The lack of consistency is a significant roadblock for many people.
We know what we want to achieve, we somewhat know what we need to do to get there, but we can’t seem to get any momentum going.
And yet, there are also many people who seem to ‘lock things down’ and achieve their goals much more easily.
Is it will power? Or maybe motivation? Or perhaps we need sheer discipline?
It’s neither of these things. It’s something we often overlook but can have a profound effect on our daily actions.
The Problem With Motivation
A common concern I see in reader emails and real-life encounters is people thinking they lack motivation.
“I can’t get myself motivated to train after work.”
“I start motivated but then quickly lose interest.”
“I feel motivated but <insert social event> stops me from hitting the gym.”
I have nothing against motivation. But too many people rely on it alone and end up quitting soon after.
The way I see it, motivation can work in two ways: it either pushes you to follow up with something, or comes after you start a new behavior.
The first way is pretty clear - you get motivated and then do something productive. You watch an inspirational video then you crush it at the gym.
The second way, however, is trickier and many people overlook it - this is when motivation comes after the action. For example, you’re struggling to get to the gym for a workout, but once you start, you begin feeling more energized and motivated to do your best and finish it.
I’ve found this to be the case in my life. Not feeling particularly motivated to train but once I get going, I feel energized and excited to get it done. Having trouble getting myself to write a new blog post, but once I make an outline and start putting words down, it gets easier and my motivation skyrockets.
This is Newton’s first law, but applied to human behavior - objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Once you start doing something, it gets easy, almost effortless to keep going. In other words, the most difficult part is starting. Once we get over that hump, it tends to get much easier.
But how can we use this to our advantage? It certainly is easier said than done.
How to Stick With Habits
Research seems to suggest that following up with positive habits has little to do with motivation and a lot to do with something else - what researchers refer to as implementation intentions.
Generally speaking, we can experience many cues that trigger our habits, both the good and bad ones. You finish a meal (cue) and reach for a cigarette (habit). You get to the gym (cue) and start warming up (habit). Your phone buzzes (cue) and you check it out (habit).
But implementation intentions are different because they leverage the power of two very common cues - time and location.
The most common way to formulate an implementation intention is to make a specific plan for the when, where, and how you want to do something. In the words of Peter M. Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology:
“When situation x arises, I will perform response y!"
There are many studies which suggest this to be true. In one paper from 1999, researchers split participants into two groups:
One was asked to take a vitamin pill every day - the time and place didn’t matter. But the other group had to specify when and where they would take it. What Sheeran and Orbell found was the group that formed implementation intentions for their vitamin C intake were much less likely to miss their daily dose.
In another experiment, the researchers wanted to determine the roles of protection motivation theory and implementation intentions for increasing participation rates of college students in vigorous exercise.
They found the motivational intervention (i.e., telling participants that exercise would reduce the risk of coronary heart disease) raised participation rates from 29% to 39%. Not too shabby. But when the intervention was combined with implementation intentions (i.e., exercise for 20 minutes at a particular time of specific day), participation rates shot to 91%.Some research also shows that implementation intention can be used to counter negative behaviors and instead promote positive ones. For example, in one study, Bas Verplanken and Suzanne Faes found that formulating implementation intentions (what to eat for the different meals of a given day) was an effective way for participants to establish a healthier diet.
The Importance of Clarity
It’s clear that making specific plans for when, where, and how we want to do something increases the likelihood of following through. An overwhelming body of research seems to suggest that, and I’ve found this to be the case for myself and people I know.
For example, whenever I’d have made a generic statement along the lines of, “I need to read more.” or “I should start eating healthier.” I never follow through. At least, not for long. I’d effectively be leaving the decision to follow through to my future self, hoping that I remember or feel motivated later.
But whenever I dedicate myself to something and make specific plans, my success rate would shoot up dramatically. Rather than telling myself that I should improve my diet, I come up with sample meals for morning, lunch, and dinner. Rather than tell myself I need to read more, I carve out half an hour before bed and know what I’ll read.
Think of any great athlete out there. No matter who that is for you, they all have one common trait - incredible consistency.
Do you think they wait for motivation to strike? I’d imagine that motivation is the last thing on their mind. Nobody can be motivated to train every time for years on end.
A popular example of this is Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. He has repeatedly stated that he wakes up around 4 am so he has enough time to do his cardio and strength training before the day begins. He doesn’t wait to feel motivated. He doesn’t wait for the perfect time. He doesn’t rely on remembering to hit the gym later in the day. He has a specific plan - the time, the place, and the specific workout.
Now, I’m not saying that we need to wake up at 4 am to hit the gym. That’s just an example of a dedicated person who has set implementation intentions for something important for them.
How to Start Lifting Consistently
The next time you fail to follow through with something, ask yourself, “Have I made clear plans for these actions I want to take, or have I made generic statements?”
More often than not, we don’t lack time, motivation, or willpower - we lack clarity. Sure, you want to workout consistently, but on which days, what sort of training/where would it take place, and how long will each workout be?
When you’ve formulated an implementation intention, you don’t have to worry about the details. You have to wait for the time to arrive and get to work. To quote Peter M. Gollwitzer once more:
“When situation x arises, I will perform response y!"
This is a similar concept to the one about the environment with the only difference being the specific plan of action. Make good choices obvious and easy to execute.
There have been times when I didn’t feel like training for one reason or the other. I wasn’t always pumped to lift, but I did it anyway. Looking back, if there is one thing that contributed to my consistency the most, it had to be my scheduling.
I knew that, at a specific time of the day, I had to be at the gym for a predetermined amount of time to complete my pre-written workout. I didn’t go in guessing. There weren’t any ifs and buts about it. Had I said, “I need to hit the gym more.” I would have probably missed a lot of workouts over the years.
“No Battle Plan Ever Survives Contact With the Enemy”
Implementation intentions are great to make, and as we’ve seen, they increase our odds of following through, but they are not foolproof.
Say that you’ve committed to hitting the gym between 6:15 and 7 pm after work every day. If your schedule doesn’t change and unforeseen circumstances don’t arise, you’d have the time and ability to train.
But life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the traffic between work and the gym is hell, so it eats up some of your workout time. Or maybe something unexpected happens and you need to be elsewhere after work. Or perhaps your workload has increased dramatically, and you’re exhausted by the evening.
And if enough of these days string up one after the other, you find yourself pushing back your goal. Before you know it, you haven’t been working toward it for weeks, and you find excuses as to why that is. The most common one I hear is, “I don’t have the time.”
So, what can we do then? Let’s face it - our plans rarely pan out the way we anticipate.
Do Everything In Your Power to Keep The Momentum Going
I’m a big believer in habits and the momentum we create with behaviors that get us closer to our goals. No matter what you’re working toward - being healthier, building muscle, writing a book, or bench pressing three plates - you need to be consistent. But that’s easier said than done.
The problem is, most people have an all or nothing mindset. If they can’t be brilliant with their execution, they might as well not try at all. If they can’t train for an hour five times per week, why even bother? If they can’t eat 100% healthy, it’s all pointless. If they can’t read for an hour every day, anything less would be a waste of time.
That’s a big mistake.
When things get difficult, and you can’t follow through with your habits the way you want to, the best thing to do is stick to your schedule and do as much as you can with the time you have available.
For example, if you want to read for an hour before bed but can only dedicate ten minutes, do that. If you want to have an hour-long workout but only have twenty minutes free, go ahead and do a couple of compound movements.
First, this establishes a routine and helps you develop lifelong positive habits. Even if you can’t dedicate as much time as you’d like, you’re still keeping the momentum.
It’s much easier to scale up your efforts with training, reading, meditating, and other positive habits that you’ve already established than it is to start from scratch. That’s because you’d have already passed the most difficult point - starting.
Secondly, you’re still making progress toward your goal. Even if you can’t read for an hour each night, reading as little as ten pages adds up. Even if you can’t dedicate as much time to working out, you’re still putting in work, and that also adds up.
The Bottom Line
Having goals for the things you want to achieve is great because it gives you a direction. But goals without a plan for consistent execution are worthless.
Sure, we all want to be smarter, stronger, more muscular, and leaner. But very few people stick to a schedule that keeps them on the road to their goals.
What’s the bottom line here?
Waiting for motivation is often a waste of time. Making specific plans for when, where, and how you plan to do something is much more effective for consistency.
But life is unpredictable. When unexpected things come up, and you can’t dedicate as much time to your habits, don’t be afraid to work with what you have.