“Three and one!”
That’s my fitness instructor, calling out a change in tempo as we lift weights to music. We’ve been doing bicep curls “two and two” … down two counts, up two counts. Now it’s time to adjust the rhythm.
Why? Because our bodies adapt. Do the same move long enough, and your muscles become so accustomed, they plateau and don’t have to work as hard.
By “surprising” my muscles, giving them something new—a new tempo, a different move, a heavier weight—I can keep growing stronger. But only if I keep showing up to do the work. If I snooze those workouts, I’ll lose that muscle. Consistency counts.
We need both: consistency and surprise.
I’ve worked out every day since March 14, 2020. (Thank you, pandemic, for this leaner-stronger-yet-still-a-wee-bit-squishy bod.) While my body moves, my brain “writes.” Sometimes those mental drafts become physical drafts—a note in my journal, a scribble on a sticky note, a few lines in a Word doc. This month, almost all my draft-y thoughts have been variations on this theme of “consistency and surprise.”
Today, I brought this collection of consistent ideas together on the page. Stacked them, edited them, put them in order, and this article practically wrote itself. Surprise!
Halfway through a workout, my stomach growls. I picture the breakfast I’ll be eating soon: a whole-grain English muffin smeared with natural peanut butter and a sprinkle of flaky salt. I consistently eat this small, protein-rich breakfast—not just because it’s good for me, but because I love it.
Guess what else I love? Pancakes! Now and then I indulge in a plate full of chocolate chip pancakes, dotted with butter and dusted with powdered sugar. OMG yum! As long as most mornings find me returning to a more healthful option, this occasional surprise is good for my mood and not terrible for my nutrition.
My daughter Emma is growing more proficient in playing chess. She knows several slick moves that can put her opponent in check, fast. But if she works those maneuvers consistently, repeat opponents will catch on. Smart adversaries will flex their approach to counteract predictable moves. Emma needs the element of surprise.
For a professional musician, consistently showing up for performances is how to build a fanbase, grow a business, and sustain an income. But the pandemic has kept artists from touring and performing in person. I marvel at how singer-songwriter Susan Werner has dealt with these circumstances.
For 50 weeks, Susan has produced an online show every Sunday evening. Week after week, she makes music for an hour or more, streaming her energetic and engaging performance on YouTube and Facebook. She varies the theme every week. This surprising variety keeps the audience—and Susan—coming back for more.
Whatever the show’s concept (this Sunday: “I Enjoy Being a Girl: songs on the subject that are charming, annoying, true, outdated, etc.), Susan always has a week to get her act together. “It’s like that saying, throw your knapsack over the wall and make yourself go get it,” she says.
The Skimm is a daily newsletter with 4 million subscribers. That’s no small following. Their appeal comes from a reader-friendly balance of consistency and surprise. Scrolling through the message each morning, I know what to expect. The fonts, writing style, and order of items follow a predictable pattern. And yet they surprise me with unexpected banner images, clever plays on words, and enticing links to useful or entertaining content.
“Consistency doesn’t have to be boring or expected,” says Robert Viola, my go-to collaborator when a project calls for graphic design. “Guidelines are just guardrails. You can work within a set of guidelines and still create sparks.”
Robert appreciates that guidelines often prescribe where visual elements have to appear, so we have freedom to choose what will make an impression. “Even when these elements are consistently placed where they’re supposed to be, according to the guidelines,” says Robert, “the overall effect can still surprise you.”
Consistency and surprise have a place in the legal system, too, says my friend Sean McCumber, an attorney who specializes in family law. The law doesn’t change, and the structure and delivery of motions has to be consistent. The surprises often come from the facts and human beings involved, and the way one party responds to another.
“Clients are all different, and the fact sets are always different,” says Sean. “Sometimes we discover an unexpected settlement approach that requires a different tack.”
Consistently “good” writing is important to safeguard your professionalism and reputation. But if your rules are so tight you can’t occasionally start a sentence with “But” (see what I did there?), it’s time to question their strategic value. What’s more important? Being right or being read? Give your audience the gift of surprise.
Consistency and surprise. We need them both—whether we’re building health, habits, relationships, business, or blog posts.