Plateau Busting: How to Take Your Life to the Next Level

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 14, 2011 · 47 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

In our quest to become the best men we can be, we’ll often hit plateaus where we feel like we aren’t making any progress at all. Those flat-line moments in life can be a real soul sucker. You can see where you want to be as a man, but you’re stuck at a level just below your desired goal. It seems like no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to improve.

Well, fear not, good men. Though you may feel destined to a purgatory of perpetual pedestrian plateauing, with a few minor adjustments to your view on life and your routine, you can punch through the cement wall of mediocrity and level up to the life you want.

Road Map to Plateauing

Back in the 60s, two psychologists, Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, set out to uncover why we plateau. They discovered that when we acquire a skill, we go through three stages.

The first stage of skill acquisition is called the cognitive phase. In this phase, we must concentrate intently on what we’re doing as we figure out strategies on how to accomplish the skill more efficiently and effectively. The cognitive phase is riddled with mistakes as we learn the ins and outs of our new pursuit.

The second phase of skill acquisition is the associative phase. During the associative phase, we make fewer mistakes. Consequently, we feel more comfortable with the skill and begin to concentrate less on what we’re doing.

The final stage is the autonomous phase, or what Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, calls the “O.K. plateau.” We reach a skill level where we’re able to capably do the task without having to really think about it at all. Remember about how much you thought about what you were doing when you first got your driver’s license? Now driving is fairly automatic, like brushing your teeth.

This progression to the the O.K. plateau shows up in all areas of our lives. The plateaus we experience in our career, in our fitness level, in our love life, or in our spiritual life often follow this three stage process.

There are areas of your life where being okay is, well, a-okay. I don’t have any desire to be able to drive like Mario Andretti, and it’s handy to have many of life’s tasks set on autopilot.

But then there are areas of your life where you’ve hit a wall, and you’re not happy about it–you’re doing fine, but you’re still plagued with a restless feeling that there’s something more out there, a higher level you’d really like to reach.

People used to think that you couldn’t break past these plateaus because a plateau represented the limit of your genetic ability. No amount of exertion or education would help you overcome this wall. But Fitts, Posner, and other psychologists have discovered that with the right approach and a few attitude adjustments, all of us can bust through our plateaus and reach even higher.

How to Overcome Plateaus

Take risks. Growth comes when we stretch past our comfort zone. The big reason many people (especially high-achievers) plateau is because they don’t like to fail. Instead of taking on challenges that will help us grow, we stick with routines that we know we can successfully do. To protect our ego, we’d rather do the wrong things correctly, than do the right things wrongly. This aversion to risk is a recipe for plateauing.

Embrace the suck. To overcome your aversion to risk, you have to give yourself permission to fail and be mediocre. Instead of avoiding the things that are hardest for them, the greats of the world specifically focus on those things; they purposefully concentrate on the areas in which they make the most mistakes. This keeps them from getting stuck in the autonomous phase and propels their progress. So instead of seeing failure as a negative thing, think of your failures as steps to success. If you choose to learn from your failures, they can bring you closer to your goal; when you cut a string and then tie it back together, it’s shorter than it once was.

Step out of the echo chamber. Another reason we plateau is because everyone around us is telling us everything is gravy. We often confide in people who tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. I know I’m guilty of doing this. I’ll finish a project and take it to somebody for some “constructive criticism,” when really I just want some positive affirmation on what I did.

If you feel stuck in an area of your life, seek out mentors who won’t pull any punches and will give you the honest criticism you need to improve. Yes, your ego will get bruised, but that’s the price one must pay for personal and professional growth.

Learning to accept criticism is something that simply takes discipline and practice. First you work on taking the criticism into consideration at all. Then you work on shortening the time period between your initial reaction of “What?! There’s nothing wrong with what I did you noodle-brain knucklehead!” and the time later when you’re able to calmly reflect and see if there’s value in the criticism. I suppose the next stage is to skip that momentary urge to punch the criticizer in the throat altogether, but I’m not there yet myself!

Practice deliberately. Fitts and Posner discovered three keys to breaking through your plateau: 1) focus on technique, 2) stay goal oriented, and 3) and get immediate feedback on the performance. In other words, you need to practice deliberately to break through plateaus.

When Joshua Foer was trying to improve his memory in preparation for the United States Memory Championship, he hit a plateau where he stopped progressing. Despite a strict training regimen in which he looked at flash cards during his spare moments and constantly memorized things wherever he went, he couldn’t seem to get any better. To bust through this plateau, he had to deliberately push himself harder than before:

“To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail. That’s what I needed to do if I was going to improve my memory. With typing, it’s relatively easy to get past the O.K. plateau. Psychologists have discovered that the most efficient method is to force yourself to type 10 to 20 percent faster than your comfort pace and to allow yourself to make mistakes. Only by watching yourself mistype at that faster speed can you figure out the obstacles that are slowing you down and overcome them. Ericsson suggested that I try the same thing with cards. He told me to find a metronome and to try to memorize a card every time it clicked. Once I figured out my limits, he instructed me to set the metronome 10 to 20 percent faster and keep trying at the quicker pace until I stopped making mistakes. Whenever I came across a card that was particularly troublesome, I was supposed to make a note of it and see if I could figure out why it was giving me cognitive hiccups. The technique worked, and within a couple days I was off the O.K. plateau, and my card times began falling again at a steady clip. Before long, I was committing entire decks to memory in just a few minutes.”

After a year of practice, Foer was able to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards in under two minutes.

Get back to basics. Whenever I hit plateaus in my life, my first response is to look for something new I can do to get me out of it. I think, “If I only find the right workout or the right planning system, my life will change and I can start making progress again.” Sometimes changing things up can help us break through a plateau, but in my experience, I just waste more time searching for that new, magic thing that will change my life for the better. So instead of spending time on searching for the new, I start focusing on the basics. When I hit a plateau with my writing, I’ll review my composition skills by doing some exercises from a book. When I hit a plateau with my weight lifting, I’ll reduce the weight, focus on my form, and slowly start adding weight again.

On numerous occasions, I’ve found that even when you’re advanced at something, delving back into the basics can actually give you fresh insights that help you progress even further.

Think long term. When we think short-term, we have a tendency to feel that plateaus are permanent. But when we take the big picture view of things, we start to see plateaus as temporary way stations that we’ll eventually get past with a bit of hard work. Moreover, by thinking long term, we give ourselves more latitude to take risks and fail because we see that missteps are just momentary setbacks in the long journey of life.

To cultivate this attitude, reflect on a time where you felt you had reached the end of your development in some area, only to later bust through the plateau. If it was possible then; it’s possible now. If you don’t have that experience yet yourself, ask a friend to tell you about one of his.

When I was learning Spanish while living in Mexico, I hit a point where I felt like I had stopped  progressing, and I didn’t feel like I could get any better. But I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that I was wrong. So I made another push–I started reading my basic Spanish grammar books again, and I stopped being afraid to make mistakes. I just went for it when talking with people. And lo and behold, my fluency rose to a whole new level. Now when I reach a plateau in another area of my life, I simply remember that example, and realize that the feeling that I’ll never get any better is nothing more than my darn lazy brain selling me a bill of goods.

What advice do you have for breaking through plateaus in life? Share your advice with us in the comments!

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Robert Pruitt August 14, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Just what I needed, thanks!

2 Gary Marshall August 14, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Overcome your challenges by breaking right through them! Mistakes happen, get over it!

3 Brian August 14, 2011 at 10:41 pm

“Embrace the Suck” So true. You must approach everything with a beginner’s mindset- curious, inquisitive, and ego free.

4 Andy August 14, 2011 at 10:42 pm

I agree with Mr. Pruitt above. Simple as that.

5 Bruce Lee August 14, 2011 at 10:49 pm

“If you always put a limit on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

6 Spencer August 14, 2011 at 10:52 pm

So true about finding someone to give you feedback on your work. In the academic community, it gets very easy to give your papers to friends to review, or hand it off to people whom you already know like your work. It is much harder to give it to someone who will give you honest feedback about it, but _so_ much more helpful–if you can avoid punching them in the throat, that is… Still working on that.

7 Rich August 15, 2011 at 12:16 am

Great words of wisdom. Just what I needed right now. Thanks.

8 Johnny C August 15, 2011 at 12:28 am

I believe Mark Twain said something about how later on in life, we end up regretting things we did NOT do rather than what we did. I’m glad you did take that risk with AoM and that you are learning just as much as we are, and it’s what I’ve decided to do with my own new project blog I just launched. I don’t know anything, but I’m going to learn as much as I can and let the world who has access to my blog hold me accountable for what I set out to do and learn from them as much as they learn from me. Wherever I go, at the very least, end of the day, I’ll have a lot of lessons to be learned from this one-year discipline I’ve decided to take with the blog project. Thanks for being awesome, Brett and Kate!

9 Mario Tyrka August 15, 2011 at 12:37 am

How do you deal with areas of life where you cannot risk failure because failure usually means injury. For Example, i love doing all kinds of extreme sports but i don’t feel it is worth it to push myself above and beyond my current skill level in sports where injury is almost a certainty overtime. This is especially true when your job depends on you staying healthy.

10 Lawrence August 15, 2011 at 4:55 am

Funny you should mention Foer’s book. I just picked it up a few days ago.

Also funny you should post this article now. It’s just what I needed today.

Thanks!

11 Jason Fitzgerald August 15, 2011 at 6:36 am

A big part of breaking through a plateau is getting out of my normal environment. A change of scenery always provides a new perspective – whether it’s a new place to exercise or a different location to work. It makes me more creative, motivated, and excited to accomplish new goals. All it takes is new scenery, which gives me a new state of mind.

12 Michael August 15, 2011 at 7:36 am

Thanks for another great article. This is, funnily enough, something I’ve been considering a lot lately, as I strive to improve in a few areas.

The most important aspect of it for me was not to be afraid of failure. It’s very natural to stay where it’s safe, but with almost any vocation and skill, you gain more admiration for trying something out of your comfort range than continuing in that plateau where you’re already an expert.

Cheers all.

13 James August 15, 2011 at 8:46 am

I know more than a few people who need to read this article.

“Embrace the suck”, and learning to take constructive criticism are the most important parts as far as I am concerned. This year, when I took my risk leaving a comfortable (key word there) job and went back to take some classes, I ended up getting an instructor who has since become a friend. She was brutally honest with all of her students. At first, I was kind of taken back by it. I had the mentality that, “Hey, I’m a paying student, obviously I’m not an expert yet”. One day however, it clicked in my head finally, “Wait a second, everything she got on me about last week, I did right this week”. None of her criticism was baseless, she didn’t simply say, this sucks, instead, she told us why it sucked. I had a C at the midterm mark, and finished with an A. I felt preeeety darn proud of that, and I learned a lesson that I needed to learn, sometimes criticism is not only helpful in letting you know what you’ve done wrong, but it’s just as important to show you how to fix it.

14 Brandon August 15, 2011 at 9:25 am

Greatt article Brett and Kate. Fear of failure is definitely one of the things that has held me back at times. I try to remember the aphorism in “Dune”: “Fear is the mind killer”. Here’s a link to a great article I read a few days ago with videos of some very successful people explaining why failure is not fatal: http://the99percent.com/articles/7057/9-Reasons-Why-Failure-Is-Not-Fatal .

15 Mark August 15, 2011 at 9:32 am

I’ve been playing Piano over the last 4 years, and I’ve hit plenty of plateaus. I’m at one right now.

This article really hit the nail on the head for me.

16 Clifford August 15, 2011 at 9:50 am

This article is well-timed.

I think the biggest aversion to overcoming the plateau is the fear of making mistakes. We’re engrained into believing that mistakes are bad, plain and simple.

When learning French, I hit a plateau whereas my speaking abilities sounded more robotic simply because I didn’t want to make any grammatical/pronunciation errors. The day I decided to abandon that fear and just shove the words out of my mouth, I made plenty of mistakes. However my brain quickly adapted and my speaking ability improved dramatically.

17 Munir August 15, 2011 at 10:39 am

Very true and thanks for the article,
With the great recession, my job turned into hell with a third of my colleagues losing their jobs, moral low, and office politics at a peak. The best advice I got that helped me the most was from my dad. After five minutes of complaining he told me to shut up and take some action “I do not care if you get fired cause it happens but I will be worried if you take it like a sitting duck”.
It made me realize that the biggest failure is failing before you start.

18 JR Seaman August 15, 2011 at 11:29 am

Great post! My wife and I were just taking about conviction and baking though the Plateau last night. It is essential to go back to the basics. That is where I find out how much I know and how much I have forgotten. It helps me find and set new goals.

19 Ken Steinberger August 15, 2011 at 11:59 am

It’s amazing how often the articles released on this site often coincide with the moment I really need to hear the advice they dispense. In the hours leading up to the posting of this particular article, I was in something of a slump, feeling down because I didn’t think I was improving on something, and bam, I take a break from said course by hoping on the internet only to get a swift dose of direction. Thank you.

20 Ian August 15, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Another good article. It’s always hard to keep pushing when you know your ego is going to take a beating. But it’s worth it. I like to give myself a reward for taking the ego punishment – things like making plans with friends or getting to watch a favorite TV show.

21 David W August 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm

This may be one of your best pieces yet.

I hadn’t considered plateaus too much, but the truth is because I despise them so much. When I start to feel close to that point, I get insanely antsy and do whatever I can to keep pushing ahead. I get grumpy and what not, but it helps to keep pushing.

Excellent article! :)

22 Troy - Cube.Dweller.Fitness August 15, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Great tips – I had to repost a summary.

23 iNAKO August 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm

This is exactly what I needed! I’ve been learning a new language and for the past couple months, I’ve been stuck in the nastiest plateau. I’m gonna try these suggestions!

24 S.P. August 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Definitely one of your best articles. I agree that we must embrace risks. That’s how you keep growing as a man. It’s so easy to avoid risks, but there’s so much potential growth associated with risks. I think every man should watch this Will Smith interview. There’s some great insight here.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M88uMRwsj0U

25 Brucifer August 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Dang … now I need to get me a T-shirt emblazoned with “Embrace The Suck!” That’s awesome!

26 Gregg Swanson August 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm

In my experience a plateau can be caused by lack of “why.” There are four stages of learning:

• Unconscious Incompetence (we don’t know that we don’t know)
• Consciences Incompetence (novice)
• Consciences Competence (proficient)
• Unconsciousness Competence (experts)

So how does a person move from ‘proficient’ to ‘experts?’ The question should be why does the person want to become an expert? The why drives us, it motives us. Sure without a real why most of us can become proficient just out the sheer enjoyment of the process.

But to make the jump to “expert”, that takes dedication and a big why. Seth Godin talks about this in “The Dip,”

To make that jump there needs to be a big enough way.

27 Jason P. August 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Damn right Brett, and don’t let anyone else tell you different. It’s the other people that have plateaued in life that can’t stand to see someone else have success. If these people want to be mediocre with their life that is their problem.

28 Rdr. Moses August 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Bracing words, and a worthy challenge; “Eschew that plateau!”

You made reference to “spiritual plateaus” in your article. I don’t think I’ve heard more than three or four people address this – and few in any detail. One excellent teacher of mine addressed an entire denominational convention with the words, “You camped too soon.”

My teacher lead by example, and DIDN’T camp spiritually, but pressed past shallow expressions of his Christian faith to the mother lode – he became an Orthodox Christian, and a priest at that! He is personally responsible for dozens coming to, “The Fullness of the Faith,” and, by extension, hundreds more finding that fulfillment. Thank you, Fr. Joseph!

Christians, do NOT camp too soon!

29 Miller Industries August 15, 2011 at 7:36 pm

“When you think you’re going to give up, don’t.” Words from a sergeant I know. They always help me remember that platueas are only there because we let them exist. Don’t. Exceed the standard, break the mold, never settle.

30 Chris August 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Don’t fail just for the sake of finding mistakes. Anyone can do that and claim to be “fixing” it when they already knew the mistake they made. Go with what you know, and get other people to evaluate on what you did wrong afterward. You will almost always push yourself far too hard or too little to get what you need done. Stick to your commitment, as well.

31 Philip G August 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Thanks for this article Brett and Kate!

32 Joe @ Not Your Average Joe August 16, 2011 at 12:43 am

“Embracing the Suck” is one of the most difficult things a man can do, but also one of the most necessary. If you don’t suck at something, you’re simply not trying anything new. How can life be fulfilling without the occasional “new” experience?

33 Aaron Wilder August 16, 2011 at 1:10 pm

As a writer and writing instructor, I’ve had to deal with both my plateaus and the plateaus of others. I’ve found that even when an individual is engaged in the voice of a quality mentor, this can sometimes not be enough to get past a particular plateau. Some of us, such as myself, have had the same mentors for years and years, and often times it may seem after certain occasion that it’s your mentor’s advice that’s plateauing, or as an instructor, that you continually are giving the same advice to a student. Plateaus can sometimes, over an extended mentor/mentee relationship work in joint deadlocking, and something is, then, needed to break you both out of the current rut.
It may, of course, be that the “other,” whomever that other may be, is plateauing. Perhaps. But you must then ask yourself the question: Is there any way that I can break out of THEIR plateau? No! So take this advice– for plateaus, as in life, you can’t do anything about “them.” So, it’s NOT them. IT’S YOU!

Once past the “blame them” or “blame me” question, two approaches are possible: Change the student’s approach, or change the mentor’s approach.

As a mentor, you can take a different angle to a student’s writing to introduce possibly some of the same problems they may seem to have plateaued on in a different way. Surprisingly, this almost always gains new insight on their writing for the MENTOR before the mentee, and lend itself to a new avenue of approach and growth for you as instructor. Then, once you have grown, you can once again work on facilitating growth for the always industrious and willing-to-learn student.

As the student, you once again have two options:
1. You can find a new mentor. This, though, may have you switching mentors on a yearly or even monthly basis, which none of us would like to do. As a nearly lifelong writer, if I had switched mentors on a yearly basis I would be tapping out the number of people whom I know that even write regularly.
2. The preferable option, you can take the advice above and mix it up; throw something new at your mentor- something that will surprise them. You will be shocked at the startling originality of the feedback. Likely, it will be something you never expected to hear from that mentor, and something that will alter your perceptions of them, and of your own work forever.

34 Allen Uribes August 16, 2011 at 9:12 pm

This is definitely something I can use as an avid exerciser, language learner, nursing student, and father.

Thanks for sharing this. :)

35 Gaurav Mishra August 17, 2011 at 2:27 am

To take your life to the next level: keep on reading!

36 ---Simon--- August 17, 2011 at 5:16 am

Great post thanks, It made me think of a great quote.
Growing is what happens when we move outside our comfortzone.
Even though the post says the same thing, this phrase motivats me to take action everytime.

Man up

37 Kyle August 17, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Awesome post, it’s encouraged me, and brought to mind a great qote. “success isn’t a destination, it’s a direction” – Dave ramsey

38 Evan G August 17, 2011 at 9:28 pm

This website and this article In particular has changed my life for the better. Thank you for your blogs I hope you never stop writing them.

39 Rob@Motivational and Inspirational August 18, 2011 at 4:01 am

We must be intentional in what we do. Good intentions don’t write best-sellers, run marathons, grow exponentially. It is about commitment. How bad do you want it?
Re: ‘To cultivate this attitude, reflect on a time where you felt you had reached the end of your development in some area, only to later bust through the plateau. If it was possible then; it’s possible now’.
Yes! Momentum stack. Build upon victories, learn from losses.

40 Ted @ Cubicle Warrior August 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Brett,

Would you mind sharing the book you referenced?

“I’ll review my composition skills by doing some exercises from a book. ”

Thanks!

41 Markl August 19, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Another solid article.I felt as if I hit a plateau physically until I found the world of adventure racing. Having an event to train for leaves me no excuses and forces me to regiment my training. Left to my own devices with no event to look forward to it is easy to fall into complacency. just completed my first Warrior Dash (highly recommend) in Windham NY last Sunday and I’m now training for the tougher Spartan Sprint next year. Again, great article and keep up the awesome work.

42 Keith Brawner August 21, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Thank you for this post. It has already prompted a 15% increase in a skill which has not seen an increase in well over a year. Allowing yourself to make mistakes can significantly increase the willingness to take risks that excellence requires.

43 Paul August 23, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Awesome article. Here are a few plateau breakers I’ve found in my own life.

1) As the article stated. Take a long term approach so you don’t get lost in the minutiae. Keep that long term view in mind and “chunk” it down. Break the long term view down into easier segments and tackle them with all of your focus, much like a Pianist practicing a difficult passage.

2) Create accountability. Have one or two good friends that are not judgmental, but also unafraid to confront you when you slip up. Tell them your goal and that you’ve entrusted them to keep you on the path. Ex: I gave $100 to a friend last weekend and told him NOT to give it back to me unless I had approached and spoken with 5 women. I left that night with my money, 2 phone numbers and a kiss on cheek from a pretty lady.

3) Reward yourself. Practice deliberately and take risks. After you’ve made some serious progress in those areas, reward yourself. Purchase or do something you’ve been considering for a while as a prize for your hard work.

44 Carlo September 5, 2011 at 1:05 am

Excellent article, there…and the comments before me are also very good. Whenever I catch myself hitting a plateau, I often find it as a signal to and take a little bit of a breather. Sometimes, the pace of the daily grind can be so grueling that you can become a robot.

Sometimes, you need to detach yourself from it all so that you can prop your feet up on the desk and evaluate how things are going and dream of what you can do.

45 Eugene E Blesing September 11, 2011 at 9:20 am

I find myself and others around me thinking too big, too often: “moving to a different town”, “changing jobs”, “new girlfriend”……..we end up just creating a new set of problems/obstacles, rather than mastering our current one.

If we make small changes, do something that we do not enjoy, go somewhere locally that we wouldn’t ordinarily go, basically facing small internal fears, we can flip that switch that allows us to break through.

Read “Hagakure, the way of the Samurai”, and “The Art of War”. These books are filled with plateau busting techniques that any modern man can identify with.

46 Darlan September 14, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Awesome post, awesome tips! Thank you!

47 indra January 29, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Thanks!
Just what I needed.

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