If you go for broke you often end up broke. If you swing for home runs you often end up striking out. But if you just put the ball in play—over and over again—good things tend to happen.
Consistency is a topic I’ve been thinking about often. Coming out of a COVID-19 winter, there has been an uptick in all kinds of products, services, and written stories about health, fitness, and productivity. Per the usual, quick fixes—in all their enticement and excitement—are the common theme. Slow and steady may be boring and hard to sell. But slow and steady works. Here are five principles on consistency and sustainable progress, all backed by research and practice.
Heroic efforts tend not to end well—resist their allure.
Pulling all-nighters, working out until you vomit, going on extreme diets, etc., may be fun to talk about, and they may even feel good for a bit, but these things usually end in illness, injury, or burnout. Ignore people’s social media posts on this stuff. These efforts are largely dumb (at best) and harmful (at worst). Yes, it is okay to go to the well every once in a while, but these exceptions prove the rule—even most hard efforts should be repeatable. I like to think of it as going half-caps HArd instead of going all-caps HARD.
If you are addicted to visible progress you will not last long in whatever it is that you do.
This is why so many people burnout not only after a hard defeat but also after a big success or a quick rise; the high does not last forever.
- Frame the work as an ongoing practice
- Measure and judge the overall process, not every single result
- Let progress be a byproduct of your commitment to and presence in the process
There is no such thing as an overnight breakthrough.
A recent study published in the journal Nature found that while most people have a “hot streak” in their career, “a specific period during which an individual’s performance is substantially better than his or her typical performance,” the timing is somewhat unpredictable. “The hot streak emerges randomly within an individual’s sequence of works, is temporally localized, and is not associated with any detectable change in productivity,” the researchers write. But one thing just about every hot streak has in common? They all rest on a foundation of prior work, during which observable improvement was much less substantial. What seems like a breakthrough is rarely that. Think about pounding a stone 30 times and having it crack on the 31st. Though it may appear otherwise, it didn’t take just one pound.
Progress is non-linear.
When you are brand new to an activity, you might get 100 percent better every day. As your skill level increases, the gains will become more incremental—ten percent, five percent, one percent, half a percent, a quarter of a percent, and so on. That’s okay. This phenomena is why it is so important to be patient and to enjoy what you do. As the philosopher and master of human potential George Leonard says, “you’ve got to get comfortable on the plateau.”
Sometimes it is easier to push forward than to hold back and show restraint.
Sustainable progress, in just about every and any endeavor, requires stopping one rep short on most days. This is what allows you to come back and pick up in rhythm the next day.