Note: this is the second installment in a two-part series on getting out of a rut. The first part, which can be found here, is on emotional spring-cleaning.

One subtle characteristic of being in a rut is that we become self-obsessed. We ruminate over the past and where we went wrong. We scornfully replay all of the mediocre decisions that left us feeling hopeless and strung out. We get taken over by anger at ourselves and others for the ways we feel wronged. The self-obsession artificially amplifies any stress, anxiety, or depression we’re already dealing with. We begin to define ourselves by it.

How many times have we all told ourselves that we won’t waste the day, only to waste the entire. fucking. day. As though that weren’t bad enough, we’ll most likely feel bad about that decision, doubling down on the self-resentment.

But do you see the vortex we’ve created here? All of your attention is on yourself, and since you’re not feeling well right now, you’re magnifying the bad stuff.

There is a weird evolutionary logic to this type of behavior. Obsessing over our mistakes is protective. It keeps you firmly planted in your rut and prevents you from exposing yourself to the potential perils of the world again.

Generally, we approach getting out with a combination of discipline and new behaviors. We tell ourselves that we’ll spend time learning to play ukulele, hitting the gym, going to improv classes, saying “yes” more often, taking a trip, etc. And while I like all of these moves for their own merit, they fail to cut through the trance of self-obsession. Instead, they act as healthy distractions.

A far better move is to shift your attention away from yourself and toward others. Volunteering is one amazing way to do this. Find a cause that you care about, and dedicate some of your time and attention to it each week. In this troubled world, there is always a cause in need of volunteers. To name just a few:

  • Walking and caring for animals at local shelters
  • Helping the homeless meet their material and existential needs at missions, kitchens, and shelters
  • Stocking and amassing supplies for food pantries
  • Working on political campaigns to help shape your communities (this is a big one for me right now)
  • Getting involved with community development projects in struggling areas locally and globally
  • Championing environmental issues
  • Assisting the elderly and infirm with the day-to-day chores of living
  • Teaching, tutoring, or participating in after-school programs
  • Spending time as a big brother or big sister to an at risk youth in your town

A lot of people get stuck in the rut. Again, I get it. Ruts start to feel so familiar that staying in them is easier than breaking them. If you can, scrape together just enough energy to spend an hour or two each week working to improve the lives of others. Doing so, zenfully, will improve your life and help you get out of the rut.

If you don’t know where to start, consider volunteering at an animal shelter. You’ll meet other cool people and be surrounded by the unbounded love and playfulness of cute animals. And seriously, it’s hard not to feel charmed when a puppy wants to play or a kitten curls up in your lap.

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