Some moments in life are more of a sprint than a marathon — the times you must give everything you have to make a tight deadline, navigate an emergency, or push through a huge personal goal. Far more often, though, life is a marathon, not a sprint. And at times like those, what you need most is patience, perseverance, and consistency.
Success in practically anything is rarely an overnight ordeal. Short, intense bursts of effort can sometimes push you closer to a result, but it’s hard to do everything that way. Instead, those who can make steady, consistent progress toward a goal over an extended period of time are far more likely to reach it.
Does Consistency Outweigh Motivation?
Motivation is a beautiful thing. It gets you moving, helps you accomplish things, and can bring a surge of positive emotions. But motivation is fallible. It’s a fleeting feeling that can wear off, sometimes quite suddenly. When it does, you can end up tired and far less enthusiastic about following through on efforts you began while under that influence.
When you feel excited to work on a project or goal, you can make a massive leap of progress toward completing it. But being that motivation is so fickle, relying on these sudden bursts of energy will often lead to lackluster results over time.
It may not be as flashy or exciting, but being consistent is what works much more often.
Consistently showing up drives gradual progress and continuous growth. Think tortoise and hare. Over time, small, steady advances accumulate into colossal progress. Trying to reach the same result through inconsistent surges is unreliable at best.
By relying on habits and routines to drive consistent action, rather than on intense willpower, you will reach greater heights without overexerting yourself to get there.
When Consistency Matters (Examples)
Consistency is key in many pursuits, especially those that require a significant amount of time, effort, and repetition. To see how much of a difference follow-through can make in these areas, consider a few examples that highlight the importance of consistency.
Exercise and Healthy Eating
Physical health goals are a painfully familiar area where people often choose intensity when they need to be consistent.
Consider weight loss as an example. Losing 10% of your body weight in a week is highly unusual. The same applies to gaining weight that quickly. Of course, it’s technically possible but often unsafe, unhealthy, and unsustainable. Crash diets pose serious health risks, including the chance of gaining back all the lost weight immediately after you stop.
Unfortunately, being healthy is not a one-time goal that a person can sprint through. It works best when you stick to healthy habits with gradual progress. Even after reaching a health or fitness milestone, you must maintain consistency in those healthy habits to avoid regressing.
It’s easy to sign up for a new gym or commit to a new diet when you feel the motivation to make changes right now. After all, there’s a reason January is the most lucrative month of the year for most gyms. A New Year’s resolution is a potent motivator for many people, but like all motivation, it fades.
Consistently exercising and eating healthy is hard. Behavior change takes patience and self-knowledge. So it makes sense that diet and fitness trends continue to pop up, leaning into the desire to make quick, noticeable changes. But for real progress that lasts, being consistent with simple, healthy choices will always win.
Most jobs create situations where a rush of effort is necessary: a massive deadline, a seasonal surge in workload, an emergency, etc. Stretches like these can be lucrative for the business and improve your personal career prospects, though not necessarily.
Whether or not an intense work period is a huge help, it can lead to exhaustion, disengagement, and burnout. Long-term career growth and success also rely on a sustainable mindset toward consistent effort.
When it comes to completing crucial projects, solving business problems, supporting teammates, developing new skills, etc., there is little to gain from burning oneself out and over-performing for a short period. But, on the other hand, by consistently showing up in areas like these, you will earn the respect of your peers, attract new opportunities, and grow your value to the business.
Even simple things like punctuality work much better with consistency than intensity. No one will remember that one week you showed up an hour early every day if you consistently struggle to show up on time every other week.
The household budget is a constantly evolving beast. Expenses come and go, and income isn’t always consistent, even with a stable salary. As a result, it’s hard to rely on stable money habits, and most families do the best they can at the moment.
Sometimes this means setting aside significant savings for a big goal like a house or retirement. But far more often in most households, it means barely scraping by and covering expenses.
The only reliable path to wealth is slow and steady. Financial growth relies on steady, even boring, saving and investing. Together, these two habits can result in explosive progress over the long term, but achieving consistency in a space with so much inconsistency is no small feat.
The way to stay on track with long-term money goals is to start small and then build momentum over time. For instance, if you don’t usually have much disposable income to save, start with a tiny target you can reach consistently. Start by saving $50 a month, or $20, or even $10. Once you develop consistency with that, try slowly increasing the amount, bit by bit, and watch the snowball effect that ensues.
Automating your finances is also an overwhelmingly powerful tool for creating consistency across your finances and making time your friend rather than your foe.
Barriers to Creating Consistency
Like many things we discuss on Smarter and Harder, consistency is simple but not always easy.
The main challenge is that most things we should be consistent with are things we don’t always love to do. Exercise, work, and saving money are often stressful, personally taxing, and generally uninviting.
When you face something like that, a burst of effort to “get it done” can seem more appealing than a slow, steady slog, especially when you feel a rush of motivation.
Building consistency means altering your habits, routines, and behavior. Behavior change is a massive field of personal development because it is difficult, and the answers aren’t the same for everyone. It involves strategies, practice, trying things out, and learning to understand yourself better.
There is also momentum to consider. Healthy, productive habits are something of a holy grail within personal development because they are a great way to stay consistent and are highly resilient. However, the same is true of overcoming unhealthy habits to get there.
Against the daunting task of discovering and overcoming ingrained habits and unhealthy thought patterns, tackling life’s obstacles in a short, ferocious sprint may seem like an easier option. But in the end, the cost is high, and the payoff rarely meets expectations.
5 Tips for Improving Consistency
There’s no doubt that consistency is important for big goals like those concerning your health, career, and money, but maintaining consistency can take a great deal of effort. In practice, much of that effort comes down to testing things out and experimenting with what works best for you.
To start on that journey, take a look through some of the following tips to create consistency in the areas where you need it most. Some will likely work better for you than others, but this is nonetheless a great place to begin.
1. Start Small
One thing that is essential to achieve consistency in beneficial habits is to manage expectations and set yourself up for wins that you can build on later.
Take flossing, for example — a simple, healthy habit that requires consistency and is hard for many to achieve. For someone who doesn’t usually floss, adding an extra few-minute chore into your day is a tough sell. Plus, it can hurt if your gums aren’t used to it.
Making the habit as small as possible lowers the barrier to entry and makes it easier to maintain. In this case, flossing just one tooth is a great way to start. It takes only a few seconds and is very easy to convince yourself to do.
Of course, flossing one tooth a day won’t give you perfect teeth or impress your dentist, but that’s not the point of the exercise. Instead, the purpose is to establish “flossing” as a consistent part of your routine. Once you do that, you can slowly expand the habit up to two teeth, and so on. Consistency loves wins; small habits are a great way to grab easy wins and build powerful momentum.
2. Leverage Existing Habits and Routines
Combining new aspirational habits with existing ones is a fantastic way to build consistency. Experts call this strategy habit stacking, or habit pairing.
Sometimes when you injure a finger, your doctor will wrap it with one of your healthy fingers in a “buddy splint.” The injured digit follows the rhythm and movement of the intact one, with the splint keeping them in sync. By moving in lock-step with the healthy finger, the injured one gradually builds strength and flexibility until both are fully functional. Habit pairing works similarly.
To integrate a new healthy habit into your day, connect it to an existing one in this same way. The ingrained habit will lend consistency to the new one as it strengthens.
For instance, if you were trying to read a little more every day, you could try “stacking” that with an existing habit like brushing your teeth before bed. Then, after you put the toothbrush down, pick up the book. Your reading habit then capitalizes on how automatic the brushing habit is and becomes a regular part of your evening routine.
3. Create a Positive Association
Creating a positive association with a new habit is one of the oldest tricks in the book for building consistency.
Remember, one of the biggest obstacles to consistency is that many things we’d like to do more consistently create friction. They are hard to do, unpleasant, or time-consuming.
Regular exercise may be gratifying in the long term, but most of us don’t find it intrinsically rewarding in the moment. As a result, more focus goes to how difficult and time-consuming it is than how fun or healthy it is. Fortunately, you have some power to shift this perception by adding in your own rewards!
For the workout example, you could make the time more fun by listening to a favorite audiobook or podcast while you go. You could also follow it up with a favorite protein-rich drink or a TV show you love.
There are endless options to integrate rewards into healthy habits. The only thing to watch out for is adding rewards that counteract the healthy habit itself. For instance, regularly celebrating a day of clean, healthy eating with a milkshake may be counterproductive.
4. Lower the Bar if You Need to
When building consistency, the choice that helps you come back tomorrow is far more valuable than the choice that helps you 100% crush it today. Remember, we’re after long-term consistency here rather than overt intensity.
Sticking with the exercise example, consider a day when you don’t want to do your workout. If a full, intense session is the only option, you’ll either go and struggle through it or skip it. It’s a lose-lose. One way reinforces a negative association with the habit; the other destabilizes it.
Alternatively, you could lower the bar for what “getting a workout in” means. You can go to the gym, do a couple of exercises, and leave. Or, you could even do less than that as long as it lets you check that habit off your list.
Brittle habits break. Flexible habits adapt.
What’s most important here is that you’re reinforcing the habit and positive association with going to the gym. You don’t need to push yourself to have a killer workout every single day if you hate doing it. Instead, making it achievable and enjoyable is far more valuable to long-term progress.
5. Focus on Accountability
If you usually respond well to structure or do well meeting external expectations, accountability could be an incredibly valuable strategy for you.
Accountability, the motivation to get something done to meet pre-set expectations, keeps us on track with where we want to be. Existing systems of accountability in places like schools and jobs already help many people show up on time, complete specific tasks, and generally operate within set rules and guidelines.
In addition to this institutional type of accountability, it is also a strategy you can intentionally use for your personal goals.
There are plenty of great strategies for creating accountability. Most hover around a central theme: set clear intentions for yourself, either on your own or with a trusted accountability buddy, and check in periodically on your progress. Setting intentions at the outset clarifies your focus, and knowing that you will have to account for your progress later motivates you to stick with it along the way.
Accountability is a great tool that organizations use to keep people consistently on task for years at a time, or even decades. With some practice, you can wield that same power for yourself.
Slow and Steady, Reliable and Rewarding
Many of the most precious goals we chase in life, like robust physical health, mental health, or professional growth, ask us to do difficult things. To complicate matters, they ask us to do these things regularly and consistently for the long term. It’s easy to end up feeling like you’ve fallen “behind” on something like this and resort to digging in your heels and quickly pushing forward to where you want to be.
Sprinting can be helpful, but it’s not sustainable. It leaves you needing to recover, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be motivated to keep doing it time after time. Instead, continuous progress in these areas becomes much more feasible when we focus on steady, reliable gains.
Even after shifting perspective, consistency is easier said than done. But with a positive attitude, a few strategies, and an approach that can evolve as you go, you’ll have everything you need to build lasting habits and see progress that grows and accelerates with time.