It’s a sweltering summer day in North Carolina in 2003, and a scrawny teenager is practicing shooting a basketball with his dad. The boy is pretty good at the sport, but no college coach takes him seriously as a basketball prospect. He’s too small, too weak, and shoots too unconventionally.
But still, the boy shoots, day in and day out, all summer long until he’s fixed and perfected his technique. Eventually, he manages to make the team at a small college, where he will go on to be drafted to the Golden State Warriors and become known as the greatest shooter in NBA history.
A lot could be said about Steph Curry’s genes and environment (his dad was a star NBA player, after all), but if you ask him the secret to his success, he’ll tell you: consistency. (When asked for the key to his outside shot, he replied, “Shooting it the same way every time.”)
Athlete or not, what makes famously successful people different from you or me? Is it a natural ability? Access to resources? Pure luck? Sure, all three can be present.
But even if genetics, environment, and serendipity tip in their favor—no one can consistently succeed without practicing goal-aligned behaviors over and over and over again.
And that, dear reader, should be good news for you and me, because consistency is something we can control.
The Case For Consistency: Your Brain Loves Regularity And Predictability
Your brain is built to help you survive. To do so, it has to find ways to reduce uncertainty. Uncertainty carries the risk of danger, sending your body into “fight or flight” mode at the first sign of a threat.
Because of this, your brain finds comfort in consistency, which reduces uncertainty by making things predictable.
Just how much does your brain love predictability? One study found that workers were less stressed and more satisfied when their boss was consistently a jerk than when their boss was sometimes fair and sometimes unfair.
Why? Researchers think that people value consistency and predictability at least as much as (or maybe even more than) they value fair treatment. That makes sense, given that our brains were developed to identify and predict threats. With someone who is consistently bad, you always know what to expect. But with someone who’s erratic, the brain has to constantly guess and be on guard.
So, your brain loves when things are regular and predictable. Great! Why, then, is it so hard to stick to a writing schedule, go for a run every morning, or show up to the same job every day? Well, because, in a strange twist of neurologic wiring, your brain also loves things that are new and easy.
The Obstacle to Consistency: Your Brain Also Loves Novelty and Ease
To say the brain loves novelty doesn’t tell the whole story. The brain actually loves rewards, and it associates novelty with rewards. When something unexpected happens that isn’t negative, your brain is flooded with dopamine (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter) that encourages you to explore this new environment in search of a reward.
The anticipation of reward is often what drives our decisions when we first set a goal. Researchers found that when you decide to pursue an objective, you’re more focused on the enticing reward attached to it, not the effort required. “If I wake up at 5 every morning, I can work on my book before the kids wake up.”
But once you’re carrying out the behaviors needed to achieve said goal, you start focusing more on the effort and lose sight of the reward. “It’s 5 a.m. and so warm under these covers. If I get up, it’ll be cold, and I’ll be tired.”
This explains why motivation to achieve your New Year’s Resolution of writing a book peters out by February. Sure, the allure of a reward is still there (a completed manuscript), but you won’t see the reward for months down the line, and it takes a lot of effort to get to it.
And because your brain wants to help you survive, it looks for ways to save energy any place it can. So if presented with the opportunity to sleep in versus get up early and work—which do you think it’ll prefer?
To summarize, while your brain finds comfort in predictability, it also gets a kick out of things that are new, rewarding, and easy—and often, those last three traits are at odds with the behaviors required to be productive.
What can you do to overcome these competing desires? Let’s find out.
5 Reasons You Struggle To Stay Consistent—And How to Overcome Them
1. You’re Too Vague About Your Goals
When you’re too vague about a goal (e.g., “I want to write more often”), you leave your brain with too many decisions to make. (“What exactly does ‘more often’ mean?” “When should I write?”)
By the time your brain has figured out the answers to those questions, it’s already depleted, and suddenly, lounging on the couch with a bag of potato chips watching Netflix reruns is a much more appealing endeavor than working on your novel.
Solution: Create Implementation Intentions
A better way to approach a goal is to write an implementation intention, which specifies a day, time, and place to perform your desired behavior. For example, “On weekdays at 5:30 a.m., I will spend 30 minutes working on my novel at the kitchen table.” In one simple statement, you’ve told your brain when, where, and what to do—eliminating any unnecessary decision-making.
And science shows that it works. One UK study tested how forming implementation intentions affected participants’ exercise motivation and behavior versus merely learning about the benefits of working out. They found that both intervention groups were equally motivated to exercise—but the group that formed an implementation intention (specifying when and where they’d work out) in addition to learning about the benefits of exercise were drastically more likely to follow through.
2. You’ve Left Obstacles In Your Way
Remember, your brain wants to help you survive, which means it wants to conserve energy. So if your new habit requires extra energy, you’re less likely to stick to it.
For example, you might decide to sketch a new logo every day to sharpen your graphic design skills. But if your sketchbook is high on a shelf in your closet and your pencils are buried in your junk drawer, you’ve created obstacles to overcome before you’ve even started the habit.
Solution: Eliminate Friction Wherever Possible
Prime your environment: Author and productivity expert James Clear recommends priming your environment to make future habits easier. Place cues in obvious places to trigger your desired behavior. For example, place your sketchbook and pencils inside your bag so that the materials are always with you, and you can’t help but see them every time you reach for something in your bag.
Automate: Reduce the amount of energy it takes to get started by automating everything you can. For example, you could set notifications on your phone to remind you to start sketching, or you could have sketching prompt emails sent to you every day.
3. You’re Too Focused On The Outcome
Outcomes are important; they help you know when you’ve reached your goal. But focusing solely on outcomes blocks your brain from getting the immediate rewards it craves. For example, if you frame your goal as, “I want to get promoted to a senior engineering position,” two problems arise:
- That may take a long time, and your brain will get sick of waiting for the reward.
- That’s outside of your control since your boss will determine who gets a promotion, so you may never see the reward.
Solution: Reframe Your Outcome Goal As A Learning Goal
Outcome goals focus on the end result, while learning goals focus on the mastery you can gain along the way.
Learning goals can help you ensure that, even if you don’t reach the outcome, you enjoy the journey. One study at a Canadian university found that when MBA students set learning goals (such as finding ways to network or understanding different viewpoints), they ended up being more satisfied with the MBA program than those who had set outcome goals (such as achieving a specific GPA or salary level).
4. You’re Relying Too Much On Willpower
Resisting temptation is laudable, but few of us can hold out against a constant barrage of distractions 100% of the time. Instead of relying on willpower, what if you hardly needed to use it at all?
“‘Disciplined’ people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control,” writes James Clear in his bestselling book, Atomic Habits. “In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.”
Solution: Make a Ulysses Pact
Named after the hero of Homer’s Odyssey (who had his men tie him to the ship’s mast so he could pass the deadly Sirens without being lured by their song), a Ulysses pact ties you to a future behavior by helping you resist temptation.
For example, I have a friend who places her iPhone into a Kitchen Safe, which won’t unlock until the timer reaches zero, so she can get her work done. Instead of relying on willpower, she makes a Ulysses pact with herself (also known as a commitment device) by putting the temptation in a place where she physically cannot access it for several hours.
I did something similar with a group I really wanted to participate in. I knew my future self might be tempted sometimes to skip the meetings because they were held at night, and I might be too tired. So I made a Ulysses pact with myself by signing up to be the group leader. That tied my hands because I couldn’t skip a meeting that I was leading!
And guess what? I ended up going to 100% of the meetings. When I didn’t use a commitment device, my attendance was zero.
5. You Place Too Much Value On Emotions
When you’re being consistent, feeling bored is inevitable. You have a brain wired for novelty, remember? Doing the same thing over and over again—though crucial to success—is antithetical to your brain’s reward-seeking tendencies.
Even the pros have days when they don’t feel like practicing. Steph Curry describes the three months in which he spent hours a day perfecting his shot as “the worst summer of my life.” Imagine if a young Curry, feeling exhausted and frustrated after the thousandth time repeating the same motion, had said, “You know what? Maybe this means I’m just not cut out for this.” Basketball fans would never have seen the two-time MVP they know and love today.
So drill this into your mind: Feelings like boredom, frustration, even despair, do not necessarily mean something is wrong with your goal. They don’t mean you don’t have what it takes. They just indicate that you might need a break, or it may be time to give your brain the dopamine hit it craves. Here’s how.
Solution: Spice Up Your Routine With Variety
Thankfully, consistency and variety can coexist and stave off feelings of boredom. Here are some examples for infusing a routine task with exciting variety:
- Write five pages of your novel every morning, but switch the location of where you do your writing.
- Work out in your living room every evening, but change up the exercise routines you do.
- Read for 20 minutes before bed, but alternate the genres of the books you read, from mystery to self-help to sci-fi.
- Journal every morning for 15 minutes, but use an online prompt generator to surprise you with what you should write about.
- Host a monthly all-hands with your team, but invite a new speaker each time to keep things interesting.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to keep life interesting while maintaining consistency. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Keep Calm and Stay Consistent
During the off season, Steph Curry makes 500 shots per day. He didn’t become an NBA superstar by shooting a winning shot at just one or two games, nor did he do it by practicing only during basketball season.
No, the kid from North Carolina—who coaches thought was too small, too weak, and too unconventional to make it to the big leagues—would not have achieved or maintained success without carrying out goal-aligned behaviors day after day after day.
You may never throw a three-pointer or even step foot on a basketball court, but the same principle applies to you: Regardless of your genes, upbringing, or luck—consistency, above all, wins.