In the previous article I made the case for consistency and focus being the two most important skills or habits to adapt, as they can be applied to anything and help to achieve a higher quality end result. Today, I want to examine strategies to help build the consistency muscle. We’ll look at a number of ideas that can be experimented with, especially if you’ve never considered consistencies role in personal development and success.
What is Consistency?
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
Simply put, consistency means showing up every day.
To improve an aspect of your life there will be an action you need to perform. And then you need to perform it again and again and again. Big buildings are built with small stones, and incremental improvements are the only sure path to success.
The body needs two things to grow: stress and rest. That stress can be physical, such as lifting weights to make your muscles grow, or intellectual, such as studying geometry. Both the body and the brain then need a period of rest to consolidate what has been learned so that it can perform it again, just a tiny bit better. The frequency of repetition then becomes very important as a balance must be struck between periods of stress and rest. It stands to reason that the more repetitions you get in the faster you will improve, but only if sufficient time has passed to ensure you are again at full capacity before starting.
Most things can be repeated again daily, especially after a good night sleep. Finding the time and motivation to keep repeating it is another matter. Luckily there are a number of proving strategies that we can experiment with.
Make it Easy
When picking up a new habit the first thing to consider is how you can make performing that habit really easy. Especially in the beginning you want that new activity to be so small and easy that it is literally impossible for you to fail.
The instinct is to apply overwhelming force to the activity. There is a place for that, but not when first starting out. This initial period is not about improving the skill, although improvements will come; it is about building the habit of practicing that skill again and again.
If you are trying to start a workout program then performing a single, perfect pushup every day could be your program minimum. If you want to write a book, start with a minimum daily wordcount of ten words. That’s one sentence.
It may sound silly, that such a small thing could be your daily goal, but in the beginning, it is all about small wins, and actually practicing the habit daily. As time progresses the volume of work you perform will naturally increase, and you will usually do more than the minimum required; but on those runaway days you’ll still be able to meet your minimum goal, ultimately moving the needle in the right direction.
Another aspect of this is to pre-load easiness into your routine. Laying out your workout gear the night before, prepping meals ahead of time, or developing an outline before sitting down to write are examples of this.
Pull the Trigger
Every habit, good or bad, has a trigger. In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg lays out the three-step path that all habits follow:
- The Trigger
- The Routine
- The Reward
When creating a new habit you need to attach it to a new trigger (and breaking a bad habit requires you to identify what the trigger event for that habit is, but that’s a topic for another day!). There are five primary habit triggers:
- Preceding event
- Emotional state
- Other people
For the purpose of this discussion I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Time is the easiest trigger to influence, followed next by location. Therefore, the best way to build a consistent habit is to do it first thing when you wake up. That way nothing “more pressing” will come up and you’ll be assured to have enough energy to complete it.
To take an example such as developing a consistent running habit, you would pre-load tomorrows run by having your clothes and running shoes ready so that you can jump out of bed and head straight out the door. Then, in the beginning especially, you would commit to a very short distance goal; say to the end of your driveway, or once around the block. It may sound like it isn’t even worth the effort, but you are working on the consistency at this stage, not the distance. Eventually your enthusiasm will grow thanks to the accumulation of small wins and you’ll venture further afield.
Logging your new habit goes a long way towards reinforcing it. Not only are you able to track your performance, but you are also creating a record of how consistent you have been in practicing the task consistently. You may have heard the story about Jerry Seinfeld, when asked how he got so good by an aspiring comedian, answered that he would write jokes every day then mark an X on his calendar. Over time the chain of X’s grew longer and provided additional incentive not to break the chain.
Personally I use a form of Bullet Journaling. At the beginning of the month I’ll make up a calendar in my notebook with all the days running vertically down the left side of the page. Next to that are little boxes that I can tic an X inside. Each of those rows represents something important that I need to do daily; writing, running, etc. At a glance I can then see how consistent I am being.
This is also a great measure of your commitment to the task. Since starting to track things in this fashion I’ve had more than one project where weeks would go by with no little X’s making their way onto the page. Turns out I wasn’t as interested in those things as I initially thought. This helps you to identify what truly matters and what you really care about.
Do It Every Day
Dan Gable, the famous wrestling coach, famously said:
If it’s important, do it every day. If it’s not important, don’t do it at all.
I think about this quote all the time and have used it as a means to filter my goals and guide my intentions. The people that are the best in their field are those that do that work every day, often to the exclusion of everything else. We only have so much time and we have a responsibility to use it well. It is important therefore to consistently practice those things that provide the most value to our lives.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t time for fun or Facebook, but only once the work is done. Starting small and building gradually helps make the transition painless, and it is truly amazing what we can accomplish by chipping away at a task daily.
Does your daily routine encourage consistency? Are your actions consistent with your stated goals? I think about this congruence of actions and outcomes a lot and would love to hear your thoughts.