How To Break Free From Being Stuck

I felt "stuck" at a corporate job. I had a cubicle. I had the fluorescent lights. I had the guy in the cubicle next to mine who would make that signal with his finger and cheek whenever a girl walked by that he wanted a blowjob from. I had the boss that could make me cry. I played online chess all day long. I had the girls I had crushes on. I had the stuff I was doing on the side that nobody knew about. But I was stuck.

In the morning I couldn't get out of bed. Light would shine in. 7am. 8am. 9am. "here's some coffee". 10am. Finally, I'd fall over onto the floor. Dog hairs. Cat hairs everywhere. Ugh. All over me. I walked to work past porn shops all over Times Square. I went in one. Another story. I was three hours late to work. Many days. I was S.T.U.C.K. I could figure out what that acronym means but you get it.

A lot of people get stuck. They don't like where they are at. They don't know how to move forward. They don't know how to shake things up. I don't know if this is true but one time a friend of mine told me (he got his PHD at the age of 15 so I believed everything he told me about science) that the way Bic makes lighters is by putting all the parts in a machine and then the machine shakes until the parts somehow all fit together into lighters and the lighters start falling out.

I don't know if this is true. But I love the idea.

A lot of people are stuck. I know this because I get emails that start, "I'm stuck." So how to get "unstuck". Put all your parts in a machine. Start shaking.

Even when I was stuck I couldn't accurately say I had specific complaints.  I had an ok job, good boss, ok colleagues, easy responsibilities. Summers were easy when everyone took a vacation (and on that note: how bad are vacations? Much better when you get to sit around and do nothing than go off to Hawaii or Alaska, battle airplanes, hotels, "hiking" (ugh!), feeding kids, etc).  So what was my problem?

Nothing was my problem. It's ok to be stuck. Nobody will ever blame you for it. But you'll get less and less happy. Then things start to happen that you didn't intend, in order to get you unstuck. Maybe you have an affair to mix things up. Maybe you steal a little from the office. Maybe you start to cut corners at work because you've been there long enough you know you can let things slide. You start gossiping too much about the other people. You begin the arduous process of backstabbing to rise up in a world that will tease you into thinking that's how you get unstuck.

But it isn't. And being stuck has its consequences.

Here's the ten step guide to being unstuck:

A) List your routine. Don't leave a single detail out. When you are stuck it means you have a rigid routine that rarely changes. Here was part of my routine: Wake up, brush teeth, wait for cold subway, ride subway, get a donut and coffee, go to cubicle without anyone seeing me, log onto email, read stuff on the web, play a game of chess, make my list of things to do, start programming...flirt...gossip...kiss break....chess break....dinner....shoot pool..., etc. I had about 50 things on my "Routine List". Put 60 if you can.

B) Change one thing:  in the routine. The idea is to only change one thing at a time. Don't be too hard on yourself. One thing. And don't do the exact opposite. Just avoid the item in the routine you want to change. Maybe, don't go straight to work. Go to the library. Or wake up one hour early and read a book. Or jog around the block even if you have never jogged before. Or don't read your emails this morning. Or completely stop gossiping. Or sit with different people at lunch. Over time, how many things on your routine list can you change? Half? All of it? Make it a daily challenge. Break your record. Break my record.

C) Instead of writing a things-to-do list, write a "things I did list" at the end of the day. In fact, start to reverse your routine. Read emails at the end of the day. Have dinner for breakfast. Breakfast for dinner.

D) Find one thing you were passionate about as a kid: spend an hour researching what has happened since. For instance, I was passionate about Jacques Cousteau for about a month as a kid. What ever happened to that guy? I couldn't tell you right now if he was dead or alive or buried in some sex scandal.  He put out a bunch of books about what goes on underwater. What's happened since? Why do this? You were a kid for 18 years. There were probably many things that you were passionate about. Even if it was as silly as some cartoon show. Each thing you find out about is something new you learn now. And you might find things you are still passionate about.

E) Network: Every day find one person to reach out to and stay in touch with. An old high school friend. A guy you randomly spoke to on the subway. The guy on the elevator. Go out to lunch with this person. Learn about his life. Interview him. You need to find out what other routines are like. Maybe someone will give you an idea you haven't thought of. We are all very very afraid to break out of our routines. I am also. I recently agreed to do a media appearance simply because I was afraid if I said "no" then the people there would not like me. Claudia begged me not to do it. I did it anyway. She was right. I was afraid to break out of my routine. But networking that day would've probably put me more in touch with people who liked me than doing that media appearance did. Again, return the email from 2005 that you never returned. Write a letter to your boss's boss's boss's boss and tell him what you really think about the company's strategy in Kansas.

F) Create. I can tell by the emails I get that most people would rather create something than be a part of the robotic routine. How can you create if you have no time or if you have never done it before? Simple! Don't worry about either of those things. On the subway write a 4 line poem. Buy a set of watercolors in the drug store and finger paint for ten minutes before you go to sleep. Don't write a things to do list or a things you did list. Write a "things I wish I did today" list. Make up stuff for that list. I wish a UFO picked me up, took me to Andromeda, and then took me home for dinner. Its your wish list for the day that just happened. It's all over. So you can wish for anything. It didn't happen. You are making stuff up. You're creating.

Here's another thing: follow someone. I love doing this! Pick a random person and just follow them for fifteen minutes. You're an evil spy! Then you can see their routine. Make sure they don't see you follow them.

G) Daily Practice. I'm a broken record already. Here's why the Daily Practice I recommend works: (note: what this is my personal belief about how the world and universe is set up. You don't have to believe it. But I know it works for me). I firmly believe we have four bodies and most of the time we are neglecting at least 2 or 3 of them if not all 4. If you neglect your physical body, you start to have stomach disorders, you get sick more frequently, you eventually die younger or at least have a painful, unpleasant life. Guess what!? The same thing happens if you neglect your emotional body. Or mental body. Or spiritual body.

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And it's even bigger than that. In your physical body (in all 4) there's blood that hooks everything up. If the blood is not working, oxygen is not getting to the different parts of your body. You might have to breathe faster then, or you might breathe irregularly, or worse: if oxygen doesn't get to the heart or the brain then you have a heart attack or stroke. If oxygen doesn't get properly to your cells you get cancer. The same thing happens in all four bodies. BUT, it's not only that: there's a blood that connects up each body. If they aren't all in sync then that blood flow starts to break down.

I know people don't care about all four bodies. They say to me, "I love the idea muscle idea". Or, "I like your thoughts but don't really think much about spirituality." If ALL FOUR BODIES are not in harmony with each other then they being to break down. Then they start letting crappy people into their lives. Or they start being unable to execute on good ideas. Or they get sick. Whatever. Many people don't like some words. Like "spiritual". Call it something else then.

And don't believe me at all on this. I'm making it all up after all. But I know, for me, this is what works. I can't break out of a routine, any routine, unless I am following this advice. So I know it works for me. And I know it works for the people who read that blog post a year ago because I get their emails. I've gotten well over 1000 emails on how people's lives have changed. I'm not saying this because I am trying to sell you anything. I'm not selling anything at all. In fact, better for me to "succeed" if less people follow my advice.  But whatever, it works for me.

H) Buy ALL My Books. Haha. I'm just kidding. I just told you I'm not selling anything. But, seriously, buy my last book.

I) What Are You Afraid Of?  Sometimes a "routine" is a person. I wake up..did she write me?...its 11am...has she called?...did she say she loved me yesterday? come she didn't make plans yet for this weekend with me...she said she would be here at 7 but she hasn't even called and its 8...etc. Maybe this routine is particular to me. But ask: why might I have a routine like that (in the past). List your reasons: fear of being alone. A parent telling me I was disgusting when I was younger. Experiences of other women cheating if its 8 and they said 7.

Fear that I will "never meet someone like her again" (a statement which is always said but never true). Sexual obsession. Love addiction. On an on. You break the routine by being aware of the fears: I'll never get a job this good again. I'll fail as an entrepreneur. I'll run out of money and have to move. I don't know any rich people to help me. On and on. There's excuse after excuse of why you shouldn't break your routine.

List all of those excuses. Think about them. Think of the opposite ("well, I've always met a girl within six months after a big breakup so I will probably meet one again" or, "I haven't lived in a homeless shelter yet so odds are I won't this time."

But I can't change them!? You might say. "I really want this girl!" Or.."I really might go broke!"  That's ok. Think them.

Here's how you wither them away, like the water against a rock metaphor:

  •  i. become aware of the excuses.
  • ii. figure out why they exist. What part of your psychological timeline do they come from.
  • iii. where in your body do you feel pain when you think of them. Just think about that.
  • iv. What's the reverse of that fear. I really had to say to myself, "I will meet a woman I will fall in love with if I leave this girl". I had to say it over and over. If I didn't say it, I never would've left the girl. I never would've met the right girl. If you don't say it, you won't believe it. I had to say, "if I start a company I won't go broke."
  • v. Visualize now what you just said in part "iv". Lie down. Put your hands by your side. Take ten deep breaths. And really visualize the situation. You will meet the girl. Your business will be a success.

You might say, "that's sort of new agey". Ok. Don't do it then. All I'm saying is: this is how I broke my routines. All of them. Every time. Even micro-routines.

Then repeat from "i" tomorrow.

I said ten things but I gave nine. I broke my routine of doing "Ten ways to do X". But that's ok. Oh wait, here's Letter "J") Read this post again tomorrow.

I eventually climbed out of bed and told my boss I quit. He said, "can you please wait until I get back from vacation in 3 weeks." But I said no and sent in my resignation. I eventually stopped calling back "the girl" when it was clear she didn't like me. I eventually stopped gossiping about the people who clearly hated me. I never ended up in a homeless shelter despite repeated attempts for the universe to put me there.

Waking up at 7 am, lying there until 10am. The sunlight coming in and filling the room when everyone was busy doing their routine and I was too afraid to move. Sometimes I'm still too afraid  to move. But sometimes the good thing about too much sunlight is that eventually it leads to an entirely new day.

[RELATED: 10 Steps to Avoid Giving Up]

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  • davesh

    Hi James – 

    I’m trying to wait for the Q&A but I’m too impatient. How can you tell the difference between being overly defensive versus standing up for yourself versus the “crappy people” that you can’t avoid (co-workers, family…shudder)

    Everything you said in this post rings so true in my life right now. Thanks for posting!

  • Antoine Carriere

    nice thanks for sharing James.  A bit long but serves a purpose.  Did I get it right: shake things up, change small things in your routine, make new social connections, re-explore something you likeD, find what the root cause is, and address it :).  

    I find that when stuck, we don’t reach out for help.  Having a strong support system and learning to rely on it should be taught in school 

    • I have wasted so much time in my life agonizing over certain things because I was too proud/ashamed/stubborn/afraid to ask for help.  Today I’ve been asking for help and I’ve been surprised at the free advice I have gotten, just for the asking.

  • James, thanks again man. I am trying to become self-employed, but I have a lot excuses, so I am going to try this.

  • Tom

    James, ‘Dear Abby’ would be very proud. In fact I think she’d be very impressed.

  • Anonymous

    Hi James. on (H) ha! I actually did buy your book, not all of them though, only the last one.

    Nice posting.  I’m stuck in a massive debt and recurring heavy emotional drag (guilt, fear, etc.) as a result of a failed business.  Any suggestion to unstuck? 

    Anyway it’s good to be reminded of the daily practice from time to time.  I believe in it, but have to admit that sometimes I let negative emotions take over and slack off. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    thanks mate, nice work. All of the ideas are good, but I find the common denominator to ‘simply’ be: action. Taking action to become unstuck.  Easier said than done, though, so your list is specific and practical — and comes at an opportune time for a kick in the ass for me. thanks again.

  • Kk


    I look forward to reading each and every one of your posts. Thank you for being consistent and always having a great message. Maybe one day I’ll get to write to you about how you’ve influenced me as an entrepreneur.


  • Here is the magic bullet. Stop watching TV. Just look at the stats:

  • James, I look forward to your posts.  Your blog motivates me more than anything I’ve read in the past 20 years.  Keep up the great work.  Sometime you may be investing in my next big idea!

  • James there so many good things in this post that I don’t want to write a post in my response. However, being stuck can seem like the end of the world. I’ve learned to take small steps. It’s amazing how things can change if you’re willing to move. 

    Good stuff… Thanks for taking the time and energy to write the post. 

  • good post, too much info so I’m glad you put “letter J. read this post again tomorrow” 

  • I’m four steps into listing my routine. Just wanted to share that making lists has always been REALLY effective for me. This routine list is great because I can SEE what I do and can logically “find/replace” items in my day and see what happens. 

    James, do you think your “methods” are only good for fellow list-making, writing, kinesthetic learners like me (you?)? I wonder if there is a parallel blog out there for folks who learn other ways?

  • Altucher, you are the bomb.

  • Sometimes breaking the cycle of a routine is the only way to find your true passion in life.  Without ever questioning the routines we are following, we could keep doing them forever without getting any new results in our lives.  Great post James.  Makes sense. 

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant post James. If there’s anything constructive I can add I’d recommend everyone get a nice sized cork board and rebrand it a dream board. Place it in a place where you work or spend lots of time. You want to stare at this, lots. Add a new visual element from time to time (works best for me when I want an inspirational burst). Make it something you’d like to obtain (500ft yacht), a place to visit – a visual goal, maybe blocks of gold, a fine monocle, whatever tickles your fancy. If you can’t see it, you can’t get it. Then go, break free, become unstuck. Achieve.

    • Anonymous

      i like that, i’m going to do it ;)

    • 1080ven, being a visual learner, I like this idea.

  • sometimes, we are stuck because we fear the unknown and do not want to rock the boat. have to get over fear, to become unstuck

  • Andrew Aird

    I hope I’m the only person here that says this but I’m smart enough to know that I’m not:

    You seem to write about all the things that I’m currently facing in life: losing a long term gf and  feeling stuck in a rut. The only post that you’d still need to write to completely summarise how I’m currently feeling is how your intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.. i.e. the more intelligent you are/become the more depressed you can become also..

    Thanks for this. I’m reading this from my cubicle.. in the city.. whilst the fire alarm is tested.. :-)

  • stefan

    Nice topic. I think “E” is the best of them all. Combined with “Stop watching TV”, as Statspotting saind, will lead to a very meaningful life with more diverse things to do than we could imagine.

  • Gonzalo Gandia

    I’ve been doing a version of the Daily Practice. I think it’s important that you never get stuck in any dogma. And I think the main point I get this from post is to vary your outlook in life, even the steps you are taking to get unstuck. The Daily Practice is great, and it functions flawlessly. Until it doesn’t. Even the Daily Practice needs to be re-imagined every now and then. Your post lists just about every possible way that someone can mix things up. Thanks. 

    •  I agree with that. its always ok to tweak the daily practice. if i had to do yoga every day I’d probably kill myself. but i always try to eat healthy, sleep well, and stay somewhat active. Similarly, its often a challenge to avoid the negativepeople in life (or even being negative yourself) but being aware of it is often helpful. These are small tweaks but they work also.

      • Gonzalo Gandia

        Good points. I mixed it up today. Actually, I’ve been doing this for a while now. I brought groups of business people together that I think will make a good fit. In the past, I’d be trying to figure out how I could get a slice of the action. Even when I had no business being part of it and brought no value to the table. I now have faith that this is the right thing to do, even if I have no idea what karmic benefits I could receive, if any. The ironic thing is that I’m more desperate for business than ever before in my life. But I’m more at peace this way. Talk about changing things up…

  • “…the way Bic makes lighters is by putting all the parts in a machine and
    then the machine shakes until the parts somehow all fit together into
    lighters and the lighters start falling out……

    So how to get “unstuck”. Put all your parts in a machine. Start shaking. ”


    Hah!  Brilliant!

    It is important to note, though, that there are many who have been shaking like mad but remain stuck because their parts don’t fit together – will never fit together no matter how hard they shake.

  • Jfwallen

    Amen!!.  So true.  I have done the very same unstuck actions.  Works for me also.

  • Not sure how I got here, but I stumbled on this blog about three weeks ago. Since then, it has become my “routine” to read it first thing every morning. Maybe I will follow the advice above and skip it tomorrow…but probably not.

    On a more serious note, I want to triple up on what Statspotting and Stefan have previously commented on. Shut off the television. Several years ago, I followed some advice I picked up listening to Nassim Taleb. He advised reducing useless “noise” by avoiding almost all news. It is virtually all negative and more importantly, adds nothing to your own personal well-being. Stay up on enough to be able to hold intelligent conversation, ignore all else. Once removed, that once soul-draining time will fill with more useful and fulfilling things.

  • Anna

    Got what I came here for…thanks James!

  • boo

    This post is getting bookmarked for sure. I think this might be my favorite post on your blog ever. It’s right up there with the original “daily practice” post.

    If this helps anyone else, I’ve found that Gretchen Rubin’s post on “drift” (and specifically her list of warning signs) is great for recognizing if you’re stuck. 

  • you know, James, as someone working on a visa in this country, I can’t even quit without getting thrown out of the country. My mantra is to try to change one thing that I work on. If it means, doing a survey of users of the application I develop or suggesting changes to the existing apps… I keep going… I have to , i don’t have a choice

  • Hank Sullivan

    Hi James – I got interested when I heard you talking about the real reason Warren Bufet wants a tax increase. I believe there is substance to what you said. You are flaky…and I like that. It is difficult to come up with original thoughts. Keep trying…it makes for interesting reading.

  • Slim

    James, you’re the best, but you can’t use “at” at the end of sentences. “They don’t like where they are at.” … it is. “They don’t know where they are.” What happened to Americans and their atrocious spelling and grammar? Write a post about that, maybe. 

    • That’s a myth about prepositions

    • amy


      Yer outta touch:

      After an overzealous editor attempted to rearrange one of Winston Churchill’s sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, the Prime Minister scribbled a single sentence in reply: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

  • Please let us know when you figure out how to get to Andromeda.

    I had a hunch you were due for a great article today. I was right

  • Anonymous

    I wanted to be a carpenter when I was a kid, I wanted to build bespoke furniture, first time i’ve thought of that in a long time…

  • Sebastien Latapie

    Oh boy, I know the feeling of just laying in bed for a couple of hours too lazy to start the day. Hate that feeling.

  • God, I relate to this post, James.

    And, as much as I have shaken up my life in the past year anda half, I have also fallen into new routines I’d like to break.

    Reading your posts always seems to serve as a reminder of things I already know I need to confront, but don’t really know how.

  • James,

    I’m an entrepreneur (32 yrs) and my brother (18) wants to
    Start a business but he has no idea where to start.

    And I’ve got some ideas to share with him for idea generation but would like to hear your input
    on the matter.

  • Brainfreezed&washed

    I want to be unstuck from my own self defeating mind! 

  • KB

    firstly, really enjoyed the post.  question though.  iv an v both seem very much like “The Secret”, which you rail on in “I was Blind but…”

    Just found it curious. And I’m no “Secret” lover, in fact I couldn’t even finish that BS before stuffing it back in the netflix envelope.

  • Moe

    Reading this post was like a cold slap to the groin. Sadly, I needed it.

  • The Daily Practice should be required reading by everyone.  Thanks for the reminder, James.  I’ve fallen there recently.  Attended a talk by Sean Stephenson a few weeks ago, he talked about his “when life works” list and mentioned that whenever he seemed stressed or crabby, his fiance just had to ask him what he was skipping on his list, and sure enough, there’d be something.  Simple truth, the daily practice, but lifechanger.

  • For point C, I use which is a tool that emails you everyday for you to fill out what you did that day. It works wonders and addresses your point pretty sell. All you have to do is reply back to the email.

    Great post as always!

  • Wow.  There’s so much wisdom in here, I don’t know where to start. 

    This is my first time reading your site (I know, I live in the dark ages) and I feel super inspired.  Your point entitled “Find one thing you were passionate about as a kid” really resonated with me.  Every day I look at my son and I am amazed at his energy, his interests (dinosaurs, ships, space, science, underwater caves, drawing endless drawings, building forts, etc), and his intense imagination.  I often gaze upon his sweet face and wonder when all of that disappears — I hope it never does, but I know it does for many of us.  Even I have trouble playing with him, as my imagination can only run for so long before I start thinking of real world stuff.I think my son would also love following someone.  Sometimes we walk down the street at night with flashlights and take down license plate numbers.  That seems pretty spy-ish.It’s funny how I tend to focus on setting routines for myself in order to ensure I get the things done I want to do and I never really thought about shaking up that routine.  I have a good life and I’m really happy, but I do tend to do the same thing day in and day out.Thanks for the inspiration and I’ll definitely be returning to read more!

  • rollingdancefloor

    Should we do this for ourselves or for someone else?

  • daddy56fb

    I try to shake it up every day, and have a few options available.  However, when it comes to making the big leap, make sure you’re not married with kids.   It’ll cost you.

  • Joseph Kony 2012 – Raise Awareness!

  • I loved this post! So inspiring :)

  • Rob

    I’m at work right now, and reading articles like this is part of my routine.  I plan on telling my boss that Linux is the plague and it needs to die, and I never want to have anything to do with it for the rest of my life in less than two hours.

  • Georgina Shamon

    I will meet a man I will fall in love with when I leave this man

    • E.G.

      Hey Georgina,

      How are you?
      It’s been 3 years: have you met the man you would fall in love with?

  • Great, thank you ;)