The Plateau Effect
Getting from Stuck to Success
The Plateau Effect is a powerful law of nature that affects everyone. Learn to identify plateaus and break through any stagnancy in your life— from diet and exercise, to work, to relationships.
The Plateau Effect shows how athletes, scientists, therapists, companies, and musicians around the world are learning to break through their plateaus—to turn off the forces that cause people to “get used to” things—and turn on human potential and happiness in ways that seemed impossible. The book identifies three key flattening forces that generate plateaus, two principles to guide readers in engineering a plateau’s destruction, and three actions to take to achieve peak behavior. It helps us to stop wasting time on things that are no longer of value and to focus on the things that leverage our time and energy in spectacular ways.
Anything you want to do better—play guitar, make friends, communicate with your children, run a business—you can accomplish faster by understanding the plateau effect.
Give us three minutes, your imagination, and your nose, and we bet we’ll convince you that The Plateau Effect is the most powerful force of nature you’ve never heard about.
Let us take you to the Paris of the West, to a block in San Francisco where the unmistakable aroma – stench? – of garlic suddenly overpowers every other gritty smell on Columbus Avenue. About half a mile from the famous triangular Transamerica building in San Francisco, there’s a restaurant that you can’t help but notice. The unusual name, “The Stinking Rose” might persuade you to take a look inside, but that’s not what really grabs your attention. No, it’s that smell wafting out the front door onto the sidewalk, swirling around all the passers-by.
The Stinking Rose is a sort of homage to garlic, and has every garlic dish you could possibly imagine. These range from the traditional, such as garlic spaghetti, to the exceptional, like garlic ice cream. The restaurant serves over 3,000 pounds of garlic a month, as you walk inside, you can smell every clove of it.
But once you are seated at your table, something remarkable starts to happen. With stunning speed, the scent of garlic fades and the other smells of San Francisco return. Your wife’s perfume, or the grapy wine, or the bleached tablecloth, curiously re-emerge, and their aroma seems to overpower the garlic.
Of course, that’s not at all what’s happened. Your nose has simply gotten tired of the garlic scent and stops telling your brain that it’s there. You might say you’ve grown numb to the garlic, but the word numb hardly does justice the amazing evolutionary trait we’ve just described.
We’ve become so used to this disappearing smell phenomenon that most of us don’t even think about it. It’s why you might need someone else to tell you it’s time to reapply deodorant or suck on a breath mint. It’s why most of us grow queasy at the thought of entering a high school locker room, but the athletes don’t seem to mind. With incredible speed, people become immune to even the most pungent odors.
This immunity is the body’s natural defense against being constantly distracted by stimulus. If our bodies didn’t adapt, our attention would be relentlessly divided by millions of smells – even our own scent -- and unable to notice changes in the environment around us. The effect is called “acclimation.” Without it, stopping to smell the roses would be an act of unending distraction. Acclimation is a critical element of our evolutionary design.
Naturally, acclimation is not limited to smell; it governs all our senses. Acclimation is why people who live in big cities learn to ignore the sound of traffic outside their windows while it drives suburban guests crazy. It’s why we forget that we’re wearing a wedding ring, or glasses, when initially they are so irritating. Acclimation is why we “get used” to things.
Humans are hard-wired to eventually ignore consistency, especially in the form of smell, taste, touch and hearing. At its most base level, this behavior is a survival instinct: the ability to adapt and ignore distracting information is a natural form of self-defense. It allows us to focus on changes and new things that enter the environment that might be a potential threat. This ignoring of persistent stimulus is generally a welcome feature of how the body works. But often, acclimation does more harm than good.
There are times when it would be very helpful to turn off this defense mechanism.
The Plateau Effect will show how athletes, scientists, relationship therapists, companies, and musicians around the world are learning to do just that – to turn off the forces that cause people to “peak out” or “get used to” things -- and turn on human potential and happiness in ways you probably think impossible. The Plateau Effect will show you why the world is full of one-hit-wonders, why all good things come to an end, why all trends eventually fall, why most people get less for more, and how you can break through, again and again. Plateaus are like governors that cap your Uhaul van speed at 50 mph. We will show you how to disable this secret governor and turn on your inner Maserati.
Just give us another few hours or your time.
Understanding why we reach a plateau can help us stop wasting time on things that we’ve stopped getting value from and focus on other things that leverage our time and energy better. The Plateau Effect tells us when to eat, what we should do in the gym, how to build a successful business, and even how to build stronger and broader relationships. Knowing how The Effect influences everything in our lives helps us get maximum value in minimum time and then move on quickly once we’ve reached a goal. It helps us do a good enough job quickly for things that aren’t very important to free up time to concentrate on things that are. Those who master The Effect, who can identify a plateau and break through, leave one-hit wonders in the dust.
* * *
Just try harder. Just work harder. Just do more.
That’s the advice you’ve heard again and again, from teachers, coaches, bosses, and parents. But what if you’re already trying as hard as you can? In fact, try harder is often the worst advice you could possibly give. Have you ever found yourself giving more and more to task you care about – learning to play piano, trying to fix a broken love relationship – and getting less and less return for your effort? Of course you have. That’s how the universe is built. Physics, biology, chemistry, even economics, all dictate this truth – effort follows the law of diminishing returns. Trying harder is a failed, frustrating strategy. Trying harder to smell the garlic after your nose has acclimated to The Stinking Rose won’t reawaken your olfactory nerves. It doesn’t work anywhere else in your life, either.
Bodybuilders and dieters know this well. They begin a new regimen of weightlifting or starvation. For 10 days or so, the results are fantastic, even inspiring. Down 4 pounds, or up another 10 on the military press. But somewhere near that two-week mark, they hit a wall. The scale seems frozen in place. The strength gains top out. They have, cruelly, plateaued.
Plateaus may seem subtle at first, but once you know what to look for, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. In fact, millions of Americans watch them, perhaps unknowingly, during prime time television. Fans of the hit NBC TV show The Biggest Loser witness cruel plateaus every season. Contestants nearly always lose an extraordinary amount of weight in week 1, when their bodies are shocked by the new lifestyle. Then, what insiders call the “Week 2 Plateau,” hits, and the results are downright depressing. We analyzed data from all contestants during the first four seasons of the show. On average, they lost an amazing 5 percent of their body weight during week one. But even under the most scrutinized conditions, with the best possible trainers available, the plateau effect couldn’t be beat. Week two always brings a dramatic lack of progress – and a lot more yelling by trainers. During season two, for example, contestants averaged less than 2 percent weight loss in week two. And during the inaugural season, they dropped a completely discouraging 0.6 percent, or roughly 90 percent less than in week one. Contestants who survive get as their reward the even louder screaming voice of a trainer. The screaming really doesn’t help. It’s just The Plateau Effect in action.
We believe the Plateau Effect is a law of nature, as real and as impactful as gravity or friction. It’s built directly into the genetic code of our bodies, and into the planet we inhabit, which we hope we’ll prove to you in the following pages. This seemingly immovable obstacle, this frustrating success-followed-by-stuckness formula, impacts us all. It foils the most modern software companies as they try to hunt for devastating bugs. It foiled ancient mystics who wrote extensively about spiritual plateaus, when prayer seemed to lose impact and passion for faith seemed to wane. They developed extreme methods to reset and restart their faith, like the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises created by the founder of the Jesuit order in the 1500s, which must be practiced in silence for a month.
Plateaus are everywhere.
There is a comfort in merely learning about the existence of The Plateau Effect. Since you were a small child, people have told you that the solution to your problems was to try harder. We’re here to tell you that every day, the universe is conspiring against people who think that more is the answer. It’s built to stop you. At a bare minimum, we want this book to ease a burden you’ve probably been fighting since you were a baby, and which has become a 21st Century malady. Doing more work doesn’t work. You can put the Blackberry down now and relax a little. You already look more graceful.
In fact, the very word plateau is comfortable – at least, far more comfortable than “problem.” We’ve found that’s it’s infinitely easier for couples, employees, and students to talk about plateaus than problems. Try this easy experiment: Ask one group of employees to talk about their problems at the company; then ask another to talk about plateaus they encounter at work. One conversation is negative, and usually descends into cattiness and name calling. The other often leads to discussion of untapped potential and solutions. Guess which is which!
While the Plateau Effect is a fundamental part of nature, modern life has deeply exacerbated the frustrations it causes. The age of specialization and mechanization has robbed many of us of diversity in critical areas of life. Exercise is a good example. Running on a treadmill can't hold a candle to running on a golf course. Bench press exercise on a universal gym doesn't do nearly as much for you as lifting free weights. And that stomach crunch rolly thing isn't worth the $9.95 shipping and handling you paid for it. Why? Because all these gadgets work to isolate individual muscle groups. That's fine if you want one very strong muscle in your life. But if you want to be healthy, you have to play outside. You have to let your body struggle with all the variety, surprise, and diversity that nature affords.
This is the madness behind the method of a small but growing number of health-conscious Americans who follow what some call the "paleo diet." John Durant, a very healthy, long-haired 20-something living in Manhattan, is their spokesman. Sometimes called The Caveman, Durant believes that exercise requires doing what men and women did 10,000 years ago -- he and his friends throw large rocks, climb trees, balance on logs, and do other outside activities which engage all their minds and bodies at once.
"(I do) the sorts of natural movements that hunter gatherers did just to survive in the past," he says. "It's what children do on the playground.... They haven't learned any fitness method. They run, they jump, they're on the monkey bars. They wrestle. They crawl on all fours and they do these things instinctively. And it's only when we become adults that we get on to treadmills and elliptical and do the same 3 or 4 movements over and over again.”
You don’t have to live in a cave to see his point. Isolationism, driven by gadgetry, treadmills and other modern “conveniences,” hastens the Plateau Effect dramatically. Now more than ever, it’s essential to understand why.
There’s an important distinction between reaching life equilibrium and being stuck in a plateau. Families need stability to thrive. People need a sense of safety, they need to know they won’t be hungry, and they’ll have a warm bed at night. In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, this sense of security is o the most basic requirement for a happy human existence. For many families, simply achieving a predictable workplace and loving home is all the challenge they need. Equilibrium like that is a primal drive, no less than the way our ancestors were driven to find today’s food while avoiding being eaten themselves.
You might be inclined to think of creating a stable home as a plateau…but we wouldn’t call it that. As anyone who had tried to juggle a marriage, a job, and child rearing knows, there is no such thing as status quo at home. Instead, a bunch of competing needs wrestle in constant tension – do we go on vacation or pay for braces? Do you work late or go to the kid’s soccer game? Wrestling with such tension, working towards the equilibrium required for a stable family life, and the tremendous personal growth it provides, is nothing like a plateau. At best, it’s a dance, a balancing act that occasionally reaches a peaceful state of equilibrium, or what engineers might call “steady state.“ But then, one child takes up drumming, or another moves into high school, and the balancing act reignites again. Nope, chasing after a two-year-old and holding a baby while trying to sound professional during a conference call is nothing like a vaguely dissatisfying plateau – Hugh can testify directly to that.
Meanwhile, plenty of segments of our lives, at certain times, benefit greatly from reaching “set-and-forget” mode, the steady state we’ve already mentioned. If you have an assistant who’s proven himself responsible for 10 years, who always files your expense reports on time and stops you from sending inflammatory e-mails, you don’t want him taking a new job, forcing you to start over with a new assistant. If you’ve picked an elementary school for your child, you don’t want the school to close and force you to do a new round of school visits. Think of these as “background tasks,” or the “commodities” of your life. You’re happy with them as they are, chugging along in sustain mode. But other parts of your life, what you might consider the “entrepreneurial” part of life, deserve much more than auto-pilot. These are areas of life where you want to invest. They are different for everyone; and they change throughout life. Today, it might be your career. Tomorrow, it might be your marriage…or perhaps putting yourself in a position to help your child pick the right college. Distinguishing between the “set-and-forget” part of your life, and the entrepreneurial part, is essential for talking on the right challenges.
A real plateau means you have stopped growing. It means your mind and senses are being dulled by sameness, by a routine which sucks the life and soul out of you, by getting less and less out of life while doing more and more. Plateaus ultimately force you to make bad decisions and feel desperate. Understanding this force, and tapping into it, will let you get more from less effort, and feel more in tune with the reasons you were put on this planet. It will help you be a better coach, better parent, a better provider for your family. Frustrated men and women who are unhappy with their lot in life make poor parents; the best gift any dad or mom can give a child is to be happy, and to teach their kids to be happy. Understanding your plateaus – feeling and dealing with the places in your life where there’s vague dissatisfaction, and doing it in the most efficient, successful way – is the quickest route to the equilibrium you seek, whether you have six children, 16 grandchildren, or you enjoy the single life.
Any business school teacher will tell you that companies either contract or expand -- there’s no such thing as standing still. This is true in all walks of life. Think of a shower drain, clogged with hair. Running more water won’t help, that’s for sure. But leave it untreated, and you’re soon standing in a puddle of water every morning in the shower. Plateaus are a sign -- a tangible warning -- that your life, your relationships, or your business is clogged. Ignore such clogs at great peril.
When humans shared the Earth with predators under constant threat of being eaten alive, “getting used to” the familiar – and reacting only to the extreme -- was a matter of life or death. Today, however, “getting used to” your job, your spouse, your exercise routine, your local deli, has become a matter of dying a very slow, boring death. The force of acclimation means even the strongest odor, or the prettiest girl, or most amazing new rock band will soon become routine and dull for you. This is why so many things you do seem exciting at first, but within a few weeks, the thrill is gone. It’s also why most exercise and diet plans fail at around the two-week mark.
The time it takes to “get used to” things can vary, but it always follows the same familiar pattern – a response curve that accelerates quickly at the beginning and slowly begins to level off. If you plotted this curve, it would look a lot like a graph you saw about 1,000 times in high school math. No one ever mentioned that this simple curve is actually the key to growth in just about every human endeavor you can imagine?
We believe that plateaus can be broken down into 8 simple categories. In each case, if you identify the plateau -- what kind of clogged drain are you working with? -- the solution is easier to find. Remember, not all clogs respond to Drain-O. Some need…Oh never mind. We (Hugh and Bob here!) are not plumbers. So let’s kick the clog analogy—it’s holding us back.
You might be thinking right now: “Wait, you’re not plumbers… who the heck are you?”
We aren’t doctors either. We offer this prescription for you as investigators who have found what we think are incredibly valuable strategies from emerging areas of scientific research. We aren’t psychologists or therapists. We are entrepreneurial analysts with, between us, 40 years of experience researching, writing, and analyzing systems and human nature.
Bob has been writing about the dramatic changes to life, identity, money, and culture that result from the digital age since before most Americans had an e-mail address. An investigative journalist for NBC News and MSNBC.com for almost 20 years, you’d be hard pressed to find a tale about technology or money that he hasn’t covered. Hugh is a start-up businessman, mathematics and computer science professor and speaker who travels the globe every year to teach executives and engineers at some of the world’s biggest companies how to protect themselves from 21st Century hazards. A native of the Bahamas, and a former Ivy League educator, Hugh brings a rare blend of Western and Island cultures to his views on life’s major pitfalls and promises. After years of speaking engagements and conducting research together, we have synthesized scholarship and experiments from around the world, and explain why we think today is a magical time for people to start overcoming their limits. Through the years, we’ve talked with executives from hundreds of firms and interviewed thousands of people. Combining our divergent backgrounds, we have found a hidden problem, and some simple solutions, that are just too exciting to keep to ourselves.
We turned to many experts for help explaining plateaus, their causes, and their cures. Some of those discussions led to original research conducted exclusively for this book. Later, you’ll see how we enlisted the help of Carnegie Mellon University to test a theory we’d devised about the risks that divided attention pose in our increasingly cell-phone-distracted world. The results are stunning -- but so is the potential solution that Carnegie Mellon’s research accidentally unearthed. We don’t want to spoil the surprise, but for now we’ll just say the mere possibility you’ll receive a phone call while reading this passage means you will probably understand about 20 percent less of this chapter. Also in that part of the book, we’ll disclose the results of a simple test of listening comprehension we devised with The Ponemon Institute. The test showed that nearly all of us (80 percent) miss important details when listening during a domestic squabble or important instructions, but …. Brace for this, men…women nearly always outperform men in auditory comprehension. Don’t worry men: This means simply that you have more room for improvement, so you’ll have an easier time breaking through plateaus caused by missing some of life’s critical pieces of information due to poor listening skills.
A word about the way this book is organized. The first four chapters discuss the “hard science,” of plateaus, with much more on topics like acclimation. They set out the three greatest forces behind the plateau effect we see all around us. In the middle, you’ll find what we call the mechanical chapters, which talk about the nuts and bolts of how to overcome plateaus. These three chapters can be thought of as the instruction manual for the engine that can propel you off your joyless plain. Finally, the last three chapters deal with the human, emotional side of plateaus, and show how people have become inspired to break through them. This final part of the book discusses the everyday behaviors that are the last step to achieving the great potential towering above the plateau that is holding you down. At the back of the book we’ve added a summary list of the eight steps to overcoming the plateau effect.
There is a story that’s told by motivational speakers the world over – perhaps you’ve heard it – about baby elephants and circus trainers. Baby elephants were once kept in check by binding one of their legs with a large shackle, connecting it to a chain, and linking the chain to a peg in the ground. The baby could walk, but couldn’t break free from the chain, and so his life was limited to a small circle around the peg. He became settled in this circle, his boundaries defined by its circumference. Of course, baby elephants grow up into massive, hulking, powerful creatures. But circus trainers never had to increase the strength of the elephant chain. Even though the animal could easily break free as an adult, he never tries. As a baby, he had learned long ago what the circumference of his life was, and never even imagined that it could change.
Many of us are elephants. We’ve defined our lives by the circles we move in, using years-old experiences as absolute parameters for what we can and can’t do. To outsiders, we might look as foolish as a huge elephant restricted by a tiny chain. This is the cause of most plateaus. This book will help you pull in a new direction, and whatever place you are in, we hope to make your world bigger.
"Many readers will be fascinated by their descriptions of such underlying matters as acclimation, flow and distortion mechanisms...well-written and entertaining." —Kirkus Reviews
"The authors write in clear, engaging and sometimes irreverent prose as they dart across case studies from Amazon to Zappos...a stimulating read, offering some inventive theories and solutions." - Financial Times
“Sullivan and Thompson have identified a phenomenon that plagues us all, robbing us of energy, delight, and successful results. Poignant stories, intriguing information, and insightful advice make this a must-read for any of us that want easier ways to keep the important fires lit. Warning: they’ve nailed stuff close to home for all of us!”
—David Allen, author of Getting Things Done
“Uncovering forces like The Greedy Algorithm that create plateaus in our lives is a great service, but Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson go much further. Their book is an entertaining and valuable guide that will show you how to quit the struggle and get up off the ground.”
—Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind
“The science behind how we can learn to excel at almost anything we care about by retraining our brains. A stimulating and useful handbook.”
—Daniel J. Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music
“You already know what the plateau effect is. No matter what the endeavor, we've all experienced that feeling of diminishing returns from our efforts. Now Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson present the definitive guide for those who believe things can get a lot better and want to rise above their plateaus. Turn your back on the daily grind for good. Read this book now.”
—Ori Brafman, coauthor of Sway
“The Plateau Effect is smart, bracing, and eye-opening with genuine pay-offs for accomplishing your dreams. It’s also cheerful, funny and greatly entertaining. Use it!”
—Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
“Intriguing… will inspire readers to tackle major changes.” –Publishers Weekly
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