Consistency without experimentation is a treadmill

It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place. – Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life

I almost didn’t write a newsletter this week. My day job has been busy, and post-COVID weekend social plans have eaten some of the time that I typically reserve for writing on the weekends.

Then I thought of the quote above from the late Clayton Christensen. In the quote, he’s referring to sticking to your principles. But the message also applies to being consistent with habits (or side projects). This newsletter has become a piece of my identity. Having published a post 32 weeks in a row, I am now a person who consistently writes a weekly newsletter. In one sense, skipping a week wouldn’t be a big deal. But in another sense, if I skip a week, the piece of me that now identifies as someone with a weekly newsletter would fade. Once it becomes ok for me to skip a week, what’s to stop me from doing it again?  

I have a goal of publishing a post for 52 consecutive weeks (shooting 100%). If I skipped just one week, I could still end up shooting 98%. But that’s likely not how it would shake out. Once I skip one week, I would probably have other things that come up that would cause me to skip a few more. I would go from shooting 100% to shooting 98%, and probably land somewhere in the 85-90% range by week 52.

So I decided to commit to consistency and write this post despite time constraints. It got me thinking about consistency, especially with regard to side projects and building an audience. 

When I was in the On Deck Writers fellowship, we had successful writers with large followings like Lenny Rachitsky and Nathan Baschez speak to us. One theme in their advice was to just get started writing and keep writing consistently. They both experienced conservative growth for a long time before their newsletters took off. You can see the growth in Lenny’s newsletter below – the first 6 months were slow, steady, patient growth. For both of them, consistency and persistence was key.

But consistency needs to be balanced with experimentation. Consistency without experimentation is a treadmill of mediocrity. If all of your energy is going to maintaining consistency for the sake of consistency, then you won’t discover amd create inflection points that change the trajectory of growth. Therefore, when it comes to side projects, true consistency needs to be about more than just maintenance – it needs to include experimentation and innovation.

I’m battling this right now with my own newsletter – I’ve been consistent in my writing but not nearly consistent enough in my experimentation. I’ve had slow incremental growth, which is nice, but not as much growth as I could have if I was investing more time experimenting. I see other entrepreneurs with multiple side projects suffer from these bandwidth constraints as well – they have so many side projects that they’re maintaining that they lack the bandwidth to experiment enough with any of them to achieve a breakout success.

After all, when it comes to side projects, building an audience, or any other entrepreneurial ventures, a vast majority of the returns come from breakthroughs (much like a venture fund portfolio). Optimizing for consistency without leaving ample bandwidth for experimentation is like a venture fund investing in a bunch of businesses that they think can be singles or doubles, without placing any bets on potential home runs.

With anything entrepreneurial, consistency isn’t consistency unless it includes experimentation.