Why we struggle with consistency, and how to rethink it

Words by Madeleine Dore

Illustrated quote by Kelsie White

I have consistently failed to write this article. Week after week, I put it off, which seems paradoxical to the very motivation for writing it – to uncover how people approach their creative projects with consistency.

As someone who personally struggles with consistency or sticking to new habits, I was interested to find out how others can hold themselves accountable to a daily, weekly, or monthly project, or set a schedule of tasks and work steadfastly towards achieving them.

Yet in the very putting off of writing this article, I was able to recognise first hand the biggest blocker to consistency: procrastination.

As Steven Pressfield explains in The War of Art, “The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit.” 

It would be difficult to find anyone who hasn't struggled with procrastination. But just as procrastination can become a habit, as can consistency – if we first understand how it functions in relation to our work.

One common mistake people make when it comes to defining consistency is equating it with intensity. As author of Start with Why Simon Sinek explains in a lecture, there is a distinct difference:

“Intensity is like going to the dentist, it is fixed in time, we know exactly which date we are going, we know how long we are going to be there, and we know when we come out our teeth will feel smooth and look pearly. But if that is all we do, all our teeth will fall out. In other words, intensity is not enough.”

A crucial point in Sinek’s lecture is that something doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be consistent. Just as how only going to the dentist may cause our teeth to fall out, likewise if we miss a day or two of brushing our teeth, they are unlikely to fall out.

One common mistake when it comes to defining consistency is equating it with intensity.

In other words, consistency doesn’t have to be all or nothing – you are not simply consistent or inconsistent, rather it is an accumulation of what we do over time.

Rethinking consistency provides great relief to the chronic putter-offerer such as myself, and may speak to how inconsistency or procrastination is exacerbated by high expectations or perfectionism.  

If I rethink my own projects, I can now see that from an accumulative point of view, I have proven to be consistent – for over four years, I’ve contributed a body of interviews, experiments and musings to this project, Extraordinary Routines. While I’ve strived and failed to stick to an intense weekly schedule for example, taking the long-view offers some assurance.

I’m reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis, “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different?”

A day, week or month may go by where our personal goals are pushed or missed, but when we look back on our creative work as whole, we can see how far we have come.

Start and the rest will follow: how to rethink consistency

To uncover how to overcome fear, procrastination, and various hurdles that get in the way of starting and sustaining projects, I turned to several creatives who have had daily, weekly, and monthly projects to gather insight and advice on building consistency in your own work.

1. Listen to the wake up call

There are experiences or moments in our lives that can shock fear and procrastination to the sidelines.

Writer, photographer and the brains behind Motivated Mastery, Paul Jun, was prompted to begin a regular writing practice when he was “failing college and lost in life.”

“A friend saw the situation I was in and gave me some real talk, ‘You’re a young 20-something-year-old and you have no skills of value – you can’t build me a website, edit an essay, or design anything.’ That hit me hard, but in a good way – I had to wake up.”

Often a wake up call can give us the push we need to re-evaluate how we spend our time and the type of work we pursue.

“Towards the end of that year, I realised how much I loved the process – and the way writing made me feel – so I invested in an online workshop to teach me the fundamentals of the craft and also how to start building something online,” he said. 

2. What to do if you lack spare time for your project

With balancing a full-time job alongside volunteer positions for arts organisations, freelance writing and criticism, and the upkeep of her weekly food blog, Whatever Floats Your Bloat,  spare time for writer Sonia Nair’s project is scarce.

“The biggest hurdle is always simply a lack of time. I often write my blog post for the week on the weekend and if my weekend is packed with social activities, I either have to pre-write it during the week, when I'm already juggling my day job with other writing commitments, or I have to forego social commitments to stay at home and write the blog post,” she explains.

It’s important to a find balance between taking your project and work seriously, but also knowing when you are being too hard on yourself.

“Taking my blog seriously enough to do this is important to me, but equally, I also try to be forgiving with myself when life takes over and I simply don't get the time to write a post,”  said Nair. 

“Being organised is key, and preparing multiple blog posts ahead of time when I'm at a loose end has helped me stick to my weekly schedule,” she adds.  

3. Get comfortable in the beginner’s chair

As Steven Pressfield explains, fear – or what he calls Resistance – can actually provide fuel for your creative work when you learn to embrace it.

Jun agrees, and adds it’s important to embrace difficult beginnings.

“I am familiar with the Resistance as a writer and have learned to dance with it, but playing with photography put me back in the beginner’s chair. That was humbling and important, which is why side projects and play are key to creativity. You have to keep that beginner’s mindset; it cultivates curiosity, humility, and open-mindedness,” said Paul.

Being a beginner is also fertile ground for creativity, explains writer and comedian Magic Steven.

“There are benefits to clocking up hours of practice, but there are other great benefits in being inexperienced, naive and open-minded. Being pure, not entrenched in any corrupt, outdated system. Everyone always talks about 10,000 hours, but yesterday I was talking with a friend about all the great work people do who are new to something, and I wondered if there is, or should be, a counter-movement or counter-concept called ’10,000 Seconds,” says Magic Steven.

4. “Thrash at the beginning”

One of the best lessons Jun learned by doing the altMBA with Seth Godin was to “thrash at the beginning of a project.”

“I love the word thrashing because that’s what we’re doing internally – think of it like fish out of water. When you thrash in the beginning of a project, you’re asking all of the questions so you avoid sabotaging yourself in the middle or end of a project. It’s about getting clarity for the path you’re about to go on,” he said.

Thrashing is about fear, but it’s also crucial to understanding what you’re doing and where you want to be.

“Thrash early, get clear on what you’re making and why, and ask all of the questions that make you uncomfortable: What is it for? Who are you trying to change? What does failure look like? What does success look like? What assets do you have that’ll help you move forward? What assets are you missing? Who will support this project? Who do you need to support this project? What are the constraints?” adds Jun.

5. Know that momentum can change direction

One of the pitfalls to consistency is the pressure to feel like you have to keep doing something you are no longer engaged with.

“There will also reach the point when the burden of doing it outweighs the joy, or when you've gotten all that you possibly can out of it. That is a good time to re-evaluate the scope of the project,” explains Sonia Nair.

There will constantly be points in our creative practice where our projects are change direction, decrease momentum, pause, or cease altogether.

When Jun started his role at CreativeMornings, his focused shifted to photography. “Learning photography enhanced my writing process. I didn’t expect it to happen, but what photography allowed me to do was to be more observant and vigilant to the details around me. My writing slowed down and became more careful, conscious, and intentional.”

What this meant for his own writing work is that he only sent one newsletter for his personal blog at the end of the 2017 with a subject line: ‘I swear you signed up for this.’

“I think 50 people unsubscribed and I was expecting to lose 50% of my list – they would have been right for leaving because I wasn’t fulfilling my promises.”

What can be gleaned from this experience of shifts is that it’s okay for consistency to fluctuate, but it’s important to have full awareness of it. “I think it takes years to be self-aware of when you’re forcing something versus just being damn lazy,” adds Jun.

“I think it takes years to be self-aware of when you’re forcing something versus just being damn lazy.”

6. You can be both undisciplined and consistent

We are quick to make judgements about ourselves and our ability to see something through, but like all stories we tell ourselves, it’s important to note when they are useful, when they are outdated, and when they aren’t applicable to certain parts of our lives.

We are often more dynamic than we think – we just need to experiment with what parameters work for us – as Magic Steven explains. 

We are quick to make judgements about ourselves and our ability to see something through, but like all stories we tell ourselves, it’s important to note when they are useful, when they are outdated, and when they aren’t applicable to certain parts of our lives.

“I have no real work ethic, no self-discipline as far as I can tell,” admits said Magic Steven.  

“In order to make work I have to set up situations in which I have no choice but to do the work. Live shows are the best way of doing this I’ve come across so far. I can set up a show and then know that I will have to do work to make that show, and so, work happens. It’s a kind of reverse-engineering,”

Sonia Nair consistently writes a weekly food blog about her inconsistent approach to following her intolerances.  

“I started the blog because I didn't see people like me represented anywhere – that is, people who battle with multiple dietary intolerances but who don't fastidiously follow them because, like me, they don't have any self-discipline, don't have the time to meal prep every day, and/or like food too much at the detriment of their health and wellbeing.”

Writing a restaurant review week in, week out, helped prove to Nair that she was capable of meeting a regular, self-imposed deadline – even if she felt she lacked self-disciplines in other areas.

“It underlined the fact that I'm more disciplined and tenacious than I give myself credit for – WFYB is almost two years old and in that time, save for a couple of exceptions, I have uploaded a weekly blog post. My food writing became much more polished and I developed the confidence to pitch to commercial publications, which has helped me build my food writing portfolio.” 

7. Get out of your own head

It’s often our own self-talk and private narratives that can sabotage us, explains Jun.

“When you catch yourself telling a story about impostor syndrome, writer’s block, or feeling like a fraud, realise that you – and only you – have the power to change that story.”

Sometimes you need the support of your community and friends to get out of your own head.

“Some people do therapy, some people hire coaches. You have to find the thing that works for you, what gets you to open the frames up around the problem so you can see the glimmering possibilities ahead. For me, that’s my best friends and the way we do real talk,” he adds.  

8. Set small micro-goals that reflect personal successes

When your project or personal work crosses overs with your professional career, it can be difficult to create boundaries.

Equally, it’s important to create boundaries about where you want to take a project, and what ‘success’ may look like.

“Another hurdle is my perception that I'm taking time away from writing that I get paid for or that builds my name and puts me out in front of broader audiences,” explains Nair.

“But this personal project is important to me and I'm glad I've stuck with it. Although I don't attract hundreds of visitors to my blog, which I often get down about, I have to remind myself that the blog has already been a success on a personal level.”

To not get distracted by external measures of success, Nair recommends setting micro-goals. “I set mini-goals for myself in relation to the blog, like posting on WFYB's Instagram account three times a week to build a following, and adhering to these mini tasks helps propel the project forwards and builds momentum,” she says.

9. Keep the rules simple

In 2016, Sam Furness started a year-long project called 12x16, where each calendar month he would focus on a topic didn't know much about, be it animation, cooking, fitness, photography, storytelling, or song writing and learn as much as he could in one month.

The rules were simple: one focus for one month; three weeks to learn and experience and much as he can; one week to create something.

“Creative chaos can be a beautiful thing, but it needs boundaries to be productive," explains Furness. "The benefits of a routine, or ‘the rules’ as I call them, are huge for me. Even if they are quite simple. I think projects not having rules is generally what leads them to being hard to sustain amongst a busy life of other priorities, like work and having some kind of social life.

“Generally I’ve found that setting lots of smaller shorter term goals works better for me than trying to achieve everything at once after a longer amount of time. 

But don’t let the rules get in the way of the project. “I have found it to be pretty essential to strike a balance of set time you will dedicate toward certain parts of the project, and leaving a good amount of time free to play with.”

11. Find your bumpers

The many ups and downs inherent to a project or personal work make it is so easy to get discouraged, especially if you’re working alone.

“Every person I know working on their own projects goes through ups and downs on a regular basis, including myself. You can go from total belief in your ideas, where everything makes sense and you’re totally in the zone to wondering why you ever thought this would work and why anybody would care about this thing your creating as much as you do,” says Furness.

It’s important to find what helps extract you from a negative spiral. Furness likes to define these as being like bumpers at a bowling alley. 

"You can bash around from side to side but those bumpers are always going to lead you towards the pins. Your bumpers can be anything; songs, books, blogs, places…whatever works for you. Find out what they are and hold them close,” he concludes.

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