How To Cultivate Consistency In Achieving Our Goals
A Chinese proverb goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
But if we stop after taking one step, we don’t get closer to our destination. Granted, we all know that starting is hard. But the next challenge is finding the consistency to keep progressing towards, and therefore achieving the goals we’ve set for ourselves.
The importance of consistency.
Ali Abdaal, a YouTube “productivity guru,” identifies his persistence in publishing 2-3 videos a week as a key ingredient of the success he enjoys now. In his book Outliers, which studied how successful people achieve their potential, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the concept of the 10,000-Hour Rule, where he identifies deliberate practice as being key to mastery. He writes that “practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
Instinctively, I’m sure we know that consistency is important if we want to make progress on any of our medium- to long-term goals. However, that knowledge sometimes fails to travel downstream and we fail to take the necessary actions in service of our goals.
Perhaps knowing that consistency is important is not something with which we struggle. Why then are we often erratic when pursuing our goals? I suggest that tackling this issue from the perspective of “clarity” will have heuristic value.
Cultivate consistency by establishing clarity.
Motivation is overrated. Our emotions and feelings are fickle. Discipline separates the achievers from the dreamers. Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
1. Be clear about your goals.
The easy part of a goal-setting exercise writing something vague: I want to learn how to code, I want to start a blog, I want to lose weight. These statements may give us some idea about what we want, but the lack of focus will easily lead to inaction. What coding language do I want to learn? What kind of blog do I want to write? How much weight do I want to lose? Jim Kwik says that we can’t manage what we can’t measure. If we can’t manage a goal, chances are, we won’t reach them.
A helpful guide is SMART. Our goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. For example, my goal is to read 24 books in 2021 by reading for 30 minutes a day. It is specific and measurable (at the end of each day, I can track how close or far I am from the goal). It is achievable, (this is an average of one book every fortnight). Not only that, it is also time-bound (there is a clear end date by which I can decide if I’ve hit the target); and it is relevant if I select books that write about matters I find important.
2. Be clear about your plans.
Assuming we have our goals clearly defined: I want to learn Python in 6 months. What’s the next action? We often jump straight into action without a proper plan. In his podcasts, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, talks about the need to convince our brains about our plans. If it doesn’t trust our plans, it will not feel motivated to work towards it. What does poor planning look like? It’s a failure to grasp what is involved in moving from Point A to Point B. It’s rushing headlong into something complex without first considering the tools and resources needed to reach our target.
The nature of our goals also determines the kind of plan we should create, so it’s important to distinguish between an outcome goal from a process goal. In short, the former identifies a clearly defined finishing line, the latter focuses on the journey if the finishing line isn’t that clear. Broadly speaking, there is a definite endpoint for outcome goals, whereas process goals are ongoing. For example, losing 5kg is an outcome goal, but running 10km a week is a process goal.
If we have an outcome goal, David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, swears by writing the next immediate physical action one can take. Breaking down a goal into small, actionable steps helps us to see that we are making progress. Forcing oneself to adopt this habit helps eliminate analysis paralysis and procrastination. Moving one step at a time has the benefit of not overwhelming us with a vague mountain of tasks that need to be completed. By keeping our head down, focusing on one thing at a time, and making sure that after one action is complete, we immediately clarify what’s the next action needed. It has been my experience that projects do move along because of this.
If we have a process goal, then the process is about building good habits. Two simple steps I’ve found particularly effective is to fill out an implementation intention, which specifies where and when to do an action. A typical implementation intention would be: when (or where) situation X arises, I will do Y. For example, after I shower at night, I will read for 30 minutes.
3. Be clear about your actions.
Perhaps we have been planning and we have laid out clear actionable steps. But it’s the execution – the day-to-day action we need to take that we know will lead us to our goals – that’s the trickiest bit. In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
If we need to get from KL to Penang smoothly, we need a well-maintained car – our systems must be well-oiled. Unfortunately for many of us, our lives lack the structure that empowers us to make progress, no matter how marginal, towards our goals.
Another simple step to ensure we’re on the right trajectory is building a habit tracker. There are tonnes of templates online but if you’re starting out, I’d recommend checking out Ryder Carroll’s habit tracker tutorial.
Using a habit tracker introduces a gamification element, and offers an immediate “reward” each time we complete the habit we’re tracking. It also serves as an accountability tool. We often do better when we’re monitored, so self-monitoring through this system challenges us to be intentional. This system serves as a safeguard against feeble willpower, especially when we don’t feel like taking action. It helps to build discipline and resilience.
What to do when we fail?
Give ourselves a moment to breathe, take stock, then pick up where we left off. It’s easier said than done. This is where grit is important. If you’ve taken the time to read this, chances are you have the drive to achieve your goals. My suggestion is that we seek clarity at the level of our goals, plans and next actions.
Once we can see what’s immediately in front of us (next actions) and the final outcomes they produce (goals), taking that first, then second, then the third step on the thousand-mile journey might look less daunting.
If you’d like to do further reading around this topic, I’d recommend starting with James Clear’s Atomic Habits, then David Allen’s Getting Things Done. You can also check out Cal Newport’s Deep Questions podcast for practical productivity discussions.