The 8 Causes of Plateaus

The Plateau Effect

Have you ever found yourself trying really hard on something you care about?

Maybe you’re learning how to play the piano. But the more effort you put in, the less you seem to get out of it. You’ve plateaued, according to Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson.

“Trying harder,” they write in The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success, “is a failed, frustrating strategy.” … “We’re here to tell you that every day, the universe is conspiring against people who think that more is the answer.”

If doubling down on hard work isn’t the solution what is?

Thompson and Sullivan argue there are 8 reasons we plateau, and they, of course, offer tips to overcome them all.

Here is the cheat sheet.

When you were (supposed to be) reading the Classics in high school, Cliff Notes were bad. In fact, Bob recently met an employee of a company that makes animated version of CliffNotes – which apparently aren’t Cliff-y enough for today’s students.

But when you’re trying to improve your life and move past those plateaus that hold you back, CliffNotes are great. They are efficient; they give you more results for less work – two of our main goals for teaching people about the Plateau Effect. So, here we give you our version of CliffNotes. If you’re stuck, one of these devils is probably to blame. Remember, what helps you break out of your plateau today will one day stop working – and you’ll have to try another method. Breaking through plateaus, as you’ve seen, is a constant recalibration – it takes a little of this and a bit of that. In the list below, we show you what “this” and “that” really are for you, today, and into the future. These solvents produce solutions.

Element 1: Immunity

People, relationships, businesses and even physical processes become immune to the same techniques, the same approaches, the same solutions. Immunity is perhaps the most basic force of the Plateau Effect. Everybody has experienced what it’s like to become immune to something: maybe it’s the complements of your spouse, the smell of garlic at an Italian restaurant, or the effects of your second beer. Immunity can be frustrating – what worked so well yesterday just won’t work today.

Solvent: Diversity

Immunity’s Kryptonite is diversity. You’ve got to shake things up and be radical. Trying different approaches, techniques or procedures can shake you out of an immunity plateau.

Element 2: Greedy Algorithm

The greedy algorithm is a concept borrowed from the field of mathematics. Here’s how it works: you always pick the best short-term solution and ignore the long-term outcome. As it is in mathematics – and in life – the best short-term solution hardly ever leads to the best long-term outcome. The greedy algorithm always finds the locally optimal solution but ignores the globally optimal solution.

Solution: Extend your gratification horizon

Short-term greed is bad but long-term greed is actually good. To get beyond the greedy algorithm, you need to think about solutions on a bigger timescale. Someone following the greedy algorithm (driven by short-term greed) would never go to medical school – the student is building debt with no income year after year. Someone who’s thinking about a 10-year horizon instead of a 1-2 year horizon sees the six-figure checks that will eventually start coming in.

Element 3: Bad Timing

If you’re working hard but you’re stuck in a plateau, maybe it’s as simple as taking a break. When you do something – and more precisely, when you don’t do something – is critical. The key is to take control of when you apply effort, not just how much effort you apply.

Solution: Wait

If bad timing has you stuck in a plateau, remember, the periods of rest and inactivity are just as important as the periods of great effort, just as silence between the notes is part of the music. If you use time as a tool, you can literally wait your way out of a plateau.

Element 4: Flow Issues

Whenever things seem to be sailing along, sometimes the engine just breaks down. Specifically, you can run into one of four dysfunctions:

Erosion: Sometimes we deplete the resources that we need to be successful. Maybe we run out of capital, or time, or skilled workers. When you hit an erosion plateau, progress tends to degrade slowly as some critical resource is gobbled up over time.

Solvent: Find a counterbalance, something that replaces the resource you consume. If you can’t find a counterbalance, you might not be in a plateau at all. You may have reached a terminal point.

Step Function: Sometimes you want to add just a little more of something, but that thing is only available in bundles. The result is a jump in cost, effort, or benefit. We call these things “step functions.” If you aren’t aware that something you need follows a step function, you can hit a plateau because incremental investment won’t lead to incremental improvement.

Solvent: Try to smooth out your step function. Sometimes this can be done by identifying some other person or business that has complementary peaks to your own. If you can pool your resources, you can share the cost of the step and make it look more like a comfortable ramp.

Choke points: A choke point is the part of the system that breaks first and slows everything else down. Failing to identify a chokepoint can bring a gushing flow to an unexpected trickle.

Solvent: The trick is to find out where the choke point is and creatively route your way around it.

Mystery ingredients: The defining characteristic of a mystery ingredient is that even the chef doesn’t know what it is. The mystery ingredient could be changing market conditions, interpersonal issues between co-workers, or just a team member with a can-do attitude. It’s the elusive catalyst that makes things work.

Solvent: Mystery ingredients can often be hard to find, but seem obvious in retrospect . Often, it’s just important to recognize that a mystery ingredient might exist; that what you see isn’t the whole story.

Element 5: Distorted Data
We often react based on distorted data. It’s like walking through a hall of mirrors, and basing a major decision on the crazy fat (or skinny) image you see. Sometimes we measure the wrong things or inappropriately assess risk. In other cases, we fall victim to common psychological errors with data, such as overweighing the most recent piece of information we’ve received, we get hung up on sunk costs, or we conform to what we think the data is telling us.

Solvent: Recalibrate

The Enlightenment brought us the scientific method because smart people realized that they couldn’t trust their own eyes. The key is to boil out the impurities of data and recognize that you are looking through a lens that might be deceptive. Each type of distortion has its own remedy, but the tie that binds them is to look for a ground truth of data amidst the chaos.

Element 6: Distraction

It’s easy to fall victim to the illusion of multitasking and become distracted. Distraction is the enemy of adaptation and can lead you straight towards a plateau. How do we know when and what we need to change to live in a world of unrelenting distraction?

Solvent: Radical Listening

If you take a page from improv comedy – where you look for the truth in what others are saying and build on it through the “yes….and” strategy – you get to a skill we call radical listening. It’s a mode of active engagement, where you are attuned to your surroundings, listening, and adapting.

Element 7: Failing Slowly

Failing slow is natural because it’s difficult to tell that a situation is incrementally getting worse. Often the incremental worsening of a situation happens slower than what psychophysicists call the just noticeable difference. The just noticeable difference helps explain why we continue forging ahead when we’re in the throes of a plateau – we just don’t realize how much less we’re getting for our efforts.

Solution: Fail fast

Once you understand the just noticeable difference you can counteract its effects. By setting clear markers, you can objectively see how you’re progressing, figure out what’s working and what’s failing, correct it and move on. It’s important to realize if your efforts will eventually fail by accelerating failure. This ability to fail fast is key, especially when the problems are changing quickly.

Element 8: Perfectionism

Perfect is the enemy of good. The desire for perfection kills beginnings – it’s never the right time to start, and even if you do, a task is never complete because it is held up to an impossible standard. A plateau of perfection is similar to a plateau of inaction.

Solution: First Steps, etc.

Accept that perfection isn’t achievable. Focus on taking the first step, and then the next step. There are some tricks that can help, such as structured procrastination and setting hard (but liberating) deadlines.