When I was eighteen, I traded my PlayStation 2 for my brother-in-law’s old snowboard. I had never skied or snowboarded before, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. My first trip to the hill was a rude awakening, as I quickly learned that snowboarding is hard. Over the next 7 years I attempted to fulfill my goal of becoming a snowboarder, but I could never improve enough to make it down a full run without bailing, or nearly bailing. All these other people at the ski hill can snowboard just fine, so what was I missing?
After my snowboard collected dust in the basement for many years, this past winter I decided to try to learn snowboarding again. Reflecting on my previous efforts, I noted that I went to the ski hill infrequently, and at random. There were years that I only went once. Other years I went many times, but let week or more go by between visits. I decided that if I were to finally learn how to snowboard, I needed to practice more often, and more consistently.
So I bought a season pass to a nearby ski hill, and without fail, every 2-3 days I was at the hill trying and falling, getting up, and trying again. After about three weeks of hitting the slopes like this, it all clicked and I was finally able to confidently ride to the bottom of the hill. I could snowboard! And all it took was a little consistency.
I believe that consistency is the most important determining factor in whether we will make any meaningful progress toward a goal. You can have all the motivation, determination, effort, and desire in the world, and still not make any headway if you don’t make a consistent effort.
If you want to lose weight, you need to be consistent about what you eat. To become an earlier-riser, you need to be consistent about what time you go to sleep. To save money, you need to be consistent about what you spend.
You’ve done it before
If at some point in your life you have become proficient at a sport, or playing an instrument, it was because of consistent practice. If you can confidently ride a bike or drive a car, that too, is thanks to consistency. No one has ever jumped on a bike and been good at it right away. You start out shaky and swerve around all over the place. It takes many repeated days of practice before you finally feel comfortable.
When I first started going to the gym, my efforts were spotty at best. I would attend religiously for two hours at a time, four days a week for a month, then suddenly drop off to only three visits in the next month. I would take breaks for 3-4 weeks at a time and then resolve to do better and go every other day until I burned myself out. My lifts would just start to make progress and then I would be back to the beginning all over again. It was frustrating and demotivating.
Ironically, what eventually improved my performance in the gym was when I decided to put less focus on my training and only go once or twice a week, for about an hour. This was much less time in the gym than I aimed for previously, and much less overall volume of effort. But because it was less, it was much easier to follow, and my gym visits became more consistent.
Like magic, I started to steadily improve. Week by week my lifts increased, I felt stronger and I saw new muscle starting to appear. I wont sugar-coat it — my progress was slow — but it was consistent and every week saw improvement. Years of consistent effort later, I am significantly stronger and more fit, and its not because of how much effort I put in, but that I put it in consistently.
Being consistent is hard…
Consistency seems simple — do a little bit of something each day, or every few days, until you achieve your goal. But it’s much harder in practice. This is because to be consistent, we must practice skills that most of us find difficult:
You have to be patient — Consistency works slowly over time, and you may not even notice any results for the first few weeks. But little by little results begin to show and as the momentum builds, it becomes easier and more exciting to keep going. You will have to be patient and continue learning, practising or doing on a consistent schedule even when it seems like you are not getting the results you want — yet.
You have to schedule time for it — We all lead busy lives, and for most of us, the only way to be consistent is to schedule fixed blocks of time for working on your goal. It’s easy and satisfying to declare that we will go to the gym three times a week, but without scheduling fixed times to go, we’ll be lucky to get there just once. If your goal is important to you, you need to put it ahead of other priorities and schedule time for it.
You have to avoid getting distracted — Becoming distracted from a task is insidiously easy. Working towards a goal — learning a new skill, starting a business, writing a book — is difficult, and when you try to do something difficult your brain will start frantically searching for something easier to do instead: checking email, worrying about the future, browsing social media. Before you know it, the time you scheduled to work on your goal has disappeared and you haven’t made any progress. During your scheduled time, you need to make an agreement with yourself that all other tasks will wait until the end of the time block. This is difficult at first, but once you get the hang of “suspending” other tasks, it is a huge weight off your shoulders, and allows you to relax into the task at hand.
You have to be confident that you will achieve your goal — Self-doubt is the enemy of consistency. There will come moments where you begin to wonder if you will ever succeed; thoughts creep in like “This is harder than I thought” or “Maybe this isn’t for me” or even “This isn’t fun, why am I doing it?”. When learning to snowboard this year, I remember sitting on the chairlift one evening and thinking: “This is hard and I am not having fun, I keep falling, my butt is sore, and I am exhausted”. But I had total confidence that my consistent practice would pay off, and I kept going. It was two visits later that it clicked I was carving to the bottom of the hill for the first time. From the very beginning you must believe that with consistent effort towards your goal, you will persevere.
…but it gets easier
When trying to start a task that you know is important, your brain will do everything possible to stop you. Often times when I sit down to an important task, my brain immediately starts pulling me towards all kinds of mindless distractions — social media, YouTube videos, checking email, going to the kitchen to look for a snack. Our minds resist anything uncertain or unknown, and when we work towards our goals sporadically, our brain doesn’t feel at home with the task and would rather do something else.
Following a consistent schedule of working towards a goal for several weeks, this begins to change. Through repetition, your brain has learned what to expect. No longer are you working on a scary, unknown task; instead you are comfortably picking up from where you left off just a couple days ago. The resistance fades away and it feels easier to get started.
Being consistent builds discipline, the ability to start and follow through with important and seemingly difficult tasks. It is discipline, not motivation, that ultimately sustains your progress towards a goal. But discipline grows slowly, so in the beginning it is important to motivate yourself, and the best way I have found to do this is by frequently reviewing your progress.
Establish a meaningful metric that can be easily measured — the number of pages written in the first draft of your book, the sets and reps you completed at the gym, how many calories you ate over your budget. Review this metric as often as possible, daily if practical, and compare against the previously week, month, and when you started. The amount of progress made in a single week or month is often surprising and very gratifying!
Once you have completed your first goal, start immediately into the next. The discipline you built in completing your first goal carries over, so long as you don’t take a long break in between. This is the essence of what a habit is — continually practising some skill so that it does not become dull, and therefore, stays easy to practice.
Consistency isn’t glamorous. It’s boring, and it doesn’t yield results quickly. But it works. Give it a try and see for yourself.
Header Photo: The view from the top of Tunnel Bluffs, Lions Bay, British Columbia, Summer 2020