A Doctor’s Take on Perseverating

“Perseveration is often seen with dementia or thought disorders.”

Thus began an email I received in response to my recent post, “Perseverating”. Imagine my surprise upon reading it. Dementia? Thought disorders?

Dr. David Fitzgerald, neurologist and author of the email, went on to describe perseverators as those who “keep doing the same thing or keep having the same thought even if it’s clear it’s not making a difference.” This was what I wrote about. How getting stuck in your thinking leads to poor performance as you are unable to break free and consider other, more effective ideas and solutions.

So interesting that something seen regularly in people in business stuck on unsuccessful methods and ideas can develop into a condition of such severity.

A question arose out of the missive: what is the difference between perseverating and just being persistent, which, overall, is considered a positive thing? Fitzgerald’s email offers a response to this as well.

(Perseveration is) “different than persistence, which allows for stopping something when the facts change, or the realization occurs that you’re not making a difference and you should do something different. Key difference is that there is no consideration of the outcome being effective or not. (One is) stuck just repeating the task. Critical cognitive deficit.”

The takeaway then for those in business…and in life…is that it’s fine to be focused on something intensely but when you discover new facts that don’t support such focus, or realize what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s crucial to move on. But when does perseverating transition to those three critical words, “critical cognitive deficit”, its most severe manifestation?

Apparently, the severe form is fairly common. As Fitzgerald writes: “We use it all the time in neurology!”

I would argue that the less severe form is also quite common, based on how often I’ve seen it at work.

Witness this example from another responder: “this applies to me right now as a startup. I think it has to do with fear of launching.”

How often has this problem slid right by you as someone (and it may be you…) stays stuck on something that will lead to a failure to launch or to poor results or even to complete company failure?

As Fitzgerald ends his note, “‘You’re just perseverating’ is not a compliment!”

Perseverating is not a compliment, indeed. It bears repeating. Perseverating leads to wasted time, poor results, and bad thinking.. Watch for it. Not just in those working for you and with you, but in yourself.

When you notice it in someone else, help the person get unstuck and move forward. Help them out of their fugue. And if you notice it in yourself, break free from your unhelpful thoughts and move on.

There is one more response to my perseverating post worth quoting. “Excellent post. Thanks for sharing!” Now this is something I could perseverate about for quite a while.






Commenting area

  1. First;
    “Excellent post. Thanks for sharing!”
    Sharing your insights is something you do well.

    As for perseverating versus persisting, well, that’s a common conundrum. Too often I’ve looked back on when I should’ve persisted (like holding onto AAPL instead of selling when Jobs was fired), while also recognizing persistence that didn’t result in results. Easier to tell in retrospect than in the moment. Something to continue to consider, I guess.

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