Nothing in our life occurs at a linear rate. We do not progress, or experience change of any kind, at a constant speed. Life ebbs and flows; change, improvement , and progress within our life can occur like a burst of lightning, like a sleepy snail, or anywhere in between. This applies to all facets of life whether it is learning a new technical skill, implementing an exercise routine, dieting, producing creative output, or initiating positive changes through personal development. No matter what the subject is you will never see progress occur in a constantly straight line. There will always be progress plateaus.
The progress plateau is a prolonged period of “no progress” that typically occurs directly before and after periods of dramatic progress. In areas of life that are subjected to frequent changes (i.e. pretty much everything) we experience those changes in short and sharp bursts and then spend the majority of our time experiencing the progress plateau.
This is just the natural cycle of progress. It is never linear. The common structure to progress is that we experience small periods of sudden drastic change (improvement spikes), sometimes followed by a small dip in progress directly afterwards, and then long periods where “nothing” occurs.
It is during this period, the long and boring time where we feel stagnated, that we can lose motivation. These periods can go for months, even years, and without a known end to the plateau in sight it is too easy to feel that our progress has stalled indefinitely. This is the single biggest reason why most people fail to implement changes in their life.
Whether it is a new diet, exercise, relationships, personal development, or just forming new habits, there will always be progress plateaus and unless you are ready for them they will undo all your hard work.
Tips for Maintaining Motivation through Progress Plateaus
It would be remiss of me to tell you that the progress plateau exists, like a monster lurking in the shadows waiting to attack you in your weakest moment, and then not tell you how you can beat it. Here are some tips on how to maintain motivation through the progress plateaus.
Tip 1: Accept the progress plateau exists
You’ve just got to face facts. The progress plateau is not some fanciful creature I invented just to scare you (and yes I am well aware that I just referred to it as a monster in the previous paragraph – that’s the beauty of poetic licence). You need to accept that the progress plateau exists.
Making a conscious decision to believe in the existence of progress plateaus means you will be more likely to identify them when they pop up. How many times have you heard a new phrase or learned something new and then you start seeing and hearing it everywhere? This happens often to most people because of the way our brains processes information. When we become aware of new facts our brains start being able to identify and categorise instances that align with that new piece of information. Without the specific facts the brain would just ignore the incoming data because it has no reference to compare it to. The same happens for progress plateaus.
By bringing the plateau into focus, we enable the brain to identify them more easily. We give ourselves a chance to realise that we are not “stagnating” or under-performing, but we are just experiencing a plateau before out next big advance. We can remind ourselves that the plateau is just the calm before the storm.
Tip 2: Look back at your entire progress
Having just accepted and identified that the lull in your progress is just a plateau you can start deriving more motivation to help you push on through toward the next improvement spike. A great way to get this motivation is to look back at the progress you have made throughout your entire journey.
The progress plateau has the ability to fool us into thinking that we haven’t achieved much. We can look back over the past few weeks and see no progress and feel disheartened. But if we take a holistic view, if we consider our entire progress from the very first day then we can start putting the plateau into perspective.
When looking for motivation it is helpful to consider how far you have come from the moment of initiation. Don’t let yourself be fooled by the recent progress. Only consider the overall trend.
This thinking is particularly relevant for dieting and exercise. I often hear about people starting a new healthy routine who experience positive and quick results early (e.g. losing several kilos) but then go through a flat period. During this time they only look back at the past few weeks (i.e. the plateau) and they lose motivation. They give up on their routine, go back to unhealthy habits, and write the whole thing off as a failure. If only they had looked at their entire progress instead of just a small segment.
Tip 3: Remember how good the sudden spikes feel
Another way to maintain motivation through the progress plateau is to remember just how good those sudden spikes of quick progress feel. Remind yourself of the happiness you felt during the last improvement spike - the positive energy, the motivation, and the smile that you couldn’t wipe off your face. Remind yourself how good it actually feels.
Now remind yourself that directly after a progress plateau comes another spike of improvement. Even though you cannot see it coming, if you stay on your course and maintain your efforts you can be sure that another spike is waiting just over the horizon. But if you give up during the plateau you never reach the next spike. You never feel those “highs” again.
Tip 4: Other people are on different progress cycles
This a reminder to only ever consider your own progress. Everyone else is operating within their own progress cycle and to weigh yourself up against someone else’s progress is a useless waste of time.
If you see someone else going through a massive improvement spike, that does not detract from your life or your opportunity for change. Be happy for them, celebrate with them, and remind yourself that your next spike is coming soon. Their progress cycle has nothing to do with yours.
Likewise, how far along they have progressed is irrelevant to you. They may have initiated their changes years ago, or they may just have come off the back of a significant improvement spike. Neither reason matters nor has anything to do with you, your progress, and your plateaus. Only look at your own progress and how far you have travelled since you started. That’s all that matters.
How do you maintain motivation through the progress plateau?