Exercise slumps, relationship ruts, and overall mental funks happen to the best of us. But while getting stuck is inevitable, staying there isn't. "Plateaus are perfectly normal—the human body is wired to adapt to things," says mathematician Hugh Thompson, PhD, who, along with investigative reporter Bob Sullivan, spent more than two years interviewing psychologists, CEOs, pro athletes, and scientists on what drives success—and what stalls it—for their new book The Plateau Effect. Here, they reveal the traps that threaten to flatline your progress.
Trap 1: You Use the Same Technique That Worked for You Last Week When Thompson and Sullivan analyzed the contestants from the first four seasons of The Biggest Loser, they spotted a surprising trend: Almost all the competitors saw dramatic weight loss results during the first weigh-in, on day seven, but the following week they lost, on average, just 2 percent of their body weight. "As a species, humans have evolved to respond to novelty," says Thompson. "Once we've become accustomed to something, we may grow immune to its effects." Your body and mind will respond most positively if you keep exposing them to original situations: say, a new machine at the gym to challenge your muscles, or an unusual date-night outing (trapeze lessons, perhaps?) to keep your relationship fresh.
Trap 2: You Don't Track Your Progress The lead-up to some plateaus can happen so gradually that you may not notice until it's too late. "We found that one of the most important ways successful people stave off slumps is by establishing markers," says Sullivan. Some form of data collection—tracking your salary, recording your waist circumference, or periodically rating how you feel about your spouse on a scale of 1 to 10—can help you spot and reverse a negative progression before it picks up speed.
Trap 3: You Seek Quick Fixes Are you a serial plateau-er—someone who breaks through a period of inaction only to find yourself stuck again months later? You may be falling prey to what Thompson refers to as the "greedy algorithm"—choosing a path that seems most likely to provide immediate progress but ultimately leads to a dead end. Fortunately, you can trick your brain to delay gratification with longer-term goals that can provide lasting results. "People who are accomplished, especially at work, do this by breaking big goals into small steps, giving themselves more opportunities for victories," says Thompson. "This trains the mind to say, Hey, I'm doing something positive, even if I'm still a long way from the finish line."
Trap 4: Your Timing Is Off "There's no easier way to get unstuck than to respect your body clock," says Sullivan. "If you run faster at 8:30 A.M. than at 7:30 A.M., the sensible thing to do is move your workout to the later time; yet many people make the mistake of squeezing in activities when they can—not when they'll achieve the best results." Studying the role timing plays in other areas of life, including interactions with others, will serve you well, too. While you might not want to ambush your boss with your pitch for a raise first thing in the morning, that may be the best time to do it. (One study found that parolees who had their hearings early in the court's session received better rulings more often than applicants at the end of the session.) As the day wears on, something psychologists call decision fatigue sets in, making people less likely to weigh your request fairly. Says Sullivan, "Timing is one of the biggest factors that separates the stuck from the successful."