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.