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.
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.