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HIGHLIGHTS | How to Get Unstuck

  • External factors (like the pandemic) can affect our thoughts and behaviors.
  • If you feel stuck, try to avoid withdrawing from the activities and people you love.
  • Set specific, achievable goals and work toward them — even if you don’t initially feel motivated.
  • Think creatively about how you can engage in valuable experiences and practice gratitude.
  • Seek out support if you need it.


As the nights grow longer and the weather gets grayer, it’s easy to slip into a slump — especially this year, in the midst of the pandemic.

“A rut or slump is when, for a period of time, a person feels stuck in patterns of behaviors, thoughts or emotions that lead to a lack of positive emotions and experiences,” says Kelly Caver, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Seattle VA Medical Center who teaches in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and.

When you’re in a rut, you may experience a lack of motivation, struggle to find joy or purpose, or lose interest in the things you typically enjoy.

If this sounds like you, here’s what you need to know about ruts — and how to break out of them.

What causes you to get stuck in a rut?

There’s an array of different external events that can prime you for a rut or send you directly into that slump.

“External events, our emotions and our actions are all interconnected,” Caver says. “When we go through stressful events, we naturally feel negative emotions, and then when we’re feeling badly our behaviors change.”

For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and tired due to the pandemic, you may decide to skip workouts or stop seeing friends (physically distanced or via video chat).

While Caver notes this is a completely normal response, she also cautions against isolating yourself.

“Withdrawing from meaningful and enjoyable activities ultimately leads us to feel fewer positive emotions and even less motivation because we’re not engaging in activities that are rewarding to us,” she says.

How can you get out of a rut?

While withdrawing from meaningful activities can create a vicious cycle, the same pattern holds true in reverse: the more you engage in activities that are enjoyable and rewarding, the more motivation you will have later to do things that make you feel fulfilled.

The key when you’re feeling stuck is to take part in the activities you love even if you don’t entirely feel like it.

“Don’t wait for motivation to strike. Motivation doesn’t come out of the blue. It comes once we’ve started engaging in things that are helpful for us,” Caver notes.

Start with small, achievable goals

And not just any goals but SMART ones, or goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound, Caver says.

This could mean reimagining the desire to exercise more as a goal to do 20 minutes of yoga twice a week, starting next week. This way you are choosing a specific activity (yoga) that’s measurable (in time and days per week), attainable (a doable duration for you), relevant (a meaningful activity to you) and time bound (in this case, the start date of next week).

Another example would be taking the goal of connecting more with loved ones and making it look like carving out an hour for family time every weekend, starting this Saturday.

The idea is to not only set goals to help you shake out of a slump but to do so in a way that sets you up for success. In essence, you’re making it easier to stick with your goal by shifting it from a vague idea of what you want to something that is defined and actionable.

Consider your values

One of the challenges during the pandemic is that many of the things we want to do or that would typically make us feel better are currently unavailable.

While you previously might have gone to the gym or enjoyed Sunday brunch with friends when you felt stuck, these activities are no longer feasible.

But the joy and fulfillment you gained from them still can be.

“When we’re limited in what we can do, our values still remain. There are still creative ways we can find to live out our values in context of COVID-19,” Caver says.

Say one of your values is to help others. While volunteer options look different nowadays, you can still find ways to meet that value and help out your community, be it virtually or with distanced in-person options.

You can also try this in reverse by starting with what activities you miss and then determining what your underlying value is for that activity.

If you’re bummed that you had to cancel travel plans, it might mean you’re really missing feeling relaxed after getting away from work and everyday stressors. In this case, you could try a soothing staycation or adding some meditation into your daily routine.

Alternatively, if you find you’re missing the adventure and exploration of travel, you could try takeout from a restaurant with a cuisine you haven’t had before or watching a documentary about the location to satisfy your desire to learn about new places.

Practice gratitude

“We may not naturally feel gratitude during a pandemic, but we can still do things to cultivate gratitude for what we do have,” Caver says.

Celebrate the little successes in your day and try to notice the good things that happen. Journaling or setting aside a couple minutes to appreciate the good things you have in your life can help adjust your mindset.

These shifts in your outlook and actions can help pull you out of a rut, even if the larger stressor (in this case the pandemic) isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“Start with simple, small changes.” Caver says. “It makes all the difference.”

Seek out support

There are resources available to help if you’re struggling to get out of a rut or just want some extra support.

PEBB benefits-eligible UW employees can access five free counseling sessions through CareLink, and all UW Medicine faculty and staff can speak with a clinician from the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, request help through the Peer to Peer Program and connect with employee health services.