Have you ever wanted to do something, something big, something hard, something that would take a long time to finish? Maybe it was earning a college degree, building a business, learning to speak a foreign language or mastering a musical instrument or athletic skill. Many of the things that we desire in life require a sustained effort over a long period of time and for those of us with a not-so-lengthy attention span, this can be daunting. In fact, I am willing to bet, without even knowing you, that you have talked yourself out of any number of goals that you would really have wanted to accomplish for the very reason that they would have taken a long time and you just couldn't count on yourself to be consistent. Right? And, for the record, there's no finger-pointing here, I have a pretty long list of those things myself.
Actually, for many years, I had a pattern that went something like this: 1) Discover a new interest 2) Impulsively dive in headfirst 3) Become obsessively involved with this new thing, to the exclusion of everything else 4) Discover that said new interest was not as easy or as fun, as I thought it was, 5) Begin to feel disillusioned and start slacking off on practicing my new skill 6) Come to the conclusion that it wasn't worth it to continue, that I'd made a mistake or that I just wasn't cut out for this kind of thing 7) Abandon the project entirely and begin to search for the next big thing.
This pattern repeated itself over and over, with little variation. I only got involved with things that called to me in a powerful way. My excitement (in the beginning) is what drew me in and hooked me, but once the shiny had worn off, I didn't have the skills to keep going. Or even to recognize the benefits of continuing once something got challenging and the rewards were not immediate. As the years went by, I found myself only attempting things that I knew for certain would come easily. This was not only to protect my ego and self-esteem but also because it had become rather embarrassing and expensive to keep starting and stopping everything from new hobbies to new jobs. I didn't lack enthusiasm, I didn't lack drive, I didn't lack effort. What I lacked was consistency. And the ability to keep going when things got hard.
I thought it was ultimately a character defect, not the brain-based condition it turned out to be. Consistency was simply not hardwired into my brain from birth, but I could install it as an adult, with practice and commitment. It's hard to appreciate the power of consistency when you've never been consistent, but the benefits are evident and all around us if you know what to look for. Being consistent with your dental hygiene will most likely mean you will have nice teeth and minimal trips to the dentist. Being consistent about exercise will mean you have a healthy body, fewer chances for chronic illnesses as you age and look better, in and out of clothes. Being consistent about reading (or listening to) books means you will be more interesting and have more to talk about with strangers at parties. Being consistent about being thoughtful with your partner will go a long way toward maintaining that relationship.
Before I made a commitment to becoming more consistent, I was sporadic at best. This tendency hurt my self-esteem and my relationships because others couldn't depend on me and I couldn't count on myself. There were some things that I did very consistently and others that were a total crapshoot whether I would do them at all. When the action or habit felt rewarding every time, I would do it, simply for the dopamine, but what about those actions that don't feel especially rewarding, like household chores, tax preparation or flossing? It's not like an annual dusting and mopping will do the job. You have to do it every week or your place will quickly devolve into a complete hell hole. You can't show up at the gym once a month and expect 6 pack abs. You won't be able to stay in business if you only invoice your clients once in a while.
So how do we create consistency? Let me share a couple of examples for how I trained myself and learned that I was capable of more than I thought I was at the same time. About six years ago, it was time to renew my annual membership to LA Fitness. I'd been paying the $99 renewal fee every year for well over a decade and I did go, when I was in the mood, when I had someone to go with or when I couldn't zip up any of my pants. The cost was low enough that even if I only went a few times a month, it felt like a reasonable investment. I was also afraid to let that membership go for two reasons- if I decided to join again later, it would cost four times as much and I was afraid that not renewing my membership was proof I was giving up on my desire to be healthy and fit.
As I stared at that email and the RENEW NOW button, I got honest with myself and admitted that this gym really didn't excite me anymore and I was barely going through the motions. A friend had told me about her gym and how much she loved it. I just blew her off when she'd bring it up because the monthly fees were as much as an entire year renewal at LA Fitness. She invited me to join her on a 7-day guest pass and made me an offer. If I joined, we would be workout partners at least 3 days a week.
Her gym was in a totally different league. The monthly fees were equal to my annual renewal fee at LA Fitness. I was scared shitless to sign up for that big a commitment. If I slacked off and wasn't consistent, I would be spending 12 times as much as I am now for that inconsistency. In a strange way, I saw the logic of it. If I saw that charge on my credit card statement every month and I didn't go, I'd feel like a complete ass. Since I hate feeling like an ass as much as anyone, I decided to put myself to the test.
I signed up. To make a long story short, I had to sleep in my gym clothes for the first few weeks to ensure I wouldn't just hit the snooze button, but it worked. I saw changes in my body, I made gym friends, I learned to love exercise. I've been working out 7 days a week for over 6 years now. I actually became so consistent that even when I moved to a new city where I knew nobody in 2019, and joined a new gym here, I was able to maintain the same level of consistency that I had built up over the past few years, until the pandemic hit, but by then I was so consistent, I just ordered a Peloton, and some home weight equipment and kept on going. Consistency turns out to be trainable. I didn't have the skill for most of my life, but I have learned that it's never too late to develop it.