Why you can’t smell the flowers any more, and how that makes you crazy (and stuck)

by Bob Sullivan on April 29, 2014

Why do we get stuck? The eight causes of plateaus.

Why do we get stuck? The eight causes of plateaus. 

Why people get stuck half-way to great, and the new science of breaking barriers


Familiarity breeds contempt.  It also breeds invisibility, which is a much bigger problem. If you think it’s crazy to do the same thing every day expect different results, I’m here to tell you that would be a GIFT of the universe compared to reality, which dictates this: Whatever you do every day, however hard you work at it, you’ll get less and less results until you seem completely ineffective. That’s the No. 1 reason people get stuck in their lives, as you see from the chart above. Let me explain.

(This week, in honor of the release of Getting Unstuck, I’m doing 8 columns about the 8 reasons people get stuck.)

House ad 450wWhen humans shared the Earth with predators under constant threat of being eaten alive, “getting used to” the familiar – and reacting only to the extreme — was a matter of life or death.  Today, however, “getting used to” your job, your boyfriend, your exercise routine, your local deli, has become a matter of dying a very slow, boring death.

Getting used to things is actually a necessary part of our biology, built into the very core of our being, born of our evolutionary need to be alert to new threats in our environment.  You probably experience this every day, every time you walk into a foul-smelling bathroom or a Heavenly floral shop. In both cases, the smell seems overpowering at first..but in remarkably short order, the dominant smell fades into the background, seeming to disappear.  The effect is called “acclimation.”  It means your body has already taken note of what’s new, and now it is ready to move on and be alert to the next new thing.

The force of acclimation means even the strongest odor, or the prettiest girl, or most amazing new rock band, will soon become routine and dull for you.  This is why so many things you do seem exciting at first, but within a few weeks, the thrill is gone. It’s also why most exercise and diet plans fail at around the two-week mark.

The time it takes to “get used to” things can vary, but it always follows the same familiar pattern – a response curve that accelerates quickly at the beginning and slowly begins to level off. If you plotted this curve, it would look a lot like a graph you saw about 1,000 times in high school math.  Sadly, no one ever told that this seemingly abstract curve is actually the problem – and the solution – for growing in just about every human endeavor you can imagine.


The plateau curve

Bodybuilders and dieters know this well. They begin a new regimen of weightlifting or starvation.  For 10 days or so, the results are fantastic, even inspiring. Down 4 pounds, or up another 10 on the military press. But somewhere near that two-week mark, they hit a wall. The scale seems frozen in place. The strength gains top out.  They have, cruelly, plateaued.

Most of you are probably quite familiar with the notion that that people who drink alcohol develop tolerance for it. On the first day of college, three beers might get you drunk.  By October, you might need six beers to reach those same buzzy heights.  And by the holidays, a six pack might not even make you feel light-headed unless accompanied by someone like Jack Daniels. You’ve built up a tolerance to alcohol.

The concept of tolerance spreads far across the drug world. Morphine is the best example. People in pain often receive morphine in the hospital – and, after time, they need more and more of it to have the same pain-killing effect.  Just as your nose stops smelling garlic, your pain receptors become saturated and start blowing off the morphine, unless you administer more and more.  Tales of morphine addiction that result from this tolerance are well known, but here’s something you probably don’t know, and we hope you never encounter: Morphine tolerance, treated by higher dosages, can have far worse consequences than addiction. Take enough morphine, and it can literally kill your body’s desire to breathe, something called respiratory depression.  People who die of morphine overdose usually suffocate.

In far less dramatic ways, tolerance is probably suffocating you, too. There are times when it would be very helpful to turn off this defense mechanism.

Plateaus may seem subtle at first, but once you know what to look for, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. In fact, millions of Americans watch them, perhaps unknowingly, during prime time television.  Fans of the hit prime-time TV show The Biggest Loser witness cruel plateaus every season. Contestants nearly always lose an amazing amount of weight in week 1, when their bodies are shocked by the new lifestyle. Then, what insiders call the “Week 2 Plateau,” hits, and the results are downright depressing.  We analyzed data from all contestants during the first four seasons of the show.  On average, they lost an amazing 5 percent of their body weight during week one. But even under the most scrutinized conditions, with the best possible trainers available, the plateau effect couldn’t be beat. Week two always brings a dramatic lack of progress – and a lot more yelling by trainers. During season two, for example, contestants averaged less than 2 percent weight loss in week two. And during the inaugural season, they dropped a completely discouraging 0.6 percent, or roughly 90 percent less than in week one. Contestants who survive get as their reward the even louder screaming voice of a trainer. The screaming really doesn’t help. It’s just The Plateau Effect in action.

And this is the primary reason people reach a point in their lives, their careers, their marriages…where they seem to work harder and harder and enjoy less and less results.  It’s a torturous state of affairs, a dire form of the old Nietzsche aphorism about being insane because you keep doing the same thing expecting the different results.  In fact, things are even worse than that. Because of immunity, doing the same thing gets you less and less.

TRY THIS: There’s one clear way to jolt yourself out of numbness — a shock to the system. If you are smelling perfumes in s store, how do you “clear” your sense of smell? By smelling something quite the opposite, like a coffee bean. This is a POWERFUL metaphor for our lives.  Think about places in your life where you have flatlined — where things have grown numb.  Now, look around for your coffee bean. Maybe you ask to work in a different department for one hour a week, even if you have to give up a lunch hour. Maybe you are an accountant who should take an art class, or a an introvert who could benefit from an improv acting class. Absent any other idea, think of an opposite, and try that.  Nothing reawakens our senses like a shock the the system, and nothing gets us unstuck like fighting the power of growing numb.

To learn more about Getting Unstuck, buy the book or sign up for the companion online course

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