How to be consistent: Mindset and habits

The biggest threat to consistency doesn't come from the outside- it comes from within

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The new year is around the corner. You tell yourself that this next year will be one where you get your life together. You’re hopeful and motivated to make the best of the following year. You’re going to work on your most important goals that have been gathering dust on the shelves of your mind.

You take a whole day off to set SMART goals and create detailed plans. You can’t wait to be this highly productive, high-performance person you’ve always dreamed of being. You can’t wait to be laser-focused on your goals and be highly consistent with your habits.

The new year comes, and you stick to your plans for about 2-3 weeks before you fall off the wagon. “Dang it! There was nothing special about this year after all”, you say to yourself as Life, God, or the Universe laughs at your plans yet again. The funny thing is, despite all this, you do the same thing each year.

What causes inconsistency?

Success requires consistent right actions over a period of time. After all, there’s no point in doing the wrong thing consistently. Following are reasons why you might struggle with consistently implementing the right actions:

1. Lack of motivation

Contrary to popular belief, motivation and discipline are not mutually exclusive. Both are important and they go hand-in-hand. We’re not robots that can be disciplined without a good enough ‘why’. Without purpose, our actions, no matter how consistent, become meaningless and ultimately, demotivating. When you lack motivation, there’s no desire or reason to stay consistent.

I’ve read countless stories of people who were the most disciplined and consistent after they hit rock bottom. Their motivation to improve their condition went through the roof.

2. Laziness

Laziness is knowing something needs to be done but not being willing to put in the effort to get it done. Our energy levels fluctuate hourly and daily. You have to know your best hours to pursue your most important goals during those hours.

Good sleep, diet, and exercise habits are important factors for maintaining high energy levels and focus. 1Ekman, R., Fletcher, A., Giota, J., Eriksson, A., Thomas, B., & Bååthe, F. (2022). A flourishing brain in the 21st century: A scoping review of the impact of developing good habits for mind, brain, well‐being, and learningMind, Brain, and Education16(1), 13-23. Disruptions in these are bound to make you feel lazy. When you’re low on energy, you’re likely to be inconsistent.

3. Distractions

Focus is paying singular attention to something for a long time. You must constantly pay attention to your goals to stay consistent with them. That’s hard to do when so many things are competing for your attention in the modern world. Technology is a big one. Social media platforms, in particular, are excellent at fragmenting your attention. Other people in your life can also be a significant source of distractions.

While you can minimize or eliminate some distractions, living a 100% distraction-free life is impossible. Things will occasionally demand your attention and be entirely out of your control, which brings us to the next point…

4. Crisis

A crisis is the biggest, meanest, consistency-destroying monster there is. You may be a highly motivated person who’s never lazy. You may also have controlled many of your distractions. Just when you start to think you’ve become invincible and nothing can derail you, a crisis pulls that rug of delusion from under your feet.

I’d define a crisis as ‘a significant problem in one or more of the three main life areas—career, health, and relationships’. A crisis brings bad moods and negative emotions that are almost impossible to ignore. These negative emotions aim to direct your attention to the problem at hand so you can solve it.

How to prevent a crisis from derailing you

I’ll focus on learning how to handle a crisis because it’s the biggest consistency killer. I’m assuming you don’t have problems with motivation, laziness, and distractions. If you do, tame those beasts first.

To reiterate, negative emotions from a crisis aim to focus your attention on the problem at hand. Crisis doesn’t care about your goals, plans, and priorities. Your mind is designed to pay attention to what’s essential in the present. It prioritizes paying attention to the threats of the present over the rosy and shiny goals of some distant, non-existent future. 2Molouki, S., Hardisty, D. J., & Caruso, E. M. (2019). The sign effect in past and future discountingPsychological science30(12), 1674-1695.

Think of it like this: Your mind has two people operating it. One is the rational Rick, who is conscious and thoughtful and thinks about the future. The other is Erick, who’s emotional and concerned with the present.

When you set goals and make plans, Rick is in charge. He thinks about what’s best for the future you. He wants you to work for the future. When a crisis happens, Erick takes over. He says, “Screw Rick! Don’t listen to him. Listen to me!”. He throws away Rick’s plans and wants you to do what’s urgent.

If you’ve done the Eisenhower matrix before, you know that urgency and importance are not the same concepts. What’s urgent may not necessarily be meaningful. That’s the Rick in your mind thinking like that. The Erick part of you thinks:

                                                 Urgent = Important

Negative emotions trigger urgency in us. They make us forget about everything else and focus on the problem at hand. Sometimes that’s a good thing. If your house is on fire, you must stop working and extinguish the fire. In these situations, you have to trust Erick.

In most cases, however, Erick throws you off-track with faux emergencies and urgencies. He’s an attention-seeker constantly waving at you. It would be best to learn not to take his waves too seriously.

In other words, not all problems Erick throws your way need to be solved in the moment. Erick fools you into thinking that something’s an emergency when it’s not. What you need to practice is delayed problem-solving.

You don’t have to solve all problems in one go. That messes up Rick’s plans for you. You can shelve some problems and deal with them later. You can solve others bit by bit instead of eating the whole elephant in one bite.

When you know Erick’s waving at you unnecessarily in these situations, you have to trust Rick’s plan for you. When you were in Rick mode, you knew the best actions for you. You have to trust him to follow his plan. In time, you’ll realize that he guides you right.

Rick protects you from others’ influence

Your goals and plans in Rick mode protect you from being influenced by other people’s opinions, attitudes, and behaviors. We humans are pack animals. Without clear goals and plans, we do what we see others doing even if there’s no rhyme or reason to those things- even if those things are ultimately bad for us.

A few months back, I had gone off-track while trying to eat healthily. In this vulnerable state, I saw a social media post about a guy eating ice cream from a huge tub.

A couple of days later, I went to a store. I’m pretty sure I didn’t go there to get ice cream. I hadn’t eaten ice cream in ages. As I looked at the items in the store, I reached the ice cream aisle. Guess what I saw there? Tubs and tubs of ice cream! The video I’d seen online recently flashed in my mind, and, as if possessed by a demon, I got myself a tub.

When I was home relishing the tub, it dawned on me what had happened. I’d have never gotten the tub had I not seen that social media post. Of all the different kinds of ice creams that were available, why did I choose the tub? Why didn’t I choose a cone or a brick?

My mind had linked that online video to a positive experience and wanted me to have a rewarding experience as well, by doing the same or similar thing. Erick wants us to have positive emotional experiences at the cost of our future goals. Had I not gone off-track and been in Rick mode, I probably wouldn’t have gone near the ice cream aisle.

Tracking- the ultimate habit for consistency

I’ve stressed the importance of trusting Rick’s plans, but how do we go about doing that? A lot of people will tell you to ignore your feelings and do what’s right and rational. That’s not very helpful. Ignoring your feelings is never a good idea. But you can not take them too seriously and stay on track. To stay on track, you need to track things. 

How do you start trusting Rick more?
How do you let him help you be more consistent?

The first thing to do is to write down goals and plans. Rick is like a special guest who visits your mind infrequently. So, you have to guard what he says in those precious moments- the goals and plans he lays out for you- like it’s treasure. This way, you can look at them repeatedly and remind yourself of what’s important.

The next thing to do is track the actions you take to pursue your goals. What gets measured gets improved. Data leads to better decisions. Now, you’ve grabbed Rick by the shirt collar and are forcing him to stay and work for you.

If you don’t have such a tracking system in place, you’re going blind. An imperfect plan is better than no plan. You may still reach your goals without plans, but you’re susceptible to Erick’s whims, and it may take you a long time to succeed.

At the same time, it’s essential not to lose sight of your goals or get stuck in systems. Reaching a goal is like reaching a destination on Google Maps. You’re traveling in distance in the latter and in time in the former. When you’re going to a new place, you can’t just focus on the road before you. You have to look at the map regularly to avoid going off-track. 

In addition, tracking your goals creates small wins that motivate you to stay on track. The satisfaction of knowing you’re on the right path is priceless, even if the journey is long. Tracking your goals and habits gives you a clear idea of the areas where you struggle with consistency. If you say you’re inconsistent, what area are you inconsistent in, and by how much? The more you quantify things the better.

A while back, when I was in Rick mode, I tracked my habits regularly. It turned out that I was having a major problem regulating my social media use. The data showed the same pattern week after week. Eventually, I decided to remove most social media apps from my phone. Had I been in Erick mode, living for today and not tracking anything, I probably would’ve felt bad about the problem for a while and then forgotten it.

Keep your systems simple. Overcomplicated systems lead to mental fatigue, which makes it difficult to follow them and fall right back into bad habits. 3Hagger, M. S., & Rebar, A. L. (2020). Habits. The Wiley encyclopedia of health psychology, 177-182.

How to get back on the wagon

Because life is so chaotic and things always come up, you have to ditch the idea of perfect consistency. That idea you have in mind of perfectly being consistent every single day isn’t going to materialize. When you accept that, you release the burden of perfect consistency.

Instead, focus on getting back on track each time you fall off. When you have Rick’s system available to you in the form of tracking, you can frictionlessly get back on track when you need to.

The good news is- you don’t need to be on track 100% of the time to reach your goals. You can still reach your goals if you’re 70-80% on track. Missing one day in trying to form good habits doesn’t negatively affect habit formation. 4Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real worldEuropean journal of social psychology40(6), 998-1009. You don’t want to miss 2-3 days in a row and build negative momentum.

A good idea to build positive momentum is to aim for non-zero days. That is, even on a bad day, you still move the needle a bit. It’s better to do something about your goals each day than nothing to preserve the momentum. It’s hard to get back on the wagon after a few days of doing nothing.

Too much discipline?

There is such a thing as too much self-discipline. You don’t want that. You want to make room in life for fun and spontaneity. A desire to control every little aspect of life signals an unhealthy obsession with control. 5Kohn, A. (2008). Why self-discipline is overratedPhi Delta Kappan90(8), 168-176. At the same time, completely letting go and being spontaneous all the time isn’t going to get you far. As with most other things, the right path is the middle one.

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