When it comes to exercise and nutrition, everyone agrees that nothing changes if nothing changes - meaning, if we want to change something, we have to take action. More importantly, we have to continuously take action over and over again. And again. And again. Want to get stronger? You have to lift and progressively load your system, over and over again. Want to get faster? You have to practice over and over again. The point being, you can’t expect to add 50lbs to your squat or shave 30 seconds off of your mile time by making one concerted effort once a month and doing nothing else for the remaining 29 days. This may seem fairly obvious, especially in the context of training….so why do we not apply this to nutrition? We get frustrated when we have a “perfect” week and then we suddenly haven’t lost 15lbs or gained 3lbs of lean mass or aren’t jacked and shredded.
But here’s the thing, short term perfection doesn’t get lasting results.
Consistent effort over time = lasting results
This isn’t some revolutionary concept or even something that is particularly mind blowing. At all. We all know consistency is important but it can be difficult to figure out “how” to be consistent. In order to address this, let’s first get some misconceptions about consistency out of the way.
Consistency is not just a willpower thing, it's a discipline thing
There is a ton of interesting research on the concept of willpower and how it works. One popular concept that comes up frequently when willpower is discussed is ego depletion. The concept of ego depletion basically states that we start out with a certain amount of “willpower” and with each decision we make, that amount gets less and less. By the time, let's say, the evening rolls around, it gets harder to make decisions (i.e. eating some chicken and rice versus ordering take out) because we’re mentally spent. Whether or not ego depletion accurately describes how willpower works from a psychological standpoint, the concept is something that most of us can relate to. It is hard to make tough choices (i.e. broccoli over cookies) when we are mentally and physically exhausted. That takes discipline.
Discipline is more about training yourself to perform (or not perform) certain behaviors. By creating sustainable habits that are more or less “effortless”, discipline becomes easier than trying to white knuckle your way through something. Is willpower still at play? Of course. But making certain decisions over and over and over again builds discipline and builds consistency.
Consistency doesn't just "happen", it is built
Building discipline and consistency is a practice. No one wakes up one morning and says “Hey! I think I’ll just make the same not-so-easy choices all the time!” Individuals who are highly successful get results because they make those not-so-easy choices easier through practice. The more you practice something, the easier and less mentally taxing it becomes. For example, when you’re a novice lifter trying to learn the bench press, it seems like an extremely taxing and difficult task because there is so much to think about. The skill is new and your body isn’t quite used to it yet, so it takes some extra effort when you’re practicing. Over time, and as you do more reps, the extra effort gets reduced and things that you used to have to consciously focus on, take up a lot less mental “space”. The same thing applies to nutrition.
When we make the "harder" choices our default, they don't seem so mentally exhausting anymore. This is why meal prepping and planning works so well for a good portion of people. If you have all of your food laid out and ready to go, you don't really even have to think about food the entire day. Less mental energy spent on food = more energy for other things.
So now that we’ve determined the importance of consistency, how does one actually BECOME more consistent?
Set SMART Consistency Goals
SMART goals (or Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic and Time Bound) can help you translate a nebulous goal into something more tangible.
Let’s take the goal: “I want to eat according to my goals most of the time.”
This is a great starting point, but let’s break it down into something that is actionable.
Specific: “I want to eat according to my goals 90% of the time”
Measurable: If I eat 4 meals a day, and there are 7 days a week, I eat a total of 28 meals. 90% of 28 would be 25.2 so we can say “I want to eat 25 out of 28 meals in accordance with my goals”.
Achievable: “I will prep my food ahead of time to help me eat 25 out of 28 meals in accordance with my goals.”
Realistic: 25 out of a 28 is a pretty good number. But this would be the point where you could lower or raise that according to your lifestyle and schedule.
Time Bound: “I will eat my pre-prepped 25 meals in accordance with my goal for the next two weeks.”
Does this super specific and numbers driven set-up work for everyone? Not necessarily. But the point is, make goals that include ways to measure your progress towards them and have a time cap.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Establish some sort of practice to help you build your consistency skill set. Maybe that means prepping meals on Sunday, being aware of portions, or tracking your food intake more consistently. Whatever it is, make it something that you feel comfortable with and that you can build upon. Set a new goal every few weeks that builds on your established habits and you’ll be surprised how easy some previously not so easy stuff becomes.
There are very few times when absolute perfection is required when it comes to nutrition, so viewing “perfection” as the ultimate goal may do more harm than good. Aim high and if you fall short, realize that it is okay. If you are consistent 90% of the time, having some cookies or enjoying a meal out with someone is not going to derail your progress. Rather than trying to have a “perfect” week, try to have a “consistent” week. And like any other skill, building consistency takes time and there are going to be some mistakes along the way. If you eat 28 meals a week and fall face first into a pizza for one of them, no big deal. You have 27 other opportunities to practice your new skills. Use those opportunities wisely.