Cultivating Consistency

To get results in any area, it pays to be consistent. Practicing guitar once every few months won’t turn me into a guitar player, as much as I’d like it to. Churning out a 50,000-word chunk of novel (with a substantial percentage of gibberish*) every November for National Novel Writing Month, then abandoning those words for the next 11 months, will never help me finish writing a book.

Similarly, training without consistency rarely leads to progress. Lifting weights, practicing yoga, working on handstands, you name it – we can’t make strides if we don’t regularly make time for our activity (or activities) of choice.

I’m happy to note that I’m in week 3 of my current weight training program and I’ve done every session I scheduled. Three times a week, I’ve planned, lifted, and logged my weights, reps, and sets. After months of rest that veered precariously close to inertia, it feels really good to be in the groove of moving more each day.

But that’s not quite right. I want to stop putting it that way, because doing so implies I can just as easily fall out of said groove. I’d rather cultivate an activity habit that’s as automatic as turning right when I exit my townhouse, because that’s where I’ll find my parking spot.

I don’t have to get motivated to turn right. It just happens, because I’ve created a habit. In the parlance of authors who write about the “habit loop” of cue-routine-reward: the cue is leaving my house, the routine is turning right, and the reward is getting to go somewhere in my car.

This particular habit may seem oversimplified; why would I do anything but go right if that’s where I’ll find my car? But, in essence, our entire waking life is comprised of a thousand and one habits like these. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes extensively and eloquently about the habit loop and how it can be a far more effective tool than those old standbys, motivation and willpower.

More than once, I’ve read another good analogy to explain this dichotomy: we don’t typically need to call on motivation or willpower to go to work each day. For most of us, going to work when we’re expected to be there is a fundamental habit. Brushing our teeth and showering are a couple more oft-cited, habitual acts or tasks. There’s not much motivation involved; we do many such things almost entirely without thinking.

It’s smart to cultivate habits for the things we’d like to do consistently because motivation is an emotion. Just like joy or frustration or white-hot anger, it comes and goes (in the case of that anger, let’s hope it does a lot more going). So when we plan to rely on it for sticking to our workout (or healthy eating, or writing, or guitar practicing) schedule, we might as well tell ourselves that we’re not really too concerned about consistency.

Alternatively, when we develop (or change) a habit – to lift, stretch, write, strum – then we don’t need to muster that elusive feeling of motivation. The action is as automatic as putting the key in the ignition before we try to drive our car.

One thing I’m learning as I apply all of this habit-loop intel is that I can’t get too hung up on instant gratification. Creating a regular practice of almost any kind will yield results over time but, in most cases, not immediately. That’s one of the reasons we need consistency to begin with. Two lifting sessions won’t give me the muscles I want; two guitar classes won’t earn me a respectable open mic showing, much less a regular gig.

With that in mind, I remind myself to appreciate the process. Every step along the way is valuable. If I’m not able to find joy in the act of practicing – in each kettlebell swing, chord, or sentence – then why am I even doing it?

My life, and my capacity for satisfaction, is not on hold until I achieve X or Y outcome. It’s there in every moment. So for me it’s important that those moments contain experiences that I enjoy on their own merits, not solely as means to various ends.

Once we embrace the fact that practice can be so fulfilling in and of itself, it’s even easier to get on the habit train and cultivate consistency. It’s there that we’ll spend our time and create our life’s work, in every sense of the term.

So more and more lately, I turn right when I leave my bedroom in the morning, because that’s the way to my workout space. Cue: tumble out of bed. Routine: move my bod. Reward: getting stronger in more ways than one.

*And a higher percentage of decent prose, perhaps even incorporating a few hidden gems… or so I’d like to think.

Step Up

Cool as it would be, I’m not auditioning for the never-ending (and addictive) dance movie series. Of course, I’d love to move as deftly as the talented people who grace my TV screen every Wednesday night (I’m so happy it’s summer So You Think You Can Dance season!). I don’t anticipate cultivating quite that level of skill at this point in my life, but I can let them inspire me.

So You Think You Can Dance Season 11 runner-up Jasmine Harper and All-Star Neil Haskell (photo courtesy of Small Screen Scoop).

I know that it’s possible to improve my mobility, strength, agility, and endurance. Most of us can, to some degree, and at any stage of the game. Knowing where I want to go is a good idea, as is imagining what’s feasible. I may never be able to do everything those SYTYCD youngsters do. And yet, by letting go of preconceived limitations and longstanding insecurities, I could achieve more than I might initially let myself consider.

By opening my mind and developing a plan, I can chart a different path than the “inevitable” decline of physical health and capabilities that so many people think is their fate.

Do you even lift?

Until my mid-30s, the answer to this question – ubiquitous in today’s fitness industry – was a definitive “no.” I was diagnosed with asthma at age 6 and what I most loved to do in the world was to read; for these and various other reasons, I was a pretty inactive child and teenager. I dabbled with exercise in my 20s, mostly via cardio DVDs, but nothing really stuck. I lived almost exclusively in my head, paying attention to my body only when it ailed me or when I noticed my clothes getting a bit snug.

I first lifted weights in 2001 after someone told me about Body for Life. I didn’t achieve any prizewinning results (no matter, since I never officially entered any contests), but I learned that I enjoy strength training. After a few more on-and-off years, I developed a fairly regular exercise habit about a decade ago as I approached my 36th birthday.

Since then, I built a small (and growing) home gym, discovered yoga, and did something I wouldn’t have thought possible even a few years before: Warrior Dash. (Twice. No, I didn’t develop a lifelong love of mud runs. I was just so astonished and proud of myself for completing every obstacle that I rode the post-event high right over to the following year’s registration page.)

Warrior Dash 2012.

Meanwhile, I read as much as I could about training, health, nutrition, and mindset. As I built my knowledge base, I met dozens of smart, accessible fitness professionals online and eventually traveled to meet some of them in person at the 2014 Fitness Summit in Kansas City.

That experience left me more excited than ever: to get stronger, learn more, and share as generously as the trainers and coaches I’m so lucky to know.

Reality check

It’s been almost a year since I’ve trained in any consistent, progressive way. I had good cause to take a break: a da Vinci® hysterectomy in September 2013. Surgery required healing and patience, and I did my best to get the rest I needed while moving around as much as possible to prevent atrophy and complications.

As my recovery progressed, I gradually reintroduced more activity. Meanwhile, fatigue evaporated more slowly than expected. Plus it was sometimes tough to figure out the right training prescription across the spectrum of variables: frequency, duration, and intensity. I knew (and my doctor gently reminded me) that I couldn’t just dive back into what I was doing beforehand, but beyond that, I was at a loss.

I played with a few programs, but they were either too easy or, more often, too overzealous. By turns uninspired and overwhelmed, my consistency suffered. I could hardly manage to string together three strength sessions in a given week, much less gain momentum across a series of weeks or months. Some minor but aggravating health issues (residual effects of my surgery, perhaps) have kept me from feeling my best; my energy still hasn’t quite returned to pre-op levels.

In order to make strides – to maximize my energy and get stronger and healthier inside and out, perhaps more so than ever – I need to train with consistency and progression. I’m ready to put everything I know, and every resource I can find, to use.

Plan of action

I have a tendency, in many areas of my life, to get mired in thinking, dreaming, planning: the dreaded “paralysis by analysis.” It’s finally sinking in that I won’t get anywhere if I never get out of my head.

It’s time for action. Without it, even the best plan is not just unrealized, it’s untested. In the spirit of accepting life’s messiness and its penchant for evolving, I’m breaking up with perfectionism, that age-old impediment to progress. I know I’ll face obstacles, tweaks, and reassessments along the way. It’s only natural. I’m just happy to be stepping up and giving myself the chance to do so.

A week into my new program, it’s a rather nice fit so far. After three strength sessions, I feel good, neither restless nor exhausted. I’m getting stronger and building a solid foundation for continued growth – of body, mind, and vocation.

I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.