From the outside, it looked as though Adam Alter was gliding along.
At 28, he had earned a doctorate in psychology from Princeton and soon afterward landed a job as a tenure-track professor at the N.Y.U. Stern School of Business.
But he felt stuck. Preparing to teach while simultaneously doing research became overwhelming, especially after having just emerged from five intense years of graduate school. And although he was often surrounded by people in New York City, he missed having a close network of friends.
He likened it to being trapped on a conveyor belt. “I was making a career for myself,” he said, “but I wasn’t sure if those were the ways I wanted to succeed.”
Dr. Alter, who has now been a professor for 15 years, has devoted much of his career to researching the notion of feeling stuck. In 2020, he surveyed hundreds of people on the topic, and every respondent said they felt stalled in at least one area: failed creative pursuits, stagnant careers, unsatisfying relationships, an inability to save money — the list went on.
Why we get stuck.
Falling into a rut or feeling stagnant from time to time is a universal experience, said Dr. Alter, whose latest book, “Anatomy of a Breakthrough,” offers 100 ways to get unstuck.
Why? When tackling any long-term goal, you will inevitably hit a plateau, he said. And because some goals don’t have clear end points, it can be difficult to feel like you’re making progress.
Other sticking points can originate from big life changes like illness, having a baby, moving or being laid off. Dr. Alter found that people tend to be especially self-reflective when approaching a new decade, for example at ages 29 or 39, and that these turning points can feel overwhelming when life isn’t going as planned.
How to get unstuck.
Do a ‘friction audit’: The friction audit is one way organizations weed out areas of inefficiency. Individuals can apply the same principles to their own lives by identifying the things that create obstacles and add complications or stress, Dr. Alter said.
To get started, try asking: Am I repeating certain patterns that are unhelpful? Are there certain things I do regularly that I don’t enjoy? The next step is to either trim away or smooth out each friction point. Say you dread your commute but feel powerless to change it. Dr. Alter suggested asking yourself: “What’s the part that makes it most unappealing?” What specific changes can you make to address the problem? Will it help to listen to a great podcast or audiobook? If you drive, can you start a car pool with other co-workers? Is there a way to work from home more often?
Reframe negative thoughts: Maybe you engage in “catastrophizing,” or thinking the worst will happen. Or maybe you are overly harsh with yourself and have a case of “the shoulds,” as in: “I should have gotten more done at work,” even when you accomplished a good amount. Persistent thoughts like these can create stress and interfere with your goals, said Judy Ho, a clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor at Pepperdine University.
Try to reframe your thinking, Dr. Ho suggested. For example, instead of “I’m going to fail at this project,” you can think, “I’m going to do the best I can, and if I’m struggling I will ask for help.” Finally, she said, aim to evaluate your thoughts objectively: “I’m having this thought. What’s the evidence for it? And what’s the evidence against it?”
Try ‘futurecasting’: “Imagine a future life where you are unstuck,” said Sarah Sarkis, a clinical psychologist and executive coach in Boston. What does it look like? How do you feel?
Then think about the specific steps that would help you work toward that vision. Write those steps down — ideally by hand. This helps us commit to them, Dr. Sarkis said. And don’t wait until you feel “ready,” she added. Do at least one step each day if you can — but be kind to yourself if you cannot. If you skip a day or two, just start again tomorrow. “Paint the future that you’re seeking,” Dr. Sarkis said. “Map a plan to get there.”
Share your goal: Telling other people about your plans can also be helpful. Adam Cheyer, the co-creator of Siri and the vice president of A.I. Experience at Airbnb, has said that this was crucial to his success. “Just the force of putting the words into the world now makes you believe — makes you commit,” he told an audience at the University of California, Berkeley. The added benefit is that people may want to help you out. “Somehow, the universe will help you achieve this goal,” he said. “It’s been a huge, huge tool for me.”
Do something meaningful: Spending time on activities that align with your values “moves you forward if you feel stuck in completely unrelated domains of your life,” Dr. Alter said. When he was feeling unmotivated early in his teaching career, he came across a poster at his gym — a group was looking for volunteers to help raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society by running in the New York City Marathon. It felt almost like fate, he said; one of his friends had died from leukemia years earlier. While training, he ended up making several friends. “I felt like a more productive person and it gave me confidence to tackle other areas of my life,” he said. “We need meaning more than ever when we’re feeling stuck.”