A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with one of my students. This student happened to be doing rather poorly in a couple of her classes. As I probed a bit more into the potential cause of the problem, I ultimately learned that she studies very inconsistently. Rather than do a little bit of work each day, this student typically waits until just before a deadline and then tries to complete all of the necessary work in what little time she has left.
When I pointed this out to her, what I got instead of enlightenment and agreement was a comment that went something like this:
“I don’t think it has to do with how consistent I am. I just think it’s because I’m not as smart as other people.”
In the days that have passed since our meeting, I’ve thought more and more about our conversation and about the student’s excuse for her poor performance.
At first, all I could do was shake my head and wonder why she couldn’t see that her inconsistency was likely a primary factor in her performance woes. But then as I thought more about it, I realized that I do the same thing.
As I’ve written before, for much of my life, I’ve battled weight issues, often losing weight but then eventually gaining it back. Although I have, at times, blamed my yo-yo weight on “a slow metabolism,” what I’ve come to fully realize (when I’m completely honest with myself) is that inconsistency is the bane of my problems. When I’m consistent, things go well; when I’m inconsistent with my eating and exercise, things inevitably go south. (Or would it be more accurate to say that my weight goes north? Anyway…)
More recently, I’ve been thinking of how inconsistent I’ve been when it comes to writing new blog posts. At first, I was publishing two or more new entries per week. But in the past few weeks, “life” has kept me from writing as much as I want or should (which makes this post personally relevant and more than just a bit ironic). I’ve sometimes found myself wondering why the number of people visiting my blog has decreased, but the answer is simple: I haven’t been writing as much.
In fact, I think consistency (or lack thereof) is at the root of many problems we face on a day-to-day basis. I’m sure we all can think of areas in our lives where consistency would probably produce drastically more success (however each of us defines that) than what we’re currently experiencing.
Ability, Consistency, and Success
Unfortunately, like my student above, rather than attribute success to consistency, we often believe it has to do with some ability that others just happen to have (and we, much to our chagrin, do not).
I remember, for example, giving a talk on passion to some students recently and explaining how failure is an inevitable hurdle that we all eventually face. To show how failure often precedes success, I played a brief video showing how many now-famous people faced failure after failure before eventually finding success in their lives.
Interestingly, rather than seeing my point, a student raised his hand and said, “Yeah, but that’s just because they’re talented, and most people aren’t.”
Rather than realize that Michael Jordan practiced his jump shot hour after hour after hour before becoming the world’s greatest basketball player, or that the Beatles played thousands of shows throughout Europe before becoming an “overnight” success in the United States, or that Abraham Lincoln lost political race after political race before eventually becoming president, this student—like many of us—incorrectly believed that success is a matter of pure talent or some “special” DNA rather than consistent hard work.
So, What Does Research Say?
What psychological research tends to show us, though, is that becoming really good at something is more often a matter of consistency than it is some incredible, special ability.
For example, Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) found that expert violinists had practiced for nearly 10,000 hours by the time they were 20 years old—nearly 5,000 hours more than violinists who were considered to be among the least accomplished musicians.
Similarly, Robert Boice (1984) assigned college professors to one of three different writing groups: (a) one in which professors were to write only when inspired (which is how many people choose to write, believing that inspiration is a precursor to productivity); (b) one in which professors were required to write every day; and (c) a control condition where professors were encouraged not to write. Boice found that professors in the “Required” group produced three times as much content as those the “Inspired” group. Moreover, writers in the “Required” group reported having more creative ideas than writers in the “Inspired” group.
In support of this finding, Stephen King, in his influential book, On Writing, noted that he writes at least 1,000 words every day. No exceptions. Similarly, well-known author Anne Lamott suggests that the most important habit for writers to get into is to write every day (for more of Anne Lamott’s writing recommendations, see this blog post from Gretchen Rubin). And famous psychologist B. F. Skinner said that his goal was to write at least 50 words every day (for a list of Skinner’s many publications, see here).
Along similar lines, many studies over the past 5 or so decades have shown that people who “space out” their practice tend to show superior performance over those who “mass” their practice, even when total practice time is the same. For example, a student who studies 2 hours per day for 5 days (spaced practice) will typically learn more (and get better exam grades) than a student who also studies for 10 hours but does it all the night before an exam (massed practice, or what we typically call “cramming”). In fact, Roediger and Pyc (2012) have suggested that teaching students to space their studying is one of the simplest and least expensive things that can be done to dramatically improve educational outcomes.
What all of these seemingly disconnected areas of research show is that consistency matters. Yes, innate ability is important—for instance, my short inseam and inability to elevate are probably going to keep me from being an NBA superstar any time soon—but I think we far too often uphold the importance of ability when trying to explain people’s success and discount the importance of consistent, hard work.
Importantly, consistency is likely to produce positive outcomes because it has a compound effect.
In fact, we could probably call this idea compound consistency.
To illustrate the importance of this idea, let me go on a tangent for a minute.
When I was in my teens, my dad tried several times to explain different topics of finance to me. For example, he talked to me about saving money, being a smart shopper, and in general being a little frugal with my cash.
Unfortunately, I was too cool to listen to him and, consequently, didn’t implement many (or any) of his ideas. I’ve since come to realize that when a successful business person gives you financial advice, you should at least listen.
But I digress…
Anyway, one of the topics my dad tried to tell me about was compound interest. For those of you who are not familiar with this concept, let me explain.
Imagine you decide to invest your money in the stock market. What this means is that you are essentially loaning money to help companies run their businesses. Depending on which stocks you purchase, you have the chance to earn interest on your investment. For example, imagine you invest $100 in Coca-Cola. As a way to repay you for your loan, they will give you back additional money (“interest”) on top of your investment (assuming they make money during the year). If the interest rate for the year was 5%, Coca-Cola will give you back $105 (your initial investment plus an additional 5% of that amount, or $5).
Now, imagine during Year 2, you take the $105 from Year 1 and re-invest it in Coca-Cola. If Coca-Cola again pays 5% interest, you’ll end the second year with $110.25 (your initial $105 + 5% of that amount, or $5.25).
If you do the same during Year 3—investing $110.25 and earning 5% interest—you’ll finish with $115.76.
Notice that every year, your investment builds on itself, or compounds. Over the course of 30 years (assuming a constant 5% return for the sake of simplicity), here’s what your initial $100 investment would be worth.
Even though you only invested $100, it has quadrupled and is now worth over $400. (This is also one reason why financial advisors tell you to start investing early. The more time you let compound interest do its work, the less money you have to invest over the long run to get where you want to be.)
This is the beauty of compound interest. Consistently investing allows time to work its magic.
Now let’s apply this idea to the area of self-improvement. Imagine you’re having trouble losing weight and you want to start exercising more. Maybe in your current condition, you can’t do any more than 10 minutes of exercise before you’re gassed.
Instead of thinking about how you “just don’t have the genes” or “won’t ever be able to get in shape” or don’t believe you can exercise enough to make a difference, think about compound consistency.
You could start by exercising for an amount that you know is easily reachable, say, 10 minutes of moderate walking.
The next day, use compound consistency and add 5% “interest” to your exercise plan. In other words, exercise just 5% more than you did yesterday. That would amount to 10.5 minutes of exercise, which is probably pretty easy if you can already exercise for 10 minutes. (If, however, adding 1/2 minute is too much, just drop down to a lower “interest” rate—maybe 2% rather than 5%.)
On Day 3, do the same thing: Add 5% interest to your previous day’s total of 10.5 minutes. That’ll get you up to about 11 minutes of exercise.
If you take this approach over the next month, here’s what you’ll eventually be doing:
As with your money investment, notice that there’s only a small increase from day to day. But when taken in total, compounding takes you from 10 minutes of exercise a day to over 40 minutes of exercise a day in just a month.
Most likely, that will have a positive effect on your weight-loss goals (assuming you don’t go off the deep end and start using giant hot fudge sundaes as a pre- and a post-workout supplement).
You, of course, could apply this idea to any habit you’re looking to change.
Students could apply the concept of compound consistency when they’re having trouble studying: Start with a small, manageable amount and then slowly build up over time.
Or we could apply this idea to practicing an instrument: Start with just a few minutes a day and then slow add practice time.
Or nutrition: If you eat 21 junk meals per week right now, apply the 5% idea and shoot for only 20 junk meals next week. The following week, drop down to 19 junk meals. And so on.
Compound Consistency = The Road to Success
Ultimately, regardless of how you choose to apply compounding, the idea is to start small, be consistent, and let time work its magic.
Stop being so concerned about getting immediate results (as I’m wont to do). With consistency, the results will come. More importantly, by taking it slowly, your new habits are likelier to stick, which will produce long-term positive outcomes.
In addition, stop believing that “success” is all about some special ability that the Success Fairy forgot to give you when you were born. Yes, we’re all better at some things than we are at others. But with diligence and continued effort, success—however you happen to define it—is within reach.
It’s all about compound consistency.
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