Expectations of constant progress can stop us achieving our goals

by | Jun 18, 2017 | General Anxiety

More and more we look for the quickest way to get what we want

We start so many new things, but how often do we see them through? The gym, golf, yoga, cycling, online courses, etc. We want to change something (usually an unwanted feeling), and the exciting new venture does exactly that…initially. It gives us a quick jolt of “this is what life is all about”, but then it becomes hard, mundane, too time consuming, or a hassle.

More and more we look for the quickest way to get what we want. The thought of something taking large amounts of time and commitment can be off-putting. We want to be good at something the minute we start, and if we are not then we don’t see the point. If we are anxious, or a worrier, commitment may be difficult, as we can’t be sure how things will turn out. There is nothing that feeds uncertainty, and therefore worry, like not progressing as we think we should be.


Getting good at something

It’s the feeling of not progressing that can make us quit

Much of the “what’s the point?” feeling comes from our own standards of how we think we should be performing. The belief that we should always be visibly progressing, and what it means when we are not. It’s the feeling of not progressing that can make us quit. This in turn can lead us to think badly of ourselves. What many of us don’t understand, however, is that progress is hard to measure if we are just using how we feel we are doing as our gauge.

In his book Mastery, George Leonard outlines what real progress actually looks like. He believes that learning any new skill involves “relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau”.

We often believe that progress should look like the chart below:

Imagined progress

When in fact, real progress is far more gradual than that. Like Leonard says, there are short upward spurts, but most of the time we are in practice mode, so the real progress curve looks like this:

The Mastery Curve - real progress


Getting comfortable on the plateau

The plateau gets a bad rep. If we start something new, or set a new goal, we want to be always experiencing a visible upward trajectory. If we don’t, we feel like we’re failing. This feeling can be so intolerable that it can cause us to quit.

If we start quitting on our goals, this can have a really detrimental effect on our mental well-being. Much of our positive emotion comes from noticing we are moving towards a goal. So, if we don’t have goals, it removes so much scope for positive emotion.

Unfortunately, to see progress we have to practice even when we seem to be getting nowhere. When learning anything that is difficult, and therefore worthwhile, we have to learn to embrace setbacks as part of the journey, and tolerate life on the inevitable plateau. This is where the real work happens, which enables the upward spurt that leads to the next plateau. As Leonard puts it, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for “the sake of practice itself”.

This is so true, if you think of any goal you’ve achieved in your life. When you reach your goal, there is a momentary high, but then there is tomorrow and the next day. Life moves on. The high is fleeting. Very soon, you need a new goal, with steps that you force yourself to boringly follow. It is on the way to the goal that life is lived. The slow progression gives us the feeling of satisfaction.


The plateau in work

When we attain the goal, the game is not over, we just move up a level

In the workplace, our progression operates the same way. There are new jobs, new roles, and promotions, dotted throughout, but in the main, we are on a plateau. Not like “oh no, my career is plateauing!!”, but the place where we knuckle down and get on with our job. We have an eye on our goals, but mainly we are just doing the work.

We often don’t realise the impact we are having, and we can presume what we are doing is going unnoticed. We don’t feel like we are progressing. What we need to do is allow ourselves to be learning, practising, becoming proficient. Progress cannot be constant. Real, tangible goals require a lot of work that is mundane and unassuming. We are not always going to be the standout person in the room.

Much like with everything in life, if we cannot tolerate this feeling in work, it will play on us. We may think it’s all for nothing, but it will pay off in the long run, if we embrace the plateau. Keep pushing forward, and practice for the sake of practice, and the upturns will take care of themselves.

When we attain the goal, the game is not over, we just move up a level…and so it continues.


  1. Jack

    Thank you so much for this. I have the exact issue. I didn’t know the plateau was a thing… I thought I was just inept.


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