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Adam Alter's "Anatomy of a Breakthrough" summary

70% of us feel stuck on making a decision at any one time – so what to do?

adam alter and book

If you're human, getting stuck is inevitable. People get stuck in jobs they’re prefer to leave, in relationships that leave them unfulfilled and as entrepreneurs who feel things have stalled.

However, we pay far more attention to our barriers (or headwinds) than we do to our blessings (or tailwinds) says Adam Alter, author of Anatomy of a Breakthrough.

“[This] leads us to believe that we face more opposition than we actually do,” he says.

We also devote more time and energy to barriers, and well we should, because that is often the only way to overcome them, he adds. Apparently it takes energy to get unstuck!

In our interview with Adam Clear, discussing his latest book Anatomy of a Breakthrough, we looked at being stuck, and getting yourself unstuck. So, stick with us, and read on!

Definition of being stuck

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” – Chuck Close, painter.

Being stuck is ubiquitous. A survey by Adam Alter found 70% of respondents could bring a sticking point to mind very easily. Half had been stuck for years or decades, and 80% had been stuck for longer than a month.

Yet most of us think that the rest of the world is making progress while we are stuck in place.

We also feel plagued by things we can’t have - but feel we should or could have.  

Adam Alter says his definition of being stuck means:

·       You’re temporarily unable to make progress in a domain that matters to you.

·       You’ve been fixed in place long enough to feel psychological discomfort.

·       Your existing habits and strategies aren’t solving the problem.

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He says we need to attack “stuckness” on four fronts:

  • Help – Accepting being stuck is universal, and could be a feature of progress.
  • Heart – Mastering your emotional response to being stuck as a step to getting unstuck.
  • Head – Following the right mental scripts to simplify the problem and identify opportunities.
  • Habit – Taking action - even if you’re moving sideways.


We are all going to get stuck sometime, and studies show it’s most often when we are midway through a task.

Most people slow or stop around this middle point, but speed up when they think they’re approaching their goal.

It’s a factor in almost every domain, says Adam Alter, including how quickly we walk towards a product we want to buy, how loyal we feel about a business as we approach reward milestones, and how much credit card debt to pay off.

People advance more slowly when their goals feel far away, and they move more quickly when those goals appear to be within reach. Being stuck feels hard – it takes energy to free yourself – and most humans prefer to be lazy today even if it means working harder tomorrow.

Yet, mental difficulty shouldn’t be confused with failure. Often we give up too soon.

“The golden rule is that getting unstuck almost always takes longer than we expect,” says Adam, “and too often, we surrender just a few steps short of the finish line.”

At the first sign of difficulty, persevere, he says.

“The richest advances come from getting stuck and then unstuck over and over.”


Feeling stuck can make us feel trapped and anxious. This is the emotional response we don’t want if we want to move forwards.

Here’s where reframing threats as challenges helps to shrink the overwhelming prospect of failure into something manageable.

One technique you can use is “radical acceptance.” Instead of visualising your success, focus on the worst-case scenario. What’s the worst that can happen?

Or, try relaxing your definition of success. Land on an option that’s just good enough (“satisficing”), suggests Adam. It’s progress you want, not clinging to a standard that keeps you stuck.

Another tool if you’re feeling stifled, is to “atomise” tasks. Like Atomic Habits author James Clear suggests in his bestselling book, small bits of effort count for a lot. Clear says getting just 1% better at tasks each day can make you 37 times better after a year. 

Doing more, in fact, can be counterproductive. We can’t always produce at peak productivity, so slow down or rest between the bursts. 

“If you want to succeed really, really badly, the paradoxical solution proposed by many successful people is to ease up.” – Adam Alter

And, fail like you mean it! Many people are paralysed by the prospect of failing. If you’ve just had a failure, engage with it and understand it’s a necessary part of creativity. You’ve moved past the comfort zone. You’re making progress.


Humans love simplicity. As James Clear says in Atomic Habits, the 4 laws of behaviour change are:

1. Cue: Make it obvious.

2. Craving: Make it attractive.

3. Response: Make it easy.

4. Reward: Make it satisfying.

In Anatomy of a Breakthrough Adam Alter says customers often find an aspect of dealing with a business "too hard" and they get stuck. So, simplifying itself can unstick customers.

He works with businesses to make things easier for their customers. He likes the term “friction audit” to assess the complexity of business transactions.

“Friction is at the heart of being stuck,” says Adam.

Weeding out friction points makes transactions seamless. Adding in friction points prevents unwanted behaviours.

However, some constraints can be liberating. For example, writing a six-word memoir forces you to focus on the essential components of what it means to be you.

Identifying opportunities is easier when you make the process simpler. Instead of trying to find a totally new idea, combine two ideas (keep a journal of great ideas to draw from). They don’t have to be related.

Or combine different people on your team.

Adam says research shows that “new blood” on a team unlocks fresh ideas.

In fact, experiments show that even incompetent outsiders move a team forward! They just need to be different.

“If you’re stuck the prescription is obvious; share your situation with someone new and different,says Adam. 

Diversity is especially helpful when the task is complex, rather than brief and simple.

“Sticking points are frustratingly resistant to tried and true approaches that worked in the past, and overcoming them requires creativity and innovation,” he says.

If there’s no-one else around, have a conversation with yourself – and play devil’s advocate.

Consider the opposite of your original view. Imagine you’re wrong. How exactly are you wrong?

Or ask yourself the same question twice. That can be better than relying on your first instinct.


Finally, we come to habit. This is about taking action.

As the “OODA loop” described in a U.S. Air Force pilot manual goes:

Observe – Orient – Decide - Act

Experimentation is contained within the observing and orienting.

“The best unstickers are hungry to experiment,” says Adam. 

Since the pandemic more companies wanting to attract and retain talent have experimented with the four day work week, or hybrid work. Each experiment allows the experimenter to try on a new identity “as you might try on clothes in a fitting room,” says Adam. It’s about being curious.

“Curiosity is an effective unsticker because it inspires ‘idea linking’,” says Adam.

To cultivate the practice of curiosity he recommends:

·       Asking questions relentlessly

·       Browsing rather than searching. Widen your world. Read books and articles on topics you’ve never considered.

·       Keeping an ongoing list of facts, ideas, and experiences that puzzle you.

“With a mix of curiosity, and the right experiments that yield the right data, you’re far more likely to find a path through the weeds.”

Another way forward is to look at how often you say “yes” or “no” to requests.

·       In the Exploration (or Experimentation) phase you should be saying yes to opportunities.

·       In the Exploitation (or Execution phase) you should be focusing, and saying no to opportunities to protect your time and energy.

Finally, try the “just keep going” mentality. Doggedness mixed with curiosity can lead to a serendipitous “Aha” moment.

Let your mind wander to inspire creativity. It can free you up to consider novel solutions.

Try broad thinking – the long view to ask the broadest questions about each important area of your life. Are you broadly satisfied with your life at home, at work, and in other domains that matter to you?

Try narrow thinking. Make a list of specific sticking points in each domain and revisit the list every month or tow to track your progress. If you’re still stuck consider steps to take over the following month.

But, while thinking is useful, building habits and doing something every day is the best way to get stuck less often.

“A kernel of action should be within reach no matter the situation,” says Adam.

Micro scheduling bite-size actions, walking and moving your body, doing something badly instead of doing nothing – these are all ways to get unstuck.

“Acting is the king of unstickers because it’s propulsive by definition. You can’t act and be inert.”


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