Have you ever declared your intention to achieve a particular goal as if you were announcing it on a billboard in Times Square? “Everyone! I’m going to start meditating 30 minutes every day!” Never mind that you haven’t meditated a day in your life.
“A lot of times people think that personal transformation happens in these grand, sweeping pronouncements or gestures,” says Alanna Fincke, meQ head of learning and resilience expert. “In stating our intentions or goals it can feel like we’re three quarters of the way to achieving them, but really we haven’t even started yet.”
If this sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be the first person to get caught up in the excitement of imagining the results of a goal. And visualization is a valuable tool to help you achieve it.
But more important, says Fincke, are the sustained behaviors and actions you take. “The best way to do that is with small, consistent steps,” she says. “Consistency creates habits, and habits form the actions that lead to success.”
You want—and need—that big goal, or “north star.” But you reach it by optimizing for the starting line and the path that you’ll take—not the finish line. Micro goals, those small steps that you perform regularly, make it easier to start, be consistent, and ultimately reach that finish line.
Regardless of the goal—developing a meditation practice, creating a self-care routine, reading more books—change is hard. “People imagine it’s this straight shot up and to the right, but it’s not,” Fincke says. “It’s messy—three steps forward, two back. It’s, ‘This is coming along great,’ and then, ‘Uh oh, I completely lost the thread.’ That’s what we go through when we try to make changes.”
However, if you are consistent in your efforts and are willing to learn from your mistakes, you will see results. Consistency is a commitment, or a promise, that you make to yourself to achieve something. The power of consistency, says Fincke, is that it creates a strong foundation from which to build any habit or skill.
Ready to make that commitment? These four pillars of consistency will show you the way.
1. Think in baby steps.
To paraphrase James Clear in his book “Atomic Habits,” the way to achieve success is not by going from 0 to 60 every once in a while, but by being 1 percent better every day.
What does this mean? Rather than trying to read a book a week, plan to read a few paragraphs or a page each night before bed. To fit some strengthening exercises into your day, do three push-ups every day right before lunch. Eventually you can tack on an additional rep, until you build to 15.
Change happens and goals are achieved through the little choices we consistently make each day. We often fail to realize how transformative they are, but research shows that we become what we consistently do.
2. Stack your habits.
To establish a new, consistent behavior, tie it to an existing habit. This is called habit stacking.
Most of us already have regular routines: We wake up, have coffee or tea, brush our teeth, go for a walk during lunch, wash dishes after dinner. Any of those would be a great place to “stack” a new habit. Washing dishes, for example, is a great opportunity to pause and take three deep breaths to practice stress management skills. The existing behavior—in this case, dish washing—acts as a prompt, or trigger, to do the new behavior.
The goal is to get the “habit stack” hardwired into your brain as a single action (wash dishes and breathe deeply), rather than thinking of it as another task—because our exhausted brains already have enough of those. Then you don’t even have to think about when to do it.
3. Know your why.
In order to achieve a goal, you need to know your why. Focusing on your why will do wonders to fire up your willpower and help you make significant—and lasting—lifestyle changes.
Here’s an example: If you want to exercise more, think about why it’s important to you. Do you feel more confident when you’re physically strong? Does it relieve anxiety and stress? Does being fit mean you’ll have energy to play with your kids or grandkids? Maybe it’s all of the above.
Research shows that when you link a behavior (in this case, physical activity) to how it will improve your life right now (i.e., you’ll feel happier, have more energy, get deeper sleep), it becomes more meaningful and increases motivation. Knowing your why supports consistency, because it helps keep your behaviors going.
4. Practice patience.
We live in a fast-paced world where virtually anything we want is a click and a day away. Instant gratification has trained us to expect immediate results with little effort. This instant gratification can make us a bit lazy and create unrealistic expectations. When we don’t see results right away, we quit or move on.
Be patient with yourself. When you fall back a step or two, don’t throw all of your previous efforts away. See the situation for what it is: a temporary setback. Positive self-talk can help you get back on the road to consistency. Mini goals also help achieve consistency by providing measurable markers that hold you accountable, which builds momentum and keeps you headed toward your north star.
As you continue to work toward consistency of effort, you’ll be learning self-discipline and gaining the perseverance to overcome challenges and setbacks. And that seemingly elusive patience? It, too, will grow, helping you achieve personal and professional growth.