If you've ever started a diet or made a resolution to hit the gym, you've run into the plateau effect. It's the brutal force of nature that gives you early success, but then then keeps the needle on your scale firmly in place, no matter how much time you spend on the elliptical. It turns out that those plateaus we've come to hate in the gym are a much bigger phenomenon. The plateau effect is a gravitational pull that affects businesses, marriages and every aspect of our lives. Every entrepreneur, musician and mathematician has hit a plateau, every athlete, too. We spent years talking to people from fields as diverse as medicine, software development, venture capital and economics to find the answer to a simple question: What causes plateaus and how do you break free? It turns out that plateaus have patterns -- underlying conditions that make performance "peak out." The answer to your fitness plateau may come, surprisingly, from the field of software testing.
Every year, hundreds of software products get patched because of defects. In many cases the defects were overlooked because testing was too methodical, too regimented. Boris Beizer, a legend in the field of software testing, calls this the "pesticide paradox": "Every method you use to prevent or find bugs leaves a residue of subtler bugs against which those methods are ineffectual," he says in his book Software Testing Techniques. If a tester sits down to find flaws in a piece of software, typically they'll find a bunch of bugs right at the beginning. Quickly though, they peak out and it takes longer and longer to find less obvious flaws. The tester's rate of finding bugs plateaus, even though they are trying as hard the second day as they did on the first day. For a long time, the software world accepted this ineffectiveness -- much the same way that avid viewers of NBC's weight-loss show The Biggest Loser accept (and expect) contestants to put up big weight-loss numbers in week one, but flatline or sometimes even gain weight in week two after sweating just as hard on the treadmill.
Over the past few years, the software testing world figured out how to break through their plateau. They learned to outwit the plateau effect with an approach now known as "fuzzing," and it can help take on fitness plateaus, too. Instead of taking a systematic and methodical approach to finding bugs, tools known as fuzzers are designed to apply random input. You can think of fuzzers as monkeys on amphetamines that just try unusual things in the hopes that they will break something. They have few rules, few constraints; they just do stuff. A normal, sane human being would not yell at a soda machine for an hour and expect it to be intimidated enough to drop a soda. An amphetamine-laden monkey might just try it. And who knows, maybe there's a sensor on the machine that is looking for a constant cacophony and then, thinking it's in some sort of delivery truck, unlocks itself. Modern systems are so complex, no one is quite sure what might cause them to fail. Today, software fuzzers are used widely in the technology industry and are responsible for finding some of the most dangerous bugs in systems.
Fuzzing breaks through the acclimation plateau of software testing by shocking the system. Becoming numb to the normal, desensitized to the mundane, is a problem that hits everyone who has walked into a gym or hit week two of a diet. Some exercise programs are built around the concept of fuzzing -- like CrossFit and P90X, which are designed to confuse muscles. If you don't have diversity and a little fuzziness, eventually you become numb, and what worked yesterday will be less effective tomorrow. So the next time the plateau effect has you in its grasp, fuzz it.
How can you fuzz up your fitness or diet plan? How can randomness work to your advantage? Most dieters who eats the same foods every day will plateau after awhile. Nutritionists recommend eating a variety of foods when someone's stuck. Diversity can break you out of those plateaus at the gym, too. Instead of the treadmill, try running outside to get some variety in your stride (not to mention diversity in scenery). Look for "fuzzers" outside the weight room. The new Paleo-inspired movement might be a place to start. Instead of lifting barbells, followers of the Paleo movement go outside and move around big rocks, climb trees, and adopt the "fitness" routines for our ancestors. Whatever fuzzer you choose, remember to change it regularly, otherwise the plateau effect will have its revenge.
Adapted from the book The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, Dutton, 2013.
Herbert Thompson and Bob Sullivan are the authors of The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success. With more than 40 years of experience between them researching, writing, and analyzing systems and human nature, their new book helps you bust through the plateaus in your own life.
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