Sam Holstein

Break Out of a Rut With One of These 5 Productivity Tactics

Break Out of a Rut With One of These 5 Productivity Tactics

Listicles about productivity tactics can easily be trite, but this one means a lot to me. Every single change on this list has been something that completely transformed my life. Any one of these changes alone can be a powerful reset button to the quality of your life. Taken together, they’ve transformed me from a barely-functioning neurotic mess to someone who can juggle mental illness, therapy three times a week, and a blogging business. 

If they worked miracles for me, chances are they can help you at least a little.

#1: Content Blockers

If you repeatedly find yourself off-task, scrolling a particular website, be it Facebook, Twitter, or the Medium feed (yes, that’s me), using a content blocker is a great way to break yourself of a bad habit and get back to work.

I always support the decision to leave social media forever, but for those who aren’t interested in such a drastic step, you don’t have to block the entire platform. If scrolling Facebook has become a problem for you, you can block the Facebook news feed without blocking the entire platform. Same for YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and many other platforms. In fact, Medium’s home page has recently become a distraction for me, so I blocked the Medium home page without blocking my ability to see stories from people I follow, my bookmarked stories, or to write stories of my own.

I’ve decided to permanently delete my social media and restrict myself from the Medium home page, but if you only want to focus during certain times of the day, you can download content blockers that work on a schedule — block distractions during work hours, let yourself roam free after the day’s work is done.

That being said…

I’m really not a fan of scheduled content blocking. Surfing your YouTube feed is a massive distraction during work hours, but if it’s creating a problem during your work life, it’s probably creating a problem during your off-hours, too. Most of us have goals for our downtime, too, like getting some exercise in, cleaning the house, or finally getting some time to ourselves to read a novel or eat delicious food or something. 

But when we get sucked into YouTube for six hours, we don’t get a chance to do either of those things. After all, who among us hasn’t collapsed on our beds after a long day, opened our phones, and then looked up to discover we’ve spent the last four hours screwing around on pointless shit — and then we feel that dreaded feeling. Oh god, there all that time goes, now it’s time for bed and I have to do it all again…

If you’ve been stuck in a rut for months and years now and you really want to break out, take some bold action. Pick one of the websites that you often spend hours surfing and block the page you use for surfing. Usually, that’s the homepage. Give it 30 days and see how you feel. 

Many feel they wouldn’t survive without their surfing and scrolling because it’s one of the only ways they can mentally calm themselves after the insanity of their lives. I understand the worry. But I promise you, there are much more effective ways to calm yourself down. Here is a big list of distracting activities that are much more calming and healing than surfing endlessly. It takes a little effort to switch your relaxation habits from surfing to one of these, but making the switch has done wonders for my mental health.

#2: Automate Your Email

I have a problem that I’m guessing most people don’t have. It’s a problem a lot of people envy, actually. It’s that I get so few emails that sometimes when I tab over to my email to kill time, I have no more emails to answer! The last time I “couldn’t find an email” or “lost something in my inbox” was ten years ago.¹

People spend a great deal of time complaining about email overwhelm, and a whole cottage industry has cropped up around non-email work tools like Slack and optimized email like Hey. These tools are cool, but there’s no need to spend time agonizing about how to escape email if your email is not something you need to escape in the first place.

It doesn’t take much to get to inbox zero. It just takes some brutal honesty with yourself and a familiarity with how to set up email filters.


This is where brutal honesty with yourself comes in. A lot of emails that people get simply aren’t necessary or helpful. Newsletters you would like to get around to reading but never do, coupons for things you shouldn’t be buying anyway, endless updates from companies and organizations…

Get brutally honest with yourself and admit which emails you don’t need. Admit you’re not going to get around to reading those newsletters and admit that you shouldn’t be hoarding coupons for silly expenses anyway.

How Email Filters Work

Email filters are the greatest tool. When you can’t or don’t want to unsubscribe from something, email filters are how you keep your inbox orderly. 

Email filters work like this: You set up a rule that says…

For every email that has a certain characteristic, like a subject that includes a certain phrase, or from a certain sender -> It goes a certain place, like the Archive, Trash, or a preset folder.

For every kind of email you get that you want to keep but that you don’t need to personally review, you set an email filter for it. Some of my most-used email filters are…

  1. Any update from my local library goes directly to the trash. I don’t need to know every time I’m overdue returning a book or a hold is ready.
  2. Every email that has “Terms and Conditions” in the subject line goes directly to the Trash. I don’t need to know every time any company I have a login with updates their services.
  3. Every newsletter I get goes directly to a folder called “Newsletters.” I want to keep them and read them some time, but I don’t want them cluttering my inbox.
  4. Every update from Amazon for their affiliates program (there are so many) goes directly to my Archive because, again, I don’t need to read this stuff.

All told, I probably have thirty email filters scanning for different types of emails and sending them where they belong. As a result, I only get a handful of emails every day, and all of them are emails I’m glad to receive.

Some of my many, many email filters. Also a little window into the way I live…

#3: Decluttering

When you are struggling through a rough patch in life, a lot of things fall by the wayside. Keeping the house clean, cooking for yourself, showering regularly, that sort of thing. 

And this is inexorably true: The less you own, the easier it is to keep up. It’s easier to keep the house clean because there’s less to clean, it’s easier to navigate the house when it’s messy because there’s less stuff, making it easier to cook and shower and care for yourself, and it’s easier to pick yourself back up when you’re ready and get going again.

Owning fewer things comes with more benefits, too. With fewer possessions, you feel more comfortable in smaller homes, so you can save money by downsizing — or if you’re already poor and downsized, you can at least not feel claustrophobic in your home. You also save money because the act of decluttering teaches you not to bring more stuff into your home again later. Last and most important, living in a decluttered home enhances your general peace of mind, even if it does still get untidy from time to time.

The big thing that keeps us from decluttering, I think, is fear and regret. We don’t want to confront the consequences of our choices. Major decluttering is not only physically exhausting, it’s an act of confronting yourself: Oh, so this is all the stuff I wasted my money on. If you keep holding on to stuff, you can keep justifying the purchase to yourself. But if you let it go to charity, you’re forced to admit you probably never needed it in the first place.

Here are some easy decluttering targets to get you started:

Decluttering isn’t about targeting certain kinds of things, though. To declutter is to get honest about who you are.

For instance, a woman who declutters her library and goes from 100 to 50 books is not only freeing valuable space for documents, sentimental items, and other stuff, she is admitting to herself that she is not as much of a reader as she imagined she is

It’s been a few years since I truly converted to minimalism, but during that process, I learned a lot about myself.

These were painful realizations for me. I had a lot wrapped up in seeing myself as an attractive androgynous person, and I had a lot wrapped up in seeing myself as a golfer. But I wasn’t a golfer anymore, and my style is more hippie stoner than fashion icon. Investing emotional energy in seeing myself as a golfer or fashion icon kept me from enjoying new parts of my life that are here now, like watercolor painting and growing my blogging business.

#4: Do at Least a Little

I haven’t been getting exercise for the last few weeks and I’ve been down on myself about it. But I realized part of the reason I wasn’t getting exercise is I was having thoughts like this:

I need to exercise → my favorite way to exercise is to go to the gym → I need two or three hours to go to the gym → I don’t have two or three hours today → I’m not going to exercise today → I can’t believe I’ve failed to exercise another day.

A simple change to my thoughts changed my fortune.

I need to exercise → my favorite way to exercise is to go to the gym → I need two or three hours to go to the gym → I don’t have two or three hours today → I can still do at least a little → I will take a walk around the block or maybe use my old skateboard for ten or twenty minutes → I succeeded in exercising today.

Is poking around on my skateboard like Steve Buscemi in the “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids” meme the best exercise? No. The gym would be loads better. But sometimes we don’t have the energy or the resources for the best option. When that happens, we benefit massively from being able to do at least a little.

I know being able to consider the ability to skateboard “a little exercise” is a luxury. Many people are deconditioned enough that a walk around the block is exhausting for them. If you’re one of those people, you can still do a little. Walk to the end of your street and back. If you have money, buy one of those pedal machines you can use while sitting. The point is to do at least a little by your own standards, not by anyone else’s. 

You would be surprised by the power of doing at least a little. I used to be weak as heck. I could get myself to the gym, but running even a quarter-mile wiped me out for the rest of the day. It took me months of practice before I could even lift a weightlifting bar, let alone one with weights on it. But each “at least a little” day added up, and now when I visit the gym, people look at me like I’m the one who knows what they’re doing.

This principle applies to more than exercise, too. If you would like to save $100 each month but you can only find $10 in your budget, save at least $10. If you would like to write 1000 words a day but can only get 130 words out, get those 130 words out. 

Do whatever you can and don’t beat yourself up about what you can’t.

#5: Waking Up Early

I know, I know. I know! Yet another self-help blogger telling me to wake up at 5 am. What trite, out-of-touch advice.

And obviously, this tip isn’t going to work for everyone. If you work the third shift, if you have fussy young children, if you are disabled in a way that interrupts sleep, or if you are in any situation where unbroken sleep hours are hard to come by, skip this tip. Everyone’s number one sleep priority should be to get eight hours of sleep a night, and if that means you have to wake up late, then so be it.

But a lot of people are not in that kind of position. Statistically speaking, most of my readers are not in that kind of position. And if you have the freedom to start waking up before 8 am, you really should, because you would not believe how much it improves your life.

  1. You feel calm because you’re not in some godforsaken rush to get everything done. 
  2. You get stuff done quickly because you’re calm and prepared.
  3. You get to finish work earlier in the day because you’re working more quickly and you started earlier, giving you more time to relax.
  4. More of your waking hours are spent in the daylight, a huge boost to health and happiness.
  5. By the time 9:30 or 10 pm rolls around, you’re quite ready to go to bed, so you don’t end up staying up late binge-drinking or binge-watching Netflix or any other life-destroying binge-ing activities.
  6. You sleep better because you had good sleep hygiene.
  7. You are deeply rested after sleep, so you wake up early again, ready to kick ass… again! 

The last time I worked an office job, I woke up at 5:30 am, spent the morning writing and going to the gym, then went to work, then came home from work around 3 pm, and the rest of my day was mine. It was an awesome feeling.

Obviously, it’s not going to work this way for everyone. If you work the second shift, you’ll have to come home and go right to sleep. If you work in an office where your presence is mandatory during certain hours, you won’t get to go home early just because you’re kicking ass. But I think the general idea still applies. You’re able to get more work done and more relaxing done during the day if you give yourself more day.

Waking up at 5 am sounds like the purview of superhumans when it’s not something you’ve ever voluntarily done before, but the habit is easy to adopt — yes, even for regular humans. I have a personality disorder, I’m on the autism spectrum, and I have a stomach problem that seriously limits my energy and mobility sometimes, and I was still able to build the habit of waking up early with relative ease.² 

Not only that, but I was never a morning person. Waking up at 7:30 am for school when I was growing up felt every day like the worst possible thing that could be happening to me that morning.

The change started when I spent three months living with my grandparents. Like typical people in their mid-eighties, they wake up before the sun is up and their day is half over by 9 am. If I woke up at 10 am, I had missed breakfast and was often about to miss lunch. Over the course of a few weeks, the time I woke up naturally adjusted to 7 am so that I could participate in breakfast.

It was when I had my last office job that I really learned how to wake up early. I knew that having an office job was challenging for me, and that every day after work was over, I was inevitably going to crash into my apartment in a post-work exhaustion coma — at which point my chances of writing a blog article or hitting the gym were nearly zero. If I wanted these things to happen, they had to happen before work, no matter how early that was.

So every day, hatefully, I woke up when my alarm went off at 5:30. I hated waking up, but I hated the idea of not publishing stories and not getting exercise even more, so I woke up anyway. Some days my writing didn’t end up in a publishable article, and some days I went to the gym only to turn around and go home in exhaustion half an hour later, but the more I did it, the fewer and further between these bad days were.

Now I’m a self-employed blogger and there is no boss telling me where to be, so I don’t wake up at 5 am. But I do try, still, to wake up between 7 and 8 am. When I do wake up after 10, the day is already half over.

If you’re stuck in a rut and don’t know what to do to break out, give waking up early a try. It might create the time and routine you need to set the rest of your life free.


At the end of the day, the key to breaking out of most ruts is to try something new. Doing what you’ve always done will get you what you’ve always gotten. 

Everything on this list has unlocked a new level of success and happiness for me at some point in my life. It might do the same for you.