It’s easy to go running once. It isn’t even that hard to go running for an entire month. What’s really difficult is going running, day after day, for years. It’s easy to start something; it’s much harder to consistently finish it.
Many people think consistency is a matter of willpower. That the people who exercise every day, always save a percentage of their income. Or those who manages to upkeep a blog for years have a special ability to endure.
I completely disagree. I think consistency has little to do with willpower and I want to use this article to explain why.
How I Became Consistent
I’m not perfectly consistent in my life. But, for the important things, I have been pretty good at showing up. I’ve exercised 4-5 times per week, nearly every week for the last four years. I’ve maintained a vegetarian diet and kept detailed records of my spending for almost as long. I also just finished writing my 724th article for my own website, which has had regular updates every week for more than three years.
Not always was I as consistent. I was a starter—good at starting projects, bad at sustaining them. I would hop between obsessions, starting a new project or pursuit, and giving it up as soon as I got bored. I think a lot of people are like how I used to be—great starters, lousy finishers.
But gradually, I became consistent, and I think you can too. The problem isn’t your willpower, just the approach you are taking to new goals and projects.
The Power of Consistency
Before I start talking about how to be consistent, I think it’s important to clarify why I believe consistency is important to start with. Many people associate consistency with boredom and a lack of initiative. People have told me earnestly that if something isn’t improving after a few weeks or months, you need to change it.
If that’s your attitude, consistency will be difficult. Consistency is about working on a larger timescale than weeks and months. A consistent person doesn’t care that their weight loss plan isn’t working after three weeks, or that their website isn’t earning six figures after three months. A consistent person looks at the longer time horizon, where the little hiccups of progress are smoothed out over the next years and decades.
Consistency works because while continually starting has short-term momentum, it doesn’t build anything. Doing the same thing every day eventually snowballs into tremendous progress because it doesn’t stop.
What’s the best way to be in shape? Exercise, for five years. What’s the best way to launch an online business? Practice running one for a decade. What’s the best approach to enhance your social life? Put yourself outside your comfort zone, every day, for years.
Sustainability Instead of Speed
The reason I struggled with consistency was that I cared more about speed than sustainability. In other words, I worked on my goals to achieve the maximum progress I thought was possible in the shortest amount of time. Aim to read a book every day. Set the deadline for a six-month project in eight weeks. More, faster, sooner.
The reason it’s easy to go for a day or a month but not ten years is that the two time frames require completely different mindsets. To do something for a day or a month, you need to put a lot of effort into it. To do something every day for a year, you need the opposite, you need to have the activity require less effort so it doesn’t exhaust you.
When I started my business, I was working on a software program. I had created an intense deadline which was incredibly difficult to achieve. So difficult that, near the end of it, I was completely burnt out. At the time, I thought I was doing what was best for my new business, working extremely hard.
But after three years and dozens of projects, I realized I had things backwards. Sure, hard work is important, it is always going to be important. But if I can’t sustain that hard work, it isn’t worth it. Setting an impossible deadline and crushing myself to meet it meant I was useless for a few months afterward. If I had planned ahead, set the project in a sustainable way, I wouldn’t have lost that time.
If you’re going to start running, aim to run every day, just for a little bit. Don’t aim to break personal records on every single run, just aim to run. When you tweak your expectations slightly, it becomes far easier to continue for the long haul.
Show Up Every Day, Not Once in Awhile
This lesson might sound redundant, but it’s often missed. Many people try to be consistent by doing something irregularly. I suppose, technically, if you ran six days per month, every month for a decade, that would be consistent. But I know very few people who can pull that kind of schedule off.
Surprisingly, doing something every day or nearly every day is far easier to sustain than doing it once in awhile. If you want to be consistent with a new habit, run it every day uninterrupted for a month. Make it an irreplaceable part of your life, not an afterthought you do occasionally.
Sometimes you can’t do something every day. But you can at least make it work on a fixed schedule. Once per week, every week, I sit down and record all my expenses into a spreadsheet. I don’t bother with it every day, but I do it on a regular enough schedule that it is part of my life.
Make Consistency Your Routine
Have you ever been sleeping away from home, perhaps in a hotel room, and in the dark walked in the wrong direction to go to the bathroom? Or rolled over and forgotten that your spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend isn’t with you?
The hotel room isn’t your normal. That’s why you can be temporarily confused in the night, because it’s a foreign surrounding that you need to consciously navigate. New pursuits are like the hotel room—they aren’t normal yet. When you start exercising seriously for the first time, it isn’t normal to you, it sticks out like the misplaced light switch in a temporary bedroom.
If you want to do something consistent, it has to be a part of your life. It needs to be so deeply integrated that you roll around confused at night when it is missing. After exercising and writing consistently for several years, I feel bizarre not doing them.
You can make something your normal by ritualizing it and working to achieve certain milestones in your behavior. If you do it the same way, almost every day, for a month, the new pursuit won’t stick out anymore. Keep it up for another ninety days and it should feel like home.
Don’t Associate With Inconsistent People
Alright, maybe that proscription is a little harsh. But if you do something with a friend or group: running, writing, or socializing, for example, and they are inconsistent, maintaining consistency going to be far harder for you. A sketchy gym partner can drain your ability to keep going.
Of course, the reverse is also true. If you have friends or partners who are also committed to being consistent, they can be an ally. Just pick carefully the people you use as partners in any new pursuit, because if they aren’t serious, you might fall off the wagon because they’re jumping in and out.
The Red Triangle Method
The old gym I used to exercise in was run by a fifty-something real-estate professional. In addition to having a thick mustache and a zero-tolerance policy for people who didn’t pay their dues, he kept a small calendar in the back room.
On the calendar, he colored in half of the date in the shape of a triangle every day he showed up. If he was at the gym, there was a triangle. If he wasn’t at the gym the spot was blank. Sure enough, most of the spots had a triangle, and my guess is that he had been consistently exercising for at least thirty years.
We lie to ourselves about our level of consistency. We claim to be following our diet spectacularly, but omit the time we ate half a cake or binged on a bag of pretzels. We claim to be studying every day, but then still need to cram the night before an exam. We claim to be consistent, but often those are convenient lies to make us feel better.
The beauty of the red triangle method is the level of accountability. You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to a calendar. If a pursuit is important to you, I suggest trying the red triangle method, it keeps you consistent and it forces you to acknowledge when you’re slipping.
Be a Finisher, Not a Starter
“Just go start something.”
It’s a popular mantra these days with bestselling books like The Art of the Start. But I don’t feel it’s a particularly useful mantra. Many people are good starters. In fact, I’d estimate that for every hundred starters there would only be one or two finishers.
After blogging for a few years, I get a lot of emails from newer bloggers asking for advice. Even in a two paragraph email it’s easy to separate the starters from finishers. The starters email me, overflowing with enthusiasm and big goals. Maybe they even have a few articles online. Maybe they’ve slapped on a few ads or a widget. But, after a few months I never hear from them again. Maybe they got bored.
The finishers are completely different. They have the same level of enthusiasm, but it’s controlled. They talk about their posting schedule or their projects. Most importantly, they outline their goals in years, not in weeks and months. These are also the people that, after meeting them, have often gone on to greatly eclipse my own blog so that they are now the ones receiving email from new bloggers.
It’s good to be both a starter and finisher. But, it’s difficult to be both, so if you have to pick, choose to finish. Choose to show up every day until the job is done. Choose the pursuit that appears more boring on the surface, but has richer rewards in its depth. Choose to stick with a plan even if it isn’t paying out immediately. Choose to be consistent.
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