The Plateau Effect (when goals stall)
Have you ever had the experience of implementing a great new plan in your personal or professional life only to have it inexplicably stall, after some initially promising results? This phenomenon is often called the ‘plateau effect’ and it’s been the subject of recent research. Read on if you’d like to know what you can do, when your project or goal seems to be stuck.
The simplest way to demonstrate the problem is to look at what can happen when someone tries to lose weight. They commit to a new diet and exercise plan. At first, the results are exciting. Each week the kilos disappear and the rewards are immediate. But then, for some mysterious reason, they hit a plateau. Now their weight begins to stay pretty much the same. It feels demoralising. Resolve falters and many simply give up, feeling, “What’s the point?”
It’s the same in organisations. Change managers and project managers can experience a similar effect. As they track towards their desired goal, progress can slow down. On the surface, the right actions seem to be in place, but it’s as if the system has become acclimatised so that the impact of the same actions is now less. ‘Try harder’ doesn’t cut it.
This plateau effect occurs all around you. Success followed by stuckness, followed by failure. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have identified a typical ‘response curve’ where the positive impact of a change increases rapidly at first. But then the rate of progress starts to tail off and can even stall altogether – unless you take action to unblock what’s holding things up. Let’s take a look at five common types of block and what to do.
Over time, people, businesses and even physical processes can develop an immunity to the same approaches and techniques that made a big impact at first. It’s been shown, for example, that when a teacher pays a student a compliment for a piece of work, this can be a powerful and motivating type of recognition. But if the teacher constantly compliments everyone in just the same way, the effect is diminished. Soon, such compliments simply don’t register. Similarly, if you want to keep on benefiting from exercise, you need to vary things a little, exposing your system to different kinds of challenge. The solution is to move out of your comfort zone, shake things up and do things a little differently. In teams, this is one of the great benefits of diverse perspectives. Someone will say, “What’s another way we could do this?” What worked well yesterday might not work quite so well today.
It’s normal for human beings to want a reward right now. We’re an impatient species! So in goal-setting and in project management generally, the focus can be on short term actions for a reward as soon as possible. But this way of thinking rarely leads to the best long term outcomes. The solution is to move your thinking up a notch, into a bigger time frame. Going after long term outcomes is known to be one of the most reliable paths to success. But you’re going to need persistence and resilience. IQ or other talent metrics are not reliable predictors of success in life. Talent is obviously handy and we’d all like more of it. But it’s what researchers are calling ‘grit’ that makes the biggest difference in the end. This is about expanding your gratification horizon, so that you stick with your goal and push on through those times when the increments of progress may be small.
Sometimes a system reaches saturation and doing more becomes counter-productive. An example involves how your memory works best. It’s been shown that reviewing at intervals is more helpful than poring over material for hours and hours. In a similar way, marketers have found that a particular campaign can work for a while. Then you have to pull it and reintroduce it a little later. The same with your energy levels. You reach maximum capacity and then suffer depletion. But once you’ve restored your energy through a well-timed break, you’re ready to go again. The solution for this type of block can be as simple as giving yourself a break.
We know decision-making is prone to biases of all kinds. When things appear to have stalled, it’s always worth checking the data sitting behind your plan. Are there some biases you need to take a look at? Did you miss something? Did you measure the right things? Did you assess the risks correctly? Did you miss something that turned out to be important? Does the plan need to be adjusted?
Sometimes the sense that you’ve stalled is because you’re holding yourself to impossibly high standards of success, including unrealistic time lines for your goal. The solution is to keep reminding yourself that none of this is about being ‘perfect’ because ‘good enough’ is often enough. Focus on the process and take the next step. Keep taking small actions, understanding that it’s the accumulation of these small steps of practice that will take you towards becoming very skilful one day. Maybe you’ll never be perfect, but you could be great!
The sense that you’ve stalled can be very demotivating. Plateaus can even derail your goals. But by reframing this common phase as evidence of a temporary block, you can uncover what it is that’s holding up your progress and take some small actions that help to get things moving again.
PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS
Identifying blocks that could be holding up progress
- Can you shake things up through adopting a fresh approach?
- Do your plans include a longer term horizon, even if there are shorter term milestones?
- How would you rate yourself on persistence and resilience? Do you need to take time out to develop more of these goal-critical attributes?
- Can you simply refresh yourself by taking a break from this goal for a short time?
- Have you checked that you have in place all the resources and supports you need?
- Did you get your initial plan right?
- Have you checked your data for any biases?
- Has anything in your circumstances altered, requiring you to adjust that initial plan?
- Have you been multi-tasking, perhaps trying to engage with too many goals at the same time?
- Are your standards unrealistically high?