I’ve broken this journey into two parts; Mindset and Tactics. The first part, Mindset, focus on the mental shifts I had to make in order to accept consistency into my life. The second part, Tactics, focus on the actual strategies I’ve used to improve my consistency.
This journey was long and frustrating for me (as the title implies…), and my hope is that if you experience similar frustrations, that you’ll be able to pull a nugget or two out of my experience to help shorten your own journey.
PART 1: Fixing My Mindset
For years, I just thought consistency wasn’t my thing.
Despite continual efforts to maintain various behaviors, not ONCE in my life had I kept a set of good habits, personal or professional, for more than 30 days at a time.
It got to the point where I was able to convince myself of two damaging untruths.
Untruth #1: (See above) Consistency just wasn’t my thing.
That routine, systems, and anything else related to consistency simply wasn’t compatible with my brain. That I innately was incapable of consistency in any area of my life and there was nothing I could do to change it.
Untruth #2: (Perhaps as a defense mechanism for the first) Consistency was stupid anyway.
WHO NEEDS IT?? RIGHT?!?! (nervous laugh)
What kind of self-respecting free-spirit would I be if I subjected myself to such a claustrophobic existence? One filled with the same boring activities repeated again and again.
Bleh. Not for me, thank you very much.
And yet I was unhappy. I was unorganized. I was so ridiculously frustrated all the time that no matter how hard I tried or how many attempts I made, I could simply NOT sustain the habits that I knew made me feel good.
Each attempt would inevitably get interrupted by something, forcing me off the tracks.
I rationalized that I simply didn’t have enough willpower. I thought that if I just tried really, REALLY hard next time. Got REALLY committed. That I would finally break through and do the things I knew I needed to do.
But it never worked.
Inevitably, some small number of days into the effort (and I was always sure that this would the time I’d finally be successful!) I‘d enter a state of self-negotiation.
I’d convince myself that I deserved a break from exercising that day. That I really wasn’t in a good mindset for meditation. That I didn’t really have anything interesting to write in my journal that morning.
And yet despite the clear evidence that I was not living the life I wanted to live, I was operating in a consistent state of denial that I had an issue. Every failure was shrugged off without a closer look.
Consistency just isn’t my thing!
It took years of denial – almost a decade! – until I finally accepted the truth; I had a problem.
Unraveling Untruth #2: Maybe Consistency Isn’t So Bad After All…
My enlightenment began after listening to Jocko Willink on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Jocko, familiar to many who frequent the podcast realm, is a former Navy SEAL-turned-consultant who centers most of his work around one philosophy; Discipline Equals Freedom.
This man’s entire life has been built around discipline. Not only did he serve in one of the military’s most elite units, he also led their legendary BUD/S indoctrination program. The guy is clearly next-level.
But if I’m being honest, that level of discipline is a little much for me. Get a taste for yourself by listening to his Psychological Warfare album of motivational snippets. Instead of motivating me to get up and go to the gym it more so motivates me to crawl into a hole and feel bad about myself. Shaming does not work for me.
But it was actually Tim Ferriss’ input during their conversation that really struck me.
For whatever reason, that was the moment the value of routine finally clicked. They weren’t something that created a stifled existence…far from it!
I realized what they actually could do was create a structure within which I could live my most fulfilled life. They would allow me to put my baseline happiness tasks on autopilot while freeing up energy for exploration.
From this moment on, I was a changed man. I finally accepted consistency as a healthy part of my life.
But guess what? I still had a witttttle-itty-bitty problem.
I was terrible at maintaining consistency and thought I’d never be good at it.
That’s where Carol Dweck saved the day.
Unraveling Untruth #1: My Fixed Mindset About Consistency
Just because all of a sudden I thought consistency had value didn’t mean that I was magically going to stop bailing after a couple days worth of journaling! I had to figure out where I’d been going wrong.
At the start of this post, I described my mindset with consistency as a hopeless one; believing that I simply wasn’t built to be successful at it and there was nothing I could do to change it.
Having read Carol Dweck’s wonderful book Mindset a couple years earlier (easily Top 5 most impactful books in my life), I was equipped to identify just exactly what was going on here.
I was suffering from a bad case of the Fixed Mindset.
In a fixed mindset [people] believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that…Carol Dweck, Mindset
I’ve written at-length about how damaging the Fixed Mindset has been in my life. And it was no less damaging here. But now I knew what to do.
I had to start viewing my relationship with consistency from a Growth Mindset.
In a growth mindset [people] understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.Carol Dweck, Mindset
This sounds like a simple concept, and it is. But it’s amazingly easy to use the Fixed Mindset as an excuse not to work on things. And that’s what I’d done for so many years with consistency.
But NO LONGER baby!
Yeah, I sucked at being consistent. But SO WHAT??
I realized that, as long as I dedicated the appropriate amount of time and effort, this was a changeable part of my personality.
And so over the course of the past several years (continuing to the very moment I’m writing this), I’ve been on a quest to improve my ability to be consistent.
And you know what I’ve found in my search? Everybody swears they have the answer.
A Quick Note on ‘Experts’
Let’s start with the productivity ‘experts’ who claim to have the morning/evening/work/life routine that will 100,000% work you. These people are full of shit and are fairly easy to identify.
For me, it’s actually the routines and strategies suggested by people I respect immensely like Tim Ferriss that can actually trip me up the most. Even though he’s not claiming that his routine will 100,000% work for me, my gut reaction is to want to be like him and so I assume that I should just follow what he does to a “t”.
But as I mentioned in a previous post, it’s vital to think for yourself in these types of situations.
The routines that Tim Ferriss or Jocko Willink or anyone else in my life follows are great for them but not necessarily great for you or me.
That’s why, as with any area of your life you’re trying to improve, you must take all the information available and pluck the ideas most valuable to your existence. The golden nuggets that will make your life more fulfilled. Not the ideas others say will work for you.
Because other people have no clue what will work for you. They don’t know you.
That’s of course not to say that some parts of other’s messages don’t hold incredible value. You have to get inspired from somewhere, after all. But it’s ultimately on you to figure out what those valuable parts are.
And so that’s what I’ve been trying to do with routines. And after several years of tinkering, I’ve identified several reasons why I was failing and, having adjusted them, have seen massive improvement in my consistency across the board.
But before I jump into them, we start Part 2 with a short (painful) story on the shitshow that were my attempts at consistency.
PART 2: Fixing My Tactics
Another Attempt at Consistency Goes Down in Flames
There’s nothing quite so exhilarating as, after a month or more of piss-poor habit consistency, sitting down in front of your journal and constructing the NEW YOU. The you who skipped workouts that week, the you who skipped journaling and meditation, the you who drank too much is OVER. That guy is GONE. What a shitty person he was compared to the NEW YOU!
So who is this NEW YOU? Well he’s going to be up at 5AM EVERY SINGLE DAY and work out SEVEN DAYS A WEEK. He’s also going to write AT LEAST 750 words per day because goddammit, he’s a badass writer. He’s also going to meditate an HOUR in the morning and he’s NEVER going to drink again because it’s poison for your TEMPLE of a body! And speaking of your body temple, the NEW YOU is vegan too! Not only are animal products immoral but they’re ALSO poison for the body!
WOW! What a renaissance man this NEW YOU is!
You spend that Sunday evening basking in the glow of your new identity. This is where it all turns around, tomorrow is when you finally realize the potential you always knew you had.
Then the next morning comes and you actually get out of bed at 5AM, even though you went to sleep a little late. Good start!
You pee, take a drink of water and sit down for your hour of morning meditation. Having not meditated in several weeks, your mind and body are both on fire. You make it about 25 minutes when you decide to bail.
No big deal, my willpower just isn’t where I need it to be.
Ok, what’s next? 750 words of writing.
Do you know how much 750 words is when you haven’t written purposefully in over a year?? An excruciatingly large amount, that’s how much. Yet, you gut it out and fill up a couple of pages.
Ok, what’s next? Working out!
Slightly exhausted already, you throw on your sweats and head over to the gym. It’s crowded and you really didn’t have a workout in mind so you end up doing mostly machine calf raises mixed in with a couple curls of dumbbells far above your lifting capacity.
By the time you get home and shower, you realize you have to leave for work in fifteen minutes! But first, you need to grab something to eat…which, you realize, must be vegan! Shit, you didn’t think this through so you look through the fridge. Hm, there’s some old protein bars but they have dairy…there’s some eggs I had leftover from yesterday, also no….uh, carrots I guess? So you grab the carrots and run out the door.
You’re ready to fall asleep within an hour of arriving at work. You battle through the day and finally make it back home where you find your roommate waiting with a six-pack of gluten-free beer reminding you that the Orioles are playing on ESPN tonight.
You’re too tired to refuse and crack open a bottle.
Weeks go by and these habits become less and less consistent, more and more taxing. You convince yourself you don’t have anything to write about. That you don’t need meditation. That you deserve a good long break from working out. Netflix becomes your nightly habit. Drinking more frequent.
At this point, I’m right where I started. The habits I know make me feel good are not happening. And the habits I know make me feel bad have taken their place.
And I’m right back where I started…miserable.
So what the hell went wrong?
Starting WAY Too Big & Exhausting My Willpower
This is a slightly exaggerated version of my real life from the ages of 22-29. I was living in a way that was completely disconnected from the life I wanted to live and so every few months I’d make massive attempts to right the ship.
But they would always fail. Without exception. And you know why?
Because I was setting myself up for failure. I didn’t have a plan.
Hard work is not always something you can see. It is not always physical effort. In fact, the most powerful form of hard work is thinking clearly. Designing a winning strategy may not look very active, but make no mistake: it is very hard work. Strategy often beats sweat.James Clear
For years, I thought that just by trying harder next time I would succeed. As if my success depended on just slamming my head against the wall harder next time. This, it turns out, was silly.
I needed to work smarter, not harder.
My willpower, which I learned is a finite resource during the course of the day, was being exhausted extremely early each day because of my lack of strategy. I’d kill myself in the first hours of the day with huge tasks I wasn’t nearly prepared for, leaving my mentally toast for the rest of the day.
By 1.) Choosing so many different habits to tackle at the same time and 2.) Setting the bar insanely high for all of those habits (as compared to my competency in those areas at the time) I was all but assuring my non-success.
So what’s the solution?
Start Small with the Kaizen Method
Sometimes the most impactful books have the most click-baity titles. One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer is one of those books.
I’d love to dig deeper into this book in another post, but here’s the short of it:
- Your brain inherently fears large-scale changes
- Small incremental changes allow you to tiptoe around this fear and create lasting behavior change
- Kaizen is a Japanese term for a process of improving a habit using very small steps
After reading this book, I realized that I had been starting WAY too big with my habit goals. By expecting myself to simply flip a switch and start meditating an hour a day or workout seven days a week or write 750 words was f’ing ridiculous. I was sending my brain into absolute panic mode and evaporating my willpower reserves within an hour of waking up!
That’s where Dr. Maurer’s book helped so much. And what I loved so much was that it encouraged you not just to start small, but laughably small.
If you eventually wanted to create a habit of doing 100 pushups a day, do 1 pushup every morning for the first week.
If you eventually wanted to meditate an hour in the morning, sit down for 1 minute every morning.
Want to write 750 words a day? Start with 10 a day for the first week.
To some, it may seem pointless to engage in such a tiny degree of your habit goal – but what you’re really doing is 1.) Sidestepping the part of your brain that fears change and 2.) Laying the groundwork for a habit on which you can build over time.
Because, yeah, maybe you’re only sitting down to meditate for 1 minute each morning for the first week. But it’s so easy to do, you can’t help but stay consistent with it. Then maybe the second week you bump it to 2 or 3 minutes. The week after maybe 5 minutes. By the end of the next month you’re sitting down for 15 minutes of meditation every morning.
By this point in your previous efforts, you had already bailed on meditation all-together. Yet here you are consistently meditating for the first time in your life. An hour in the morning doesn’t seem so far off now does it?
I’ve used the Kaizen method to start and sustain consistent habits like journaling each morning, stretching consistently each week, reading at least fifty pages per day and meditating every morning. Simple habits that have such a positive impact on my life but have eluded me for so long.
By using this simple method of starting small, I achieved in months what I had failed to achieve over a decade.
But this method was not a cure-all. There remained my white whale of a habit. The habit that I knew brought me immense satisfaction but managed to elude me more deftly than any other.
Not just journal writing, but purposeful writing. And I needed a little more than Kaizen to reel it in.
Don’t Go At It Alone
Not only had I, for years, been slamming my head against the wall thinking willpower was my problem, but I had also been doing it alone.
I’d read about the importance of accountability partners for years but shrugged them off as something that others needed, but not me. Another sign of my cognitive dissonance.
But guess what? I need them. Shocker!
Purposeful writing was something that had eluded me forrrrr pretty much my ENTIRE LIFE. I would write for a day, maybe a couple of days and then it would stop…and for a cornucopia of shitty reasons.
No one was going to read it. It was embarrassing. I got busy and then forgot about it. I got drunk, hungover and forgot about it. The list of shittyness goes on.
But it wasn’t until finally I was talking to a dear friend who has experienced similar lifelong resistance, that we decided to embark on yet another attempt, but this time do it together.
And guess what? It worked.
I’ve been writing consistently for months, split between a satirical news website we created and this here blog.
And do you know why it’s worked? Because we talk every damn week. Almost without exception, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes. And in those chats, we do discuss ideas for articles to be sure, but mainly what we talk about are the creative ways our minds tried to get us to bail that week.
Oh no, the compulsive tendency to lean towards inconsistency has not magically gone away. It’s still there and as strong as ever. It’s just now I have someone to gripe about it to. And someone who, in return, will give me a slap in the face and tell me to snap out of it because we’ve got an article to write.
I’ve also found this incredibly valuable in my fitness life. For the past several months I’ve been doing Zoom fitness classes with the trainer & fellow trainees I used to exercise with in Denver.
I enjoy the workouts created by the trainer but I also feel obligated to show up every class. Without that type of accountability, it would be incredibly hard for me to exercise with such consistency.
In Sum, Work Smarter Not Harder
So that’s where I am right now. I still have struggles every day with consistency but have discovered tools that help me get the better of them.
This certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t the occasional ‘gritting it out’ when you don’t feel like writing or exercising or meditating. But what I have noticed is that instances requiring a larger dose of willpower than normal have become less frequent.
By using smarter strategies, I can already feel the reduction in strain despite sustaining good habits at levels I frankly never thought was possible.
I don’t foresee a point I’m ever done trying to improve my habits or the consistency with which they’re executed. What fun would that be?
But finally being able to do activities that I know make me a better human being with consistency has been like a crisp cool breeze standing nude on a fall day. Sorry for the gross imagery, but it’s true. After a lifetime of frustration, it feels that refreshing.
And if you’ve struggled in similar fashion, I hope you can pull a nugget or two out of here to move you in the right direction.