It seems like you’ll never be able to reach your goals.
You’ve researched and tried countless quick fixes, but none of them work. The harder you work, the harder it is to succeed. It’s like the world is conspiring against you, keeping you from improving.
But deep down? You know the real problem.
You look the way you do because your exercise and diet aren’t consistent.
Your musical skills have plateaued because your practice isn’t consistent.
You’re behind in work because your productivity isn’t consistent.
No matter what you’re trying to achieve, the answer is as simple as it is illusive—you must learn how to be consistent.
BUT… how in the world do you do it? There’s a lot of information out there, but what real-world methods actually make a person consistent?
For years, I wished someone would try it out and report back so I could use their strategy.
I never found that person. So I decided to become that person.
If I had to choose one area in which to become consistent, it would have to be lifting weights. I have room to grow in other goals, like playing guitar or making progress on my reading list, but those could wait. I needed to improve my health first.
This isn’t an article with fitness advice, though I used exercise in my experiment. The truth is, the strategies I learned can be applied to any discipline.
But before the strategies—the success.
The impressive results of my quest for consistency
Like many people, I’ve been an on-and-off exerciser. During the five months preceding my experiment, I accomplished my goal of working out at the gym less than 31% of the time.
During the four-month period of the experiment, I met this goal 95% of the time—an increase of 206%.
Clearly, I became much more consistent. And though building strength wasn’t my goal during the project—I purely focused on consistency—I actually got results in both.
During most of the project, I worked to build the habit and ignored how strong I was. But in the last six weeks, I gradually increased the weight as I was able.
I increased the strength in my two weakest lifts (bench press and standing shoulder press) each by 16% in the last six weeks of the project. The average strength increase for an intermediate lifter is 10-15% over the course of a few months—and I beat that in around half the time. I had probably regressed from intermediate status by that time, but was still very pleased with my results.
Not only that, but I beat my previous personal record—regaining all the lost strength from inconsistency, plus some.
But maybe you think I’m a genetic freak of nature. That I have extreme muscular capabilities and am blessed with an epic reserve of willpower and dedication. You’d be wrong.
If anything, I struggle with consistency more than most people.
The sad, sad history of my consistency efforts
I’ve been a skinny weakling my whole life.
The first time I tried to bench press at age 19, the empty 45-pound barbell hit my chest and I couldn’t get it back up. I might have suffocated if a nearby trainer hadn’t rushed to pull it off me.
When I decided to lift weights a few months before graduating college, I saw “newbie gains,” but those tapered off after a few months and I got stuck.
For the next four and a half years, I tried to regain my momentum with “advanced” strategies—giant sets, strip sets, super sets, drop sets and jump sets (yes, those are all real techniques).
Nothing worked. I was still as skinny and weak as ever.
The problem? I was never consistent. I track everything, so I can look back and see exactly what I was doing at that time. For example, here’s my spreadsheet a few months into my fitness journey:
I recorded it all, but check out the highlighted “workout” column. At the time, my overly-ambitious goal was to exercise one hour per day six days a week. Viewed in the lens of consistency, I failed miserably.
I met that goal once in the 21 weeks I recorded.
The rest of the time? Mostly four workouts a week, with the occasional five-day or three-day week mixed in. About once a week I had a session that lasted fewer than 30 minutes because I quit early. There’s one 11-day gap where I didn’t go to the gym once.
I continued in this fashion for a few years—always having a workout plan, and always failing at it.
After college, my work responsibilities increased, exercising took a bigger hit, and I went from being a weekly exerciser to a monthly exerciser.
I didn’t know how to be consistent, and it showed.
Soon, the frustration over my failing fitness goals continued to mount. One day I realized I was more sedentary than I’d been for half a decade.
I decided to get serious, learn, and apply what I learned to my workouts. I wanted to create an experiment—to see if I could create a workout routine that stuck.
It worked. Let me show you exactly how I did it.
Step #1: I discovered my barriers
A lot of people think that extreme willpower and motivation will help you push past frustrations and provide you with consistency.
While there’s nothing wrong with some motivation tactics to pump you up, the cold, hard truth is that you can’t rely on them. Willpower and motivation come and go, and you need to have a better strategy.
To make things easier, I found every reason that was keeping me from the gym.
I listed each one:
- Working out took too much time. I would usually spend over an hour working out. When combined with a 20-minute drive, a shower, and making my pre- and post-workout shakes, the process took two hours a day minimum.
- The gym was crowded. When I went to the gym in the evening—especially on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—most of the equipment I needed was being used. I would awkwardly wait around for a squat rack or set of dumbbells to become available, wasting time and feeling ridiculous.
- My workouts were brutal. No pain, no gain was my motto, and my workouts showed it. I figured if I was going to the gym, I needed to make the best use of my time there. I lifted a lot of weight and wore myself out. Finishing a routine was grueling and I dreaded it the entire day.
- I rarely felt good about it. Instead of ending the workout with a sense of accomplishment, I usually left the gym feeling weak. As a young skinny guy lifting weights amidst men (and women) with the bodies of Greek gods, I grew more and more discouraged as I exercised. I’d frequently end my routine feeling worse than when I’d started.
- I didn’t want to screw up nutrition. I was afraid I’d be wasting my time without perfect nutrition. I needed to eat enough protein and calories throughout the day, take a few proven supplements, consume a meal or shake an hour before hitting the gym, and drink a high-protein, high-carb shake within 30 minutes of working out. On the days that I didn’t do each of those, I felt like I was wasting my time at the gym.
- I knew I needed rest. I always took work home during the week, and it was a rare night that I got a full eight hours of sleep. Since rest is critical for recovery and muscle growth, I didn’t see a point to exercising if I couldn’t get the sleep I needed.
That’s a hefty list.
Rather than using willpower and motivation to push through those problems, however, I chose to eliminate each one. I prepared a strategy to defeat each objection, and made my workout routine so easy it was a joke.
Step #2: Write your one action step (if you’re not laughing, you’re doing it wrong)
The barriers weren’t the problem. Each one—intense workouts, proper nutrition, available equipment—was helpful.
The real issue was that those factors combined to make working out a difficult process I dreaded.
If I skipped one step, I took the day off.
In order to solve the problem, I eliminated everything except one action. Not only one action, however—one action that was so easy I knew with 95% certainty I could follow it every day for the next month.
This tip, to reduce the process down until you’re 90-100% sure you can do it for a month, comes from Nate Green. If you aren’t laughing about how easy your action step is, you’re doing it wrong.
My action step was this:
For a guy that used to dedicate 10+ hours per week to exercise with the heaviest weights he could lift, this was absurd. Here’s how I broke that action step down to respond and eliminate each barrier.
- Working out took too much time. I created a very gradual program that started small. I exercised 20 minutes per day, three times a week. Once I knew how to be consistent in that, I expanded it to 40 minutes each day. Then, after two months of steady routine, I added two more days. But I started with 20 minutes, three times per week.
- The gym was crowded. I planned alternative equipment, like using the mobility training dumbbells if the free weights section was crowded (no idea why I didn’t think of this earlier). Plus, I changed my routine to Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday to avoid the biggest crowds.
- My workouts were brutal. Not anymore. I refused to add any weight until I had been consistent for two months. For the first few weeks, I did two sets, then increased it to three for the remaining time. They were the easiest workouts I’ve ever done.
- I rarely felt good about it. Instead of trying to become strong or muscular, my goal was to build a habit. Since I wasn’t reaching the limit of my strength, I didn’t feel self-conscious when someone was lifting more than me. What did I know? Perhaps I could lift the same amount if I was trying.
- I didn’t want to screw up nutrition. Working out was my only action step, so I ate anything I wanted. I didn’t focus on nutrition, and didn’t give it a second thought.
- I knew I needed rest. I didn’t worry about sleep at all. During the four months of the project, I actually had to pull a few all-nighters, but they didn’t keep me from exercising. The amount of sleep didn’t change my workouts.
Those answers to the barriers helped tremendously, but they weren’t quite enough. I also tracked each workout, but not for the reason you’d expect. I have a tendency to go overload, so I tracked my workouts to make sure I didn’t do too much.
Step #3: I scheduled with rigid flexibility
When I told friends and family my experiment on how to be consistent, they generally gave me the same response.
They have a point. I’m not married, I don’t have kids, and I can’t relate to that situation since I’m not in it.
But just because I haven’t started a family yet doesn’t mean I have zero responsibilities, and it certainly doesn’t mean these concepts are invalid for everyone else.
In the four months of the experiment, I went out of state for a funeral, then out of state again for a wedding. I took a vacation at the beach for a few days. For another full week, I was visiting family in another town.
On top of that, I was a teacher finishing up the school year during those months. The final rush of report cards, grade recovery, and parent-teacher conferences gave me a heavier-than-usual workload in the first few months of the project.
To counter these problems, I used a rigidly flexible system with two premises:
- Schedule rigidly, in advance if possible.
- The goal is more important than the schedule.
For the first point, I made sure I planned my workouts in advance. Every day, I knew when I would exercise. I even put it in my calendar.
I also made a point to schedule my workouts in advance.
If I knew a week would be hard or meetings would go late, I would reschedule my workout a few days beforehand.
When I was out of town, I called up a gym near where I would be staying and bought a week pass so I wouldn’t miss a workout (and I didn’t).
The second concept to remember is that the goal is more important than the schedule. Meaning—the goal was to exercise three times per week. And while I tried to follow a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday evening routine, it didn’t always work.
The week of the funeral, I woke up at 4:30am on Thursday, hit the gym, did a full day of work, then slept during the 12-hour carpool drive that night. Since I spent Saturday driving back, my third workout for the week was on Sunday right before attending a play I had promised to see.
But if I hadn’t put it all on my calendar the week before, it never would have happened.
And if you do have to reschedule at the last minute, do it with a light conscience. Once the time is lost, there’s nothing you can do to regain it. You can either be happy despite it or unhappy because of it. I’d prefer to be happy.
Step #4: I gave myself a head start on my chain
You may have heard of the “don’t break the chain” strategy for consistency. You get a calendar, mark each day you complete a task, and don’t break the chain of Xs (the tip is often incorrectly attributed to Jerry Seinfeld).
By itself, a chain will fail.
When I tried to practice guitar for an hour a day without any other techniques, I created the saddest chain in human history:
But when combined with other strategies, the chain can be powerfully motivating. Though the format differed, I used the same strategy during my “how to be consistent” experiment:
After so many weeks, I stopped keeping track because I figured I’d keep it up (and I did).
Did you notice the first week, where I missed Thursday? And then the next week (3/29) is completely missing? The second week was the 5.17% of inconsistency I showed on the pie chart earlier.
That first week actually didn’t count. It was practice.
And practice is one of the secrets to a long chain. How many people do you know who vow to stick with a New Year’s resolution, only to abandon it by January 16th?
Chances are, they didn’t have a chain to start with. After the first mistake, the venture feels pointless and they quit.
And that’s the secret: a chain won’t help until you have a chain.
So before building a new habit or creating a New Year’s resolution, give yourself time to build a chain. I always start my New Year’s resolutions near the beginning of December.
By the time January rolls around, I already have a decent chain to encourage me.
Having a few weeks of progress is what kept me going when I didn’t feel like exercising, and was probably the #1 strategy I would recommend for long-term consistency.
When combined with steps #1-#3, a chain can make you unstoppable.
I struggled for years, trying to learn how to be consistent.
When I put some proven steps into practice, though, it wasn’t hard at all.
Today, consistency is a switch I can turn on and off.
And that makes me feel invincible.
(Icons made by madebyoliver from www.flaticon.com and licensed by CC 3.0 BY)
Thank you so much for your fantastic article. It definitely is applicable to where I am in life right now.
I had a question about your section on barriers. In my life I often find that my barriers aren’t due to a lack of willpower, they are barriers that are placed on me by others. For example, I am currently working on my graduate studies and find that my professors place demands on me without advance notice, which messes up my routines, thus hindering consistency.
How would you recommend overcoming barriers that are imposed on you by other people? Thanks!
Stephen Roe says
Hi Abigail, glad you liked the article!
Your situation is tricky. Of course, you don’t want to offend your professors, but the workload can be intense. When other people come to me with requests that derail my consistency, these strategies have helped:
1. Schedule time to deal with unexpected issues. I usually dedicate 2-3 hours each evening to “miscellaneous work” to deal with extra projects (or as overflow to finish planned projects that get delayed).
2. If it’s the same professor asking multiple things, (politely) ask which project he or she would like you to delay to complete the new task. Forcing someone else to decide what projects to delay often makes them stop asking. 😉
3. Oftentimes, people don’t really need YOU to help them, they’re just looking for the nearest available body. If you feel that’s the case, small changes that make you look unavailable can help. Consider wearing headphones while you’re on your computer, not working in public areas, mentioning how busy many projects you’re working on to professors, and (if you can do it) waiting a few hours to respond to emails.
Let me know if you have questions about them!
That was very helpful! I will definitely try out #2. Thanks!
Stephen Roe says
Glad to hear it, Abigail! Let me know how it works out for you.
Hey Stephen. I know I should eat healthier but don’t want to most of the time. How do I become consistent in dropping my unhealthy habits when I’m not trying to start something new?
Stephen Roe says
Hi Joshua, great to hear from you!
You make a great point–sometimes our consistency goals involve something we’re stopping, not starting. If that’s the case, try replacing the habit with something else.
In your healthy eating example, don’t focus on “stop eating unhealthy food” and instead focus on “eating healthy food.” I’d recommend starting with something simple at the beginning, like eating an apple instead of chips in the afternoon. Once you’re consistent with that one, add more replacement habits until you’ve met your healthy eating goal. 🙂
Emma S. says
Thanks for posting this article. This is something I really struggle with in my life, so I am definitely going to begin implementing your tips. This will help me become more consistent in my music practice by eliminating the barriers which keep me from practicing. Thanks again!
Stephen Roe says
Hi Emma, glad the article could be of help. Best of luck with your music!
Kyle Montague says
I totally quit my New Year’s resolutions on like January 2nd. lol
Thanks for the advice, though, it was a good read! What if you fail so miserably in practicing a routine that you never build a chain?
Stephen Roe says
Hi Kyle, if you’re failing to practice a routine, it’s probably too hard. Reduce it even smaller.
If going to the gym never happens, try just putting on workout clothes. If that’s too hard, just lace up your running shoes every day at 6:00pm. Do that for two weeks (building up the chain), then start putting on workout clothes afterwards. After two weeks of that, step outside. Then actually walk for five minutes. Keep adding like that. You get the idea. 🙂
I love the pictures and tone. Impressed/envious of your data-tracking (not enough to make it a habit…) You remind me vaguely of Gatsby that way. The section on barriers was very interesting. I have many of the same obstacles. I’ll give that PDF a look. Thanks!
Stephen Roe says
Hi Christopher, glad you enjoyed the article! Fair warning–sometimes that data tracking isn’t as desirable as it looks. You know how well it worked for Gatsby. 😉
Very interesting read! Thank you for sharing! I think a lot of times people get so caught up on the end result and their goal oftentimes seems so unattainable or impossible that it’s easy to feel defeated and want to quit instead of persevere. I think focusing on being consistent and keeping your goals small first and then building them up is a great idea!
Stephen Roe says
Thanks, Nicole! Glad this was helpful to you. You’re absolutely right about the goals we set. We should focus on the process, not the result.
Thanks for being so honest! I appreciated the pictures from your personal life. I definitely feel like I can relate. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve journaled about different goals, only to give up, look back way later, and be disheartened about my failures).
I think my problem is that I try to meet too many goals at the same time. It’s difficult to be consistent with all of them. Any suggestions?
Stephen Roe says
You’re welcome for the pics. There are many more embarrassing ones where those came from. 😛
Sadly, my advice isn’t easy: give up all your goals but one.
If you want to be truly successful at any one goal, you’re going to have to choose. Once an action is a habit, you can keep it around, but until then? Reduce it down to one. Sorry.
Awesome article, thanks Stephen! Loved the step by step format and sharing your story. We all go through similar struggles, so it’s great that you were able to build a system to help others also (and crush your own goals, congrats btw)! Ironically, I actually use a lot of the same strategies working with personal training clients and can definitely vouch for them working really well when people are able to commit to it long term!
Also, it sounds like we read similar stuff about habit formation (like BJ Fogg). Any favorite studies/people you follow? And have you read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg ( https://www.amazon.com/dp/081298160X )? Highly recommended if you haven’t!
Stephen Roe says
Hi Ankur! Glad to hear a fitness professional can vouch for my strategies 😉
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of BJ Fogg and Charles Duhigg. I actually had a section about The Power of Habit in here, but ended up cutting it at the last minute because it wasn’t as relevant as the other content. Both awesome guys, and great recommendations. Thanks!
Thanks for the entertaining insights! I think literally everyone struggles with this problem in one area or another. The two golden takeaways from this article are the incredible importance of understanding your barriers so you can see through them and plan around them, and setting yourself up for small successes that encourage you to continue and build toward a larger goal. I can’t wait to start applying this basic process each time I start a new project or goal, whether professional or personal.
Stephen Roe says
Appreciate your analysis, Zach. If anyone wants the tl;dr–this is it!
Hi, this is a great article! I can’t believe all the research that went into this! I hope I can apply this to my own life as well as you did. I’ll definitely be trying out the strategies you suggested!
Stephen Roe says
Sure thing, Yolanda. Let me know (through email/comments) if you need help. 🙂
I’m glad you elaborated on that “don’t break the chain” advice, which always struck me as a bit simplistic. Plus, keep those spreadsheets coming. They make things more real. 😛
Stephen Roe says
Hi Deepti, yes, it is a bit simplistic. And my hard drive is full of spreadsheets! Like I mentioned, I recorded my exercise/health metrics every day for the better part of five years. One of these days I’ll do a post on the sleep data I’ve been tracking for a few months now… but shhhh! It’s a secret. 😉
I wish I had read this my freshman year in college. I would be so much closer to achieving my college goals. But even now it’s very helpful (I’m in my senior year). It’s encouraging to know that someone who struggled with consistency was able to master it. I often get into the mindset that there are have’s and have-not’s when it comes to consistency.
Question: What do you do when you have a school/career goal that requires more than a ridiculously small amount of time? I’m a musician and practicing only 20 min. a day, three days a week is not practical, yet I struggle to consistently practice as much as I want. Any advice?
Stephen Roe says
Hi Pablo. I’m an amateur guitarist myself (though I don’t maintain a regular practice schedule–it just isn’t my main focus right now).
In my example of exercise, I refused to go above the minimum because I didn’t want to burn myself out. If your studies require that you practice often, however, set a minimum that you’re already meeting. If you’re already practicing five hours per week (for example) make that your new minimum. Instead of getting frustrated when you don’t practice ten, celebrate the five. After a few weeks, increase it to six and then seven. Soon, you’ll be making huge strides while not beating yourself up for missing an impossible goal.
Remember: a laughably small action step is relative. Best of luck.
Thank you. I’ll try applying that.
Great article I can totally use this in my life right now. Being consistent is something Im really bad at. Thanks for the advise!
Stephen Roe says
Thanks, Shawn! Glad I could help. 🙂
This is massively helpful. Does keeping such detailed records of your health/fitness come naturally to you, or is that a different habit you developed? I’m just starting to develop consistency in terms of diet, and it’s not easy. 🙂 This strategy may mean it takes longer to achieve my goal, but I’m more confident now that I’ll get there.
Stephen Roe says
Hi Phillip, fascinating question! I guess that yes, some type of tracking (workouts, weight, etc.) comes naturally to me. I certainly don’t consider it a habit. Now, if I’m tracking at a very detailed level (calories, nutrients, ounces of water, etc.) that does require habit-building. A long time ago I developed that habit without even realizing it. Best of luck to you!
I like the idea of actually taking the time to list out all of your barriers. I don’t think I’ve spent much time trying to explicitly enumerate what’s keeping me from achieving a goal or correspondingly updating my approach or adjusting my goal. Starting with something you know you’ll be able to be consistent with makes a lot of sense and I’m sure each success builds confidence for taking on other challenges.
A few months ago I decided to practice my guitar at least 15 minutes a day (aiming for an average of an hour a day) for at least a month. I practiced 37 hours in 35 days. By the end of it I had learned a lot and gotten used to practicing more (and felt pretty accomplished), but that practice started to feel more like an obligation than fun. I began to dread the day that would end my streak. I eventually decided to stop and only play when I wanted to so I could enjoy it again, but I eventually practiced less and less and haven’t played too much since. Once you’ve established a routine, is there anything you do to avoid feeling worn down by routine or the dread that you’ll “break the chain”?
Stephen Roe says
Hi Daniel, thanks for the thoughts and glad the article was helpful to you.
To be honest, this depends on your situation. For me, I get energized with a routine as long as I continue to see progress. But perhaps if you’re tired of that, try reducing your routine. For example–practice for one minute each day. It’s easy, you won’t break the chain for a while, but it’s also not a huge effort. And once you get started, only work on stuff you want for as long as you want.
Just my thoughts.
I can’t say enough how I love this idea of the smallest possible action step. Usually when you hear people talking about how they just can’t seem to reach their weekly goals, they’ll say that changing the goal is like cheating. It’s so common and I’m usually one of those people too.
But the feeling of consistently accomplishing the goal you set, however easy or small, is so much more motivating than guilt because you failed. Thanks for the detailed analysis of how to put this into practice. I think these strategies will be important to me for getting little habitual victories for my goals.
Stephen Roe says
Thanks, Jeremy! Yes, I agree with you. We have to accept that sometimes we must change a goal. Guilt has ruined so many of my otherwise well-intentioned goals. :/
Let me know how it goes!