Brain Pickings

The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth

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“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.”

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,” William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit, ”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.” As we’ve seen, one of the most insidious forms of such habitual autopilot — which evolved to help lighten our cognitive load yet is a double-edged sword that can also hurt us — is our mercilessly selective everyday attention, but the phenomenon is particularly perilous when it comes to learning new skills. In a chapter of Maximize Your Potential (public library) — that fantastic guide to making your own luck, the sequel to 99U’s blueprint to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine — science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He sketches out the problem:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.

Color restoration of archival Einstein photograph by Mads Madsen

The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. Fortunately, psychologists have found a number of strategies to help us overcome this stagnation by overriding our auto-mode — and it turns out the benefits of reflective failure and the art of making mistakes play a key role, something to which J. K. Rowling has attested. Foer writes:

Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

Foer first bumped up against the OK Plateau while working on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (public library) — the fascinating record of his quest to dramatically improve his memory’s capacity using a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. After spending several months learning to memorize a deck of playing cards, he rapidly plateaued, but his memory-mentor assured him this was the standard course of improvement. Intrigued, Doer dusted off the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, the researchers who had discovered those three stages of skill acquisition — cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The autonomous stage in particular was what interested Foer the most:

During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

Early psychologists, Foer tells us, used to believe the OK Plateau signified the upper limit of one’s innate capacity — in other words, they thought the best we can do is the best we could do. But Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson and his team of performance psychologists, who have studied the phenomenon closely, found that the single most important factor for overcoming the OK Plateau to become truly exceptional at a skill is the same thing that turned young Mozart into a genius and that drives successful authors to their rigorous routines. Foer writes:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

And yet, Foer is careful to point out, the mere amount of practice has little to do with improvement — it is, rather, its deliberateness that drives progress. In fact, studies have shown that in areas of expertise as diverse as basketball and chess the number of years one has spent honing the respective skill correlates only weakly with the degree of mastery and level of performance. What Ericsson found, rather, is that the best way to transcend the OK Plateau and reboot the autonomous stage is to cultivate conscious control over the thing we’re practicing and, above all, to actually practice failing:

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

Complement Maximize Your Potential and Moonwalking with Einstein, both excellent reads in their entirety, with philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make mistakes that improve us and some of today’s most celebrated contemporary creators on how to break through your creative block.

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