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Feeling Stuck? 6 Tricks for Getting Past a Plateau

If you've stopped taking risks, here's how to get back in the game.
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Sometimes the most frustrating times in your business or your career are when everything is going OK. No huge crises to solve, no major fires to put out, but at the same time you're not chasing new opportunities or taking new risks. Everything is status quo.

"You have a lack of energy, and feel like you're dragging," is how Kathleen Brady, author and career coach describes a plateau. "You have a list of things you know you want to do, and there's some reason you can't get to them. You feel like you're walking in mud."

What's holding you back? You are, Brady says. Specifically, a set of self-limiting thought processes may be preventing you from getting past the plateau and on to the next level. You can do something about it by taking a closer look at those beliefs and reorienting them in order to open up, rather than close off, the possibilities.

Here are some ways to get unstuck:

1. Ask "how?"

If you find yourself thinking that you can't do something--either because it's too difficult, requires abilities or skills that you don't have, won't fit into your schedule, "It's that inner critic telling us we don't have what it takes," Brady says. "So whenever you find yourself thinking, 'I can't because...' ask yourself a different question instead. Ask: 'How can I?'"

Reframing your belief that you can't get where you want to go into a question of how you might will change your viewpoint, she says. "You start to see that there is a way."

2. Don't expect the past to repeat itself.

When people assume something's not going to work, it's generally because they've tried it in the past, Brady says. "Usually assumptions are based on personal experience. But just because something's happened before, why must it happen again?"

Here again, she says, the key is to reframe the thought process. Rather than ignore past failures--or be bound by them--you can learn from them to make your next attempt more successful. "Ask yourself, 'What can I do differently this time in order to have a different outcome?'"

3. Question all "shoulds."

Got something on your list that you think you really should do but you just don't want to? Take a closer look to determine whether it's really necessary. "Once I gave a speech and a woman came up to me and told me I was fabulous. She said, 'I just can't do public speaking,'" Brady recalls.

She was about to answer that anyone can learn to be a public speaker--it's a skill acquired through practice like any other--but instead she asked the woman about her job. It turned out the woman's profession didn't require public speaking, and it would do her career no harm if she stayed off the public stage forever. "So I said, 'Why do you want to do that? You could choose not to.' And this huge look of relief flooded into her face."

If you're running a business or trying to have a career, there will certainly be requirements you don't like or aren't naturally good at. You will have to work at those. But before you put in the effort to and get good at something you hate, stop and ask yourself if it's truly necessary or just something you think you "should" do. It may be that you can make better use of your time and talents by focusing on something else.

4. Be careful of your assumptions.

Assumptions are dangerous because of a phenomenon called confirmation bias in which people tend to more readily perceive information that aligns with what they already believe to be true. Thus, Brady says, "You might believe that you can't get to the next level in your business because that would require funding, and people your age never get funding, or women never get funding. If you look at things that way, you'll see evidence everywhere that it's an old boys' club and women never get funding. But if you start from the idea that women do get funding and you look, then you'll see women everywhere getting funding. What you look for is what you see."

That's not to say that our perceptions about biases or other obstacles aren't real, she adds. "You have to see the obstacles. But if you see them as insurmountable, then they'll be insurmountable. Instead, start designing strategies to move you forward. For example, are there other funding sources?"

5. Inquire, don't interpret.

Believing you know what someone else is thinking or feeling, or that you know why someone did or didn't do something is a particularly dangerous assumption, Brady warns. Be careful to ask what people are thinking and what's motivating them, and try to listen more than talk. "Let's say you sent a pitch to someone who'd been your friend for a long time, and your friend isn't returning your calls. You start thinking that you weren't as good friends as you thought, or perhaps that you crossed the line by sending a pitch." It can be tempting to give up at this point on both the business and your friendship, but it's smarter to keep following up and try to get an answer instead of guessing what it might be. "You might find out that your friend had a death in the family," Brady says.

It's especially important not to interpret when you're dealing with employees, she adds. "If you notice someone leaving early and arriving late, you might assume that employee is planning to strike out on his own and is planning to steal clients. You might be tempted to sit down and tell him that missing part of the workday is unacceptable and the behavior has to change. But if you do a little further investigation and ask what's going on, you may discover that his mother has been getting chemo and he's been helping her."

6. Own your choices.

Often the question isn't whether or not you can make your dreams come true, but whether you're willing and able to make the sacrifices it would take to achieve them. "The example I always use is an accountant, and if you ask her her dream, it's to be a prima ballerina," Brady says. "She's 40 pounds overweight. She'll need to get in shape, she'll need to dance 10 hours a day, and probably quit her job. Is she in a financial position to do that?" It's a perfectly legitimate choice not to make all those changes, she says, or to look for other ways to achieve part of her desire, for instance by seeking an accounting job with a dance company.

"Ask yourself what you are willing to do to make something happen," Brady continues. "You might say, 'I want to have X dollars in revenue because I want to get my business to the next level. But maybe in order to achieve that you're not living the life you want. So you may choose to keep your business at its current level because it means you can do 12 other things you want to do."

That's fine, as long as you actually are making a choice and not just letting circumstances decide for you, she adds. "Sometimes 'I can't' really means, 'I choose not to.'"

Like this post? Sign up here for Minda's weekly email, and you'll never miss her columns. Next time: How yoga can make you a better leader--even if you never take a class. 

IMAGE: Complot/Shutterstock
Last updated: May 26, 2014

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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