Ruts, and how to get out of a rut

At some point during this past week, my comfort level on stage suddenly, inexplicably dropped. Whether or not my improv looks okay to the outside observer, I don’t feel comfortable with my improv, or feel like I know what I’m doing. This is what people generally refer to as a “rut”.

I’ve taken stock to see if something in my life’s out of whack:

– Life hasn’t been any busier or more annoying than usual.
– My schedule’s actually been somewhat lighter than usual, but still fairly active with things I want to do. So I’m not being overwhelmed. I do have a couple non-improv shows coming up but I feel comfortably prepared for them.
– Emotionally, I actually feel fairly good about where life’s at.
– I’ve been getting decent sleep (even naps!), my diet’s actually improved the last few weeks, I’ve been drinking plenty of water (especially with the rising temperature in Chicago), and I’ve been exercising regularly with good results. So health wise I’ve taken reasonable care of myself.
– I’ve felt tired at times, but no more than usual… and the occurence of those tired periods have mostly made sense, e.g. after a workout, or after a long and busy day.

You can blame Mercury in Retrograde, my Emotional and Physical Biorhythms being out of whack, or government radio waves or some other crazy thing. But I presume personal ruts randomly hit all of us now and then, like a basketball player who can’t hit shots, a baseball hitter who can’t seem to get hits, a bowler who can’t seem to string together strikes, a runner whose per-mile pace has dropped and can’t seem to pick back up, or even an everyday worker who can’t seem to stop making little mistakes.

The important thing about ruts, and what gets people down within them, is to realize you’re better than this. You know what you’re capable of doing well, and it eats at you that you’re in a stretch where you’re not doing them well.

How as a performer do you work through a rut and get out of it? Being in one right now, I gave it some good thought… and came back to six principles(, because I figured since this is a period of bad luck, I’d go to my lucky number six).

1. Stop caring (for now) about the results.

The negative emotions we feel in a rut are a product of letting the small sample size of our results emotionally affect us, which can create a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of more negative results. So stop caring if you’ll fail, especially if right now mentally you believe you will fail again anyway. Be in the moment and let the results of your actions happen without emotional judgment.

This will feel liberating, success or fail. The subsequent results may (pleasantly) surprise you a bit.

2. Focus in the moment on your practice of the basics.

In improv, I like to re-double my focus on what I consider the key improv principles: Relationships, attention to detail (in listening and in action), and commitment to the moment. Sometimes we get in ruts because we’re out of whack with one or more of the basics. Even if not, focusing on the basics gets your mind off being in a rut, while keeping your practice and focus on things that will get you out of it.

Other disciplines have their basic foci. Runners can focus on consistent breath and form as they run. Basketball players can focus on their shot/dribbling/defense mechanics and the correct range of motion to take effective shots. Baseball hitters can focus on the mechanics of their bat swing. In the workplace, you can (usually) double check or methodically work through your tasks.

In every case, one important point to remember is to:

2a. Finish every action before you begin another one.

This is a holdover principle from my theatre training (thanks to George Lewis and Geof Alm). Too often, sloppiness and poor execution comes from rushing our actions and not letting them “land”. You can’t take the next step without the last step hitting the ground. Ruts often come with a lacking attention to detail, and making sure to finish every action will force a restoration of attention to detail.

3. Take notes (and I don’t mean write ideas down).

Being in a rut during an improv class, practice or rehearsal, or if you’re on a sports team with a coach, may be a blessing. An instructor, coach or director watching you can give you notes on things they see you need to do or improve. When a mentor gives you a note, make a point to apply it as soon as you get the chance. With improv this is easy: Take the note and immediately endow your work with it in the next scene, and (if it’s a general note) the next scene. This almost certainly will produce positive results, even if merely a positive reaction from your mentor and peers. It may not clear the rut but it’ll get you moving in the right direction. Be open to notes, then make sure to apply them early and often.

The last three aren’t as relevant to your practice as they are to your life.

4. Get your exercise.

Do you do or have you done an exercise plan? If so, great. Do it regularly, whether or not you already have. Staying active and helping improve your body’s circulation will do wonders for your general outlook, which will also help break you out of your rut.

Oh, you don’t exercise? Now would be a good time to start. If you get no exercise, walk around the neighborhood or workplace for half an hour a day. If you already walk, consider something easy to break into, like jogging. Or the Hacker’s Diet or 5BX exercise plans, which are easy exercise plans designed to be done quickly each day.

5. Eat some good (i.e. healthy) food.

Chances are your diet isn’t anywhere close to ideal, whether or not you make the effort to eat a healthy diet. If you practice a sound ans somewhat strict diet, then great. More power to you, and make sure to get a good share of protein and brain food (however your dietary choices allow you; vegans, cut down on the soy and eat some fucking quinoa. Way more vitamins!).

If you do eat a lot of processed food and assorted junk, try cutting it out for a meal or two. Mix in some fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meat or non-meat protein, some juice. And of course, drink plenty of water. Our diets can mess with us, both in good ways and bad. Eating a lot of crap over an extended period can leave you feeling worn down, which can contribute to a rut.

Likewise, eating more wholesome food than usual can do more for your outlook and energy than meets the eye… and can help you break a rut, whether the nutrients boost your energy and help flush the crap from your body, or the act of eating better has a positive placebo effect on your outlook.

6. Get as much rest as you reasonably can.

Chances are you’re not getting 7 or more hours of sleep a night, if your sleep habits are consistent to begin with. Losing sleep, whether over a day or over a long period, can start to wear on your outlook and everything else you do. If you can force yourself to turn out the lights at 10-11pm for a few nights in a row, or mix in a nap on a free afternoon, the extra rest can not only re-energize your body but it may improve a sleep-deprived dour mood and might help crack your rut.

Also, if you’re working a busy schedule, try to book some time to relax, not do anything and not feel guilty about it. Sometimes our work overload gets us in ruts, and clearing space to not work can help the brain reset. Often, getting away from a problem for a bit can help us solve it once we come back with a fresh, rested mind. When we memorize material, taking time away from memorizing helps the material settle in our minds. When we exercise, it’s the time spent resting and recovering when our muscles grow from the workouts.

Sometimes, even when we’re getting enough rest, some extra rest can help us break a rut.


So there you go, six points of focus to help break a rut. I wrote this as much for myself as I did for you the reader. I’m in a rut, but with some simple points of focus and self care, I expect I’ll either break out of it soon, or stop caring about it enough to notice either way.

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2 thoughts on “Ruts, and how to get out of a rut

  1. […] comfort zone, in any area, can quickly become a rut. I am in a rut. It never occurred to me until now that my rut could, in fact, be the direct product of my comfort […]

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