How You Can Avoid Getting Stuck in a Rut
July 20th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Are there times when you feel uninspired or unable to come up with new ideas, innovative solutions, or creative answers? Do you ever think that you are just going through the motions but not making progress because your school work seems like a struggle? If you believe that something is holding you back from doing your best, perhaps you are stuck in rut.
Students often get stuck in many different ways. They may get stuck in a pattern of thinking and when faced with a crisis or moment of change they don’t know how to react or what to do. They may also get stuck in a creative rut and find it difficult to complete learning activities that require originality, innovation, and the use of imagination to develop new ideas.
Since there are many possible explanations for why your progress as a student can diminish, it is helpful to know the reasons why you can get stuck. This will help to expand your perspective and allow you to find methods that spark a renewed interest in your studies.
What Kind of Rut Are You In?
As an educator I’ve discovered that most students get stuck with their classwork as a result of self-conditioning. It is not necessarily a self-imposed process but a way of thinking that limits their possibilities. For example, a student may decide that they cannot come up with an idea for their written paper even though they are provided with step-by-step instructions. They decide that they don’t understand it or they are unable to develop a response, and then fall into a habitual pattern of thinking that traps them in a rut and does not allow them to consider new alternatives. It is frustrating as an instructor because there may be limited ways to offer additional explanations – without giving them ideas to work with.
Another sign of a rut: students who continue to write their papers in the same manner, even when feedback has been provided and areas of development were suggested. It may seem easier to just complete the required tasks based upon current ways of thinking, but that only deepens the rut, especially if there are skills that need improvement. The more they dig in their heels and refuse to change, the slower the student’s progress will become over time. This also occurs when students are told they need to demonstrate critical thinking skills and don’t want to change. They view the world in a particular manner and don’t know how to shift their attention or focus.
There are other ruts that students occasionally find themselves falling into. For example, some students show up for class, but complete only the minimum amount of work required just to get by. Students can also encounter obstacles to progress if they are feeling uncertain about the purpose of the class, the outcome of their degree plan, or their career prospects.
All of these conditions, from minimal work to uncertainty, are persistent (and often subjective) thought patterns that over time create a rut. Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Ellen Glasgow offered this view when she stated that “the only difference between a rut and a grave is their dimensions.” John C. Maxwell also said that “if you allow yourself to stay in a rut too long, it could mean the slow death of your dreams.” The phrase “stuck in a rut” is simply another way of saying that you have allowed yourself to become trapped in an unproductive way of thinking.
Use Challenging Times to Learn and Grow
Students first become aware of being stuck when they are faced with a challenge. It could be an assignment that requires them to apply theory to a real world situation or a problem to solve that would benefit from innovative thinking. If they feel an internal sense of resistance, it’s often due to a current pattern of thought that relies upon what they know now and resists trying to develop new ideas. For students who experience this feeling, it can actually become a moment of crisis, accompanied by a strong emotional reaction. But the good news is that challenges and crises force us to consider new possibilities because we have to reach beyond what we know and either gather research or use our imagination to come up with ideas. As noted in Crisis Management 101, “crises produce surprises,” and as you look for solutions, “if a strategy isn’t working, pick another course.” Challenging moments can be a self-development opportunity in disguise.
Is It Time to Try Something New?
If a challenge or crisis is a way to force us out of being stuck in a rut, what does that indicate as a possibility for personal growth? It means that you can find methods of initiating change or different approaches that require you to adjust your thought patterns, especially if there are no challenges present in your life now. This could be as simple as trying something new. For example, if you have not utilized technological tools with your academic work, try creating a blog or wiki, which could help you learn new skills and possibly be used as a means of collaborating with other students.
When you try a new approach or learn a new skill it may not be easy at first and you may want to retreat to your habitual thought patterns or methods of working if it feels uncomfortable. In Stuck in a Rut? Maybe You're too Comfortable, a quote from Jim Whittaker’s autobiography was shared and he was the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Whittaker believes that discomfort is “a way to stretch yourself beyond what you already know or know how to do. We all experience pain when we twist an ankle or touch scalding water. But ‘discomfort’ represents an altogether different experience, one that offers the promise of personal growth and character development.” You will likely find that the resulting feeling of accomplishment outweighs any initial discomfort.
As a student you have embarked on an academic journey that will result in more than knowledge acquisition. It is a transformative process that can help you grow personally and professionally. The purpose of getting out of your habitual ruts is to feel reenergized, with a renewed sense of self-motivation and ability to expand your thinking. You don’t have to wait for a challenge or crisis to discover you’re stuck. Be open to change and willing to learn, and keep your momentum moving forward.
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