Faster, stronger, higher, smarter: Self-improvement has a certain addictive quality to it. Doing things faster or better not only elicits praise — from your boss, say, or your partner — but it also just feels good. You put in a little extra effort and you see the payoff. At some point, however, more effort starts to bring diminishing returns. You find yourself stuck because although you’re giving it your best, you’re getting nowhere new. You have reached a plateau.
And if you’re anything like me, you reach it, slog onward for a while, then throw up your hands in frustration.
Recognizing that this is likely not the best or most successful coping strategy, I was eager to read Getting Unstuck: Break Free of the Plateau Effect. Written by Bob Sullivan, an investigative journalist, and Hugh Thompson, a mathematics and computer science professor, Getting Unstuck offers both an explanation and analysis of the plateau effect as well as an approach to moving beyond it. The book uses an engaging combination of research, data, personal anecdotes, and case studies, as well as a certain levity that comes across in small jokes and self-deprecating humor. Overall, Sullivan and Thompson provide a thorough, insightful look at the problem — and some solutions.
“Since you were a small child,” they write, “people have told you that the solution to your problem is 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.”
They go on to describe such concepts as the greedy algorithm, which is essentially when we optimize short-term gain rather than long-term goals, and immunity, which is when what worked before no longer brings progress.
I especially appreciated certain sections, such as the honest discussion of how to recognize and work with our own inner slothfulness and distractibility.
“Understanding the powerful inescapable forces arrayed against you — together with the good habits, a good approach, and loving support — can make paying attention, remaining agile, and applying yourself easier. But every person who has ever done anything worth a damn has encountered relentless temptations to be lazy.”
Many things drive us to procrastinate, but what really hit home for me was the book’s description of “one particularly devious cause”: perfectionism. When we settle for nothing less than perfect, we become frozen, the authors write, unable to break out from where we are because we fear we might fall short of expectations. Mired in so-called decision quicksand, we fail to act, and instead sink deeper into the muck.
To take just one small example from my own experience: I recently moved into a new home and am slowly acquiring furnishings for the living room. I know I need an area rug. And so I have visited probably two dozen rug websites and looked at hundreds of possibilities. There are so many to choose from, I think, that the perfect one must be out there!
Needless to say, weeks into the hunt, I am still walking on the wooden floor.
Instead of trying to be overly thorough in a case like this, Sullivan and Thompson advise, just take step one without having fully researched to death steps two, three, and four. In a great twist on an old mantra, they write: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly (at first).”
That is quite a good point when I consider all the things I have wanted to do but did not pursue. What stopped me? I knew my first steps would be awkward, imbalanced, embarrassing. And so I just, well, didn’t take them.
Now, reading Sullivan and Thompson, I think of how my own perfectionism has made me give up much more than I meant to.
“The paradox is clear,” the authors write. “Accept yourself as whole, and you can begin to change bad habits into peak behaviors. Instead of being stuck on a series of plateaus, you’ll find yourself scaling mountains that always seemed far out of reach. And when you reach the peak, as all mountaineers know, you’ll see there are always new mountains to climb.”
Well, please excuse me. Mountain climbing will have to be on hold for a moment. I have a rug to purchase.
Getting Unstuck: Break Free of the Plateau Effect
Plume, April 2014
Paperback, 320 pages