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

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The big productivity books are written by people who don”t especially struggle with productivity.

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David Cain

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