Most of us make at least a couple of New Year's resolutions, but many of them fall flat once the holidays are over and we get into the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Experts in habit formation and human cognition have found that three distinctive patterns of practice can help you turn your best intentions into lasting behaviors that make you more likely to hit whatever targets you set for your work, hobbies, or training. Let's examine the pros and cons of each and see when it's best to utilize them.
Triathlete Chris Nikic, who is the first person with Down Syndrome to finish an Ironman, recently versioned a graphic created by Brad Stulberg, Outside contributor and author of The Practice of Groundedness. On one side is an up-and-down intensity cycle with peaks labeled heroic effort, legend, and all-nighter. These are contrasted with valleys such as illness, injury, and burnout. The other side shows a staircase with small steps, alongside the caption “repeated small efforts compounded for big gains.” The conclusion? “Consistency beats intensity.”
Nikic added his 1% better philosophy to the consistency model. In the book he wrote with his father, Nik, and Don Yaeger, Chris revealed that when he was 18, his dad implored him to set an ambitious physical goal and achieve it by getting just a little bit better each day. Chris did his first pushup that day, and within three years, he crossed the finish line in Panama City Beach. His Ironman heroics not only proved that Chris could do anything and inspired his many followers to do likewise, but also earned him the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2021 ESPYS. “I’m never the fastest, but I also never quit,” he wrote on Instagram. “The power of 1% better is that it creates a strong mindset and continues to produce consistent improvement.” Simply by continuing to train, Nikic progressed to the point that he could do what many people might have thought was impossible.
Stable habits can be anchored in efficiency – in other words, what is the minimum amount of effort needed to deliver the outcome you seek? One example is the 10,000 steps per day goal that a smartwatch or fitness tracker can help you monitor. Would going to 15,000 or 20,000 eventually be beneficial? Perhaps. But if you’ve just got a big picture goal like “get fitter,” then sticking to the original target and hitting it consistently should be sufficient. Or if you’re trying to learn to play the guitar, just showing up for your lessons every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and practicing in between will take you out of the beginner stage sooner than expected.
One of the most enduring tales of how forming a habit focused on progression can lead to amazing results concerns Milo of Croton. Born in the late 6th century BC, he is immortalized in countless statues and the writing of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, Aristotle, and Cicero for his wrestling. Legend has it that Milo’s uncommon strength and power was the result of the first and possibly most uncommon weightlifting program in history. He supposedly started by lifting a baby calf. As it grew, Milo continued picking up the (presumably baffled) animal, until he was able to lift it as an adult bull. This is what strength and conditioning coaches now refer to as progressive overload training. Apply a similar practice to your own resolutions and goals and you might be surprised by how far you go.
In an article, Scott H. Young, author of the bestselling book Ultralearning and co-creator of the Top Performer and Life of Focus courses with Cal Newport, compared and contrasted Milo’s approach to an invariable approach in which you do the same thing every time. “Progressive habits are about managing growth, while consistent habits are about managing decline,” he wrote. “Progressive habits are less stable, but offer higher growth. Consistent habits offer lower growth, but are more stable.” Choosing between the two might come down to what your main aims are now and how you anticipate these staying the same or changing in the future.
“A progressive habit can be better if you either expect low decline or a continued, long-term focus on growth,” Young continued. “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.”
The decision to either remain consistent or chase progress in your resolution should also include a realistic appraisal of your schedule and lifestyle. If you have a limited amount of time to devote to your new goal or habit, then sticking to the same minimal routine will probably be best for you. Whereas if you plan to open up more bandwidth or will need to add volume over time to achieve your aim – such as when trying to make the leap from a 10K to a half marathon – then a progressive could be a better fit.
Variable programming is at the heart of certain fitness systems. One of the things that appeals to many CrossFitters is that there is an almost infinite number of workout of the day (WOD) options and that they never know what is going to show up on the whiteboard of their box. Perhaps it’s this variety that keeps some people showing up to see if they’ll be required to do heavy Olympic lifts, intense rowing, rowing, or SkiErg intervals, high-rep bodyweight exercises, or anything in between. This is balanced with knowing that whichever exercises the coach picks or CrossFit HQ prescribes, they will be developing power, speed, and strength and improving their movement competence.
Such planned variety doesn’t just apply to physical training, but also to other kinds of skill acquisition like learning a language, mastering a musical instrument, and more. In a blog post for Cognition Today, Aditya Shukla contrasted variable learning to static repetition, which she defined as “repeating a specific skill till you are good at it.” She gave the example of making coffee to differentiate the two tactics. With static repetition, you’d just keep making the same drink with a precise amount of coffee and boiling water every time. Whereas variable practice would involve making multiple cups for people with different orders, like a true barista. “Variable learning lets you extrapolate and interpolate better,” Shukla added. “With extrapolation, you can extend your learning to new domains. And with interpolation, you can fill in the missing gaps in your learning with educated guesses. Both are needed to become an expert and have a deep understanding of a topic or skill.”
While the start of the article made her sound like an advocate for variation by itself, Shukla went on to state that static repetition is necessary too, because it gives you practice in nailing the fundamentals before you move on to more advanced concepts and apply the basics to different contexts. Another benefit of applying variability to your new resolution or goal is that it keeps things fresh, as you’re always learning something new and being challenged to apply your developing skillset in different ways. However, you shouldn’t confuse variability for randomness. Changing things up in a way that’s planned, intentional, and has a clear aim in mind is going to be more beneficial than just taking a mindless, scattershot approach to what you’re doing.