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Dive 46: The Secret to Improvement is NOT consistency. It’s FIRE.
Hey, it’s Alvin!
One of the most common pieces of advice I get on how to improve a skill is: “be consistent.”
Wanna be a better writer? Write every day.
Wanna be a better cook? Cook every day.
Wanna be a better videographer? Publish a video every day.
Lots of people take this advice to heart, but give up after a few attempts. Then “coaches” shame them and make an example of them by saying, “See? You failed because you gave up. You weren’t consistent for long enough. It’s your own fault for not being persistent.”
But I don’t think that’s fair.
“Be consistent” is shitty advice because consistency shouldn’t be the goal of self-improvement, but a by-product of a quality process.
A quality improvement process has two key characteristics:
You see, it spells FIRE—Fast Iterations, Really Enjoyable. As in, a quality improvement process is FIRE, as the kids say these days.
Yes, that’s the extent of my humour.
Merriam-Webster defines “consistent” as, “marked by harmony, regularity, or steady continuity: free from variation or contradiction.” The problem is that this doesn’t account for the importance of variation and frequency.
For one, we want variation. If we do the same thing the same way over and over again, we’re not improving. Every iteration—every post we write, every meal we cook, every video we publish—should be an improvement over the previous ones. The idea is to take all the lessons we learned, apply them to the current iteration, and make something better. We want each iteration to be different. We want each iteration to be BETTER.
The idea of “regularity” is also vague. “Regular” could mean writing one newsletter post every day, every week, or every year. Writing a post once a year would be “consistent,” but infrequent. Frequency matters because iterating too frequently can lead to burnout. But iterating too sparsely means you lack momentum.
It’s like working out. You want to warm up before a workout to prepare yourself physically and mentally for what’s coming. It’s just easier to start an intense workout from a warm state than a cold state. This is also why you don’t want to rest too long between sets. Because if you rest long enough to cool down, then it will take more effort to start up again.
And this is true of any skill you’re working on. For me, posting for my newsletter once a week is the sweet spot. It’s not so frequent as to burn me out. And it’s not so sparse that I cool down between posts. I have a rhythm going, so my mind is primed to think, create, and publish every week.
Also, I can only learn how to improve my writing by getting feedback from my peers and readers after it’s published. So, publishing more often gives me more learning opportunities, which lets me grow faster as a writer.
What matters is the speed to produce and the speed to iterate. Consistency is often a side effect of this approach, but it isn’t the point.
Faster iterations = faster improvements.
Many of the “gurus” who preach “be consistent” also don’t explain “how?” People often fail because they don’t have the motivation to “be consistent,” or iterate.
The key is to find and focus on some aspect of the iterative process you enjoy. Because this is personal, I can’t tell you what you need to focus on. Because what I enjoy isn’t necessarily what you enjoy. My rule of thumb is you know you found that special something if you can stay present or mindful as you work. I’ll give you an example of what I mean…
When I started this newsletter, I knew I could commit to publishing once a week, at most. But I also knew that publishing that frequently would be hard if I picked a topic I didn’t enjoy writing about. I work as a backend software developer. I would’ve had plenty of technical topics to dive into. It’s a niche that could’ve drawn thousands of readers, fast. I chose not to do that because it’s just not a topic I want to think more about after a long day of work. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sustain that over the long haul.
Every topic I now dive into is something I enjoy thinking and writing about. That’s a huge reason I enjoy the process of writing for my newsletter. It’s why I’m still at it. Of course, it also helps that I have a caring, supportive community of writers and readers who give me feedback every week, so I can improve. As always, you can email me at email@example.com to let me know your thoughts. It’s just fun to engage with others as part of the process.
I want to emphasize that you need to find something you enjoy about the process, and not some reward at the end of the process. If you feel the need to attach a reward at the end of the process, it’s because you haven’t found a way for the process to be enjoyable. The problem with such a reward is: not only does it distract you from immersing yourself in the process, but it also kills any enjoyment you get out of it.
This is exactly how a school reading program killed my love of reading. The program rewarded students with a field trip for reading a set number of books within a specific period. Because of that, the field trip (the reward) turned reading (the process) into a chore. I learned to love reading again only when my reading was driven by my innate curiosity to learn more about a variety of topics. I talked more about this in Dive 18.
The process IS the reward.
At least, it should be. Once you grasp what that means for you, personally, then iterating through the process will be Really Enjoyable.
So, remember, the key to improving a skill is not consistency. It’s FIRE: Fast Iterations, Really Enjoyable.
Apply your skill(s) to produce small, complete units of work as fast as possible.
Learn from each iteration.
Apply everything you learned across all iterations to the next one.
Fuel your iterations by finding and focusing on some aspect of the process that’s enjoyable for you. Make the process a reward for you.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of self-improvement with FIRE. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Start that FIRE (safely). And I’ll see you in the next one.