Consistency vs Intensity
This is the time of year when most of us get fired up about self-improvement. Whether we call them New Year’s resolutions or not, most of us look at January as a time to reset – to do or be better than we did the year before. We vow to eat better, to exercise more, to prioritize our health, to do various things to ensure that our body ends this year in a better place than it started. Despite these great aspirations, very few of us actually achieve them. Most of us are slowly sliding down that ladder of health, rung by rung.
There are probably a hundred different reasons for this, but one of the most common things I see is that so many of us go big. We vow that they are going to eat perfectly healthy and exercise every day. We throw everything out of the pantry and order hundreds of dollars of fresh food from the grocery store. We buy a gym membership or a Peloton. We decide we are going to create this whole new persona. However, after the adrenaline fades and the novelty wears off (or it’s hard to get our feet into the Peloton or the Chiefs go to the playoffs), all of the aspirations fizzle away and we resume our
If you’ve read my blog before, you know I dislike the concept of motivation. Sadly, in my line of work, I hear that word over and over again – usually not in a positive way. Most people view motivation as something inborn – something that some people have, and others don’t (like curly hair). They bemoan their lack of it and feel powerless to improve it. Others remember a time they had it but can’t seem to conjure it up again. We talk about losing it the same way we lose our car keys – as though it’s something to be touched.
The reality is that motivation is a very fickle thing that never sticks around very long. Motivation is great for short bursts of energy – like running to catch a flight or cramming for a biology final – but it isn’t something that stays high for long periods of time. It certainly isn’t going to carry you through the whole year and propel you to lose weight or get fit. Other than those random bursts (the airport, the final, the New Year’s sale on a gym membership), motivation is typically pretty low-key during the day. It has actually been shown to wax and wane throughout the day with a gradual decline as the day turns into the night. Putting all of our chips on motivation and expecting it to work miracles day after day for a whole year is simply unrealistic. It’s unwise.
Here’s the thing; intense changes are rarely helpful in achieving long-term successes. We understand this in other realms of life, right? You can cram for a Spanish final and probably pass the class, but that week or cramming isn’t enough to make you fluent in the language. You can save everything you make for a whole month and shove it into a savings account and expect to have enough to retire. You can work really hard on a project at work for two months, but once the project is over, you aren’t ready to be promoted to CEO. Intense effort is great – necessary sometimes – but not the whole picture. And intensity at the sacrifice of consistency is usually a recipe for disaster.
If you want to become fluent in Spanish, you have to do the work, over and over again. You have to hear the language and speak the language (probably poorly at first). You have to look up words you don’t know and think hard about translating the ones you know. If you do this, over and over again, you will probably eventually learn the language. Maybe not perfectly, but you will have some degree of mastery over the subject.
If you want to retire with wealth, you have to save money over and over again. Saving a lot every once in a while is great, but not if those bouts are followed by spending without abandon.
If you want to be an employee that eventually gets promoted to CEO, you have to show up for that job day after day and you have to put forth good effort and produce good work. You can’t do some projects intensely and briefly and then do nothing in between and expect them to hand you the reigns to the company.
The same thing applies with health. If you aren’t consistent with your choices – if you don’t consistently make healthy choices over and over again – you probably aren’t going to end up heathy (or fit or smaller or whatever health measure you are aiming for). Intensity doesn’t work. It’s never bad, but it’s
Now, don’t equate consistency with perfection. Despite what you may think, nobody does things perfectly every day. It’s not a requirement for mastery. If you skip practicing your Spanish on Saturdays but the rest of the days of the week, you practice – week after week, month after month, eventually you will be fluent. If you skip saving money in December and funnel those funds to paying for gifts, you aren’t doomed in your efforts to retire – as long as you keep saving – over and over again. Nobody (at least nobody that I know of) eats perfectly healthy food every day, three times per day. That’s not a requirement for health. People eat cake on their birthday and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving and still manage to be healthy people. Why? Because they eat healthy foods day after day, week after week, year after year. Their baseline is healthy. They are consistently healthy.
Consistency wins when you are playing the long game – or the infinite game. Intensity wins when it’s a one-time thing. If all you want to do is pass the Spanish final and you aren’t going to take Spanish again next year and you’re never going to want to speak Spanish after that day, then cram away. Intensity wins because it’s a finite thing. A short-term thing. If all you want to do is show your financial planner that you have money in a savings account, then dump some in there this week and forget about it. If you want to retire with enough money in the bank, that’s not enough. If all you want to do is tell people that you have a Peloton and post a picture of your very healthy pantry on Instagram, then buy the bike and clean out the pantry – but don’t expect those big, huge things to translate to long-term health.
It’s time we start focusing on consistency. Figure out what you are aiming for. If you are aiming to be a smaller, healthier person by next January 1st, you need to be consistent in your food choices. Not perfect, but consistent. Every single time you reach to eat something, ask yourself “what would a healthier, smaller person choose?” A healthy, smaller person would probably choose to eat a piece of cake on her birthday, but she probably wouldn’t choose to buy the big cake from Costco and leave it on the counter for a week, nibbling on it because she didn’t want to see it go to waste. A healthy, smaller person might order French fries with her meal once in a blue moon, but probably not every time she goes out to eat – and she probably wouldn’t go out to eat at a place that serves French fries every week. She might eat ice cream on the beach with her father when he comes to visit the grandkids, but she probably wouldn’t eat a bowl of ice cream in front of the TV at night or drive through Dairy Queen at 3 o’clock on a Friday before heading home to the family because it’s been a long week.
If you are playing the long game, be the tortoise – not the hare
If you need help figuring out what consistency looks like, that’s what we do at Heartland Weight Loss. We would love to help you. We mean it when we say we are passionate about helping people get control over their weight and eating habits. (There’s a reason we don’t claim to help people learn to have perfect eating habits)
You know how to find us.
If you are one of us and you haven’t heard yet, we have started a private Facebook group for current HWL patients. We’ve created a space where you can connect with other people that are struggling through the same things that you are. Sometimes, hearing how other people are creating their consistent habits can be incredibly helpful and empowering. You asked – and we listened 🙂
Courtney Younglove, M.D.