“Precisely when something has reached its optimal shape and size, it will begin to stop working if you keep applying the same technique,” say Sullivan and Thompson, authors of Getting Unstuck: Break Free of the Plateau Effect.
I have found this to be true, both as an author and a manager at a top poetry site where we currently generate 3.1 million impressions a month.
In both iterations—author and poetry site—it could be argued that the point is not to do more, get more, but simply to stay vibrant. Productivity can service different goals, from creative vitality to growth in numbers.
Either way, your productivity task is the same: you must apply new techniques to get off your plateau. As an author, I’ve avoided long-term plateaus by working cross-genre; so, yes, I encourage poets to take fiction workshops and non-fiction writers to read a poem a day. It absolutely works. Sullivan and Thompson strongly state such a need to cross-pollinate:
“If you don’t have diversity, eventually you will become numb, and what worked yesterday will be less effective tomorrow.”
Drawing on examples from baseball-player acquisitions to the development of reCAPTCHA, Sullivan and Thompson make a clear case: you must diversify or you’ll stay flatlined. And it’s all down hill from there, even if it’s a slow demise.
While Getting Unstuck: Break Free of the Plateau Effect is worth a full read, here are five solutions to get you started…
5 Ways to Get Off Your Productivity Plateau
1. Stop Trying Harder
When you notice that you’re tempted to push yourself or everyone around you into crisis work mode on a regular basis, you’ve probably hit a plateau. Classic advice is “try harder,” but this is the “worst advice,” because “effort follows the laws of diminishing returns.”
2. Change it Up
Are you a non-fiction writer? Read poetry. Are you a topline manager? Go on a weekly Artist Date. Oriented towards words? Try expressing yourself in pictures. Here’s a sample from a new Graphic Book Notes effort I started. As you can see, the illustration is casual in technique, but who cares. After starting this effort, I was surprised by a new strategy idea for helping to build a colleague’s business.
3. Stake Out Productivity Space
You don’t need to go all the way and give up email, but there’s wisdom in staking out time and space. One Fortune 500 company, on the advice of Harvard’s Leslie Perlow, declared a quiet time (3 days a week, from 9 until noon). Engineers were not allowed to interrupt each other during this bounded productivity time and for 65% of them, productivity rose to above-average. (Harvard Business Review, “In the Company of Givers and Takers”).
4. Identify Choke Points
Poke around and figure out which part of your system is breaking first and slowing everything down. At the site I manage, for instance, our hosting was finally identified as a choke point. When we upgraded hosting, we immediately doubled our traffic.
5. Escape Bad Norms
Remember your mom’s advice to be careful who you hang out with? (She didn’t warn you? She should have.) Such advice understands the power of groupthink. It is a human tendency to align ourselves with our friends and colleagues, even when it might drive us to a deadly plateau. The key to escaping bad norms is to harness the phenomenon. Pick who we hang out with—who we benchmark ourselves against. According to Sullivan and Thompson, this can become a “magnetic force pulling [us] toward a breakthrough.”
Productivity plateaus are a sign that it’s time to do something new. Ignore the plateaus and you will end up feeling desperate (or maybe depressed) and make bad decisions. Pay attention, and vitality and growth will be yours.