Should You Do Intense, Short-Term Projects, or Build Long-Term Habits?

Let’s say you have a goal to reach: getting in shape, starting a business, writing a book, advancing your career. What’s the best way to pursue it?

Some people argue that you need to put all your energy into it. Throw yourself into the project. Read dozens of books on the topic. Aggressively seek out mentors and coaches. Publicize your ambitions and work your ass off. Start-ups famously use this philosophy to build billion dollar companies in just a few years.

Other people instead argue that this mindset is misguided. You’re motivated now, but what about three months from now when the enthusiasm has worn off? The better strategy is to go for small gains, but deliberately increasing over time. Do less than you possibly can, but move up steadily. I’ll call this the habitual approach.

The two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, but their motivating philosophies certainly contradict: push hard now or start slow. Which works better?

Which is Better: Habits or Intensity?

I’ve had a hard time picking a side in this debate because, the truth is, I’ve found both of them to be useful. I did the MIT Challenge and The Year Without English which were certainly based on a start-up approach applied to learning. But I learned other topics, like psychology and business, largely from a habitual approach of steadily reading more books.

My business seems to have benefited from both approaches. Although I’ve changed strategies over the years, whenever I’ve settled on a writing frequency, I stick with it. Every week, writing according to that system. Whether I’m busy or not. Whether I have great ideas or nothing.

But some of my biggest leaps forward came from bursts of intensity, not habits. I wrote Learn More, Study Less, over a couple months with an intense writing schedule. I built most of my products this way, researching and creating them intensely, rather than in a stretched-out process.

The answer to my question, at least in my experience, seems to be: it depends. Sometimes habits are a better strategy. Other times going for full-intensity makes more sense.

When Should You Use Habits, When Should You Go All-In?

If the answer of which strategy you use is, it depends, then the follow-up question is: depends on what? What is the distinction which makes the habitual approach work sometimes and the start-up approach work other times? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Habits for Logarithmic Growth, Intensity for Exponential

One way to look at which works best is to view the growth curve: is the goal easiest in the beginning or in the end? If it’s easier at the beginning, then habits make more sense. You want to be preparing yourself for the long-haul. If it’s easier at the end, then an intense approach makes pushing through that initial challenge more likely.

Fitness has a logarithmic growth curve, meaning the first improvements come easily, but they get progressively harder with time. By the above reasoning, that means fitness is also a domain that is best tackled with habits, which sacrifice a little initial speed for long-term stickiness. Since the long-term is harder, that’s exactly what you need.

Starting a business typically has an exponential curve. There’s a lot of initial barriers to getting set up, finding a product, market and the first few customers. After you’re established, it becomes easier to continue and grow.

Some things go through phases of growth. Consider learning Chinese. The first part is exponential. You don’t know the tones or characters, so everything is bewildering and few people understand you. You don’t have a foundation, so every new word is much harder to learn. Eventually however, things get easier to learn, but you face a different challenge: the sheer quantity of low-frequency words and phrases to learn. Now you’re logarithmic because you need to learn hundreds more words to have the same usefulness as the first ones.

By this measure a burst of intensity to get the foundations of Chinese and push through the frustration barrier, followed by a decades-long commitment to habitual improvement seems to be a good fit. That’s the approach I’m using, and the one I’ve seen be roughly successful in those who are quite fluent.

Habits for Easy Goals, Intensity for Hard Ones

Another distinction isn’t about the type of growth, but the difficulty of the problem.

Some goals can be achieved by most people, given a modest amount of effort. Reading a book per week. Getting in shape. Writing a blog regularly. Learning a new language.

Other goals are unlikely to be achieved by most people, even given serious effort. Publishing a best-selling book. Building a multimillion dollar business. Being a world-class athlete.

Habits aren’t necessarily ill-suited to big goals. After all, any big goal is necessarily accomplished by a series of little steps. Great athletes, authors and entrepreneurs all have regular habits which form the foundations for their success.

However, the habitual approach, that of deliberately picking an easy intensity level and working up, is often nowhere near the level of action required for success at extreme levels. At those levels, consistency isn’t enough, you must be consistently doing an intense amount of work to succeed.

Consider lifting weights. When I’m doing well, I would go to the gym four times per week, for roughly forty minutes per workout. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he writes in his autobiography, would work out for as much as six hours per day, leading up to competitions.

Consider writing. I usually write a blog article per week, but at my peak I used to write five per week. However, Leo Babauta, the founder of ZenHabits, used to write as many as twenty articles across various blogs when he was first building an audience.

This doesn’t rule out a habitual approach for big goals. It just means that often people have no idea how much work the people at the top put in to get there. If your habits don’t line up with the typical intensity required to reach the level of success you want, you won’t get there even if you’re perfectly consistent.

Intensity for Main Projects, Habits for Side Ones

A final distinction has to do with focus. Habits work really well when you’re not focusing on them. Setting up an automatic fitness routine is especially useful when you don’t want to think about your physical fitness. It’s simply carved into your time automatically and you never miss it. That gives you the option of investing your willpower and attention onto other goals.

By this standard, setting up a habitual approach is good for any goal that can’t be your main goal in that particular moment. If the goal you have can’t be the first priority in the majority of your waking thoughts, it probably is best to create a system so it works on autopilot.

The necessary converse of this is that, if habits are good for goals you cannot devote your full attention to, intense projects work somewhat better when you can.

I would say, at any given time, I have about a half dozen vague goals and ambitions circling around my head. Right at this moment, I want to sleep better, get in better shape, eat healthy, write blog articles, grow my business and read more books. Only one of these can be my main priority. That means, almost certainly, that the habitual approach is going to be the way to go for the rest.

Merging the Two Philosophies

The philosophies of habits and intensity aren’t necessarily incompatible. Often you’ll switch between them in pursuing a goal depending on its priority, difficulty and growth curve. However, since their core tenets often contradict, its useful to have some guiding principles for which might be better suited to your current goals.

What do you think? Which strategy: habits or intensity, do you default to? Which areas of your life have you gotten the most results from using it? Please share in the comments!


  • Candace

    I saw your interview on RBT and I know you read James Clear but have you read this article by him? http://jamesclear.com/buffett-…. My default is to build habits around the stepwise goals I want to accomplish these include working out, eating healthy, and working on blog posts. But I agree with you that it’s hard to ramp up to the intensity level to achieve a certain level of success if you are strictly on a consistent habit mode. Though I see it that if you want to achieve another level put another habit in place or modify your existing habit to reach it.

  • Cirby

    Freakin amazing post Scott!!!
    See this is why I continually keep track of your blog versus any other blogs. You bring topics that are not just intelligent, but unorthodox and useful. This whole week I was trying to figure out how to balance my work/school/project schedule. You didn’t spoon feed me the answer, but elegantly opened a door to the solution. Nice work man….

  • Viraj

    Scott,

    I enjoyed the blog post! I believe both methods can work well and there’s is no clear choice.

    As for my experience, I’ve found that doing something habitually over a long period of time (a year or more) is how I’ve experienced the most learning and progress. For instance, this year, I’ve set the goal to read and review 52 books on Medium – LINK: https://medium.com/the-2015-bo… . So far I’ve kept this up, even if the pace is taking a bit to get used to (since I only wrote a blog post a month in 2014 and read 27 books).

    I’m not sure whether I’ll be successful come December, but already four weeks into the challenge, I am getting the sense that even if I fail, I’ll still have come pretty close to the 52 target number.

    P.S. – This challenge I’m undertaking in 2015 is in a large part to the trail you have already blazed by going through the MIT Challenge, so I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for inspiring me to pursue my own goals and ambitions the way you have.

  • John

    I’m not sure that there’s much of a contradiction. You can do both at time as intensity can be a subset of long term habits.

    One way to look at it is through foundations and supplements. Foundational habits are often ‘quiet’ in comparison meaning that they’re long term and kinda run in the background if they go on for long enough. Things that fall into that realm are things like reading regularly,exercising, writing etc. They’re just generally good things to do whether or not a project depends on them or not.

    For the latter, we can adopt intense regimes to see quicker progress but by definition they’re going to be short term. You can adopt a short term reading project that requires you to read a 2 books a week or something but what underlies the whole thing is habit or reading regularly. After it’s done, we can fall back to the long term habits we have.

    It’s an odd dichotomy that’s not really a dichotomy because short term projects often have defined goals whereas long-term habits do not. However, I feel we can merge them together with some ease.

  • My

    Let’s say my goal is to have a nice body, I would have to use habitual method right? Since maintaining a good body is an on going thing. Where as winning a competition is a momentarily achievement, therefore the intensity method would be more appropriate. So does it depend on the longevity of the goal?

  • Kris

    Great article! I find that intense focus is necessary when I’m learning something new or working on something really challenging. For example, I’ve been trying to learn how to write macros using Excel VBA. I tried spending a little time each week practicing them. 1 year later and I’m still struggling. I decided to dedicate a weekend to it, and I’ve already made huge strides.

  • iair

    This article could be easily expanded to make a chapter for a book.

    +1!

  • Cougar Brenneman

    Hi, Scott,

    In studying Piagetian theory of childhood development, I found an experimental approach that both verified the theories of Piaget and provides a possible answer. Sorry, I was in university decades ago, and I can’t reference it. But here goes.

    The stages identified by Piaget can all be characterized by cognitive rules. What happens in a child is that if you can figure out where they are in terms of these stages, you can provide stimulus that does one of two things:

    1) If the child is approaching the end of one stage, you provide stimuli that breaks the child’s cognitive rules and forces him or her to rethink them. This approach accelerates the child’s move into a more advanced cognitive rule set.

    2) After the child has made this leap, the stimuli should be consistent with the new rule set, because now, the goal is to enable to child to master this new cognitive perspective.

    Translate this into adult learning: Step 1 is analogous to intense study of a new domain of learning, such as Chinese or anything else. The goal of this intense work is to enable your mind to break old patterns and embrace new ones.

    Step 2 is analogous to the gradual, ongoing work of continuing to blog over time. The goal of this regular, consistent, and gentle work process is to gain mastery of an existing skill set.

    An example for me is that I’ve had to learn computer programming to build my life project (a curriculum for personal transformation). This was completely foreign to my skill set previously. So for each of the apps I’ve written, I’ve had to bury myself in this new skill set for extended periods of time. Then I go back to the other things I do–albeit intensely, because that’s how I roll–but with a lot less intensity from when I’m programming.

    I hope this helps.

    Cougar

  • Thom

    I think that intense bursts of doing stuff should always be preferred because it is when you are most engaged. To be truly engaged in life is something we humans strive for.

  • Sabrina

    Like always, great post! It is funny, I’m all about the intensity when it comes to projects and my goals. But As I get older (I am only 22) I feel like the best developed qualities about myself have come from slow habitual effort. For example a few months ago I wanted to learn a little bit about every major machine learning algorithm. It helped, but i do not think it is a permanent accomplishment (I’ll probably forget the algorithms in a few months). However, I am starting to notice long term improvement in my writing and the way I express myself verbally. Although this was never a goal, it’s a result of steady reading, improving my vocabulary and gaining confidence. I think whether the accomplishment is short or long term and intrinsic and extrinsic might also play a role. But you are right, it all depends. 🙂

  • Lisha

    Great post! I really like the way you broke it down and looked at it from different angles! This definitely helps me decide which approach to take with different goals.

  • Shubha

    I think the two approaches feed into each other. Short-term spurts add to your learning and motivation – they help you experience progress – and you need that to stick to your long-term goals (and work on building more good habits).

  • Duncan Smith

    I think the three perspectives that you identified are best used as advanced techniques for people who are already experienced at creating and maintaining habits. As you wrote, “Great athletes, authors and entrepreneurs all have regular habits which form the foundations for their success.” Someone who hasn’t spent time building up study habits won’t be able to sit in a room for 60 hours per week learning the MIT CS curriculum, regardless of how much they want to. Similarly, only people with a serious coding habit have a chance of building that billion-dollar software startup. Then there’s the question of what the distinction is between a habit and an intense project. I think you’re getting at this in the “Habits for Easy Goals, Intensity for Hard Ones” section: “Often people have no idea how much work the people at the top put in to get there.” Even if it takes 66 days to form a habit (http://jamesclear.com/new-habi…, that’s a lot less than, say, the four years that an elite athlete might spend preparing for the Olympics. For people at the top of their careers, intense training might just seem like normal life (i.e., a habit).

  • Phani Teja

    Hey Scott ,
    This is a great post. You have alum rated the topic very well. One thing I think you have missed is for some tasks intensity over a short period of time is insufficient. Intensity itself cannot break the barriers to entry.For example you took the MIT challenge,but most people couldn’t grasp the concepts of the subjects within such short period of time. Soon enough they will drop out of their project. The harder the project,the harder it is to cross the barriers to entry with just motivation,and intensity. But with sustained discipline,one may not feel discouraged ,for he expects progress to be slow. Discipline and intensity are both required to be successful,but as John,and Duncan have said discipline is inherent to performing at a high level.

  • Ali Anani, PhD (@alianani15)

    This is quite interesting. It is known that habits form a
    about 45% of decision-making. I wrote a presentation on Habit Marketing this week and is following it with another one to show by example how habits were used successfully in marketing products.

    http://www.slideshare.net/huda

    Habits take time to change and I believe using habits is a formula for success.

  • Scott Young

    I think there’s some misconception about my viewpoint about habits. Let’s say there’s two philosophies that could both be described as a “habitual” approach:

    1. You need consistent, regular output to succeed. Building automatic habits entails this type of output.

    2. Building habits is best done by starting easier than you have capacity for and scaling up.

    The first doesn’t contradict with intensity at all, indeed it’s perfectly possible to imagine a schedule which is intense + consistent. Instead, I’m trying to compare the merits the stronger version of the habitual philosophy, that which advocates an easier-than-possible starting point with gradual scale-up.

    -Scott

  • Ali Anani, PhD (@alianani15)

    Scott,

    I am satisfied with your explanation. It makes lot of sense.

    Ali

  • Bob Sweeney

    I think your observations are very useful. They certainly apply in my life. For example, I am a pretty good duplicate bridge player–win tournaments and club games every now and then. I’ve been playing for 45 years and, at one point, considered trying to become a real champion level player. I was playing good opponents for 4 hours every day. The problem with that was “no income”. So, I devoted my life to business and made playing bridge a “habit”. I’m still a good player, although not a top level one, and that is fine by me.

  • Duncan Smith

    Scott, I get what you’re saying about the two habitual philosophies. As an example, you wrote at http://www.scotthyoung.com/blo… that you started the MIT Challenge working 60 hrs/week, then later reduced that to 35 hrs/week or so. Therefore, that would qualify as an intense project approach, since you compressed your schedule at the beginning to push through the exponential part of the growth curve. I think it can be useful to evaluate a project using the criteria that you proposed, to decide whether it is best attacked using an initial push of intense effort. Nevertheless, I don’t think that advice alone would be enough for the majority of your readers because most people aren’t prepared for that type of intense focus on one project. To get to the point where that project was achievable, you spent several years building up your focus muscles using habits and a gradual approach. So from a longer-term point of view, even the MIT Challenge project was a result of habitual approach #2, starting easier and scaling up until you had the capacity to work on it intensely for 60 hrs/week.

  • Scott

    I’m elated you’ve addressing this question, Scott. It’s a toughie I’ve struggled with a lot.

    Regarding your interest in eating healthier, consider Joel Fuhrman’s work. All his stuff is good, but you will probably appreciate “Super Immunity” the most.

  • Peter

    Another good article Scott, I think you made a good retrospective after completing your MIT and learning a new language. Still ought to give your skills as a side-effect from your habits as a good test by participating translations from the community benefit.

    So we can choose our habits, you say select your difficulty and factor your intensity and focus. Sounds like a good plan for me to do.

    Enjoy the cruise…

    Peter

  • Craige

    Very thought provoking article..I am a blogger myself. Epitome of good research, planning and execution.

  • Saad Asad

    Some people have the tendency to go all in and then relax for a few weeks. For me I like to do things consistently if it’s something that I enjoy, for example reading is something that I enjoy, therefore I would prefer wanting to read daily rather then go crazy one day.

    But with work it’s opposite, I would prefer working 3 days straight and finishing things fast and then enjoying the rest of the week. I guess for me it comes down to the rewards that the particular habit gives.

  • Ron

    Great article. I have habitually worked hard for years overcoming all sorts of obstacles. A final intense period of hard work brought about an increase in my income. So I suppose that geometrical better illustrates what happened there. Habit and intensity work hand in hand. Both are necessary to achieve success.

  • Ali

    Thanks Scott, this article has come at a really good time for me, and it has helped me to resolve some conflicts I was having between intensive goals and longer term habits.

    How long do you think it is sensible to commit to an intensive goal for? Would three months be the maximum, or would you go for longer?

  • Efren

    For me it’s more important to build long-term habits: start easy and build intensity over time. For example, if someone is trying to improve their fitness, I think that it would be more beneficial to actually get into the habit of working out and changing eating habits rather than do a short intense boot camp. What’s the use of hitting the gym hard for three or four weeks only to discontinue the habit and lose your gains? Once you have the habit built then you can train to compete in a marathon or triathlon and push your limits to reach new plateaus.

  • Roque

    Thanks Scott-here’s my 2 cents short of $1.73;

    I would have to say the two are intertwined. Because when the epiphenal moment dawns in a person to overcome a challenge; internal or external, whatever the catalyst—the information gathering begins. If the information becomes constructural towards the goal, the individual’s idea gathers plausibility. Excitement ensues for the quick application of the new found knowledge.
    Whether inadvertently or consciously, the project starts off Intense for the Short Term. When adaptation confronts the goal, it takes a down shifting in gears to pinpoint the modification of either the Personal Habits or the strategy: thus converting to the start of—to Build Long-Term Habits. The inversive nature of these two personas remain in volley interplay up to the finished project.
    When for instance the external blow was delivered when my employer said to me,” your terminated ” this past December 2014–I took it as an epiphenal moment ( to say the least ) on multiple levels: current corporate culture in labor/management strategies; e.g.. profitability in high employee turn over, entrepreneurial posturing in every ones lifetime; as not an option ( what better company to trust than your own ), gratefulness to our God of Heaven and Earth for never losing the love to know. And to laugh. Very undesirable tendencies in some societal work environments.
    The time became Now. Procrastination was a luxury lost. With a confidence in stoic self-reliance my aim is to succeed in the IT field, ( at least their hiring ) then my own business. However, my self-reliance was challenged again with the stigma of a termination crippling my personal resume which reflects my character. Long established employers are expert at terminations; to prevent paying unemployment benefits to the Disqualified employee due to a mistake, error in judgement, or just having a bad day. In defense of companies, employees need firing when proven beyond a shadow of doubt they are destructive, socio-paths, denying counseling for reform and self improvement. I have never been the latter.
    My time for information gathering is acute and of the essence. I would no longer sell my physical labor below poverty wages.
    Please feel free to review my other report, and if it merits consideration; please by all means participate.
    The discovery of this venue whilst gathering information for my new profession, crystalized even more for me the signs of the times we share. ” Crowd Funding ” fills the void corporate culture and government leave unfulfilled to the masses. ScottHYoung.com, EdX, LifeHacker, Robert Kiyosaki, the list growing daily of Online Alternatives having access to specialized knowledge critical to survive with prosperity in this century. But the ” Ancient Skills ” with improvements made therein within the last century; to acquire more affectively and comprehensively, faster than ever thought possible—information and knowledge: continue to evade the present model of public education.
    The hopes of a paradigm shift from the current standard to the Alternatives, or an amalgamation thereof is slowly materializing— but ever sooo slowly.
    The book ” Learn More Study Less ” was the catalyst to Relearn Learning becoming instrumental to further my readings on cognitive studies on memory. For that I thank you. I believe your book would serve well as an ” Introductory To College Skills ” course to all high school graduates and older adults returning to college or “Uncollege”. Maybe even earlier than that.
    The data has been compiled and the stats are in with the dropout rates, correlating crime studies, Suicides of our teenagers to young adults as the products of ” Generation X ” I wont reference a chain of Links here to support this writing. I’ve lived it. It should not have taken so long, or the manufacturing of a ” Generation X ” by the greatest nation in history, to witness the phenomenon of MOOCS, with the Art and Joy of Learning.
    Everybody reading this post on this website has a greater responsibility obligated to this long awaited paradigm shift then ” yo’al ” might think.
    WRITE ON!
    Thank you for your time-it’s precious.

  • Martin

    Really helpful post. Thanks Scott. I’ve always pursued all my goals with a habitual approach. Looking back, I can see how the intensity approach can work well if used appropriately.

  • Andri Herdiyanto

    Great article, Scott. I find it’s really useful to decide which approach to pursue a specific goal. I would be very happy if you continue write about this topic for another two or three posts after this one.

  • Greg Woodard

    Scott,
    Just a short comment here. I have found that short, intense focuse works best for me. I completed a significant professional qualification last year when I was deployed. I needed to complete it while I was away so I could be present for my family when we returned home. I completed the hard work of studying & passing an oral board in two months. I had had the material for over a year. I learned it & passed in two months.
    When I was working on my 2015 goals, I decided to go with quarterly check ups. The short term nature of them makes them seem more manageable.

    Greg

  • Claire

    Hi Scott,
    I’ve just found your blog, and what a treasure! I’ve bee doing quite a bit of reading on goal setting lately and you explain, logically and succinctly, what other efficiency experts and life coaches haven’t managed in entire books on the subject. Thank you, this has been incredibly useful.

  • Judith

    To a certain degree, the preference may be one of lifestyle choice. Do you (or do you want to) live a life where taking a few weeks to totally focus on one thing is a feasible option? If you do not, then the slow-but-certain approach might just be a better fit.

    I work in academia, and I have the freedom to add one, two, three small things to my regular schedule – read some research literature in another language, write a couple of research-related blog posts to improve my popular-science-writing… These kinds of things. But the biggest “extreme” thing I can possibly fit into my life is investing a full weekend (and I cannot do this too often), and perhaps an occasional half-week of vacation.
    I see the allure of the all-in-projects. Yeah, they are much cooler than “learn a language in 5-10 years” 😉 But I do assume most need a certain amount of ‘scaling-back’ in other areas of life. If you do not want to scale back in those other areas… Well, slow and steady works, too.

  • Omar

    Great post

    I default to the intensity approach because I want results and feedbacks as soon as I can.

    Where have I achieved good results with this approach so far?

    Studing copywriting and making a strategy for a transhumanist movement I’m creating, just to tell you two examples.

    Anyway, I get your point on the advantages of the habits approach and I’m wondering in what areas of my life I can exploit it.

  • Lagbaja

    Fantastic article Scott!

    I never comment but totally love your stuff.

    In a land full of liars- turns out you’re the truth.

    Keep up the good work

  • Valeria

    Great article! I found your vimeo video about your experience in Spain and had to track down your website! I was so happy to find out that you are still blogging regularly and that you have such interesting views on learning how to learn. Just one quick question: you said that most people can learn a foreign language with a modest amount of effort, where do you think motivation falls within the habit/intensity approach? If you are learning a language but are not able to do an immersion experience overseas, which one of the two approaches do you think will be more effective in helping learners keep the level of motivation up? Hasta pronto! Vale

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