Discover more from Falling to Systems
Build a win streak you can be proud of
We've all been there. You set a big lofty goal, put a few days or weeks of hard work in, and at some point, deep down inside, the troubling thought crosses your mind... am I going to be able to keep this up? Consistency is hard, and in this post, we'll cover three key reasons why.
Thanks for reading Falling to Systems! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Hands down, consistency, or your ability to achieve a long win steak, is the single most important component of any personal transformation you're looking to achieve. Whether it's improving your heath, developing a new skill, or making yourself financially bulletproof, consistency lies at the heart of durable behavior change.
Idea 1: Unsustainable systems
Despite our best intentions, a big reason we fall off the wagon is because the systems we rely on to build the habit in the first place are unsustainable. This brings us to our first idea: Missing two times in a row is the first sign that your system is unsustainable.
James Clear captures it well in his Book Atomic Habits where he remarks “The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
Missing twice is like the canary in the coal mine giving you an early warning sign that you're headed off track. Unlike missing once, which can be due to anything life happens to throw at you, missing twice shows you there are areas of your systems that need to be strengthened or made more flexible.
When I was building my running habit, I was keenly aware of never missing twice, and anytime I missed a scheduled run, I was quick to diagnose whether the root cause was a one-off fluke, or an indication of something that needed to change.
For instance, after missing back-to-back morning runs over a weekend early on, I realized that weekend mornings were just not a good time for me to plan on. I needed to get real with myself about how I enjoyed staying up late on Friday and Saturday nights.
Rather than making my weekend bedtime earlier, I instead planned for my weekend runs to happen in the evenings, and then changed my cooking schedule to ensure I didn't have to cook dinner on those nights. Waking up early on weekend mornings just wasn't sustainable for me, and making this change ensured that weekend runs wouldn't be a problem anymore.
An added benefit is that if you're successful at never missing twice, then you'll never miss more than 50% of your scheduled activities. When it comes to building a win streak, I think this should be your definition of success. Your allowed to grow your win streak grows so long as you don't miss twice. If you do end up missing twice, dust yourself off, figure out what part of your system is unsustainable, and get back on the horse.
Idea 2: Avoid dread
Similar to unsustainability, the next barrier to consistency has to do with dread. If you dread the next habit building activity, you're very likely going to miss. Now, I know that sounds super obvious, but the reason it's worth mentioning is because it tackles the issue of will power head on.
We live in a culture and time that loves to celebrate discomfort and sacrifice. The idea of “no pain no gain” causes us to feel like we're not making progress unless we're suffering in some way. I can clearly remember being so proud of myself for being massively soar after a frenzied week of post-new years resolution gym visits. I can also remember feeling disappointed with myself after going for a run and not being totally winded by the end.
I'm here to tell you that when you're looking to build a habit, there's no glory in pain or discomfort. If there's even a whiff of dread when you consider your next action, giant red lights should flash in your mind that your consistency is at risk.
The line between satisfaction and dread can be fine however, so you'll need to check in with yourself regularly. Back to the gym example, working out will make you sore. That's kind of the point. But the key is to find the right balance that leaves you just soar enough to feel good, but not so soar that dread creeps in and begins sabotaging your plans to go back to the gym tomorrow. I'm looking at you Leg Day.
Idea 3: Motivation requires progress
The third barrier to consistency has to do with motivation. It's very hard to sustain your effort over a long period of time without feeling progress.
If progress isn't regularly in the picture, it becomes all too easy to begin wondering if your time and attention couldn’t be better spent doing something else.
Again, James Clear has a great quote for this. “Similarly, habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment.”
That valley of disappointment is real, but luckily, there's a fix for this inevitable challenge: Progress is in the eye of the beholder.
If you only count results and outcomes as progress, you're very likely to experience a long and demoralizing spell in the Valley of Disappointment, which itself is an existential threat to consistency. If instead however, you count effort and input, you'll find wind in your sails even when the needle doesn't seem to be moving.
This was huge when I was initially building my most recent running habit. Instead of tracking my running pace, which I used to consider the yardstick of my abilities as a runner, I instead started tracking the total number of miles I ran since I started, as well as how many days I had logged without missing twice.
The result was profound. During the third and fourth months, when early gains level off and I where I usually find myself deep in the Valley of Disappointment, I instead felt like a freight train.
Reliability covering just a little more ground this week than last, I reveled in the feeling of satisfaction and progress that accompanied each entry I made in my running journal.
By the time I covered 500 miles, the compounding effects of my running habit had started to show. I was regularly running five miles a day with ease, I was running at a faster pace in my late thirties than my mid twenties, and perhaps most important of all: I genuinely looked forward to the next run.
The three barriers to consistency we covered here are all related. When setting up a new habit, pay very close attention to missing two times in a row, since it means that something in your system is unsustainable. Take stock of anytime you feel dread, since it means that you're probably overdoing it somewhere along the way, and finally be sure to track input instead of output. Seeing evidence of progress during the time it takes for results to compound is critical to sustaining your motivation and avoiding the Valley of Disappointment.
Have you ever found yourself struggling with one or more of these challenges? If so, I'd love to hear about it. Please share in the comments what you were trying to do, which of these challenges thwarted your effort, and if you ended up trying any of the solutions covered here.
Avoiding barriers to consistency is one thing, but what if you've got a big lofty dream and don't know where to start? Be sure to check out this post to see how compounding systems lay the groundwork to achieving those crazy dreams.
In case you’d like to see a spoken version of this essay, be sure to check out this post on YouTube.