One of the things I hated most in college was writing papers. I’m not much of a writer (ironic, right?), and the whole process was tedious and annoying to me. I chose my majors in part because they didn’t involve too much writing. But when I did have to write a paper, I’d break it into pieces and do a bit every day, and before I knew it, Bam. Paper finished. “Write a 10 page paper” is too daunting for my lizard brain, but if I said “okay, today I just have to brainstorm what to write about” or “today I have to organize my brainstorm into a rough outline” or “today I just have to write one paragraph”, my lizard brain could handle that.
The key thing here is consistency. Consistency is powerful. If you break a big task into small pieces that your lizard brain can handle, but then only work on them once a week, your paper won’t be done in time and you’ll be rushing to write the whole thing in one night. But if you break your big task into little pieces and work on it just a bit every. single. day., it’ll probably be done days before the deadline.
Little bits of work done consistently amount to great things. Greater things, in fact, than trying to do the whole task in one big marathon. As the saying goes, “slow and steady wins the race”. And more importantly, at least in my opinion, doing a bit at a time is much less painful than trying to tackle everything at once. To continue with the marathon metaphor, would you rather run 26.2 miles all in one go, or run a mile at a time spread out over a month? Unless running is your thing, I’m guessing your answer is the latter. The same goes for anything else you’d like to accomplish. Cleaning your house, building a side business, losing weight, building healthy habits, learning time management, all of these things are easier to accomplish if done just a bit at a time. And they’re more likely to stick, since doing a bit at a time builds a habit of working on these goals, instead of doing everything in one fell swoop and then promptly letting it go when you’ve finished.
It’s important to keep your steps small. If you’ve never worked out before and suddenly start to go to the gym for two hours a day every day, first of all, you’ll probably injure yourself, and second of all, you’ll probably burn out. To maintain consistency, whatever you are undertaking has to be manageable, and small enough that you remain excited and able to do it every single day. If your task is large and intimidating every day, it’s unlikely you’ll want to do it and being consistent then goes out the window. Without consistency, real progress is nearly impossible. True change comes, and stays, through small but frequent steps, rather than overhauling your entire life on a whim one day.
I want to emphasize for a moment just how small these steps can be. A book can be written one paragraph at a time, as long as you’re consistent. You can clean your house in 15 minutes a day. You can get stronger by spending 45 minutes in the gym three times per week. If even getting out of bed is a struggle for you, start small. Start by taking a shower. Then tomorrow, shower, and spend 5 minutes walking around your room. Very, very small steps are still progress. Small adjustments in your life made consistently will amount to great things. Marathons are run one step at a time.
For consistency to work, you need to be patient. Obviously, small steps will take a bit of time to add up to a noticeable difference, though really, you’ll likely need to be less patient than you’re expecting. When you start working out, you’ll probably find yourself feeling stronger and having more endurance in just a few weeks. If you spend 15 minutes every day cleaning your room, as long as those 15 minutes are concentrated in one area instead of spread out around the room, a couple of days makes a pretty big difference. And remember, time will pass whether you’re consistently putting in effort or not. So in 3 weeks, you can see improvement in how far you can run, or you can not, but those 3 weeks will pass either way.
We’re rarely taught how to be consistent. I don’t think anyone ever told me as I was growing up that if I spent five minutes every day cleaning my perpetual pigsty of a room, eventually, my room would be clean. It was always “don’t come out until it’s clean!”. I wasn’t taught to spread my paper writing out over the course of a week or two, I was just given the assignment and figured I’d wait until the night before it was due like everybody else. Honestly, I was awful at even brushing my teeth consistently. So how do you go about creating consistency? Different methods work for different people, but one of the best ways to become consistent is to build a habit.
There’s this thing called a habit loop. Put simply, it’s just trigger - habit - reward. You can probably identify habits in your own life. For instance, I make myself a mug of tea when I get to work every morning. The trigger - arriving at work, putting down my things, and seeing my mug - tells my brain “oh! Tea time!” and I go off to make the tea - the habit. After the habit comes the reward - I have a warm and delicious beverage to sip during our morning scrum meeting.
If you’re looking to start doing something consistently, try adding it into an existing habit loop you already have. Maybe you’d like to start meditating. Personally, I meditate right before bed. It calms my brain down after a busy day. I already have an existing habit of going to the bathroom right before bed so I don’t wake up at 3 am needing to pee. Trigger - it’s bedtime. Habit - go to the bathroom. Reward - a peaceful night of sleep. When I decided recently that I wanted to start meditating more consistently, I took this existing habit loop, and added in meditation as a second habit. Same trigger, same reward, but now there are two habits. It’s bedtime - go pee, then meditate - then a peaceful night of sleep.
Maybe you have an existing loop that looks something like wake up - drink coffee - feel awake and ready for the day, or maybe, come home from work - eat a snack - avoid the post-work slump. Mediation could easily be added as a second habit into either of these loops. Essentially, hijack something you already do consistently, and sneak another habit into the same loop.
You can also create an artificial habit loop. All you’ve got to do is determine a trigger and a reward. If you’d like to start reading one chapter of a book every day, pick a trigger. It can be as simple as an alarm on your phone, or something like your husband leaving for work so you now have a quiet house to yourself. Add in a reward. For something like reading a book, the action itself may actually be the reward, but even then, it doesn’t hurt to add an external reward as well. Maybe you love chocolate and could have a square of dark chocolate as you finish your chapter for the day. Your new loop looks like husband leaves for work - read book - eat chocolate. Simple enough, right? Sometimes a new habit loop will take some tweaking to get right. Maybe you are often occupied with something else as your husband leaves for work and the quietness in the house doesn’t remind you to read. Try putting your book on the chair where you drink your morning coffee, and see if a loop that looks more like notice book on chair - read book while drinking coffee - eat chocolate works better instead.
Another way to build consistency is to get an accountability buddy. A common example of this is working out with a friend. Pick someone you’d hate to let down, and schedule workouts with them. It’s much harder to skip your workout if someone you care about is relying on you. Find a friend who also wants to clean up their apartment, and every day, send each other a picture of whatever new space you’ve just cleaned. And a bonus - you now have a friend cheering you on as you progress!
Often, as you start working consistently and begin to see progress, this progress in itself becomes quite motivating. Once I started cleaning my room consistently, I noticed how much better I felt mentally when my room was clean and this became all I needed to push myself to clean my room regularly. After a few months of working out, the changes I saw in my body and my increased strength made me so happy that I didn’t want to stop, and getting to the gym routinely became pretty easy. The first weeks of building consistency will likely be the hardest, until the results are noticeable. Monumentous change can come from just being consistent. In fact, I’d argue that nearly all change comes from a small step taken consistently. Taking small, consistent steps in the direction you’d like to lead your life will get you where you’d like to be. With enough consistency, it is inevitable.