Sometimes my brain gets in a rut. I’m bored, I can’t focus, I don’t want to do anything, I’m generally pissed off at life, the universe, and everything, including myself. I am, in a word, useless.
(Incidentally, I was in one of these ruts on Monday morning, which is part of the reason I couldn’t get a post together.)
Almost anything can trigger it. More often than not, it’s just little things – offhand comments, minor failures – that pile up over time. The point is, I get down. In fact, I get so down, I don’t even feel like getting back up again. That’s a bad place to be.
I need a way out. And if you’ve ever been in a rut like that, maybe you need a way out, too.
I have a theory about how to do this, a method I’m trying out. And because I am
utterly mad a geek, my inspiration for the method comes from computers.
When you talk about rebooting or booting up a computer, you’re really referring to an older term, “bootstrapping,” meaning “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” This is an absurd idea, of course – that you can literally lift yourself up by your own feet – but it’s actually sort of what computers do when you turn them on.
See, a computer can’t load software unless it has some instructions telling it how to do that, but those instructions would have to be software themselves. It’s a kind of paradox. The solution is to start with a very simple default program (called BIOS) that tells the computer how to get going. Then, once it’s started, it can load its operating system, after which it can run your programs and answer your questions and play your games. In other words, it can be useful.
The key is, at the beginning – when you first hit the power button – the computer isn’t thinking or analyzing or doing anything very complicated. It has a just-do-it attitude: here’s your starting program, now go. We’ll figure out the rest as we get there, but the main thing is to start getting there.
Our brains are a kind of computer, and my own method is a kind of bootstrapping. When I get in a rut, I can’t analyze my way out of it. Rather, the path upward begins with a single decision, an irreducible act of will, which is both the easiest and hardest part of the process. It is a conscious decision to stop suffering and start fighting. It is a mental shift from “this is happening to me” to “I will find a way out.”
Step one is deciding to try.
Only after you’ve made this first decision can you move on to other, more complicated ways of feeling better. And there are tricks you can use. For example:
- If you’re trying to resist a temptation – for example, the temptation to browse the Internet instead of working – raw willpower is often counterproductive. Instead, take a moment to breathe, and to accept that the temptation exists. Say to yourself, “I realize I have this craving to get on the Internet. But right now, I’m going to work on my novel.” (Or whatever the case may be.)
- If you’re working on something especially difficult, switch gears for a few minutes and tackle an easier problem. This gives you a sense of accomplishment, and the confidence boost can offer momentum as you return to the hard problem. It’s amazing how fragile my mental ruts are when exposed to self-confidence.
- Exercise. This doesn’t work for everyone, and it isn’t always feasible. But for me, nothing pulls me out of a rut like ten minutes of practicing karate – or anything else that gets the heart going. When the mental realm goes sour, turn to the physical.
- Spend some time with other people. This one’s tough, because it’s often the last thing I want to do – and it can backfire if people say the wrong things. But being around others forces me to at least pretend to be normal, and by the time you care enough to pretend, you’re already halfway there.
Of course, none of this is 100% effective. Monday is proof of that. But in my experience, any kind of plan is better than nothing.
What about you? When you get down, how do you get back up again?