There’s two common ways you can approach working on your goals and habits:
The first is progressive. This is where you start off easy, but make it a little bit harder each time, until you can eventually do very difficult things, with a lot less effort.
The second is consistent. Do the same thing, with the same expectations, each time. You don’t aim for growth, but maintaining the same, solid baseline.
A progressive plan for getting in shape might have you start by jogging one mile, then two, three, until you’re eventually running marathons. A consistent habit might pick a reasonable goal—say jogging two miles, and sticking to it without change for a long time.
Which is Better: Progressive or Consistent?
I have to admit, I’ve long favored progressive habits for many of my goals. For one, if you aren’t satisfied what you’re capable of right now, progressive is the only way to go. If you’re only lifting a five pound dumbbell at the gym, it’s unlikely you’ll work up to fifty without some progressive training.
Second, plateaus and stagnation is common. In both physical and mental challenges, complacency means we often settle into a routine and give up pushing to our full potential.
However, recently, I’ve started to adjust that view. I now think that a consistent habit can often outdo a progressive one, even if growth is your ultimate goal.
Managing Growth or Decline?
One way of looking at the difference between progressive and consistent habits is that the former are about managing growth, while the latter are about managing decline.
When you set up a progressive habit, you’re putting yourself on a path to improvement. Small, incremental adjustments in difficulty are almost certain to push your level up.
The downside with progressive habits is that they are harder to sustain. Difficulty may not increase linearly with progress, so you may start with a habit which is quite easy, and end up with it being extremely (or impossibly) difficult.
I had this experience personally a few years ago when I was working with a fitness program that had the basic strategy of starting with a low amount of weight, and every time you successfully completed the workout, you increased the weight by five pounds.
Although I did make progress with this approach, it quickly became unsustainable for me. While the workout schedule was manageable in the beginning, it was quickly becoming the case that my body hadn’t recovered from the last workout before the next one was set to begin. Eventually, I was forced to depart from the progressive training schedule it had established.
The reason for this, which I understand better now, is that strength improvements are closer to logarithmic than linear growth. That means that, although the weight is increasing by a constant factor, the difficulty is getting harder and harder.
Progressive training habits, therefore, often end up looking like sharp up-ticks, followed by some kind of failure/adjustment, with a variable amount of decline before another progressive increase can occur.
Consistent habits, on the other hand, are more about managing the decline phase. They don’t increase the difficulty, so progress doesn’t happen at the optimal rate. On the other hand, because difficulty is constant or declining, there’s less falling back to a lower level of difficulty after a failure, because you fail less.
Six months ago, I decided to try a different approach to fitness. Instead of an intensive, progressive schedule, I wanted to try an easy, lightweight one. Just fifty push-ups every day.
This was easy enough for me at the time. Plus, push-ups can be done anywhere. If I were traveling or sick, I could still do the workout. The goal was to engineer a habit that could be sustained regardless of how busy I was getting, rather than trying to push myself.
The result of this experiment has been that over the last six months, I’ve only missed it once. While I haven’t gained as much strength as I did during the progressive workouts years before, the results have been better than I had expected. It turns out, in my case, preventing decline was more important than trying to optimize for growth.
Which Should You Pick?
Progressive habits are less stable, but offer higher growth. Consistent habits offer lower growth, but are more stable.
A progressive habit can be better if you either expect low decline or a continued, long-term focus on growth. If this area of life is going to remain under the spotlight for you for years in the future, and if atrophy is slowed, you can probably keep pushing progressive training habits, despite the occasional need to restart and adjust.
Consistent habits are better when the domain of life you’re trying to improve rarely is your biggest priority. It also works better when decline becomes a bigger concern than progress.
For me, fitness works better as a consistent, than progressive, habit, because it’s not usually the main focus for my life, and getting weaker and fatter is a bigger concern of mine than becoming extremely fit.
On the other hand, things central to my career tend to look more like progressive habits. I usually can’t sustain them forever, but because my work is always a major part of my life, the progress made more than justifies the need to adapt them more frequently.
What about you? What are you working on right now? Would it be better suited to progressive or consistent scheduling?