when it comes to trying to maintain regimens like exercise or workflow systems, because if you screw up the pattern, it feels like you’re already off the road and you’re essentially starting again. I think it’s never actually like that, because you are learning micro-skills along the way, but I do know that sense of having lost everything when you drop the ball once.

Nancy June 10, 2022 at 7:15 am

I just finished a series of cognitive behaviour therapy sessions and this describes all-or-nothing thinking perfectly (and more eloquently than the CBT manuals describe it).

It’s one of my biggest negative thinking patterns: something gets in the way of regular progress and I collapse in a (muddy) puddle of despair (in a ditch) because now there’s no way I can continue on my path (the road).

Recognizing that pattern and the moment an all-or-nothing thought invades my mind because of some external event has kept me out of my ruts for a while now. It’s nice to see it here so eloquently described. Nice post.

David Cain June 10, 2022 at 9:20 am

To complicate it further, there’s definitely a part of me that wants to be in the ditch. As soon as I’m off the road, I am “free” of the responsibility to stay on the road.

brie June 10, 2022 at 9:36 am

YES! exactly. it’s so comfortable in the rut, particularly when “the road” still feels a little unfamiliar or unpaved.

Rocky June 10, 2022 at 7:47 am

When your groove becomes a rut….
“You must go do the next thing”
Just Do It !!

Maryellen June 10, 2022 at 8:33 am

Aha, so this is what happened to me in May when it seemed I just couldn’t focus on anything and got behind in my work and in home maintenance. So in June I had to pull myself together and plunge into a job with a hard deadline. It’s done, and the product is good, but the cost is too much stress. Next time, I’ll know it’s a rut and how to get out, or avoid getting into it.

Jamey June 10, 2022 at 8:41 am

I try to think of ruts in terms of ‘normalizing.’ The human mind has the power to see a dizzying variety of living conditions as ‘normal’ and, once something is normal, it takes effort to move away from it in either direction (the old joke that everyone driving slower than you is a road hog and everyone driving faster is a crazy person).

I believe it was you, David, who once wrote that if you found out tomorrow you had a chronic, low-grade infection that required a daily chemical bath and twice yearly doctor’s visits or else you’d suffer permanent disfiguration, you’d be really bummed, but that’s just what brushing your teeth is. We don’t think of it that way because we’ve normalized that process to the point where it feels more unpleasant to skip brushing our teeth than it is to do it.

Like the stock market, it seems that individual humans being always ‘regress to the mean.’ I find that if I can accept that fact, then forming new habits becomes about resetting the mean, rather than trying to stop the process of regressing. If I can take enough daily walks to make that ‘normal’ then skipping a walk starts to feel as unpleasant as not brushing my teeth.

‘Rut’ is a perfect word for ‘the normal’: it’s a groove that our expectations have carved across the infinite field of potential human experience. In absence of concerted effort, you will always fall back into that groove (sometimes for weal, sometimes for woe). Habit-setting efforts are the attempt to dig a different groove just a little to the left, so that when you have a bad few days, you can fall back into that one instead.

David Cain June 10, 2022 at 9:28 am

That wasn’t me who framed toothbrushing that way but I like it. You may be thinking of when I wrote about getting intentional radiation burns from the sun to temporarily change your skin tone.

I like the idea of framing habit change as changing the mean. When it comes to exercise there is a crucial point to pass where it starts to feel “off” to have a day without real exercise. Despite my running troubles I am past that point — even when I wasn’t running I was lifting and rock climbing. Changing the mean with running seems like a healthier way to normalize it than to try to “stick with the program.” Thanks for this post.

Ginzo June 10, 2022 at 9:20 am

……To and Fro Goes the Way…..we can’t stop the waves, but we can learn to surf. Every day isn’t a ’10’. The salvation lies in our ability to keep aware….of all the stuff….not just what we want.

David Cain June 10, 2022 at 9:30 am

As you probably know, I love that phrase. Learning to surf the particular waves of lapsing on a running program is something more specific for me to work on than just “getting back to business.”

Kirstin June 10, 2022 at 10:21 am

Spot on as usual, David.

Take comfort in knowing that most runners overtrain, unknowingly (see Maffetone Method) so skipping this long run and getting in the rut won’t hurt you in your race as long as you have your head right. One of my good friends WON the world 100k championships shortly after having a DVT which stopped her training completely (she is also an amazing athlete).

Love the thoughts you put on paper.

David Cain June 10, 2022 at 1:55 pm

Thanks Kristin. I experienced something like that in the race last year. After an injury and sedentary winter I was barely in 5k shape, and then ran the 10k with no problems. Rest is good I guess.

Paulina June 10, 2022 at 11:57 am

Hi David. Many many more than ever are exactly going through the same as you. We and each of us are like a big orchestra where everyone plays an instrument and if someone is not playing good the rest will feel it too. All these instruments produce energy and the music being played NOW is in declive because of the incredibly negativity around us. Everything is dark from all news, movies to art. We are all being surrounded by such darkness that it is heroic to get the spirit to do something that requires a lot of effort. The human spirit is extraordinarily beautiful and we are allowing to destroy it. I normally shut down from the world to get humanely aligned and only get exposed to good positive stories that it does not involve any horns – have you noticed that everything has horns today. People are not paying attention but marketers have invaded us, like a termites, with very dark symbology, it is very everywhere and have been normalized in such a way that we don’t notice it. We see as true whatever marketers and advertisers show to us – including books, magazine, movies, art etc. The only way to fight this, is by doing any spiritual exercise that can help your mind and get to do all that what makes you feel positively good. Find the laugh and the smiles. There is so much beauty in this world and that is what needs to grow and IT WILL. ❤️.

Calen June 10, 2022 at 1:33 pm


A couple people have already pointed out what you have described here is a perfect example of all-or-nothing thinking. I just wanted to add my bit (especially since I’m working on a piece about this right now).

Most of my problems with ruts–and with accomplishing anything, really–are the result of a highly ambitious version of me making a plan for a future version of me. Since this highly ambitious version lacks an understanding of the context the future version will exist in, he tends to make plans that are too large for every possible future version of me to reasonably accomplish.

So inevitably I fail, and that breaks the momentum of my behavior and creates a rut very much like the one you described. The problem is that a temporal divide has been created; a past version of myself created the plan. The present version of myself has to choose “plan or not plan”

This creates distress because I’m stuck between rapidly (and unpleasantly) accelerating to get back on track with the plan or continuing a “not plan” rut. And historically my attitude was that if I was going to continue the “not plan” rut, I might as well embrace it. In the case of practicing for a marathon, this entails resting up for the day I decide to get back to the plan. And often, I never do.

I managed to circumvent this dilemma almost completely using mini-habits. It solves the temporal divide by setting it up so that the only “plan” on any given day is to show up. And then once I’ve shown up I can make decisions on what I want to accomplish that day – decisions that are appropriate to my current ability, my level of motivation, and my circumstances.

It bridges the temporal divide. It’s no longer a past version of myself making plans for the present – it’s the current version of myself, making plans for the day.

For a very long time I thought that there were two parts to my soul – the ambitious planner who wanted to achieve things, and the slob who wanted to eat cookies and do nothing. Turns out this wasn’t true – it was an illusion generated by that temporal divide. The past version of myself set goals so big that the present version of myself was forced into the dilemma of choosing to something that hurt, or choosing to avoid it. Most days this was possible through willpower. On days that it wasn’t, the plan got broken, and a rut formed.

I spent a lot of time wondering about this divide. In fact I remember articulating it first when I was about 22 and struggling with quitting smoking. There was a line from an old song that I love which captured it perfectly:

“Complexity haunts me, for I am two men, entrenched in a battle that I’ll never win.”

I had a sense that bad habits like smoking thrive on an internal divide; they bloom in the no-man’s-land that forms when two parts of yourself are at war with each other.

Turns out, though, that the internal division and the battle were illusory. Once I used the mini-habit principle to change the nature of the plan to “show up and do something, then decide if you want to do more” the game changed.

Under the old way of doing things the “ambitious planner” part of myself was engaged trying to make plans that would guarantee that every future version of me would comply. It never worked.

Under the new way of doing things the “ambitious planner” part of myself became the voice that pushed me forward every day as I was deciding what to do that day.

For example, my first mini-habit was to write a sentence a day. That is still the “plan” that I have followed almost without fail every day for three years since I started it in 2019. However, if you count the number of days that I’ve written just one sentence, it probably occurs less than 3% of the times that I write. Most days I write between 500 and 2000 words, because that is what satisfies my ambitious nature. On the rare days that I make a mistake and write zero words, the next day it is easy to start again because the only real commitment is to show up and write at least a sentence.

The same principle has held true for forming a dedicated work habit built around the “block” principle you wrote about a year or so back. That’s actually the thing I’m writing the article about – I’ll send you a link to it when I’m done.

And I am anticipating that the same principle will hold true with my new efforts to grow into a new pattern of dieting and exercise that will transform my health over the next five years. I can say honestly that I have not found myself in a rut like you described since 2019.


David Cain June 11, 2022 at 10:42 am

Hi Calen. I am prone to all-or-nothing thinking but in this case I think there is a different mechanism behind my rut. It’s not that I made a mistake and therefore I concluded that I’ll never stick to running so I quit — I’m well beyond that point with running. It has more to do with my ADHD-related past of celebrating those moments where I feel I have a legitimate reason to let a given responsibility drop to the floor. Meeting responsibilities, whether internally or externally imposed, has often felt like a high-pressure, white-knuckling condition that I can’t wait to let go of. When the weather is bad, and I don’t have to do The Thing, some part of me is just absolutely thrilled, and then I celebrate in ways that naturally make it harder to resume when it stops raining. That’s why I always loved inclement weather and being actually sick — they remind me of the rare feeling of having a small window of legitimate freedom from many of the responsibilities I had endless trouble keeping.

Joy June 12, 2022 at 6:02 pm

This is really helpful for me, thanks! I tend to make some very ambitious plans for my future self, then procrastinate on starting them, thus deferring them to an even more future self, and ultimately end up very disappointed in all my selves when nothing gets achieved. I think your solution of mini habits is similar to what David says about focusing on the inputs and letting the outputs take care of themselves – something I will endeavour to remember next time I start dreaming up unrealistic future scenarios for myself!

Kerry in Atlanta June 10, 2022 at 5:00 pm

Exactly! Been there so many times. Shot myself in the foot. Fell off the wagon. Training schedule derailed. Thank you for making me feel less like a one-of-a-kind masochistic weirdo.
Absolutely great insights ! Thanks for sharing.

Donna June 10, 2022 at 6:25 pm

I don’t know if this is totally applicable or not, but I learned a trick 30 years ago when I started running, and training for half- and full-marathons. If I didn’t feel like going out and running, for whatever reason — internal or external — I told myself all I had to do was go out for 10 minutes. If after 10 minutes, I still felt lousy or the conditions were just too miserable, I gave myself permission to bail on the run, no harm, no foul.

99.99% of the time, after that 10 minutes (for my pokey pace, about a mile, lol), I actually felt better and would keep going. I think in all these 30+ years of running, I’ve actually only taken the 10-minute-out once or twice.

Brian June 12, 2022 at 1:57 pm

The soft shoulder was when you missed the first run. Missing the second one got the rut established. Many people wiser than me say skip once if you must but never twice. Gives you some slack for the first time and some gumption for not doing it again.
While on the topic of ruts, another one is the velvet rut: being adequately comfortable or satisfied or happy so that you don’t step out of that rut to pursue bigger challenges for greater benefits. That could be moi.

Zoe June 12, 2022 at 2:24 pm

Like a lot of your posts, this seemed to come at the right time for me. I’ve just been trying to establish more of a regular routine with my writing, in my grand masterplan to phase out the day job and write fiction full time, and have been doing well the last few days. I think I needed to read this now, when I am doing well, rather than later when I might have missed a few days and got stuck in a rut again. By knowing what the start of a rut looks like, I’ll be much better equipped to stop it in its tracks. Thanks!

Anna June 13, 2022 at 3:47 am

thanks for this. I feel very much the same. this past week has been a rut.

Angela June 14, 2022 at 8:51 pm

Yep, just wanted to log in and say, yep. You described it so perfectly.

Kaz June 14, 2022 at 11:28 pm

This post hit the nail on the head (as have most of your other posts too). Thank you for continuing to share your insights with us – I am so grateful that your posts continue to resonate with me, assist me, and are freely available! Many, many thanks. The comments on this have also helped me, as all of this feels so relatable and helps me ‘beat myself up about falling off the wagon’ less and less. :)

George June 18, 2022 at 12:25 pm

In the phenomenal “The War Of Art”, Steven Pressfield refers to The Rut as “Resistance”, and I think the most powerful aspect of the many that are in that book was Pressfield’s simple act of framing and naming the problem.

By assigning Resistance (and Ruts) a specific pattern, context and stages, it’s not only easier to see it happening (or becoming imminent), but it doesn’t feel as chaotic when it does finally arrive.

Instead of a destructive and unpredictable catastrophe, it’s now more like “oh yeah, another one of these periods”. You get Matrix-style “Bullet Time” for Artist’s Block.

And because someone that isn’t you, and doesn’t know you at all, was able to describe what you formerly took as a deep and personal character flaw and subconsciously identified with for decades, it now becomes just another common behavior you share with millions and probably billions of other people. Removing that self-blame is a huge burden lifted.

Adam June 21, 2022 at 9:42 am

I laughed out loud when I got to the chicken fingers with curly fries. An all too familiar situation

Sellve July 21, 2022 at 10:15 pm

Hi there, Thanks for this. I feel very much the same. this past week has been a rut.

Jessica Murphy August 5, 2022 at 5:29 pm

I like the end of this post: “Am I digging when I could be climbing? If so, good, because it means this rut isn’t half as deep as it looks.”

I think this is also called the “What the Hell” effect. And I appreciate that you expose your “curly fries Maker’s Mark insomniac” side.

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