The Plateau Effect

“You don’t have problems in your life. You have plateaus. Plateaus rob you of early successes. They make hard work worthless. They turn beginner’s luck into sophomore slumps. They can even make you look lazy, dumb, careless, or unloving. You aren’t any of these things. You’ve just been fighting an invisible enemy.”

– The Plateau Effect, page 251

Here we are in late January. For the first few weeks you rocked your new goals for 2014, you were unstoppable, the stars aligned, this was going to be your year. Then almost inexplicably your momentum dropped. Determined not to lose such a streak you redoubled your efforts, working harder than ever. Alas, you saw no improvements, despite investing more time and energy than ever. Don’t feel bad, the universe isn’t trying to pick on you or single you out for a string of rotten luck. Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, authors of The Plateau Effect, explain that your efforts, indeed all our efforts, have succumbed to what they term the plateau effect.

The authors explain that a plateau is simply a discontinuation of growth. You become accustomed to your surroundings, you are “dulled by sameness.” Many of the problems experienced can be traced to a plateau of some sort. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way; the solution to plateaus starts with understanding why we get stuck.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Understand Your Plateaus

"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, prologue

Whether it is the number of consecutive digits you can remember (for most people around 7) or you lose 10 pounds in the first week of a diet, but then very little after that, plateaus are everywhere. So, what causes them? We are biologically wired to ignore the familiar and focus on the unique. This trait paid dividends in helping us to spot predators or sudden changes in the environment but is less useful in our first world lives. We go through a process of acclimatization where prolonged exposure to something, whether it be the humidity or a particular way of thinking, stops us from noticing and eventually plateau.

If you were doing something that wasn’t paying dividends, why would you continue to do it? We do all the time when we hit a plateau, we try to break through using the same methods that initially created the plateau. Our natural response to plateaus is to work harder at what we’re currently doing. The authors explain that the Plateau Effect is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Plateaus function as a type of growth quicksand, the harder you work applying your tried and true methods, the faster you’ll sink. Understanding that you’ve hit a plateau can help you realize that you need to change something, and maybe even do something entirely different.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Shake Things Up

"People, relationships, business, and even physical processes become immune to the same techniques, the same approaches, the same solutions. Immunity can be frustrating—what worked so well yesterday just won't work today."
- The Plateau Effect, page 257

We are biologically wired to plateau to things after prolonged exposure, we become immune. Therefore, we have work continually to improve. The authors suggest “shaking things up.” They say “trying different approaches, techniques, or procedures can shake you out of an immunity plateau.”

You become immune to something that you continuously do or experience. Those great sunsets you thought you’d never get sick of seeing, you stop noticing them after daily exposure. However, you go on vacation for a few weeks and come back and your appreciation for that combination of colors is renewed. Shaking things up can do more than just help you appreciate the landscapes. Hit a plateau at work? Volunteer for a new project. Experiencing a stagnant phase with your spouse? Take a dance class together.

Feeling stuck? Try something unconventional, do something out of the ordinary, shake things up.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Don't Freeze

"Nothing keeps people unhappy, stuck, underemployed, frustrated, and struggling like the failure to imagine other potential outcomes—or, more directly, the failure to see the opportunity cost of standing still. That might be the very definition of a plateau."
- The Plateau Effect, page 137

You remember the idea of opportunity cost from economics? The idea that by choosing to write this summary tonight I am automatically choosing not to do an unlimited number of other things like the laundry or watching a movie.

When we are faced with an unknown challenge we often think we have two options: fight or flight. Turns out we have another option: freeze. Freezing is unproductive whether you “are a deer being chased by a lion” or working “a dead-end job” expecting something to change. We plateau and then we freeze. We continue to do what isn’t working, we work harder, we refuse to try something different. Freezing won’t help us break through a plateau. Your first attempts to break through the plateau are not guaranteed to work, but freezing and continuing on with the status quo will never work.

“Breaking through plateaus… requires constant recalibrationit takes a little of this and a bit of that.”


Plateaus are not solved by one size fits all solutions but most of them are aided by embracing some sort of diversity. Furthermore, those that are solved are all solved with some form of action.

I found while writing this summary that plateaus in our lives can be large and small. Not every plateau involves a dead-end job or an unhappy relationship. Plateaus can occur on small projects. Today, I wrote 4 different incarnations of Gem 2. I tried different ideas from the book in an attempt to have this summary mesh together. Each one seemed to make less sense than the last. Frustrated, I stopped writing, I froze.

While I don’t have a cathartic ending to relate I can say that plateaus can be temporary. I came to realize after a short break that I had a few pages of notes I had overlooked and decided to write about those. If we continue to “recalibrate” and try different things we can find ways through our plateaus. It may take time and some frustration. The solutions may not be perfect, but they are better than freezing. As long as you continue to work and mix things up you will continue to grow.

Where you are stuck in your life and how you plan to mix things up to break through your plateaus?

Consultant or Coach? Take our Fit Assessment to find out if partnering with Actionable is right for you.
Jakob Browning

ABOUT Jakob Browning

I am Jakob Browning. This fall I'll start my final year of law school. I enjoy running long distances. I have three younger brothers who will all probably be taller than me soon...
Read More
blog comments powered by Disqus

Back to summaries