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!