Reversing the Habit of Inconsistency


Inconsistency as a Handicap

One of the biggest struggles in the lives of many is in finding the thing they want to do. It becomes even more of a difficulty when the fact is that people need to do something for a long period of time in order to build a valuable skill. Inconsistency is a handicap that cannot coexist with expertise.

Skills must develop as habits overtime and habits become a part of us through regular involvement in daily life. If there is no consistency it will not be adopted. This is why negative habits are so common and easy to pick up. Doing the simple things and taking the easy way out is an appealing option and when done with regularity they become entrenched as routine and difficult to correct.

In reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin my attention has been repeatedly drawn to this quote: “You can choose what you do; you can’t choose what you like to do.” For different people some things  fit as aptitudes and interests better than  others. But, it is a regular occurrence for people to have a hard time finding the thing that fits well for them and, even if they do find something, it can prove just as much of a challenge to make time for those things.

What do you Gravitate Towards?

For those without overwhelming natural talent -even for those who do have it- failing to find consistency often means finding oneself trapped in mediocrity. This can feel debilitating. The fact is that even the most enjoyable activities repeated time and time again can develop an air of monotony and even become quite tedious. It takes either great willpower to excel or an intense interest to call someone back to the same thing over and over again and develop consistency.

There is a great deal of pressure on people these days to find profitable careers and it’s no secret that many people fall into careers they do not necessarily enjoy. Finding something profitable can become a distraction from finding something that you actually care about. Many people can relate to the feeling of, “I wish I could try that,” or, “I would like a chance to do that again,” but restraint on time holds us back from doing these things.

There are the lucky few who, from a young age, gravitate towards something and do not divert from that path (Bill Gates with software and Michael Jordan with basketball). For the majority, knowing who we are, what we’re good at, what we want and like is a skill that takes more time. The good news is this is a skill that can be learned, and it is never too late.

Forget the Path, Find a Direction

We often reference people’s activities in life by talking about their calling or their passion or even their path, but I prefer a different title for it: direction. A calling implies there is only one thing to do. The word passion is too abstract to instruct any immediate action. Path implies you should follow a plan laid out for you no matter where it goes. But, if you can find a direction you have something that let’s you know exactly what to do NOW without restraining possibilities for the future. There is no ten year plan for a direction, but it’s guaranteed to go somewhere.

The issue one immediately might find with this idea of “direction” is that it leaves us with the same problem of consistency. If we do not have a plan that we are committed to over a long period of time how can we know we will stick to anything? There is no clear cut answer to this question as it is different for each person in each individual task. Sometimes, it turns out you very well should get away from what you’re doing. A laid out plan is just as likely to coax somebody into taking things too far. But, if a task is done to completion, that is to say if a direction is followed until a new choice needs to be made, there is success in that endeavor. The only question at that point is what direction to go next.

One could say this hasn’t gotten us far at all if we have arrived at the same question of what to do with ourselves, but the fact is that we now have more information about ourselves to work with. We know how we preformed with the previous direction and tasks involved in it. We also know how we interacted with other people(if any) involved in those tasks and how we appreciate them. It is only through actual action and practice that we can gain the valuable knowledge to assess ourselves through.

Some people spend more time with introspection in an effort to get a better idea of themselves as a person, but studies have shown that people cannot rely on this information as much as we may expect and they still may not recognize why they feel or act the way they do. This is why finding a direction and taking action is irreplaceable as a method of self-understanding. The actions support ideas about ourselves through the concrete evidence of what has happened.

The Proof is in the Process

No matter what we do energy is being spent. It does not matter if we enjoy the activity or not. As it turns out, we may tend to spend more energy on the things we don’t enjoy doing since doing those things not only call upon the energy of action but also require a level of self discipline and patience. In the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength two lessons were demonstrated by sited studies.

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

It doesn’t need to be said, we all have to deal with things we don’t want to do. The fact that those activities take away willpower and energy that would better be used on the activities we enjoy is not only disappointing, but it is also likely to lower the quality of the things we do want to do when we find the time. It may even make those things feel more like work and therefore feel less desirable.

In order to compensate for this we can take another lesson from Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project. Gretchen organized her happiness project to span a year where each month would be focused on a specific set of resolutions. Ultimately, it was a year long project of alternating New Years resolutions with the hope of habits from prior months being carried through as she moved forward.

The very first resolution that she worked on was to boost her energy. This entailed going to sleep earlier, exercising better, organizing her home and work space, tackling nagging tasks, and acting more energetic. We can all probably recall a person in our lives who seemed to get a lot more done than anybody else. Maybe there was even a time in your own life when you were noticeably more productive than at other times. The likelihood is that these productivity levels translate directly to energy levels at the specific stage of your life. If you can manage your energy and how you are spending it you will better be able to manage your time according to what you have.

One thing we are never taught at any point in our education is how to manage our energy levels. Often, even the things we consider leisure are sapping away our energy and steadily diminishing our ability to preform at whatever task we are soon to undertake. When we spend time doing things we personally do not consider valuable we are wasting our energy and are likely to be left wishing for more time in the day. As Seneca wrote:

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has be given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishments of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

So, when we ask the question of how we can develop more consistency in the tasks we care about it may be better to restate the question to ask how we can better organize our time to ensure we have the energy to tackle these tasks with consistency. It is through the action that we learn about ourselves and find the tasks and direction we desire. But, it is only through organizing and managing ourselves that we are able to find consistency and excellence in time.


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