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Law Practice Today

May 2024

Feeling Stuck? Using Prospection to Navigate Your Way Out of a Rut

Laurie A Lyte and Diane Rosen


  • Everyone experiences the feeling of being stuck in a rut from time to time.
  • Getting out of a stuck state requires a deliberate and intentional mindset shift.
  • Adopting prospective thinking and an optimistic explanatory style can help lift you out of the doldrums. 
Feeling Stuck? Using Prospection to Navigate Your Way Out of a Rut

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The legal profession can be a source of interesting, meaningful work that matters. As lawyers, we can make a difference in people’s lives, find solutions to complex problems, advocate for and help develop policies that set a stage for growth, and promote fairness and equity.

And yet, seemingly out of nowhere, we may find ourselves stuck—unable to move forward, sideways, or even in reverse. Here, we will delve into what it looks like to be stuck in a professional context, how to overcome the insidious influence of negative self-talk, and practical strategies for putting the doldrums in the rearview mirror as we navigate the labyrinth of law practice with resilience, grace, and determination through prospective thinking and appreciative inquiry.

What Does It Mean to Feel Stuck?

Does this sound familiar? Coming in after a few days off, you are rested and ready to go. You sit at your desk, staring blankly at the computer screen. You feel annoyed, frustrated, and exhausted. Your workload feels like an oppressive burden. Even the simplest task feels like a profound imposition as a sense of inertia washes over you. You pride yourself on your ability to meet challenges with finesse and precision, but today you are just feeling stuck.

We all experience it from time to time. It can show up as a generalized malaise, lack of engagement, low energy, or an inordinate focus on problems and what is not going well. Feeling stuck may cause you to be irritated and annoyed with others. It may have a discernable starting point or can just creep up on you for no apparent reason. When in this negative state, the world feels bleak, we tend to disconnect, and it can seem that the future is just a big black hole.

We can fall into a sense of ”stuck-ness” for a variety of reasons or no reason at all. The source may be physical or emotional exhaustion—stemming from work or otherwise. We may have been working on a matter for a long time with no end in sight. In some cases, we simply grow weary from what seems like a never-ending pipeline of work needing our time and attention or feel generally dissatisfied with work.

Why It Matters

One of the most palpable effects of feeling stuck is the erosion of professional effectiveness. Stuckness interferes with the focus and enthusiasm needed to tackle complex legal problems and challenging clients, counterparties, and the courts. Analytical skills may dull, replaced by a sense of detachment and indifference, jeopardizing the quality of legal representation, impairing decision-making, and weakening client trust. As productivity dwindles and deadlines loom, feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt can be exacerbated and self-reinforcing.

Being stuck additionally exacts a toll on personal well-being. Signs of distress may include irritability and withdrawal or physical symptoms such as insomnia or fatigue. Left unchecked, this emotional stagnation can strain interpersonal relationships, leading to feelings of isolation and alienation.

Being stuck adversely impacts what people bring to their work, specifically their sense of engagement. Defined as the level of enthusiasm, dedication, and commitment individuals bring to their work, engagement is a critical driver of performance and job satisfaction. However, when in the grip of professional malaise, a lawyer carries the risk of triggering a downward spiral with far-reaching consequences including diminished performance, missed deadlines, lack of concentration, and poor leadership. And that malaise can become contagious. Coming to work with a negative attitude will likely be noticed by colleagues and staff and perhaps even clients, who may fall into ruminating right alongside you. 

Breaking the Cycle: Good News

At the heart of being stuck lies the insidious influence of negative self-talk. This internal dialogue, characterized by self-doubt, criticism, and pessimism, can adversely impact a lawyer's well-being and professional efficacy. Berating yourself for perceived shortcomings or failures not only undermines confidence but also adversely impacts motivation, resilience, and relationships. Left unchecked, negative self-talk can perpetuate a cycle of self-sabotage, hindering growth and impeding success.

Getting out of a stuck state requires a deliberate and intentional mindset shift. Note that feeling stuck is generally a transitory state. However, if the feeling of being stuck is ongoing, unrelenting, and pervasive and is interfering with the ability to manage daily tasks or relationships or resulting in a profound sense of hopelessness or sadness, it is important to seek professional attention for what might be depression or another condition requiring professional assistance, support, and treatment.

Here are tools, grounded in the field of positive psychology, that can help you navigate your way through stuck-ness and help you reclaim agency and restore equilibrium. Here we explore two such tools—prospection and appreciative inquiry. These techniques not only facilitate a shift in mindset to pull you out of the quicksand, but also support well-being and professional satisfaction, help you cultivate resilience, harness your strengths, and navigate challenges with renewed vigor.

1. Own the Malaise

The first step toward digging out of a rut is acknowledging the presence of malaise without allowing it to define your identity or capabilities. Rather than viewing feelings of inertia as a reflection of personal inadequacy, reframe them as a natural byproduct of navigating the complexities of the profession to cultivate a sense of self-compassion and resilience that serves as a foundation for growth.

2. Leverage Prospective Thinking

According to Kellerman and Seligman (2023), prospection is “the mental process of projecting and evaluating future possibilities and then using these projections to guide thought and action.” Prospective thinking can fortify a sense of agency, support resilience and agility, and facilitate envisioning, imagining, and planning.

Kellerman and Seligman (2023) urge us to focus on the two phases of prospection, imagining and planning. In the imagining phase, we ask ourselves what we want the future to be and what hopeful outcome may be ahead. In the planning phase, we evaluate potential futures to inform action and focus on considering how will we get to these potential futures.

As a practical matter, to initiate prospective thinking, begin by considering best and worst case scenarios and their possible implications and complications, followed by reality checking their likelihoods and evaluating how you would respond to these various possibilities. This exercise minimizes fears about the future and can be energizing. For example, suppose that you are feeling bored, annoyed, and generally not content with your current job. You might begin by imagining what would happen if you just up and quit and whether that is viable or desirable. You can also imagine what would make the current situation better and how you might be able to implement strategies to bring that to fruition. Thinking through these alternatives can move your mindset from inertia to action.

3. Adopt an Optimistic Explanatory Style

Changing how we explain things to ourselves, our explanatory style, can be a powerful tool to challenge negativity. Individuals with an optimistic explanatory style will see their successes as a result of their own skills and abilities, while certain failures are outside of their control or only a temporary glitch in the bigger picture. Where optimists see defeat as confined to a particular event and not necessarily entirely their fault (though they may have contributed to the problem), individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to believe that negative events will last indefinitely and are due to their failures whereas good things that happen are due to some external factor such as luck that won’t have longevity (Seligman, 2002).

Rather than attributing setbacks to personal shortcomings or insurmountable external forces, you can reframe them as transient setbacks that offer opportunities for growth and learning. By cultivating a mindset rooted in optimism and self-efficacy, lawyers can navigate challenges with grace and determination, emerging stronger and more resilient in the process.

4. Utilize Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is a strengths-based model that leverages questions and dialogue to uncover existing strengths and opportunities in individuals and organizations. This model focuses on what is working as opposed to what is not as a process to create a future that is life-affirming. This model involves asking the right questions to uncover strengths, resources, and opportunities for positive change. By shifting focus from problems to possibilities, you can engage in constructive dialogue that fosters collaboration, innovation, and growth. By asking questions that illuminate past successes, strengths, and moments of excellence, you can cultivate a sense of collective empowerment that propels us toward shared goals and aspirations (Cooperrider, Whitney, & Stavros, 2008).

The practice of changing our questions to more positive ones brings out the best in both individuals and organizations. It can ignite a spark of creativity, bring about recognition of experience, and encourage growth. It has the potential to change mindsets and give life to possibilities. People tend to live in the world that their questions create. So you can encourage forward movement and help others find the light within them by asking the right questions.

The true power of appreciative inquiry lies in its foundational core—when what’s going well is explored and celebrated, becoming the building blocks for ongoing development. The model can be used to uncover the positive core of a situation or an organization, unlock resources, identify opportunities, and embrace change. Opportunities are all around—with individual clients, with organizations, and with yourself.

As you look for opportunities to leverage appreciative inquiry for clients, teams, organizations, and yourself, consider how you can step into the model and use that to create a positive, prospective vision with an actionable plan to move that vision forward. Consider the possibilities—co-creating a plan with a client, designing case strategy, uncovering the needs of a prospective client organization, realigning your own goals, creating a new business plan, or developing high-quality connections as you grow your network. The possibilities to leverage appreciative inquiry concepts into daily life are endless. Hunt for what is working well and find ways to do more of that!

Moving Beyond “Stuck”—You Got This!

The phenomenon of feeling stuck has a multitude of negative impacts in the legal profession. To tackle this issue, individuals and organizations can foster a culture of well-being and engagement, acknowledge the presence of professional malaise, and take proactive steps to promote resilience and empowerment, so that lawyers who experience these negative feelings reclaim their sense of purpose, reignite their workplace engagement, and forge ahead with renewed engagement and effectiveness. Taking proactive steps to deal with or avert feeling stuck can help lawyers and others to transcend professional malaise and embark on a journey of self-discovery and growth that leads to greater well-being and professional satisfaction.


  • Armstrong, AJ, Holmes, CM, Henning, D. A changing world, again. How appreciative inquiry can guide our growth. Soc Sci Humanit Open. 2020; 2(1):100038. doi:10.1016/j.ssaho.2020.100038 Epub 2020 Jun 29. PMID: 34173485; PMCID: PMC7324085.
  • Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2008). Appreciative inquiry handbook (2nd Edition). Crown Custom Publishing.
  • Kellerman, G. R. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2023). Tomorrowmind. Simon and Schuster.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Random House.
  • Seligman M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness. Free Press.