Failures of Intensity

Most advice about success, especially communicated through blog articles on the internet, is about what to do.

If you want to lose weight, experts tell you what you should eat, what you shouldn’t, which exercises to do or when to do them. If you want to build a business, different experts tell you which steps to follow and which pitfalls to ignore. All of this advice is about strategies and tactics—qualitative differences in the things you should or shouldn’t do in order to succeed.

There’s much less advice out there on how much you should do, although, in my experience, this is often more important than what you should do.

Consider trying to learn a foreign language. Every advice article online will suggest software, exercises or resources you should use. All of it what to do.

Much less advice is devoted to how much. How many hours do you need to devote to learn the language? Is twenty minutes per day enough? Do you need years using the language full-time? This kind of information is much harder to obtain with the same level of exactness.

A Lack of Information About Intensity

The relative focus on what, as opposed to how much or how often, in advice has a number of causes.

First, whats are often scale invariant. The person who wants to lose a few pounds, but for whom it isn’t a big priority, can still benefit from the same what information as the elite athlete trying to shed pounds who can marshal large resources towards solving the problem. How much and how often advice necessarily assumes a particular level of involvement.

Second, how much and how often can be quite difficult to articulate. As a result, I find this advice best comes from when you get a person to recount what they actually did, rather than what they suggest you to do. Hearing, in their own words, how much effort they put in, for how long and how consistently paints a qualitative feeling that can sometimes be hard to explicitly express in words.

Third, knowing what to do is optimistic. Knowing how much is often depressing. If many people knew how much effort, for how long, was actually required, they may no longer be as interested in the advice-giver’s response. By ignoring such information, speakers avoid excluding the necessarily high percentage of people who are interested in solving their problems, but not enough to do the actual amount of work required to fix it.

The Bias of What

This bias towards what to do, rather than how much, tends to skew many people’s behavior. When they fail at a diet, instead of asking whether they were putting in the correct amount of focus, over the correct length of time, people look for a different set of tactics.

However, often the what doesn’t matter very much. I believe different language learning strategies, for example, are somewhat more effective—real conversations trump textbook exercises. But, this difference is dwarfed by the importance of volume and intensity.

Three months of not speaking English, amounting to 8+ hours of communication every day, was enough to get to a level of comfort in Spanish that Vat and I could be functionally competent in most social events. For Chinese, the same volume was enough to have basic competency, but it probably would have taken a year of similar intensity to reach the same level as Spanish.

The main reason, I believe, our method succeeded was that it was simple enough and forced a level of intensity that isn’t normal for new language learners.

Economies and Diseconomies of Effort

Exercise and diet are often areas with opposite implications, however. While you can, through intensity, make considerable gains, there seems to be diseconomies to effort (unlike language learning, where switching to 100% usage is a bit easier than high but inconsistent usage). This means that instead of intensity, the critical variable is duration. If you maintain an exercise and eating pattern for 5-10 years instead of 5-10 weeks, you’ll be much more likely to experience success, regardless of the method used.

Recognizing whether an area experiences exponential or logarithmic growth can be important in adjusting your attitude. Is the primary mistake to not do the activity intensely enough to see benefits? Or is the primary mistake to not do the activity for a long enough period of time?

Understanding how results accrue with different levels of intensity and patience can often be far more helpful than knowing which techniques to use.

Optimizing at the Wrong Time

Business is another area where the predominance of what advice can be misleading.

I’ve heard from people who have email lists of only a few hundred asking about doing split tests to optimize their conversion rates for products. This is ridiculous. I don’t run split tests and I have nearly sixty thousand subscribers. Running split tests misses the biggest lever these people can pull to improve their business—simply getting more leads.

Bloggers can suffer from this mistake as well. I’ve met people who have only posted three articles needing advice on how to improve their writing. While I understand the sentiment, most writing improvements will come naturally just from writing the first 50-100 articles. What to write only matters once you’re in the correct ballpark for how much to write.

How to Get Information About Intensity and Duration

When you ask someone for advice, don’t just ask them what to do. Tell them to walk you through what they did to accomplish the same feat. Although a single example can sometimes be misleading in terms of intensity, if you repeat this exercise several times you should quickly get an idea of what the ballpark range you need to be in before you should start worrying about other things.

When you see someone in great shape—don’t just ask what their exercise routine is. Ask them how often they go, how consistently, and for how long to get those results. When you see fit people who have been exercising consistently and intensely for ten years, it suddenly evaporates the illusion that it all comes down to having the right workout.

When you see someone fluent in a language you want to speak—ask them how they learned it. How long have they been studying? How many classes did they take? How long and how many times did they spend in an immersive environment? Repeat this enough times and you can start to see the ballpark of how much effort would be required to replicate their fluency.

When you see someone with a great business, don’t just ask for advice. See what they actually did. How long did it take to build? How often did they work and for how long before it was stably successful? Was intensity the main factor or patience?

Most importantly, listen to the answers and don’t dismiss them. My advice is to never get started on a goal if you know, in advance, that you’re not willing to commit the typical effort required for success. Yes, you may be lucky or clever and have faster results. But unless you’re willing to put in at least the typical intensity or duration required, the most likely outcome is failure.

  • just anynone.

    Hi scott
    I am having a very hard time defining my editorial line (for a blog). It is because
    I know there will be a lot to do and I want to do things (what), a lot
    but in the right direction. But I still can’t find this ****ing edtorial line.

  • just anynone.

    Hi scott
    I am having a very hard time defining my editorial line (for a blog). It is because
    I know there will be a lot to do and I want to do things (what), a lot
    but in the right direction. But I still can’t find this ****ing edtorial line.

  • Anthony Herbert

    Thanks for the article, Scott!

    I recently learned this for myself. I had back pain from weightlifting, and everyone (coach, doctors, therapists, Internet) told me to try stretching. I’d stretch daily for 15 minutes daily in one to two week bursts over months with no results. Once I committed to stretching everyday for 30-45 minutes for two months straight, my back pain went away. It seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s so easy to not try hard enough and give up too soon.

  • Anthony Herbert

    Thanks for the article, Scott!

    I recently learned this for myself. I had back pain from weightlifting, and everyone (coach, doctors, therapists, Internet) told me to try stretching. I’d stretch daily for 15 minutes daily in one to two week bursts over months with no results. Once I committed to stretching everyday for 30-45 minutes for two months straight, my back pain went away. It seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s so easy to not try hard enough and give up too soon.

  • jgodse

    Interesting. When people ask me how to get good at a musical instrument, I tell them 30 minutes of practice per day….for 5 years.

  • jgodse

    Interesting. When people ask me how to get good at a musical instrument, I tell them 30 minutes of practice per day….for 5 years.

  • Matt Hall

    I think there’s a side problem this interacts with. Sometimes people know a strategy works, but they don’t know why. They’re told to practice again and again, but when you’re practicing, it doesn’t really feel like you’re getting better in the moment. It feels like a brute force tactic. Other times, such as on a new diet, the dieter knows to do X, Y, and Z strategy, but doesn’t understand the theory of why they’re doing it, so they’ll fail when tempted.

    In that way, a diet and practice are sort of like a religion. You can vaguely know why you’re doing it, and for some people that’s enough, but eventually when really tempted to just quit, it’s the theology of the diet/practice that keeps people in line. For some people, just knowing, ‘I want a better body for X reason’ will be enough (the whole goal-setting mindset), but for other people, they’ll want to know the whys. That’s where the what comes in.

    That lets people know when to stop, too. I hope that someday, in this dieting/exercise scenario, we’ll be able to get very easy, up-to-the-minute details on our health, and see every impact food/exercise has on our body. We can then use that information to specifically tailor our diets and activity routines to what we want. When practicing on the piano, it would be really helpful to know ‘you are developing these finger muscles specifically to be able to move to these positions, and you are 33% of the way to your eventual goal’. Or knowing that all the painful work done to blow a French horn is actually training your lip muscles properly. I think that’ll help a lot of people with the practice aspect, when they can measure just how much it’s helping. Otherwise, you can get into the scenario of the mailclerk who keeps getting told he needs to stay in the position and someday he’ll get promoted. A long, steady amount of effort means nothing if it doesn’t actually get you anywhere, but it’s easier to believe you’re going somewhere when you know why the practice helps you.

  • Matt Hall

    I think there’s a side problem this interacts with. Sometimes people know a strategy works, but they don’t know why. They’re told to practice again and again, but when you’re practicing, it doesn’t really feel like you’re getting better in the moment. It feels like a brute force tactic. Other times, such as on a new diet, the dieter knows to do X, Y, and Z strategy, but doesn’t understand the theory of why they’re doing it, so they’ll fail when tempted.

    In that way, a diet and practice are sort of like a religion. You can vaguely know why you’re doing it, and for some people that’s enough, but eventually when really tempted to just quit, it’s the theology of the diet/practice that keeps people in line. For some people, just knowing, ‘I want a better body for X reason’ will be enough (the whole goal-setting mindset), but for other people, they’ll want to know the whys. That’s where the what comes in.

    That lets people know when to stop, too. I hope that someday, in this dieting/exercise scenario, we’ll be able to get very easy, up-to-the-minute details on our health, and see every impact food/exercise has on our body. We can then use that information to specifically tailor our diets and activity routines to what we want. When practicing on the piano, it would be really helpful to know ‘you are developing these finger muscles specifically to be able to move to these positions, and you are 33% of the way to your eventual goal’. Or knowing that all the painful work done to blow a French horn is actually training your lip muscles properly. I think that’ll help a lot of people with the practice aspect, when they can measure just how much it’s helping. Otherwise, you can get into the scenario of the mailclerk who keeps getting told he needs to stay in the position and someday he’ll get promoted. A long, steady amount of effort means nothing if it doesn’t actually get you anywhere, but it’s easier to believe you’re going somewhere when you know why the practice helps you.

  • This reminds me of the 10,000-hour rule for deliberate practice: http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/complexity-and-the-ten-thousand-hour-rule. People usually discuss that rule in the context of nature vs. nurture: Can anyone become a world-class expert with enough work, or do you have to start with a minimum level of talent? But at the most literal level, the rule is about intensity. All world-class experts spent on the order of 10,000 hours to reach their level of expertise.

  • Duncan Smith

    This reminds me of the 10,000-hour rule for deliberate practice: http://www.newyorker.com/news/…. People usually discuss that rule in the context of nature vs. nurture: Can anyone become a world-class expert with enough work, or do you have to start with a minimum level of talent? But at the most literal level, the rule is about intensity. All world-class experts spent on the order of 10,000 hours to reach their level of expertise.

  • just anyone.

    success follows those who are passionnate. Love what you do.

  • just anyone.

    success follows those who are passionnate. Love what you do.

  • meh

    Scott, you fail to see the via negativa : what not to do is more instructive than what to do.

  • meh

    Scott, you fail to see the via negativa : what not to do is more instructive than what to do.

  • Scott Young

    Also very true!

  • Scott Young

    Also very true!

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