Consistency is the key to lasting behavior change

I often get asked, “what is your number one productivity tip?” The answer is consistency.

Arriving at this answer did not come easy. I have been interested in productivity for almost a decade. I’ve read countless books and research papers on the topic. I’ve tried tons of apps and other tools. I’ve received some training myself, and have given trainings to others. I’ve spent many hours writing and thinking about the topic. In other words: there is a lot of knowledge and experience bouncing around in my head by now, so picking just one tip is not easy.

To make matters more difficult, productivity has a bad rap. People often equate it with robotic efficiency and working as much as possible. To me, that’s not what it means at all. Fewer and fewer of us are working in factories, where an hour of extra work equals an hour of extra output. Instead, productivity for knowledge workers is about your brain: how to make the best use of it, in a way that’s healthy and ensures the highest quality output, not necessarily the most.

To me, productivity is much more about getting your brain in an optimal state and environment to perform, so the rest — focus, creativity, motivation — comes naturally. This means you constantly need to be trying out new things to improve and develop yourself (some people refer to this process as Kaizen).

Why consistency?

To really understand why consistency matters so much, let’s look at all the adjustments I’ve made to my way of life over the past two years. I…

  • stopped drinking alcohol completely (June 2014);
  • …read a book a week and summarize them (July 2014);
  • …had the first idea for Saent (August 2014);
  • …go to the gym three to four times a week (September 2014);
  • …meditate daily (October 2014);
  • …write at least half an hour every day (November 2014);
  • …changed my mindset to barely become upset, stressed, or irritated anymore (January 2015);
  • raised funding and officially started Saent (February 2015);
  • …spend several hours per day doing “Deep Work” (March 2015);
  • …started running outdoors (June 2015);
  • …started getting up at 5 am at least a few times per week (January 2016);
  • …write Chinese characters at least 20 minutes every day (January 2016);
  • …stopped drinking coffee completely (June 2016).

This is not an attempt to show how amazing I am. In fact, some of my friends think I’ve gone crazy! Instead, look at this list as consistency in action. When taken together in one overview, it seems like a lot of change; perhaps it even seems impossible. But to me the progression seems natural: I don’t feel I’m carrying a much heavier burden than in June 2014, nor do I feel I’m being very strict with myself.

I didn’t implemented these changes in a haphazard or rushed manner; I didn’t sit down in June 2014 to compile this list as a grand masterplan. Even had I had known in advance I wanted to do all these things, I would not have tried to do multiple of them simultaneously. Instead, I concentrated on being consistent in the application of a new activity or habit, before moving onto the next. Let’s have a look at how that works in detail.

Practicing consistency

To me, consistency means doing something on a regular basis, a set frequency, or without exception. Meditate daily, never drink alcohol, read one book per week — that consistency over time is where the real power comes from. Writing half an hour per day might not sound like much, but if you do it every day, you end up with over a hundred thousand words written per year (in my case). As author Gretchen Rubin once said:

“What I do every day matters more than what I do once in awhile.”

Yet paradoxically, to achieve this level of consistency, it’s also important to be flexible and assume you’re going to encounter failure. Of course there are going to be some missed days. Of course you’re going to have days when you can’t find the motivation (certainly in the beginning). The key is to not let that be a reason to give up. Instead, forgive yourself and try again until the new behavior becomes habitual and those bumps in the road become less frequent.

And, perhaps most important, practicing consistency also means making sure you have truly become consistent in the application of a new behavior, before adding a new one.

Birds in flight with sun

The benefits of consistency

This consistent and patient approach has two major advantages:

  1. You turn the new behavior into a habit as fast as possible, so it becomes easier to carry out.
  2. You’re on the fast track to reap the benefits of your new behavior. If you regularly skip doing the activity, whatever benefits it provides come slower or not at all.

Each (beneficial) activity I add has a compounding effect. The new behavior change can be considered a layer added to a foundation, upon which then the next behavior change gets built. With each properly added layer, it becomes easier to add another one. Two examples:

  1. Because I’m not drinking, I’m more likely to read a book on a flight instead of dozing off with a glass of wine. The book might give me new inspiration for my writing, which in turn might recall a learning I can apply to running Saent.
  2. Consistently going to the gym provides me with that extra bit of energy and willpower needed to help me get up at 5 am, which in turn ensures I can do my daily writing of Chinese characters.

The contrary is also true though: if you pull out one layer, it destabilizes everything else. This is exactly what happens when I travel. Moving out of your regular environment disrupts your routines.

When I go on a longer trip (several weeks or more) I clearly notice this. I might not have a gym available for example, and I also don’t do my daily meditation. The first few days this is fine. Then I realize I have difficulties writing daily. Suddenly I also can’t seem to find the energy to keep up my Chinese studies. Before long, I’m in a bar downing whiskeys.

Ok, that last one was a joke, but you get the picture: when you take out a few pieces, the whole structure starts to crumble. This is exactly why consistency is so important: ensure a change is applied until it sticks, before you move onto the next. This will make the next one easier, instead of trying to add something on top of a shaky foundation.

The multiplier effect

To get really strategic about this: pay special attention to multipliers. Some activities have a larger compounding effect than others. For me that was giving up alcohol completely, as it helped me to think more clearly, waste fewer weekends because of hangovers, and generally feel more happy and stable. Because of that change, I became more consistent in everything else I did from there onwards.

Other obvious multipliers can be eating healthier, doing more exercise, getting enough sleep, or meditating. These activities contribute to your well-being and therefore give you more energy to tackle other things down the road. You might want to start with such changes first.

Whichever route you take, don’t be discouraged by failure. None of the things on my list became habit easily or instantly: I gave up drinking a few times before it stuck, I sometimes miss a day of writing, and getting into a daily meditation habit was far from easy. But keep coming back to it consistently, and eventually you will stand firm and succeed!

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