Consistency: Why everyone wants it but few can master it

Consistency is something that enhances and protects our future selves. Better health, career progression, a secure retirement and a stable family are some of the many reasons we need consistency.

Readers of this blog will know – consistent runners become faster runners further down the line. Why is it so few of us can master it?

Now versus Later

Less than half of us are saving sufficiently for retirement. This simple fact highlights our preoccupation with now and our disregard for later. It is January; gym memberships will spike in an attempt to rid the feelings of over indulgence and due to renewed determination to be better this year. For the majority “this year” in fact means up until March at most.

Old habits die-hard. The trouble with consistency is that it is basically moderation in disguise and moderation is boring. Evolutionary history tells us that humans survive via instant gratification. We want to buy things now, feel better now, exercise now and lose weight NOW.

The behaviours required to feel better and lose weight require longer than now and so we have a tendency to lose interest or try too hard to begin with, meaning we cannot sustain what is an unrealistic effort.

Developing Consistency

I mentored a corporate finance worker recently. They were a classic well-intentioned gym goer who could never seem to sustain their efforts. One week they would prepare their lunches a week in advance and hit the gym 5 days out of 7, the next week something would ‘come up’ in work or life which would derail their efforts.

When I first started working with them, they reported getting to work any time between 9:00 – 10:00. They admitted they could do this due to a lax work environment. I challenged them on the fact that a lax work environment did not mean they had to be lax. I suggested the first thing they do in relation to their fitness regime was get to work for 9:00 every day. The response I received was:

 ‘that’s too easy, it’s basic, I’m embarrassed that’s a goal’, to which I replied, ‘try it for 6-weeks, then you can call it basic, it is not basic until you do it’.

The next challenge I set was to accompany those 9am starts with exercising 3-times a week for 6-weeks. The response I received was similar:

‘that won’t be enough to help me achieve what I want to’. And of course, my reply was similar ‘lets see can you do it for 6-weeks and then you can do more’.

I suggested they try park run at 9am on a Saturday morning as one of the 3 sessions. This was not because I was focused on them running 5-km (which was of course useful) but because it is easier to become what you want to be by surrounding yourself with those who are or want to be similar. Exercising at 9am on Saturday meant being surrounded by people who value their time and health enough to be up early. It puts the brakes on Friday evening drinks and provides a reason to be somewhere and do something on Saturday morning. The key to fitness is not training but a way of living.

Six Weeks Later

Six weeks later, I meet a smiling and lean finance worker. Everybody at work is commenting on how well they look, especially those who have not seen them recently. The biggest realisation the individual had during the six weeks was:

‘I never thought doing so little, such basic things, could lead to such radical change when done consistently – I never would have believed it until now. The whole project became a mental one. I didn’t care about weight loss, I cared about hitting my own mental targets and then the bi-products followed. It was more about proving to myself that I could be in on time and get my 3 days in than the fitness itself.’

Anticipation Breathes Consistency

If I had an ABC acronym, it would be the above. A key to success in this case was a warning about the benefits of anticipation for enabling consistency. Consistency on a given day or week starts the night or week before. The individual learned to anticipate bottle necks in work, block out diary time or change exercise days in advance of problems occurring. They became solely focused on hitting the 3-days and could look ahead each week to see how this would be best achieved.

For example, when travelling with work, they would check their schedule and the hotel facilities in order to determine when to exercise. This is instead of passively showing up and returning home with a list of excuses as to why their exercise was not complete.

Consistent Running

The concepts above apply to consistent running. For many of us the problem is not doing too little but doing too much too soon. In order to avoid instant gratification we must agree an acceptable level of training (based on a realistic appraisal of current fitness) and stick to it for a period of 4 – 8 weeks. From there, we can add small increments and eventually, small increments become big ones!

*A note of thanks to the 275 people who signed up for the ‘Running from Injury’ talk at Leeds Beckett University. I am truly humbled by the response and sorry we cannot release any more tickets. I will post details of the live stream on this site before the event.