A worried man holding his hands to his face, wondering how to get out of a slump

Are you stuck in a rut? What are Adam Alter’s recommendations for pushing through the barriers of life?

As anyone who feels like they’ve hit a wall knows, the hard part is picking yourself up and pushing on. Alter says that, when you feel like progress has ground to a halt, there are a variety of ways to kickstart it again.

Check out how to get out of a slump with Alter’s recommendations.

#1: Stay Calm and Slow Down

The first recommendation for how to get out of a slump is to center yourself and calmly evaluate your situation. The anxiety that feeling trapped provokes can lead to rash and reckless decisions, but Alter says the antidote is to slow down even more, taking stock of your options as you do. Alter offers two strategies to deal with the anxiety brought about by feeling trapped.

The anxiety you feel when your progress gets stalled—whether you’re writing a grant proposal or training for an upcoming race—comes from an exaggerated need to perform. Your fight-or-flight instinct will try to kick in, pushing you to act and make choices before you’ve had time to fully think them through. Instead, when you start to feel stuck you should stop and explore exactly what’s slowing you down. This practice can negate your fear-based reactions and give you time to come up with a well-thought-out next step.

Stress Relief Tactic #1: Mindfulness

Alter says that mindfulness is a good approach to grappling with anxiety. Mindfulness, traditionally learned through meditation, is a deliberate moment-to-moment awareness of your mental and physical state. Whether or not you explore meditation, it’s vital to acknowledge the anxiety you’re feeling and recognize how it manifests in your body. The hard part is letting yourself feel your anxiety rather than trying to run from it or quash it. By letting your anxiety sit and be examined, you’ll be able to root out the cause of your fear. Perhaps the barrier holding you back isn’t as insurmountable as it seems, or maybe you’ve mentally framed your situation in such a way that not moving forward feels like more of a threat than it is.

Stress Relief Tactic #2: Plan for the Worst

The most basic fear behind every impasse is usually the fear of failure, so Alter argues that you should mentally rehearse your failure before it becomes an existential problem. This goes against most self-help advice, which states that you should always visualize success. But, Alter argues, if you spend time thinking through worst-case scenarios—what happens if the thing you’re hoping for doesn’t happen—you’ll emotionally prepare yourself for the milder-than-worst-case difficulties you’re bound to run into. By fully thinking through the consequences of failure, you may also realize that not achieving your goal exactly how you want isn’t the end of the world.

#2: Reject Perfectionism

It’s easy to get mired on the road to success if you expect your achievements to live up to your dreams in every perfect detail. Perfectionists, especially in creative fields, often feel stymied when their work doesn’t live up to their very high personal standards. Alter frames the escape from the perfectionism trap in several different ways.

Anti-Perfectionism Tactic #1: Lower Your Standards

To a perfectionist, lowering your standards might feel like betraying your ideals, but Alter says that instead of looking at it that way, you should view it as playing with new ideas. For instance, a songwriter trained in complex music theory might, when their ideas run dry, fool around with simple rhythms and clichéd chord progressions until something workable clicks. Doing this doesn’t lower the value of your efforts; rather, it gives you the freedom to explore. While toying around with “substandard” progress, you might stumble on an insight you’d never have arrived at when holding all your work to a higher bar.

Anti-Perfectionism Tactic #2: Quantity Over Quality

Another way to leverage imperfection in any kind of creative project, whether writing ad copy or painting landscapes, is to try to produce as much work as possible without getting hung up on how good it is. This “shotgun approach” to creativity is sure to result in lots of ideas that’ll end up on the garbage heap, but it also increases the likelihood that something truly dazzling will emerge. Alter also points out that increasing your output results in lots and lots of practice—which means that good ideas and well-crafted work will start to flow more naturally.

Anti-Perfectionism Tactic #3: Aim for “Good” Instead of “Great”

In the end, the key to escaping the perfectionism trap is to know the difference between “perfect” and “good.” Alter writes that in psychology, these two modes of thinking are known as satisficing—settling for “good enough”—and maximizing—seeking the best possible outcome. Though maximizing holds itself to a higher ideal, it’s restrictive, limiting, and correlated with a host of negative mental states, including overall unhappiness. On the other hand, a satisficing mindset offers the freedom and flexibility to let go of dead ends, chalk up failures to learning, and move on when reality doesn’t live up to an imagined ideal.

#3:Keep Inching Forward

Alter’s next piece of advice may seem to contradict his earlier statement to stop what you’re doing and assess your situation. Nevertheless, when you’re stuck in a rut, nothing but action will get you out—so long as that action is well-considered and productive after taking a pause to review your best options. Continually taking action toward your goal turns progress into a habit that makes future slowdowns easier to avoid.

Action Tactic #1: Break It Down

Breaking down projects into smaller goals is a common strategy recommended by productivity experts, but Alter says that it’s even OK to create arbitrary benchmarks where none logically exist, such as rewarding yourself for every hour worked rather than completing specific tasks. Dividing a long-term task into smaller units lets you defer the emotional weight associated with your overall goal. Instead of being hampered by that weight, you can focus on the practical details of simply doing the next step without agonizing over your total progress.

Action Tactic #2: Discard What’s Inessential

One way to ramp up your progress is to discard any inessential steps when you break your project into its components. After all, as stated earlier, everyone slows down in the middle of a project, whether it’s designing a month-long training program or building a business that’s years in the making. Alter suggests that wherever possible, you should cut out as much of that middle as you can. Plus, reducing a task to digestible chunks creates many more “beginnings” and “ends,” those points when your energy and motivation are strongest, while shrinking the drawn-out middle of your journey into smaller paths that are individually easier to cross.

Action Tactic #3: General Housekeeping

Sometimes the next step toward your goal still won’t be clear, but there’s still productive work you can do. Every project has some tedious aspect that often gets put to the side—some of which grow into the pitfalls discussed earlier in this guide. When you’re stumped, Alter writes that one way to keep moving is to do preventative maintenance on the less-than-thrilling aspects of your work. For example, a writer stuck on her next chapter might spend time double-checking her royalty statements. Not only does this type of work let your creative mind rest, it also prevents potential future roadblocks by stopping small tasks from blooming into big ones.

#4: Explore New Directions

Despite all your efforts to keep moving forward, sometimes your plans simply won’t work out and you’ll discover that a goal isn’t as achievable as you’d originally thought. Alter argues that rather than throwing your hands up and quitting, you might need a change in direction. He says that you can sometimes change failure into success by pivoting from your original goal, experimenting with a variety of options, and seeking outside ideas on where to go next.

Just as slowdowns are inevitable, so is the need to periodically change course, especially when something you’ve worked for doesn’t happen. Alter says the first step when facing failure is to ask questions. Can any part of your work be saved? Are there adjustments that can turn things around? Suppose you’ve worked hard to start a new business, but customers aren’t flocking to your store. Before declaring a total loss, ask if anything could be changed about your merchandise, marketing, or location that would make your business more successful.

#5: Persist and Get Lucky

For all the practical and psychological tricks to get yourself moving when progress has stalled, the most basic one to cling to at all times is simple perseverance. Persisting even when you feel like you’re not making any headway at all provides the surest guarantee that you’ll overcome whatever obstacles are in your way. Alter discusses how to think about your progress in order to give your perseverance a boost, as well as the way that persistence and luck go hand in hand to guide you toward success.

Alter argues that there’s nothing worse than giving up on a goal just before you achieve it. For that reason, for whatever you’re working on, take time periodically to evaluate your progress. Even when it feels like you’re not moving forward, looking back will show you just how far you’ve come. And though sometimes redirecting your energy is important, Alter recommends that when you hit a barrier, you should devote 150% as much time and energy as your gut says is reasonable before giving in. More often than not, you’ll find a way through when you keep pushing beyond where you feel you should have quit.

(Shortform note: Alter’s yardstick of how much time and energy to devote to a project may be hard to measure in practice. In Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson point out that people are notoriously bad at estimating how long goals will take and how difficult they are to achieve. As a result, when you break your process into small components—Alter’s action tactic #1—you should estimate how much time and effort each of those steps should take on its own. Measuring how accurate your small guesses are will give you a more reasonable expectation for your overall progress. Fried and Hansson also suggest that you constantly review the value of your efforts to determine if you should keep persisting or redirect your energy elsewhere.)

Alter acknowledges that luck plays a part in success—it’s not just persistence. However, the more you persevere, the more likely you are to have a lucky breakthrough. The person who applies for 200 jobs is more likely to stumble into their dream career than the person who gives up after only 20. Studies show that most creative people enjoy one peak period of maximum performance at some point during their lives—but that it can come at any time in their career. Only by holding fast to your goal will you be ready when the chance to realize it comes. As the saying goes, fortune favors the bold, but it smiles more often on those who stick with it.

(Shortform note: While Alter’s assertion is technically true—the longer you stay in the game, the higher your chances of winning—you can’t assume that any win is guaranteed. In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that we often downplay the importance of luck in the careers of those whom we see as successful. Much of this is due to survivorship bias, which we discussed earlier. However, Taleb is in agreement with Alter in that luck brings short-term success, but long-term success comes from hard work and persistence.)

How to Get Out of a Slump: 5 Ways to Kickstart Progress

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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