Once in a while, I’m reminded that just because I’ve set goals doesn’t mean it’s a straight shot to the podium. Case in point: that time I thought I’d win my division in a jiu-jitsu competition.
I trained twice a day for months leading up to it. And that’s discounting the years I’d invested in the sport beforehand.
I lost the first round. My coach, sensing my disappointment in travelling all the way to Japan just to have an anti-climactic end, said: “Well, you either win or you learn.”
Those words have become a meme in the jiu-jitsu community, but they still ring true. In life, you could either succeed in your plans, or you could figure out why you didn’t.
My latest venture was to maintain a daily workout routine with no rest days for over a year. The only time I stopped was when I had COVID, or when I pulled my back. I thought I was hot shit until my body decided to give out.
This manifested itself in a fluctuating heart rate (when I was laying on the couch), shortness of breath, and insomnia. I had this brain fog that wouldn’t go away, and even the tiniest decisions seemed monumental.
Fortunately, I’ve since recovered after taking a deload week, but boy was I out of it that entire time.
Naturally, every other part of my life took a hit as well. I wasn’t writing as much, and my nutrition basically consisted of what was easiest to prepare. That’s when I learned not to scoff at what we call ‘life ruts’.
Here are some of my observations from this experience.
1. Your ‘self’ is a separate being
Listen to your mind for a bit. Do you think that’s really you? I don’t.
I personally like to look at my mind the way I look at my breath. If you leave it to its own devices, it functions on autopilot. It’s possible to override it for a while, but controlling it the entire day is highly impractical.
Similarly, your mind can either be on autopilot, or you could temporarily hold the reins. But you should look at it as a function and not a representation of who you are. Why do I bring this up? It’s because your thoughts are lies.
Sometimes, you’ll feel shitty while enjoying a three-course meal with a loved one. Other times, you’ll be deep in the throes of ecstasy, even when in debt and jobless. There really is no saying what your mental state would be from day to day.
But you know what? Neither dictates who you are as a person.
So don’t feel bad if you’re not crying at your mother’s funeral, or if you find yourself feeling depressed even with a roof over your head and a well-stocked fridge.
How this has helped with my rut: Because of this, I’ve learned to better deal with my catastrophising mind. Yes, I was feeling abnormal symptoms, but no, it’s not the end of the world—even if I was having a heart attack.
2. You can’t be one-dimensional
I’ve also learned that I can’t simply bank everything on one aspect of my life.
I can’t be the fittest person without nurturing a career. I can’t be rich without having loved ones to share my life with. And there’s no point telling people I love them if I won’t give them the best version of myself.
I see the one-dimensional pursuit a lot in jiu-jitsu, where starry-eyed white belts proclaim their intent of pursuing grappling full-time.
They couch-surf or sleep on gym mats so that they can allocate what little money they have for training. Then they end up being broke, forty-year-old purple belts with knee injuries they can’t pay to fix.
I admire people who have a single-minded purpose, and you can’t deny the fact that some winners are created that way. But behind one successful person lies a thousand others who’ve failed in the same journey.
That’s why I’m coming to terms that I have to build the richest life possible. I may aspire to be the next Cameron Hanes or Neil Gaiman, but I won’t neglect the other important parts of my life to do so.
How this has helped with my rut: The more diverse my life is, the more fallbacks I have. Realising this has helped me choose complementary skills such as running and writing. That way, I always have something to pursue, regardless of my condition.
3. Routine is still king
I truly believe, without a doubt, that we are the sum total of our habits.
It doesn’t matter that you crash-dieted that one time, or you bench-pressed 500kg once. Who you are as a person is dictated by the things you do day in and day out.
It’s how we make our bed. The books we choose to read. The food we eat. It’s all the little, inconsequential decisions that we repeat over years and decades.
Which is why I believe it’s important to cultivate and maintain a daily routine, even if it takes all of ten minutes.
Because 20 push-ups a day becomes 7,300 a year. Writing 250 words a day totals 91,250 a year—that’s an entire novel. Ten minutes of daily guitar practice turns into 60 hours per year. You get the idea.
How it’s helped with my rut: Having routines allow me to constantly move forward, despite how I feel. Maybe I’d be operating at 10% of my usual pace, but that’s still forward progress. Progress I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have a routine to stick to.
4. It matters more when it sucks
I’ve had things easy prior to this life rut. Everything was going my way. I had ample time to get my workout in. I had food, shelter, and love. Basically, I had no excuse not to make the best choices for myself.
Then I couldn’t exercise, and suddenly my other healthy habits toppled like dominoes. I didn’t want to write. I wasn’t in the right mind to learn new things. And if there was a time to cheat on my diet, it was right then.
But I now realise that it’s these exact moments where my true self appears.
I guess that’s why I’ve always been drawn to combat sports. Because it’s when I’m in pain that I learn who I really am. I get to see if I’ll crumble under the pressure or face my fears head-on.
Like David Goggins said, “Anyone can go running when it’s 70 degrees out. But it’s not always going to be 70 and sunny.”
How it’s helped with my rut: I’ve begun seeing painful moments as classes in session. Muhammad Ali once said that he only counted his reps after it began to hurt. The pain cave is not something we need to avoid. In fact, that’s the only place we get to meet our true selves.
5. Limits are where limits are found
Building on the previous point, growth can only be found outside your comfort zone. And as that zone expands, you’ll inevitably end up looking like a maniac to someone with a zone the size of a birdcage.
Unfortunately, the unknown is a scary place, but you’ll never know where the borders truly are until you travel there.
In my case, I now know how long I can maintain a daily workout programme until I hit a wall. And the next time I start to feel funky, I wouldn’t be taken by surprise. That’ll in turn allow me to push just a tiny bit more.
It’s just like when I had that Myanmar assignment where I had to write two 1,000-word articles a day. With research. Done on the road. On 16-hour workdays.
Prior to that, I never knew I could write on dinghies that threatened to topple over with every sway, or in vans that rattled so much your teeth could’ve fallen off.
But I found my new limits, and they were only available through discomfort.
How it’s helped with my rut: I’ve learned that it’s okay to reach my limits, and not to see it as a deficiency, but as a yardstick I can eventually move forward. I’ve also learned to take the ‘Don’t overwork yourself’ advice with a grain of salt, because everybody has their own definition of what their limits are.
Ruts are a necessary evil
The one comfort I can give you if you’re going through a rut is that it’ll never last. And once you claw your way out of it, you’ll emerge stronger than before. Or at the very least, you’ll have learned what you need to avoid to prevent it from happening again.
After all, an idiot is not someone who makes mistakes. It’s someone who doesn’t learn from them. I guess that’s my biggest takeaway from all this. It’s that you either win or you learn. But it works only if you want to learn.
Are you in a rut right now? Perhaps my newsletters can give you the pep talk you need. You’ll also get a free guide on how to grow your WordPress audience, so don’t miss out!