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Are You Secretly in a Rut

WebMD Commentary from "Redbook" Magazine

By Ellen Welty

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You've got a big, big life. You've got work plus family and friends. You've got an impressive to-do list and a nifty cell phone to help you keep everyone and everything on track. But here's the big question: Do you feel fulfilled? In other words, do you balance out obligatory chores and errands with enough good stuff so you come out energized at the end of the day? Or do you sometimes suspect that your life is leading you instead of you leading it?

That's the essential difference between being in a groove and being in a rut — and it's all too easy to fall into the latter these days, given our highly structured lives. For one thing, we're overextended: "Now more than ever, women have additional expectations of themselves. They're having children and taking care of homes and working, and the traditional concept of the weekend as a time to relax has disappeared — it's now often a time to get yet more done," says sociologist Geoffrey Godbey, professor emeritus of Leisure Studies at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of Time for life -- The Surprising Way Americans Use Their Time, "And then there's the influence of technology — cell phones, BlackBerrys, e-mail. It's not that 'busy' is the enemy," he notes. "What matters is whether your busy schedule includes things you enjoy." If you're obsessed with always using your time "productively" — returning every call the same day, going to every benefit dinner at your kid's school — you might not feel gratified. What might be missing, Godbey notes, are some of those satisfying, freer moments when you can let your brain wander down interesting byways, discover new passions...or just chill.

The tricky thing about this rut business is that you may be stuck in one without realizing it. Perhaps you keep everything chugging along, and all seems fine on paper. Yet inexplicably, you have a low-level case of the blahs. Figure out just how much of a rut — or groove — you're in, then check out the strategies on how to bust that rut, or make the groove you're in even groovier.

When you're in a groove, you know...

That a suddenly free block of time — even just 30 minutes — is an opportunity. "Having even the littlest taste of what you want to do feels incredibly refreshing," says Barbara Sher, author of Live the Life you Love. So if you're in groove mode and, for instance, you're into bird-watching, you don't tell yourself to sit tight until you have the time to drive to a nature center two hours away; you just grab your binoculars and head outside. If you're in a rut, however, you'll likely use that mini-block of free time to tackle some chores on your to-do list (which ultimately leaves you feeling more "blah" and uninspired). Or you draw a total blank on what you would really like to do and drift, by default, to something easy but unfulfilling, like goofing around on the computer.

Start a list — right this very second — of activities you enjoy so that you'll know exactly what to do when a chunk of precious free time falls into your lap. (And if you like to read, don't just write down "read"; collect names of some books you would absolutely love to dive into or secondhand bookstores you would like to visit.)

Wendy Marner, 42, of Cedar Rapids, IA, likes to do crafts, so she sets aside a little active workspace in her basement just for her; that way, she doesn't waste time packing and unpacking supplies. "It's the place where I let my creativity flow," she explains. "Whatever my imagination can dream up, I can bring to life on my table."

If you feel that you just have to toss in a load of laundry or check your e-mail or pull the chicken out of the freezer for tonight's dinner at some point during your free half-hour, at least do one fun thing first so that your joy doesn't get lost in the shuffle, Sher suggests. Once you see how totally delicious it feels to have those random moments of pure enjoyment, you'll want to grab them more often.

That envy can reveal your deepest desires. Do you covet or resent others' homes/careers/talents? Not likely if you're in a groove. After all, you're too busy enjoying your own pretty swell life. The next time you find that your green-eyed monster is starting to rear its ugly head, ponder whom you envy and why, so that you can weave some of what she has — and you want — into your life.

You might need to do a bit of soul-searching to figure out what, exactly, you're after. Sure, you like your neighbor's beautiful home — but c'mon now, do you really want to paint, scrub, and refinish furniture all weekend long the way she tirelessly does? Perhaps what you truly envy is her commitment, and maybe you want to offer that same kind of devotion to, say, those hobbies you ran out of time for a few years ago, such as watercolor painting or jewelry making or banging on that old set of drums. Imagine all the possibilities, and see which ones strike you as a 7 or above on a scale of 1 to 10, says Sher. Or just think about them and notice which ones make you break into a smile.

And while you're at it, why not have a chat with someone you envy? Ask her for tips on how she balances family, friends, her passion, and the rest of her great big life.

That having a to-do list the length of the Nile is no badge of honor. It's the end of the day, and your to-do list has only three quarters of its items crossed off. Quick: How do you feel about that fact?

If you feel ashamed and vow to push yourself that much harder next week, you're probably stuck in a rut, concludes psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!. "Women in a rut typically take on a lot of obligations," he explains. "They don't usually stop and ask themselves, Does this really matter to me?" And that's too bad, because slowing down and giving yourself fewer to-do's leaves more room in your brain for various new ideas to sprout — so you have more energy to think creatively about the rest of your life. (Oh, and by the way, you'll probably be more efficient at completing those mundane tasks if you spend some of your time having fun, Hallowell points out.)

The solution for all you to-do-list slaves? "Be a good boss to yourself," suggests Marner, the crafting enthusiast. "You can't enjoy life if it overwhelms you. If you're not getting to things on the bottom of your list, how important are they, really? I ask myself, Do I need to move them up on the list? If not, then I just let them go."

Another way to tame a to-do list: Prioritize it, advises organizational pro Marcia Ramsland, author of Simplify Your Life: Stop Running and Start Living! Label one section of your list "Urgent": This is for tasks you don't love doing but have to, such as paying bills that are due in two days. Label another section "Important" or "Personal"; include in it "things that will put balance back into your life or have meaning for you," says Ramsland, such as "Go for a walk with Jill" (an old friend you haven't seen in a year) or "Tell Liza I'm too booked up to help on her committee this time." Put these personal items at the top of your list and star them. Then be sure to do at least one of them a day. If you can't think of anything, leave some space on your list, draw a border around the space in your favorite color — and soon you'll come up with a fun to-do (or two, or 10) to fill it.

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