Five principles on consistency and sustainable progress, all backed by research and practice.
If you go for broke you often end up broken. If you swing for home runs you often end up striking out. But if you just put the ball in play—over and over again—good things tend to happen.
When it comes to health, well-being, and peak performance, quick fixes and heroic efforts are the common theme. They are exciting, enticing, and a whole lot easier to sell than slow and steady approaches to improvement, which can sound (and genuinely be) a bit boring. But here’s the thing: slow and steady is what actually works.
According to 2017 data collected by the University of Scranton, only 9 percent of people stick to their resolutions for a full year. Most experience a stark decline: 27 percent of people fail their resolution after one week, 32 percent after two weeks, 42 percent after one month, 55 percent after six months, and then eventually all but 9 percent of people peter out by the end of the year. I suspect a big reason for this is that people overestimate what they can do in a day but underestimate what they can do in a year. Perhaps you are experiencing this right now with some of the changes you set out to make for 2022.
What follows are five principles on consistency and sustainable progress, all backed by research and practice.
Heroic efforts tend not to end well—resist their allure.
Pulling all-nighters, working out until you vomit, going on extreme diets, and so on may be fun to talk about, and they may even feel good for a bit, but these things usually end in illness, injury, or burnout. Ignore people’s social media posts on this stuff. These efforts are largely dumb (at best) and harmful (at worst). Yes, it is okay to go to the well every once in a while, but these exceptions prove the rule. Even most hard efforts should be repeatable. There is a big difference between comfortable (sustainable), comfortably uncomfortable (mostly sustainable), uncomfortably uncomfortable (can be sustainable in the right dose), and downright uncomfortable (very hard to sustain).
For example, research shows that injury and illness tend to occur when volume and intensity of work suddenly goes up by a significant amount over the one-month trailing average. Though these sorts of empirical studies have largely been performed in sport, I suspect the same theme is true off the playing field, too.
If you are addicted to visible progress you will not last long in whatever it is that you do.
Many people burnout not only after a hard defeat but also after a big success or a meteoric rise. The reason being that the high does not last forever. The popular notion of just get one percent every day is well-intentioned; it basically says don’t worry about crushing it all the time, simply aim for small marginal gains that add up over time. This is all well and good—and true. The trap, however, occurs when it becomes really hard to get one percent better every day, which happens fairly quickly in most pursuits. At this point, the goal has got to shift from visible progress to sustained and wise effort. This requires:
- Framing the work as an ongoing practice
- Measuring and judging the overall process, not every single result.
- Allowing progress to be a byproduct of your commitment to and presence in the process.
Progress is non-linear.
When you are brand new to an activity, even if you aim to only get one percent better each day, you might actually get one-hundred percent better every day. As your skill level increases, the gains will become more incremental—ten percent, five percent, one percent, half a percent, a quarter of a percent, and so on. That’s okay. This phenomena is why it is so important to be patient and to enjoy what you do. As the philosopher and master of human potential George Leonard once said, “You’ve got to get comfortable on the plateau.”
What people think versus how progress actually unfolds over time:
There is no such thing as an overnight breakthrough.
A recent study published in the journal Nature found that while most people have a “hot streak” in their career, “a specific period during which an individual’s performance is substantially better than his or her typical performance,” the timing is somewhat unpredictable. “The hot streak emerges randomly within an individual’s sequence of works, is temporally localized, and is not associated with any detectable change in productivity,” the researchers write. But one thing just about every hot streak has in common? They all rest on a foundation of prior work, during which observable improvement was much less substantial. What seems like a breakthrough is rarely that. Think about pounding a stone 30 times and having it crack on the 31st. Though it may appear otherwise, it didn’t take just one pound for the stone to crack.
Show Restraint, Even When You Feel Good.
Sustainable progress, in just about every and any endeavor, requires stopping one rep short, at least on most days. This is what allows you to come back and pick up in a rhythm the next day. It can be hard to stop short for folks who are accustomed to giving things their absolute all. The trick is realizing that there is a difference between giving something your absolute all in any given day versus giving something your absolute all over an extended period of time. The former is precisely what can get in the way of the latter.